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.

Within the Latin ecumene, the problem of selection does not disappear. Professor Burns indicates his awareness that ‘the history of political thought’ in this era could have been written as consisting of a number of ‘interrelated but discrete national histories’. Rightly – but not for fashionable pseudo-‘European’ reasons – he observes that this would not have been sufficient; there was a respublica christiana (as later there was a Europe des lumières or dei lumi) within which general discussion of political theology and philosophy circulated in a cosmopolitan or international form. Yet this is the point at which it becomes necessary to avoid writing idealist ‘history of ideas’, positing the existence of a ‘European’ intellectual history dominated by a constellation of idées maîtresses in whose mutations the ‘history of political thought’, or even ‘of politics’, is supposed to consist. It is not that Europe-wide debates over idées maîtresses do not occur or have a history – they do – but that this is only one form in which ‘the history of political thought’ asserts itself to us. If we attend to the production and distribution of ‘political thought’ in this era, asking by whom it was written and printed, by whom it was (and was meant to be) read, on whom it acted and intended to act, we emerge with its spatial geography as well as its linear history; with an image of several ‘interrelated but discrete’ communities of discourse, within which the greater and lesser texts were produced and distributed, written, printed, read (and persecuted). Some of these were intensely local, provincial and national, taking shape in particular political societies with their institutions, cultures and perceived or experienced histories – Florentine, French, English, Dutch; others were cosmopolitan respublicae christianae or républiques des lettres, in which massive schematisations of discourse were produced, circulated and discussed both in and out of ‘national’ context. These communities – both the product of Early Modern print culture – were ‘interrelated but discrete’, with the result that the same author or the same text can have as many histories as contexts of circulation. Machiavelli’s writings have one history in that of Florence, another in that of Italy, a third in that of Latin Europe at large; Hobbes’s Leviathan early existed in English, Latin, French and Dutch, and was differently understood in as many contexts. It is important to avoid privileging one context above another, even that in which aspects common to several contexts were discussed.

This is a point at which the editors of any Cambridge history face the problem of selecting not only themes but authors. Acton a hundred years ago believed that historiography had reached so high a state of scientific objectivity that it should in principle be impossible to tell when a learned Frenchman had laid down the pen and a learned German had taken it up. That was no doubt a ‘noble dream’ in the era between 1870 and 1914, unlikely to be reiterated today, when ‘Europeanisation’ is more likely to mean the trivialisation of national perspectives than their transcendence. Burns and Goldie acknowledge that this is almost wholly an Anglophone volume; the authors are by birth or naturalisation British, American and Canadian, with the single exception of Professor Alfred Dufour of Geneva; and a consequence is the fairly clear division of the book into three parts, from which its thematic structure may be discerned. In the first two sections – 11 chapters out of 21, 344 pages out of 798 – the authors review major themes: ‘humanism and political theory’ (Anthony Grafton), ‘Italian political thought, 1450-1530’ (Nicolai Rubinstein, with a strong detour through the local and peculiar intensities of Florence and Venice), ‘law’ (Donald Kelley, being very rightly a disquisition on Roman law and the ‘civil science’ to which it gave rise), ‘transalpine humanism’ (Brendan Bradshaw) and ‘scholasticism: survival and revival’ (J.H. Burns). This section examines the major discursive forms of Latin political culture, emphasising provincial and national dialects only where necessary. In the next we enter on the era of Reformation and Counter-Reformation, broken down into such themes as ‘Christian obedience and authority’ (Francis Oakley), ‘Calvinism and resistance theory’ (Robert Kingdon), ‘Catholic resistance theory, ultramontanism and the royalist response’ (J.H.M. Salmon) and ‘sovereignty and the mixed constitution: Bodin and his critics’ (Julian Franklin). It is less clear what chapters on ‘constitutionalism’ (Howell Lloyd) and ‘utopianism’ (J.C. Davis), competently constructed though they are, are doing in this company; the latter does review a new and singular dialect of political thought, but one suspects that there was no international community debating for and against ‘constitutionalism’, and that this theme occurred only within particular national contexts. The effect is to make one speculate about the differences between multi-author and single-author treatments; for example, on how this book compares with Quentin Skinner’s The Foundations of Modern Political Thought (1978), which it may or may not end by replacing. A single author must, as no editor can, impose his own sense of pattern on an entire period; it is understood that one of the contributors to the present volume has decided to interpret it all singlehandedly.

