Geoffrey Hawthorn

  • A Treatise on Social Theory. Vol. I: The Methodology of Social Theory by W.G. Runciman
    Cambridge, 350 pp, £25.00, March 1983, ISBN 0 521 24906 6

By the time he was 34, Thomas Macaulay had had a fellowship at Trinity, practised law for a year or two, sat in the Commons for four, and been appointed to a seat on the Supreme Council in India. On the boat to Calcutta, he wrote to Ellis, he had read the Iliad and the Odyssey, Petrarch, Ariosto, Tasso, Don Quixote, Gibbon on Rome, Sismondi on France, Mill on India, ‘the seven thick folios of Biographica Brittanica’ and ‘the 70 volumes of Voltaire’. Once there, he took to ‘passing the three or four hours before breakfast in reading Greek and Latin’, started to reflect on politics at home, and decided to write his History of England. ‘For what is it,’ he asked, ‘that a man who might, if he chose, rise and lie down at his own hour, engage in any study, enjoy any amusement, visit any place, travel to foreign countries, consents to make himself as much a prisoner as if he were within the rules of the Fleet – to be tethered for 11 months of the year within a circle of half a mile round Charing Cross?’

Macaulay’s was a 19th-century choice, and his three-volume History was a 19th-century ambition. Synoptic sweeps are now out of fashion, and the professionalisation of letters, which has made them so, stops men moving, as Macaulay was to continue to do, between worlds. W.G. Runciman is an exception. By the time he himself was 34, he too had had a fellowship at Trinity, where he holds one now, had read very widely and written three books, joined the family business, which he now runs, and despite being thus tethered to within a mile of Charing Cross, had decided to write a Treatise. This volume, the first of three, is on method; the second will be on societies in general; the third, which Runciman promises for the end of the decade, on England since 1900.

Macaulay, back in London and contemplating his History, wrote to Napier in 1841 that ‘I really do not think that there is in our literature so great a void as that which I am trying to supply.’ Runciman might not unreasonably say the same. Only one other private scholar, Perry Anderson, has attempted anything similar. But Macaulay wished also to entertain. ‘I shall not be satisfied,’ he confessed to Napier, ‘unless I produce something which shall for a few days supersede the last fashionable novel on the tables of young ladies.’ Runciman is more restrained. He takes what he calls ‘an impartially benevolent view’. To describe the Tory members of 1730, for instance, as Macaulay did, as ‘little more than rows of ponderous foxhunters, fat with Staffordshire and Devonshire ale, men who drank to the King across the Water and believed all the fundholders were Jews,’ is, Runciman says, to lapse into ‘too much conscious literary merit to be counted even under the most generous rubric’ – and Runciman’s own rubric stretches to history itself – ‘as social science’. Not that Runciman is a Tory or a philistine. If he lacks Macaulay’s high spirits and the urge to move young ladies, or indeed anyone else, he has that faith in time and reason which Macaulay once confessed to James Mill. He shares the Whiggish benevolence that united Macaulay, the Evangelical, and Mill, the Utilitarian, more than their one dispute divided them. And in addition to also displaying a command of large parts of human time and space, Runciman approvingly reviews Marquez, commends Henry James, discusses some ‘splendid stuff’ from Tom Wolfe and starts a chapter with Angela Carter on rooms by the hour in Japan. If this is social science, it is in style and scope not social science as we have come to know it.

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