What do we mean by it?

J.G.A. Pocock

  • The Cambridge History of Political Thought: 1450-1700 edited by J.H. Burns and Mark Goldie
    Cambridge, 798 pp, £60.00, August 1991, ISBN 0 521 24716 0

This volume is one of a series. Professor Burns has already edited the Cambridge History of Medieval Political Thought: c. 250-c. 1450 (1988), Dr Goldie is to join with Robert Wokler in editing the Cambridge History of 18th-Century Political Thought, and a volume on the 19th century is to follow. These furthermore are ‘Cambridge histories’ in the classic sense, laid down by Lord Acton a century ago: general editors co-ordinate a series of chapters on related topics, each written by an authority in the field it defines. Academic culture today teems with multi-author volumes, many no more than the proceedings of particular conferences; and the problem which Burns and Goldie have confronted is that of seeing that their volume is more than a collection of loosely convergent essays. They have surmounted that problem, rather than solved it; their volume possesses coherence and unity, but as Professor Burns observes in his introduction, one can select a pattern of unity only in the knowledge that another, equally defensible pattern could have been selected. Since selection is inescapable, there can be no ‘solution’; and there is a sense in which no such thing as ‘the history’, even ‘the Cambridge history’, ‘of political thought’ can be said to exist until it has been selected and invented.

What indeed do we mean by ‘political thought’? This volume’s answer is clear, predictable and thoroughly defensible: a collocation of intellectual traditions peculiar to Latin Europe, in which Greek and Latin city-state culture and philosophy, Roman jurisprudence, Jewish and Christian theology, are mediated by the disputes of Papacy, empire and kingdoms to the later disputes between Protestant and Catholic monarchies and (in the last chapters of this volume) the beginnings of Enlightenment. The dispute is conducted in the languages of theology, jurisprudence, humanism and philosophy, and may be said to have been held together by a concept of ‘the political’ sufficiently coherent and idiosyncratically Latin and Western to raise the question whether ‘political thought’ can be held to exist in the culture of other civilisations without radical (and externally imposed) redefinitions of its meaning. Yet it might be asserted as a general rule that other cultures (say, Clifford Geertz’s Bali) possess political structures and means of debating them. The present volume takes us to Italy and Spain, France and England, the Netherlands and Germany, but not to Catholic, let alone Orthodox, Eastern ‘Europe’, or into the vigorous intellectual life of Islam or the East Asian ecumene, where ‘politics’ certainly existed and were theologically or philosophically debated. Nor could it have done so without losing its chronological and thematic unity. Niccolo Machiavelli (1469-1527) and Wang Yang-ming (1472-1529) were almost exact contemporaries; the great importations which rendered Neo-Confucianism triumphant and at the same time problematic in Yi Korea and Tokugawa Japan were going on between the dates 1450 and 1700; but these events might as well have occurred on another planet for all the Latins knew of them – or cared until the Jesuit reports on Confucian cosmology began reinforcing Enlightened deism in the lifetimes of Spinoza and Pierre Bayle – and a Unesco ‘world history’ of ‘political thought’ would have to consist of several volumes (how many?) designed to be read concurrently.

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