The second of the three parts into which the book seems to fall consists of Section Three (four chapters, 154 pages), ‘Absolutism and revolution in the 17th century’ (incidentally, Skinner’s two volumes just mentioned do not go past 1600). J.P. Sommerville opens it with a survey of ‘absolutism and royalism’, French as well as English – it may be asked whether a study of absolutist theory is the same thing as a study of the language-worlds of Baroque monarchy, Spanish, Austrian and Gallican – but the remaining chapters of Section Three are exclusively English in their focus: Corinne Weston on the ancient constitution, David Wootton on the Levellers, Blair Worden on the English republicans. This may be justified by referring to the section’s title, and claiming that England was the only major society in 17th-century ‘Europe’ in which what is ordinarily called a ‘revolution’ can be said to have taken place; but apart from the vigorous and irresolvable debate which goes on over the meaning and applicability of the word just used, there is the circumstance that these three chapters are written, and very well written, in the professional language which historians of England have evolved over the last thirty to forty years for presenting the history of English political thought in intimately and idiomatically English terms. They have been quite right to do this, and it may well be that the extraordinary history of England in the 17th century can be understood only by recognising that the Church of England was like no other church, Protestant or Catholic, and that the political radicalism of the English sects was not parallelled by anything produced in no less sectarian Holland or Transylvania. But this leaves unaddressed the question of what that possibly mythical being a ‘European’ – or more realistically an Italian, Dutch or Polish historian – is to make of these strange and terrible transactions and the modes of discourse to which they gave rise. What international discourses were there of which the ‘political thought’ of regicide England could be seen as presenting local variants, or in which contemporary publicists in Leyden, Paris, Geneva or Salamanca could hope to achieve understanding of it? What is the historical geography of political thought into which the Thomason Collection can be made to fit?

In Sections Four and Five (six chapters and 176 pages), ground is covered on which these problems do not arise and English thought travels in Dutch and German convoys, if seldom in French or Italian. An opening chapter on ‘Tacitism, scepticism and reason of state’ (Peter Burke) takes us from a Humanist starting point through a scepticism that called for a rethinking of natural law and an awareness of ragione di stato which only a jus gentium could alleviate. In the next two chapters – ‘Grotius and Selden’ (Richard Tuck) and ‘Hobbes and Spinoza’ (Noel Malcolm) – we see these demands being met by theorists operating for the most part in Netherlands and English political contexts which are depicted in sufficient detail to let us understand the movement out of them into a sphere of cosmopolitan debate. Thereafter it is the turn of Alfred Dufour, whose chapter on Pufendorf presupposes the universe of facultés de droit as they were in 1700 and doubtless will be in 2000, and of Mark Goldie, whose examination of ‘the reception of Hobbes’ (Chapter 20) is carried out in the English context with mention only of Pufendorf and Leibniz outside it (of course, a good deal about Hobbes in the Netherlands has already been said by Malcolm in his treatment of Spinoza). The last substantive chapter is that on Locke, by James Tully; being necessarily devoted largely to the Treatises on Government, secretly composed and anonymously published in the rapidly changing English political scene, it passes from examining them in that context to exploring the general theory of politics which they show to have been in Locke’s mind. The Letter Concerning Toleration and the Essay on Human Understanding are set in the context of post-1688 latitudinarian Church politics, and due emphasis is given to the anti-Trinitarian drift evident in both the Essay and The Reasonableness of Christianity, of such importance in understanding the form which Enlightenment took in England and generally in Protestant cultures. But Tully moves from the English context direct to Locke’s place in the history of an unfolding Politikwissenschaft; he hasn’t the space to examine Locke’s role in the complex blend of Dutch and Huguenot intellectual communities which existed in the Netherlands, when he was there at the same time as Philippus van Limborch, Benjamin Furly, Jean Le Clerc and Pierre Bayle. Perhaps these matters will recur in the Cambridge History of 18th-Century Political Thought, when Locke’s place in the French Enlightenment will assuredly be considered. Selections of context must be made all the time in so multifaceted a discipline as the history of political thought, even when a single author is synthesising it. It is even more so in a Cambridge history, when many authors are making choices and an editor or editors have been making them in selecting the authors. The richness of this volume lies in its diversity, and even in its inconsistency; we should not grumble at constant reminders that other choices could have been made, with comparably valuable results.