Liberty before Liberalism 
by Quentin Skinner.
Cambridge, 137 pp., £19.99, November 1997, 0 521 63206 4
Show More
Show More

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.

Berlin, suggests Skinner, was mistaken in taking himself to be carrying out a ‘purely neutral task’ of ‘philosophical analysis’. Rather, he was endorsing a view which society has remembered from the 17th century at the expense of one which it has forgotten. How neutral is Skinner? He seems to aim, if not for neutrality, at least for detachment. He disowns dogmatism and indignation as spurs to historical investigation. In his scheme the detachment of historians can be protected, it seems, by a division of labour. Skinner describes their task in modest terms. If they are content ‘simply’ to ‘ply their trade’ by describing past ideas, they can ‘hope to provide their readers with information relevant to the making of judgments about their current values and beliefs’.

That sounds a surprisingly comfortable answer to an ‘aggressively’ asked question. Few inaugural lecturers have encouraged historians merely to carry on as they are. If there is dissatisfaction with historically-minded accounts of past political thought, we must infer, the fault lies in the reading rather than the writing of them. Yet how complete is the division of labour that Skinner commends? If historians are providers of ‘information’, they also decide which information to provide. Skinner’s decision to bring ‘neo-roman’ thought to present attention does not seem entirely detached. He plainly does not warm to those liberal thinkers who, as he puts it, have sought to ‘discredit’ neo-roman thought, and who have found ‘massively inconvenient’ the suggestion ‘that, if we truly value individual freedom, this commits us to establishing political equality as a substantive ideal’. His readers may suspect that, in recovering neo-roman thought, he hopes not merely for its circulation but for its application: that in writing about Liberty before Liberalism he is looking forward to liberty after it.

However that may be, it seems that our horizons are to be broadened only selectively. Skinner is here interested (if I follow him correctly) in the recovery not of values which have become ‘alien’ to us but of ‘lost readings’ of values common to us and to a ‘vanished world’. Yet the reconstruction of the past requires close acquaintance with values that have become alien to us. Should we eliminate those values from our studies, as not being ‘relevant’ or of ‘practical use’? Should we forget, say, those 17th-century ideas which demanded the rule of the saints or sanctioned the subordination of women? It may seem at once unfair and surprising to ask such questions of Skinner, who has elsewhere been a model explorer of alien values. His last book, a work of exact and magisterial scholarship, reconstructed now vanished thought patterns of Hobbes. Yet I do not remember him offering inklings that the aspects of Hobbes’s thought which he there reported might have a present pertinence. The neo-roman thinkers, by contrast, are commended to our attention for that very reason.

At all events, the recovery of lost ideas, as proposed in Liberty before Liberalism, is clearly to be no mere exercise in nostalgia. Our political values, we learn, are the product of ‘choices’, which were made at forks in the ideological path and which, by retracing our steps, we can make again. Yet is the new historical-mindedness an aid to that purpose? If societies really make ‘choices’ between sets of ideas, then they do so in the unrepeatable circumstances in which those ideas have been defined. Are not the historical particularities of past ideas impediments to their present usefulness? If we wish to make use of those ideas, do we not need to strip them (if that is possible) of their historical encumbrances and revise or adapt them to meet our own circumstances? And if so, were not those unhistorically-minded critics who believed that past texts should be ‘appropriated and put to work’, so as to help answer ‘general questions of society and politics at the present time’, in a position at least as strong as that of their successors? Are not Locke’s contractarian principles more relevant to present discourse than is the threat of Stuart absolutism that prompted his exposition of them?

Throughout Skinner’s manifesto, it seems to me, there runs a tension between the claims of historical-mindedness and those of present-mindedness. It is visible not only in his general argument but in his handling of the historical phenomenon, the 17th-century movement of neo-roman writing, through the study of which he seeks to illustrate it. Here something has gone uncharacteristically wrong. Liberty before Liberalism lacks the tightness of argument that we have come to take for granted in Skinner’s work. The root of the problem appears to lie in the nature of the enterprise he has undertaken: an enterprise in which his principle of historical-mindedness is at odds with his practice.

His neo-roman thinkers wrote between the execution of Charles I in 1649 and the death of Charles II in 1685. Their principal works came in two waves, the first during the Interregnum of 1649-60, the second in the crisis of 1679-83, which also produced Locke’s second Treatise. The first period produced, in the years 1649-52, the anti-monarchical tracts of a number of writers, who had John Milton and Marchamont Nedham at their head. In 1656 it yielded Nedham’s The Excellency of a Free State and James Harrington’s Oceana. The leading works produced by the second period were Henry Neville’s Plato Redivivus and Algernon Sidney’s Discourses concerning Government.

