Politics Recaptured

The Foundations of Modern Political Thought Volume One: The Renaissance Volume Two: The Age of Reformation

by Quentin Skinner
Cambridge University Press, 405 pp., $9.50 each (paper)

Although the history of political thought has long been a recognized subject for academic study, there has never been much agreement on how it should be approached. Most commentators have been content to treat the great books of the past as if they were timeless meditations on perennial problems, capable of yielding their full meaning to any modern reader prepared to peruse them carefully from cover to cover, however ignorant he may be of their historical context. “We learn more about their arguments,” wrote the late John Plamenatz of Machiavelli and Montesquieu, “by weighing them over and over again than by extending our knowledge of the circumstances in which they wrote.” In keeping with this maxim, generations of students have been encouraged to pore over The Republic or The Prince or Leviathan, confident that microscopic analysis of the text will ultimately unravel its true import. It is not surprising that they have often emerged with interpretations which, however persuasive exegetically, are as bizarrely subjective and historically implausible as some modern readings of Hamlet offered by literary critics equally unhampered by historical constraints.

By concentrating on the text and nothing but the text, reputable professors of philosophy have been led in recent years to argue, for example, that Thomas Hobbes, that bête noire of every pious seventeenth-century Englishman, was “really” a Christian moralist, an interpretation which would have astonished Hobbes’s contemporaries and afforded the sage of Malmesbury a good deal of ironic amusement. Yet Professor Howard Warrender arrived at his well-documented conclusion “on the strength of reading the Leviathan a number of times until its argument assumed some coherence”; and Professor F.C. Hood’s more extreme statement of the case rested on a similar conviction that “close examination of the relevant texts should yield increasing understanding.” It is this readiness of writers on political thought to offer a lawyer-like reading of a historical text, while utterly ignoring the context in which it was written or the way in which it was received at the time, that has made many historians impatient of the whole subject.

Not that historians themselves have always done much better. Only too often their efforts to put a political thinker back into his original context have had a dispiriting outcome. Some historical interpreters make the determinist assumption that every author must inevitably mirror the dominant social tendencies of his age, so that, for example, Aquinas can only be understood as the political theorist of feudalism and Hobbes as the spokesman of the rising bourgeoisie. Others manifest a hard-nosed contempt for political ideas of any kind. Like Sir Lewis Namier, they regard political thought as “cant,” an ex post facto justification for some political position already taken up. For them political philosophy is a glorified form of pamphleteering: Locke’s Second Treatise on Civil Government becomes just another “Exclusionist tract” and Edmund Burke is dismissed as merely the hack journalist of the Rockingham Whigs.

It is against these equally unsatisfactory alternatives of crude context-making by …

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