Judith Shklar

Judith Shklar John Cowles Professor of Government at Harvard, has written a study of Rousseau’s social theory. Her most recent book is Freedom and Independence: A Study of the Political Ideas of Hegel’s ‘Phenomenology of the Mind’.


Judith Shklar, 9 October 1986

Books and films about terror and torture are now both more numerous and better than they used to be. The reasons for this are probably bad news. There is more to talk about. Nevertheless, it is encouraging to find a volume as solid and responsible as Edward Peters’s Torture, which traces the history of torture from the extraction of evidence from slave witnesses in criminal trials to the Inquisition, and on to its use, after a brief interruption, in our century as part of the ideological wars of nation-states with their fear of subversion and the importance they attach to intelligence. He says less about political terror, but that also has been properly recorded by now. Not the least value of Peters’s book is its bibliography, which is to be recommended particularly to anyone reading Elaine Scarry’s The Body in Pain, so that they can find out what Amnesty International and similar human rights organisations do and why their work is so important. For in spite of the ecstatic quotes on the blurb and the author’s own introduction to the book, only a few of its pages are concerned with torture, and these are at best misleading.

Thinking about bonsai trees

Judith Shklar, 18 April 1985

Yi-Fu Tuan’s Dominance and Affection is not, as its title might suggest, about people who like and love their oppressors. It is an account of the many ways in which the strong torment the weak of whom they claim to be fond. Overtly hostile acts produce victims, but affection also has aggressive impulses and it creates what Tuan calls ‘pets’. In both cases there is an abuse of power, but the occasions for its display are quite different. Simple destruction occurs everywhere, but playful cruelty, according to Tuan, is generally to be found in the aesthetic realm. We are said to be truly free only when we play, restrained neither by necessity nor morality, and it is in this state that we appear to exploit others most cruelly for the sake of our relaxation and amusement. We are told nothing of the value of beauty and its possible edifications. What we get is an itemised indictment of our habitual twisting, torturing and humiliation of the objects of our affection and pleasure. It is at play, not at work, that we do our worst to plants, animals and feeble people.

Virginia Weepers

Judith Shklar, 17 May 1984

When Thomas Jefferson left the Presidency he wrote to Dupont de Nemours: ‘Never did a prisoner released from his chains, feel such relief as I shall on shaking off the shackles of power. Nature intended me for the tranquil pursuits of science, by rendering them my supreme delight. But the enormities of the time in which I have lived, have forced me to take a part in resisting them, and to commit myself to the boisterous ocean of political passion.’ ‘The pursuit of happiness’, which in the Declaration of Independence he had insisted was one of man’s inalienable rights, was at last open to him. To the end of his life he remembered his political career as a perilous voyage and rejoiced in the expectation that his descendants would enjoy ‘the Halcyon calms succeeding the storm’, as he put it to his old fellow-sailor John Adams. Why should the new generation not flourish? To be sure, Jefferson did not believe that we could all be entirely happy, but ‘the deity’ had kindly ‘put it in our powers’ to come quite close to it. All of us have moreover been created in such a way that we are not only compelled to seek our happiness but are bound to look for it in different ways. Because we cannot help having dissimilar beliefs and desires, it was self-evident that nature and nature’s God meant us to pursue our happiness in our own, unique manner. That was the reason for our inalienable right to search or not to search for our salvation here or hereafter as we saw fit. There was much confidence in the future in this, even if the securing of the right could not assure a successful pursuit. One cannot help feeling therefore that Jefferson’s labours were poorly rewarded when one reads about the sad lives of the Virginian gentry to whom he returned so gladly.

Missed Opportunities

Judith Shklar, 4 August 1983

Rousseau has been loved and hated, but has never been ignored. His name rings in our ears because he expressed every form of human resentment with such intensity and intelligence that his endless nay-saying is still illuminating and seems edifying. His versatility was such that there is a different Rousseau for every reader. Dislike, however, produced his most enduring personae – first the man who spawned Robespierre and then the godfather of Romanticism. He is to be blamed for 1789 and all that: he was a bad thing. And it is as a bad thing that he most often appears, especially in historical scripts in which ‘ideas’ act as palpable forces that push and pull large numbers of people to behave in quite specific ways. One might well speak of a sort of psychological materialism. The first part of Norman Hampson’s Will and Circumstance reads like just such a production. It begins with Rousseau singing a revolutionary song in counterpoint to Montesquieu’s reforming liberalism. They were the two writers most often quoted by the revolutionaries, but they moved their admirers in wholly opposite directions. From this account it would seem that Montesquieu was soon discarded, so his presence here is merely a warning to those tempted to forget him. He was indeed the prophet of constitutional liberty – always aware of the limits imposed by national character and historical circumstances on political possibilities. But as neither his theory of climate, and the enormous debate it aroused, nor his views on religion are discussed, Hampson is not weighing either Montesquieu’s caution or his daring. Only those passages that set him apart from Rousseau are mentioned, which makes the latter’s enormous admiration for him entirely incomprehensible. As for Rousseau, we get bits of the Social Contract, as well as of some lesser pieces that were unknown to his early readers. This is a pastiche of Rousseau as a crude monomaniac who claimed that a transforming political will could re-create Sparta here and now. That his notion of a general will implies, not the actual, but the higher public will of the people is true, but that he thought that it could be mobilised at present to set up a republic of virtuous citizens is not. Hampson mentions that Rousseau harboured no revolutionary designs. He is, however, said to have taught a violent civil ideology to Mercier, Brissot, Marat, Robespierre and Saint-Just, and that is all that matters, apparently.–

Resisting the avalanche

Bernard Williams, 6 June 1985

Judith Shklar’s Ordinary Vices is a wise, clever, thoughtful book about the danger and the value of various personal vices – cruelty, hypocrisy, snobbery and others. Professor Shklar...

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