Collectively, these writers are normally described as ‘republicans’. Skinner dispenses with that term, on the ground that the principal writers of the second wave, Neville and Sidney, wanted, or at least were prepared to accept, a constitution with a king. This objection seems narrow, for Neville and Sidney contemplated kingship only as a component of a mixed polity conformable to the principles of constitutional design favoured by republican antiquity. At least the austerity of Skinner’s semantic stance provides a refreshing contrast to the looseness with which the term ‘republican’ has come to be applied. Yet as a description of his writers, ‘republican’ offers fewer problems than the term, ‘neo-roman’, that he prefers to it.

The writers were neo-roman, it seems, because of their debt to a concept which derived from the thinking of ancient Rome. In ‘the clearest proclamation of their classical allegiances’ they formulated the ‘central principle’ that dependence on the ‘will’ of others is the distinguishing feature of slavery. (Here as elsewhere Skinner acknowledges his debt to Philip Pettit’s recent Republicanism: A Theory of Liberty and Government, which can instructively be read alongside his own book.) The neo-roman writers argue that liberty, the opposite of slavery, is not attained merely through the removal of interference or coercion (the definition of ‘negative’ liberty). It is acquired only when our security and possessions are at our own disposal, free from the dominion or claims of any ruler, however benign. That condition, which ‘the neo-roman writers of the English republic make central to their vision of free states’, can be guaranteed only when we live under laws of our own making and under governments which we have chosen and which are accountable to us. ‘The core of what is distinctive about their thought’ is to be found in that principle, and it is that ‘analysis of civil liberty’ which ‘marks them out as the protagonists of a particular ideology, even as the members of a single school of thought’.

Skinner is warranted in complaining that his writers’ ‘views about the meaning of liberty have seldom been subjected to detailed analysis’, and he has performed a signal service in raising that subject. In his answers there is, as we would expect, much that is luminous and acute. Yet I do not think you would find what he finds at the ‘centre’ or ‘core’ of his chosen texts if you were not looking for it there. If you begin with a present-day question about the meaning of liberty, and search past works for material pertinent to it, that issue may loom larger in the reading of those works than it did in the writing of them. Not only may the priorities of past authors be misjudged, their arguments may be interpreted in distorting terms or even misinterpreted. That, I fear, has happened here. Liberty before Liberalism carries a series of textual misunderstandings of the kind that easily arise when we approach a past work from a narrow angle.

When, in 1680, the ‘neo-roman’ thinker Henry Neville looked back on the Interregnum he remembered ‘how easily’ Cromwell’s Army had been ‘deluded with the name of liberty; and brought to pull down anything, which their ring-leaders tell them tends to the enslaving of their country’. The rhetoric of liberty and slavery flourished, sometimes extravagantly, in the Puritan Revolution. After the execution of Charles I, when the nation’s overwhelming hostility to that event became apparent, propagandists for the Commonwealth, among them those of the ‘neo-roman writers’ who were first into the field, embraced that rhetoric. But what did they mean by it? Skinner is right to claim what previous commentators have missed: that the ‘neo-roman’ writers were ready to equate liberty with the control of law-making by the people or by their elected representatives, and with the absence of monarchical impediments to that power. Yet it is also true that they used the terms ‘liberty’ and ‘slavery’ to appeal to a range of sentiments, of which he concentrates on only one.

Sometimes they thought of liberty and slavery loosely, to denote the absence or presence of oppression or persecution. Sometimes they equated liberty with economic (as distinct from political) independence, slavery with the exploitation of tenants by ruthless landlords. Or there is the philosophy, eloquently announced at the outset of Milton’s The Tenure of Kings and Magistrates, of liberty within the individual mind or soul, where the sovereignty of virtue and reason sets men free from slavery to vice and passion. The ‘vision of free states’ to be found among Skinner’s writers owed at least as much to those concepts of liberty and slavery as to his neo-roman ones. It was indebted to a series of other aspirations too. The writers hoped for military expansion and glory (a goal which Skinner acknowledges but which, in a passage puzzling in its chronology, he says that they came to reject in favour of the neo-roman ideal). They wanted a state where men would hold their heads high, not cringe before their rulers, where citizens would be active generous and magnanimous, not passive or servile. They aimed for something like a meritocracy, where access to power and honour would spread well beyond the nobility.

