Factory of the Revolution

Blair Worden

  • Liberty before Liberalism by Quentin Skinner
    Cambridge, 137 pp, £19.99, November 1997, ISBN 0 521 63206 4

Quentin Skinner’s short book is an extended version of his Inaugural Lecture as Regius Professor of Modern History at Cambridge. There cannot have been a less contentious succession to that chair. In his field, the history of political thought, Skinner has earned an authority and distinction unrivalled anywhere in the world among scholars now below retirement age. His writings, above all his studies of the Italian and Humanist political ideas of the Renaissance, his work on Hobbes, and his two-volume Foundations of Modern Political Thought, are landmarks of modern historical interpretation and, in their lucidity and elegance, of historical prose. He has begun his reign by doing what the deliverer of an Inaugural Lecture has a special opportunity to do: raise fundamental questions about the character and purpose of his subject.

Over his professional lifetime, which began in the Sixties, Skinner’s field has been transformed. When he was a graduate student, as he recalls, ‘a canon of leading texts was widely regarded ... as the only proper object of research in the history of political thought.’ If the subject were ‘to have any point’ it must help to answer ‘general questions of society and politics at the present time’. To that end, the ‘classic texts’ should be ‘appropriated and put to work’. Over the last thirty or forty years that view has been widely repudiated, particularly among those specialists in political ideas who work in history faculties. There, at least, interest now centres on the relationship of past ideas to the tensions and values of the societies that produced them. One of the two leading figures in that development has been J.G.A. Pocock, who has taught us, as Skinner puts it, ‘to think of the history of political thought’ not in canonical terms but ‘as a more wide-ranging investigation of the changing political languages in which societies talk to themselves’. The other leading figure has been Skinner himself, who with his allies and followers at Cambridge, and in collaboration with its university press, has made that university at once the inspiration and the factory of the revolution.

Historiographical transformations are sometimes launched by the application of concepts drawn from other disciplines; but they can also follow from scholarly discovery. In this case the critical moment was perhaps the publication, while Skinner was an undergraduate, of a scholarly edition of John Locke’s Two Treatises of Government by Peter Laslett. Laslett showed how radically Locke’s text had been misunderstood because of the ignorance of political scientists about, and their indifference to, the circumstances and aims of its composition. Locke’s second Treatise, it emerged, was written not after 1688, in celebration of timeless contractarian principles secured by the Glorious Revolution, but several years before it, as an urgent and daring attack on Charles II’s bid for absolutism. It was less an abstract statement of principle than an exercise in persuasion.

What was true of Locke’s work, historians soon learned to remind themselves, was equally so of all the great books in that broad movement of political thought, from the Renaissance to the 18th century, in which Locke stands. In England the writings of the mid-Tudor resistance theorists, of Hobbes and the Civil War republicans, of Burke and Paine, were written in the hope of persuading rulers or subjects either to maintain or to overturn a status quo. To recover the premises and purposes of those thinkers, to discover why their arguments are conceived and shaped and worded as they are, we need to reconstruct the assumptions and vocabularies of their readers and the issues which troubled and divided them.

One consequence of the new historical-mindedness has been, as Skinner notes, a breaking-down of barriers between the study of political thought and ‘real’ history. Scholars wanting to understand More’s Utopia now study the political pressures of Henry VIII’s reign; those interested in the history of the 17th-century family now read Filmer’s Patriarcha. Outside history faculties, however, the fresh historical perspectives have encountered resistance, even hostility. ‘To many students of moral and political theory’, Skinner reports, historical-mindedness has ‘appeared to embody a betrayal’. For if political texts need to be explained by reference to the particular circumstances that produced them, how can they help us to address the problems of the present? From that viewpoint Skinner’s approach has been described as being of the ‘dustiest antiquarian interest’.

That charge, he acknowledges, ‘troubles’ him ‘deeply’. Liberty before Liberalism is a reply to it. All historians, he contends, ‘must expect to be asked’, and owe it to their ‘consciences’ to ask themselves, ‘what is supposed to be the practical use, here and now’, of their studies. His own answer gives a utilitarian cast to an argument normally conceived in non-utilitarian terms. Most historians would concur with his commitment to the study of ‘values we no longer endorse’, ‘questions we no longer ask’. But they would probably be content to defend that pursuit as a means of broadening a society’s horizons beyond present-day suppositions which its members might otherwise suppose to be universal. Skinner, while confirming that premise, moves beyond it. By recovering ‘lost’ ideas, he proposes, we can supply practical alternatives to current political values. Thus, he implies, the writing of history will be an exercise not merely in scholarship but in citizenship.

Most of his book is devoted to a test-case. We live, he thinks, with a monolithic conception of liberty, which can be traced back to the classical liberals and utilitarians and, beyond them, to Hobbes. Its most illustrious modern exponent has been Isaiah Berlin, whose own Inaugural Lecture of 1958 examined Two Concepts of Liberty. Berlin (on Skinner’s reading) thought, like his predecessors, that ‘liberty’ is properly ‘negative’ liberty – that is, the absence of interference or coercion – and mistrusted larger or looser definitions such as those which connected liberty with equality. Skinner’s inaugural enterprise, too, is about two concepts of liberty. Alongside the premise that links Berlin to Hobbes, he wants to restore to our political thinking a view of liberty – a ‘neo-roman’ view, as he calls it – which flourished in 17th-century England. Then it challenged Hobbes, now it can challenge Berlin. The ‘neo-roman theory’ held that liberty requires not merely the establishment of areas of life which governments and laws must not enter, but political self-government or (what Skinner apparently takes to be the same thing) political equality.

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