Pocock’s Positions

Blair Worden

The front cover and title-page conceal the central fact of Political Discourse in Early Modern Britain, that it is a Festschrift for the historian of political thought J.G.A. Pocock. Publishers are generally wary of Festschrifts, which are liable to interest the recipient’s friends and colleagues more than a wider audience; but this is not an ordinary Festschrift. There are no hushed tributes, no rehearsals for obituary notices. By the time he gets a Festschrift, a historian’s ideas are often seen as the product of a generation that has had its day. No one could say that of Pocock’s work, which remains as productive and controversial as ever. The agenda he has set out is far from completion: indeed we may only just be appreciating its measure. The volume concludes with a lengthy commentary by Pocock himself which, in reviewing each of the essays, primarily asks, not how far his earlier positions are vindicated by them, but where we should go next.

The last thirty or forty years have seen a revolution in the history of political theory of which Pocock has been as near as anyone to the centre. Its chief concern has been to reconstruct the languages of political argument and their relationship to the values and preoccupations of the societies that produced them. With others, Pocock has reacted against the tradition which set the great political thinkers in a timeless limbo and invited them to argue out the big issues of virtue or sovereignty or resistance. Yet his insistence on context – a context as much of shifting mentality or vocabulary as of political events – has avoided the trap against which contextualists are often warned. He has never belittled the canon of political thinkers, though he has sometimes attempted to revise its membership.

Pocock’s first book, The Ancient Constitution and the Feudal Law (1957), explored the political vocabulary of 17th-century England. In the Fifties, when the ‘storm over the gentry’ raged, his emphasis on the importance of ideas in politics was unfashionable. Yet no book has done more to illustrate the interaction of ideology and politics in that turbulent period. And no book has done more to illuminate the outlook of the 17th-century ruling class. Pocock showed its insular preoccupation with the common law and the ancient constitution, with the medieval language of custom and precedent, and thus explained its inability to understand the events that plunged it into civil war.

Time, as Pocock admits, has done something to modify that picture, and a contribution to Political Discourse in Early Modern Britain by William Klein examines some of the modifications. The picture is further modified by Michael Mendle’s searching essay on the constitutional programme of Charles I’s Parliamentary opponents in 1641-2. In the emergency created by royal mismanagement, Mendle argues, MPs were concerned less to assert legislative rights than to seize executive power – though, aiming for ‘a very English absolutism’ they can look as insular in Mendle’s account as they do in Pocock’s.

Pocock has retained his interest in the Civil Wars, particularly in their British dimension, but has ranged far beyond them. One hero of The Ancient Constitution was James Harrington, whose Oceana (1656) offered his countrymen a new, republican language of politics. Subsequently Harrington has become a hero of a much larger story. Republicanism is the theme of the second of Pocock’s two main books, The Machiavellian Moment (1975), which traced the changing vocabularies of civic virtue from the Renaissance to revolutionary America. In Pocock’s scheme it was Machiavelli who decisively adapted Classical thought to the Renaissance, and Harrington who decisively adapted Machiavelli to the English-speaking world.[*]

In pointing to republicanism as the motor of modernity, Pocock challenged the rival and more traditional claims which emphasised theories of natural law and natural rights and which centred on the political thought of John Locke. Here his arguments have encountered strong resistance, though the battle between the two positions can be unreal. James Tully’s essay tactfully demonstrates how often republican and Lockean languages complemented, rather than competed with, each other. A different challenge is mounted by Jonathan Scott’s polemical essay, which accepts the existence and importance of a republican tradition but denies Harrington a significant place in it. Pocock, seeming less than pleased, deals easily enough with Scott’s more dismissive claims. Even so, a figure of the substance which Pocock has claimed for Harrington is likely to defy circumscription by a single interpretative model, even – or particularly – a model as ambitious as Pocock’s. Scott is only one of the authors to have been recently impressed by Harrington’s acknowledgment of his debt to that profound enemy of republicanism, Thomas Hobbes, and to have noticed the purposes which, for all their obvious disagreements, Hobbes and Harrington shared.

Hobbes is the subject of two strong essays. Quentin Skinner follows the erratic development of his attitude to the Classical tradition which regarded a training in rhetoric and eloquence as essential to the advancement of both civic virtue and truth. In his works of the 1640s Hobbes’s mistrust of rhetoric led him to what Skinner calls a ‘profoundly anti-humanist conclusion’. He came to see eloquence as the enemy, not the instrument, of reason. This is Skinner in his Rolls-Royce vein, and displays his extraordinary gift for the lucid and courteous exposition of complex problems.