Skinner might argue, though he would need to demonstrate, that such ideals derived or were inseparable from the principles of independence and self-government which he outlines. For my part I doubt if the point could be demonstrated. Yet even if it were, we would still need to ask whether those principles can helpfully be labelled neo-roman. In making their equation of slavery with dependence on a ruler’s ‘will’, Skinner tells us, his thinkers ‘chiefly rely’ on ‘the Roman moralists and historians’, who in turn derived it from Roman law. None of Skinner’s writers, however, acknowledges such a debt. It may be that Algernon Sidney, some of whose remarks about liberty and slavery are close to statements which Skinner quotes from Livy, turned consciously to the Roman tradition. Yet had the concepts of liberty and slavery described by Skinner not become familiar in England before his neo-roman theorists wrote? Were those concepts used more widely or intensively by them than by earlier writers? (Parallel questions arise in relation to other concepts which Skinner takes to have a special place in neo-roman thought, such as the metaphor of the body politic and the supposition that liberty can be communal as well as individual.) If the definitions of liberty and slavery deployed by Skinner’s writers are indeed explicable only by reference to direct Roman influence, then Early Modern England contained other neo-roman thinkers, too. What then becomes of the distinctiveness of Skinner’s category?

For from the Tudor period, if not before it, there were English writers who held that dependence on the ‘will’ of a ruler – even of a benign one – is incompatible with liberty. The description of such dependence as slavery seems to have come into use by the 1640s. Do the writers of the early Commonwealth whom Skinner cites on that subject go further than the work of the Parliamentary writer Henry Parker in 1642, which apparently equates slavery with subordination to the ‘will’ of a king who ‘may’ turn on his subjects? Or what of the Levellers, who seem to have thought of slavery not only as a present affliction but as subjection to the ‘wills’ of rulers with the power to turn against their subjects in the future? Skinner makes much of the neo-roman hostility to the royal veto as an insuperable obstacle to liberty, but the Levellers had been there already, claiming that the restoration of the veto would ‘make the safety and freedom of the people to depend on one man’s will’ and create a condition of ‘slavery’.

It was ‘neo-roman’ conceptions of liberty, Skinner maintains, that ‘made it impossible’ for his writers ‘to evade the question of whether monarchy can ever be truly compatible with public liberty’. As an account of at least some of the ‘neo-roman’ writings of the early Commonwealth, that surely puts the cart before the horse. Needing to justify the overthrow of monarchy, they drew on those available concepts of liberty that might vindicate the deed. The neo-roman writers of 1649-52 were wary – as were leading figures among their political masters – of ruling out all forms of kingship. Like their successors among Skinner’s writers, they contrasted liberty, which is the rule of law, with absolutist or tyrannical forms of monarchy, which are swayed by a ruler’s lust or will.

That had long been the stance taken by advocates of mixed or limited monarchy. The critical question for Skinner’s writers was – or at least, on his reasoning, ought to have been – whether mixed or limited monarchy could be compatible with self-government and independence. The writers of the early Commonwealth seem to have had an answer to that question, although it was one which the Levellers and the Cromwellian Army had given before them. If a tolerable monarchy could be established, they suggested, it would be one whose powers were purely executive and which was wholly subordinate to the sovereign legislature. Admittedly those writers floundered when claiming that such a monarchy, and the freedom guaranteed by it, had existed in England until recent times. For their recipe went well beyond the curbs on rulers which advocates of limited monarchy had customarily identified in the English Constitution. But at least they could explain how monarchy might co-exist with self-government.

To that extent their writings conform to Skinner’s pattern. He becomes tentative, however, in explaining how the commitment to mixed government shown by his later writers, Neville and Sidney, whose recipes (at least on the face of it) were closer to those which had traditionally defended that principle, could be squared with self-government. Neville’s and Sidney’s willingness to accept kingship, which they aimed to assimilate within republican constitutional architecture, is an insufficient ground for denying them the label ‘republican’. There is firmer ground for denying them the label ‘neo-roman’.

Even a reader convinced by Skinner’s categorisation might ask whether the historiography of liberty is best approached from the perspective he proposes. If ideas about liberty are to be divided into two categories, ‘neo-roman’ and ‘negative’, then the second is a broad church indeed, particularly when Hobbes is made its founder. (Locke, normally placed centre-stage in the history of liberalism, here has only a walk-on part.) Hobbes and Isaiah Berlin may indeed have had a common aversion to the equation of liberty with participatory citizenship, but on the issue of the balance of power between state and subject their premises were fundamentally opposed. On Skinner’s logic, Berlin should be aligned not only with Hobbes, the spokesman for the unimpeded powers of sovereigns, but with Charles I, the spokesman for the divine right of kings, whose reply to the charges at his trial explained that the ‘true liberty’ of his subjects lay ‘not in the power of government’ but in living under laws which protected their lives and properties. It seems a remote perspective that places Berlin, that profound critic of authoritarianism, in such authoritarian company.

