Writing the History of Middle Earth

Colin Kidd

  • Barbarism and Religion Vol 1: The Enlightenments of Edward Gibbon, 1737-64 by J.G.A. Pocock
    Cambridge, 339 pp, £55.00, October 1999, ISBN 0 521 77921 9
  • Barbarism and Religion Vol 2: Narratives of Civil Government by J.G.A. Pocock
    Cambridge, 422 pp, £55.00, October 1999, ISBN 0 521 77921 9

Tall, silver-haired and bearded, with a mesmerising voice and beguiling manner of delivery, John Pocock has long struck me as the Gandalf of the historical profession. The range, altitude and stylistic sophistication of his writing seem almost other-worldly, though legend has it that his distinctive accent derives from a small community of Channel Islanders in New Zealand. In prewar academia there, the teenage Pocock, the son of a classicist, could observe such notables as Karl Popper and an offensive visitor from Australia, the young professor of Greek at Sydney, Enoch Powell. Trained as a historian in New Zealand and by Herbert Butterfield at Cambridge, Pocock has since the mid-1950s woven a spell over the history of early modern British political thought, a subject whose contours he has refashioned in unexpected ways and endowed with an allure which has captivated younger generations of scholars.

The Ancient Constitution and the Feudal law (1957) examined an antiquarian contest centred on the continuity – or otherwise – of England’s legal and Parliamentary heritage which resonated throughout 17th-century political debate. Not only did Pocock recover out of this unlikely material a major ideological context for the century of revolutions, but he also isolated John Locke as a rarity among his contemporaries, a controversialist who did not engage with the particularity of English historical precedents. The result was to downgrade the immediate political significance of Locke’s writings in the era of the Glorious Revolution. In Locke’s stead, Pocock drew attention to the less celebrated achievement of James Harrington (1611-77) and to his use of a classical idiom of republican citizenship. Classical republicanism turned out to be a vital hidden ingredient in the history of English political thought, which assumptions about the importance of a Lockean language of natural rights had hitherto rendered invisible.

In The Machiavellian Moment (1975) Pocock showed how this republican stream had its source in an Aristotelian civic tradition renewed by Machiavelli in the Discourses on Livy, and went on to depict its full spate in the politics of Augustan England. From the 1690s a fiscal-military state of public debt, standing armies and a mushrooming financial sector prompted Harrington’s immediate heirs towards a vigorous exploration of the effects of different forms of property, and their distribution, on the civic virtue of the political classes. This language of civic humanism was soon adopted by British colonists in North America, where it remained dominant long after its demise in 18th-century England: ‘The Nixon Administration was immolated on altars originally built by the Old Whigs; and the knives were still sharp.’

If the first phase of Pocock’s project involved writing a more textured history of Anglo-American political thought, the second promoted a pluralist reconstruction of British history – once a polite way of describing the history of Greater England – as the history of four nations. The advent of European integration led this post-imperial New Zealander, based from the mid-1960s in the United States, to reflect, somewhat wistfully, on his British inheritance: an ‘archipelagic’ bequest determined by the long interactions of the peoples, kingdoms, cultures and churches of these islands. Pocock’s prophetic – yet still controversial – plea for a new subject, first articulated in 1974, led eventually, a decade or so after his promptings, to a vigorous new branch of historiography which tackled the British problem and the related issue of Britain’s relationship with Europe.

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