Hobbes traced the misconceptions of his contemporaries about rhetoric back to the source on which he also blamed their political misapprehensions: to ‘the philosophers of Greece and Rome’. Skinner is thus warranted in setting Hobbes’s views beside those of Cicero and Quintilian. Even so his essay might have profited had he brought in the debates and anxieties about rhetoric in Renaissance Europe in the century or so before Hobbes wrote, although the effect of introducing that might have been merely to demonstrate the uniqueness of Hobbes’s position. Skinner does point to another large question which, tantalisingly, he lacks the space to answer: why it was that in Leviathan (1651) Hobbes dropped his uncompromising hostility to eloquence and represented it as compatible with the exercise of reason. Richard Tuck’s essay, on Hobbes’s religion, also brings out differences between Leviathan and the earlier works, which had been less theologically unorthodox and less profoundly anti-clerical. Nearly a quarter of a century has passed since Pocock urged that the theology of Leviathan, which occupies so much of the book, be taken seriously. Only recently has that challenge been properly met.

One theme of Tuck’s essay surfaces frequently in the volume: the relationship of Church and State. It is raised by William Lamont who, armed with fresh archival material, revisits the political thought of the Puritan divine Richard Baxter. It figures in Gordon Schochet’s account of the Restoration bishop Samuel Parker, the enemy of Milton and of Marvell. It figures again in Lawrence Klein’s account of the politics and philosophy of the third Earl of Shaftesbury, the grandson of Locke’s patron, the Whig grandee Anthony Ashley Cooper, and the contemporary of Addison and Steele. Klein’s subject is the political dimension of Shaftesbury’s promotion of ‘politeness’, a virtue he sought to identify with the causes of civil and religious liberty. Like many Whig or country-party writers after 1700, Shaftesbury dropped the previous century’s preoccupation with institutional reform and dwelt instead on the corrective power of manners. The Anglican demand for an intolerant state church was identified by Shaftesbury with barbarism and unsociability. Klein’s argument that the programme of ‘politeness’ was intended to bring a transfer of authority from both Church and State to independent gentlemen, though plausible, needs firmer demonstration. Perhaps it will receive it in the forthcoming book for which his essay whets the appetite.

Mark Goldie confronts the issue of Church-State relations head on. His subject is the place of Whig ideology, in the later 17th century and beyond, of anti-clericalism, and particularly of hostility to the clergy’s claim to have a role in politics. ‘English Whiggism,’ he believes, ‘was born as much in anti-clericalism as in constitutionalism.’ Yet, as he also recognises, anti-clericalism and constitutionalism could pull in opposite directions. Whigs championed Parliamentary freedoms. They also championed liberty of conscience for Protestant Dissenters. The trouble was that 17th-century Parliaments were normally hostile to liberty of conscience, while monarchs were sometimes in favour of it. In the 1650s, a number of religious radicals, who had vigorously supported the Parliamentary cause in the Civil Wars, preferred the military rule of Oliver Cromwell, which gave them toleration, to the Parliamentary government that preceded it. Charles II and then James II wooed Dissenters, and extended the royal prerogative, by overruling statutes which enjoined Anglican conformity.

Goldie attributes the Whigs’ ambivalence to a tension between their libertarian political instincts and the survival of that apocalyptic strain in post-Reformation thinking which yearned for a godly ruler and which entrusted monarchs with divine authority over the Church. The Puritans generally supported the royal supremacy as the means to keep Popery down. But what happened if, as under Mary Tudor or Charles I, it was used not to suppress Popery but to promote it?

There is a persistent opportunism in the conduct of England’s various Protestant groups towards the State’s control of the Church. Milton supported the royal supremacy in 1641, when it seemed that the Crown could be pressured into abolishing episcopacy and reforming the parishes. After that hope collapsed he came to favour the complete separation of Church from State. Anglicans, taking advantage of the State’s support but also uncomfortably dependent on it, were no less equivocal than Puritans. Towards the end of Elizabeth’s reign, when the Church of England feared that her Scottish successor would introduce Presbyterianism, churchmen began to suggest that the episcopal order owed its authority, now as before the Reformation, to divine institution, not to royal will. Under Charles I, Arminian High Churchmen preached up the divine right of kings, because Charles favoured their ecclesiastical programme. Their successors under Charles II sought a similar alliance on similar terms. Yet, as the confrontation between James II and the Seven Bishops in 1688 would show, the harmony of Church and State was bound to be a limited one.