Skinner thinks that the neo-roman position lost its battle first with Hobbes and then with classical liberalism and utilitarianism. But did such a battle take place? If one could disembody the friends and enemies of neo-roman thinking, summon them to some timeless seminar, and press on them the concerns about liberty that Skinner addresses, then perhaps the dichotomy which he posits would emerge. Some passages of his book, where he tells us what his writers ‘argue’ or ‘insist’, are best appreciated as an account not of what they said but of what, in such an imaginary setting, they might say. The account is a wonderfully perceptive one. Yet how does it differ in character from the sort of exercise in which political scientists used to engage before they became historically-minded?

For when was the ‘choice’ between negative and neo-roman liberty available? In the 1650s, the decade both of Hobbes’s Leviathan and of Harrington’s Oceana, which challenged Hobbes’s remarks about the relationship of liberty to republican rule? Yet that celebrated passage occupies only a moment of Harrington’s treatise. Still, at least we find Hobbes in Harrington’s sights. It is harder to enter, with historical-mindedness, into the spirit of Skinner’s contentions that neo-roman writers ‘add’ to arguments about consent that were made after they had written, and that they ‘repudiate avant la lettre’ the classical liberalism of the 18th and 19th centuries.

Skinner sets his neo-roman writers against a succession of thinkers from that later period: William Paley, Sir William Blackstone, John Lind, Jeremy Bentham, Henry Sidgwick. Between them these writers indeed raised a number of objections to what they judged to be confusing conceptions of liberty; and some of the arguments opposed by those objections indeed coincide with positions described by Skinner as neo-roman (though Blackstone’s presence among the writers who aimed at ‘the discrediting of the neo-roman theory’ is a puzzle). Yet to emphasise those criticisms is one thing: it is another to suggest that the 18th and 19th-century writers were conscious of a distinctive neo-roman tradition or to maintain that their criticisms of semantic misuse were aimed uniquely or even principally at it.

Here, to be fair, Skinner confronts a tantalising difficulty. Like Hobbes before them, most of the 18th and 19th-century thinkers whom he lines up against neo-roman thinking omit to tell us whose misrepresentations of liberty they have in mind. We have to guess. My guess is that, had they named and shamed, their lists would not have included Skinner’s 17th-century writers. There may be likelier candidates in the successors to those writers to be found among the 18th-century ‘commonwealthmen’. Yet by the 18th century (as Skinner implicitly recognises) the principles of self-government had become Whig commonplaces. In those commonplaces, I suggest, his neo-roman and negative conceptions of liberty, far from contending with each other, mingled freely. Skinner himself acknowledges that both schools of thought were committed to securing the safety and property of the subject. The 18th and 19th-century protests which he cites may make best sense if seen not as votes between two traditions but as reactions against the confusion wrought by the sharing of that aim.

What is true is that in the English-speaking world there existed, at least from the early 17th century, a loose but enduring vocabulary which connected liberty not, or not only, with individual rights but with particular forms of government (sometimes republican, sometimes mixed-monarchical). We see it, for example, in the common usage of the term ‘free state’ to describe kingless commonwealths, a tendency picked up by the new rulers of 1649 when, with resolute imprecision, they declared England to be a ‘Commonwealth and Free State’. Skinner’s book alerts us to that tradition and opens it to investigation. The challenge before him is to establish its relationship to classical and Italian thinking about the civitas libera, and to demonstrate the place within the English tradition of the ‘neo-roman’ conception of liberty.

Does the equation between liberty and self-government (or political equality) that is Skinner’s central concern really belong to a lost world? Does the rhetoric of democratic politics not often take it for granted? Our usages may be as confused as those to which Skinner’s classical liberals and utilitarians objected. If we seek clarity, we must ask how the usages came into being. Enter Skinner’s ideal historian of political thought, glad to be of practical help and reasonably expected by the laity to provide it. Will so telelogical and present-centred a task be compatible with the historical-mindedness that Skinner commends? Can scholarship and citizenship really be comfortable allies? Such questions are raised in awkward form by this provocative book, the work of a major historian in strangely unhistorical mood.

Send Letters To:

The Editor
London Review of Books,
28 Little Russell Street
London, WC1A 2HN

Please include name, address, and a telephone number.

Read anywhere with the London Review of Books app, available now from the App Store for Apple devices, Google Play for Android devices and Amazon for your Kindle Fire.

Sign up to our newsletter

For highlights from the latest issue, our archive and the blog, as well as news, events and exclusive promotions.

Newsletter Preferences