There may be secular as well as religious explanations of the Whig ambivalence towards the royal prerogative identified by Goldie. The republican tradition which Pocock has traced, and to which the Whig party half-belonged, had been divided over the powers of single rulers ever since the time of Machiavelli, the republican who wrote The Prince. If, as Machiavelli explained, monarchical power corrupts, then we must be vigilant in guarding our liberty against it. Yet if a society is corrupted, a powerful ruler may be the best, or even the only, instrument of its reform. Weak monarchy, which becomes the prey of faction or oligarchy, may be a larger threat to liberty than strong monarchy, just as it may be a graver impediment to a policy abroad that preserves freedom (or religion) at home. Then, too, there was the republicans’ preoccupation with Aristotle and their respect for his principle of distributive justice, which awards supreme power to supremely endowed individuals.

Again we think of Milton, who suppressed his republican scruples and supported the Protectorate of ‘Cromwell, our chief of men’ on grounds that seem half-Machiavellian, half-Aristotelian. Later in the century there were Whigs willing to cast envious eyes at the reforming energy of Louis XIV of France, just as a subsequent generation would reveal a sneaking admiration for Napoleon. Goldie remarks of Andrew Marvell, who had welcomed Cromwell as a Machiavellian ruler, that under Charles II he ‘did not wish to unking his prince: he wanted him to be one.’ The radical Whigs of 1688-9 (whose ideas on the right of political resistance are traced in an essay by Lois Schwoerer) would be uncertain whether to seek to rewrite the constitution so as permanently to tame the monarchy, or to try to give William III the absolute power which he might need if he were to keep the Stuarts out and the Tories under. The flexibility of English republicanism distinguishes it from its successors. ‘In the long run,’ observes Pocock’s concluding essay, ‘Charles I was executed for not being a king, Louis XVI for being one.’

Pocock’s prose, alas, is not always so pithy. Since his first book, his writing has become ever more circuitous and ever less disciplined. Yet this defect, maddening as it can be, has an honourable source. An appendix to the Festschrift, which lists his publications, reveals a formidable rate and range of production, from which one can only infer that his pen struggles to keep pace with his mind. So varied are his interests that even this well-planned volume is unable to accommodate them all. There is nothing before the late 16th century, where J.H. Burns examines the response of Scottish royalists to the radical theories of George Buchanan, and nothing later than the mid-18th century, even though Pocock’s recent writing has increasingly moved beyond it. There is no essay on Machiavelli or on Italian Humanism. There is, however, material on Machiavelli’s legacy, particularly in Conal Condren’s account of Machiavelli’s influence in that astonishingly candid recipe for Realpolitik, the paper of advice offered by the Duke of Newcastle to Charles II at the Restoration.

There are, finally, three complementary essays on the political thought of David Hume. Nicholas Phillipson writes on Hume’s discussions of the legitimacy of the post-Revolutionary regime, while Istvan Hont and John Robertson show Hume dwelling, in apprehensive mood, on the themes of commerce and war. Hont demonstrates Hume’s alarm, in the wake of the Seven Years War, at the threat posed by the growth of public credit both to Britain’s social system and to her political freedom. Robertson’s masterly contribution demonstrates Hume’s anxieties about the Whig ascendancy in England. Hume feared that the English who, in fighting against the Spain of Philip II and the Holland of John de Witt and the France of Louis XIV, had purported to defend the liberties of Europe from universal domination, would themselves impose, through their commercial empire, a comparable system of oppression and dependence. Most of the 16 contributors, while saluting Pocock’s achievements in the history of ideas, also engage with them, offering variations on his arguments and sometimes taking issue with them. I cannot remember finishing a Festschrift with so strong a sense of the depth and breadth of the achievement of its recipient.

[*] The Commonwealth of Oceana and A System of Politics, published in 1977 by Cambridge in Pocock’s edition of The Political Works of James Harrington, have been reprinted in the Cambridge Texts in the History of Political Thought series.