• Email
  • Single Page
  • Print

Politics as Language

Virtue, Commerce, and History: Essays on Political Thought and History, Chiefly in the Eighteenth Century

by J.G.A. Pocock
Cambridge University Press, 321 pp., 12.95 (paper)

Of all the scholars who currently study the history of Western political thought, no one is more fertile, eloquent, and ingenious than J.G.A. Pocock, currently professor of history at Johns Hopkins University. Over the past thirty years he has published a remarkable sequence of books and articles which, though disparate in subject matter and visibly influenced by the changing intellectual fashions of the day, constitute an oeuvre of formidable consistency.1 His writings advance our knowledge of political thought and argument in Italy, England, and America between the early sixteenth and late eighteenth centuries. More important, they provide an exemplary model of how historical study is the indispensable precondition for interpreting the political texts of the past.

Pocock’s central contention is that a work of political thought can only be understood if the reader is aware of the contemporary linguistic constraints to which its author was subject, for these constraints prescribed both his subject matter and the way in which that subject matter was conceptualized. The occasional “epic theorist,” like Machiavelli or Hobbes, may have succeeded in breaking out of these bonds by redefining old terms and inventing new ones. But most writers were confined by the verbal resources available to them. The task of the modern commentator on their works is thus initially a historical one. He has, as Pocock once put it,

to identify the “language” or “vocabulary” with and within which the author operated, and to show how it functioned paradigmatically to prescribe what he might say and how he might say it.

There is, of course, nothing very novel about this contention as such, for historians of literature and ideas have always been aware that writers work within particular traditions of thought. But its application to the history of political ideas forms a great contrast to the assumptions of the 1950s, when it was widely thought that the close reading of a text by an analytic philosopher was sufficient to establish its meaning, even though the philosopher was quite innocent of any knowledge of the period in which the text was written or of the linguistic traditions within which its author operated. Moreover, Pocock elaborates the theoretical underpinnings of his approach in a very explicit fashion. An acutely self-conscious writer, he is always happy to pause for reflection on his own methods.

In the introduction to his new collection of essays, Pocock meditates on the current state of his subject, which he tells us has now moved away from the “history of thought” or “history of ideas” to something more like the “history of speech” or “history of discourse.” His use of the currently fashionable term “discourse” is as typical of his readiness to follow the latest intellectual trend as was his eagerness fifteen years ago to embrace the concepts of “paradigms” and “paradigmatic structures” made popular by T.S. Kuhn in his Structure of Scientific Revolutions. So too is his bow to structuralism, when he tells us that the political writer inhabits “a universe of langues that give meaning to the paroles he performs in them.” But the changing affectations of Pocock’s vocabulary conceal an essential continuity of purpose. He seeks to recover the authentic idiom of past political argument, to disengage patterns of language and expression of thought from the texts and contexts in which they appear.

It can be seen at once that this enterprise bears a considerable affinity to that undertaken at Cambridge by Quentin Skinner and John Dunn.2 They too have worked over the past twenty years for a truly historical study of political thought and their methods are very similar (though Skinner combines comparable methodological sophistication with transparent lucidity; and his writings are wholly free from Pocock’s distinctly baroque prose). The introduction to Pocock’s present book is virtually a dialogue with Quentin Skinner, though it also reveals some of his other intellectual debts: to the late Sir Herbert Butterfield, whose The Englishman and His History (1944) was an obvious stimulus to Pocock’s first book, The Ancient Constitution and the Feudal Law; to Peter Laslett, whose editions of Filmer and Locke can now be seen as the beginnings of the Cambridge renaissance in the historical study of political thought; and to Duncan Forbes whose early essays on the Scottish Enlightenment and subsequent book on Hume are discernibly part of the same historical undertaking.3 Pocock is a New Zealander who has lived for several decades in the United States, but it is his experience as a graduate student and research fellow at Cambridge that has left the deepest imprint on his intellectual formation.

In his successive writings Pocock has identified a number of different “languages” in which the political thought of the early modern period was conducted. First, in England, there was the language of the “ancient constitution.” This rested on the claim that the English legal and parliamentary system was of immemorial antiquity. This belief was challenged by seventeenth-century historians who revealed that England had a feudal past in which there had been no room for such supposedly ancient liberties. The result of these competing interpretations was to convert political debate into legal and historical argument: “English thought of the seventeenth century was conducted largely in terms of rival visions, some of them highly sophisticated, of the legal and institutional past.”

Another language was that of apocalyptic prophecy, often with a special place in the divine plan being claimed for England as the Elect Nation. This tradition has been explored by William Haller, William Lamont, and many others. Pocock’s contribution was to show that Thomas Hobbes grappled with it in the later chapters of his Leviathan, the section usually left unread by students and sometimes omitted altogether by anachronistic modern editors.

But the language with whose history Pocock is most closely associated is that of “civic humanism” (or, alternatively, “classical republicanism”). It was not his discovery as such. The English classical republicans were first studied by Zera S. Fink and Caroline Robbins;4 and the notion of “civic humanism” was disseminated more than thirty years ago by Hans Baron, who demonstrated how the literati of late medieval Italy rejected traditional ideas of scholarly withdrawal and developed a new philosophy urging political engagement and the pursuit of the active life.5 With this new philosophy went a critical attack on imperial rule and a preference for the values of the Roman Republic. In the fifteenth century, Florentine theorists developed a political tradition celebrating the ideals of liberty, civic equality, and an arms-bearing citizenry who would not stoop to employ mercenaries to do their fighting for them.

The culmination of this tradition came with the writings of Machiavelli. Confronted by a double threat to Florentine liberty—the despotism of the Medicis from within, foreign invasion from without—Machiavelli diagnosed the “corruption” from which the state suffered and prescribed the infusion of “virtĂš” which was necessary to reinvigorate it. “Corruption” involved the moral degradation of the individual, arising from his pursuit of private interest, his loss of public spirit, and his military and political dependence on others. It could be averted by putting into practice the ideal of the self-sufficient citizen, soldier, and patriot. He would be buttressed against despotic encroachment by his independence as a property owner, but would be willing to accept a condition of approximate equality with his fellows. The implicit goal was that of a rounded civic personality, a man who would give precedence to the public good, prefer austerity to luxury, and live an unspecialized life, discharging different public functions at different times.

The “Machiavellian moment,” which provides the title of Pocock’s magnum opus, was both the date at which Machiavelli made his appearance, that is the early sixteenth century, and that recurring point in history when a virtuous republic confronts the risk of dissolution in the face of historical forces. Pocock’s achievement was to demonstrate just how long a life a lay in store for this neoclassical concept of the republic, based on a balanced constitution and an independent, arms-bearing, property, owning citizenry. It would be found in both Whig and Tory thought of the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries; it would be central to the American revolt against the British Parliament; it would shape the arguments between the Federalists and Republicans in the 1790s; and its influence would continue right up to the present: “The Nixon Administration was immolated on altars originally built by the Old Whigs.”

Machiavellianism was transmitted to England through the agency of James Harrington’s Oceana (1656), a work which Pocock in The Ancient Constitution had already identified as “a Machiavellian meditation upon feudalism.” Harrington perceived that the end of feudal tenures had emancipated the English freeholder. In an effort to justify the continuance of the English military republic set up in 1649, against Oliver Cromwell’s apparent desire to return to the monarchy and House of Lords, he and his allies portrayed the Commonwealth as a classical republic of the armed people, a society of proprietors governing themselves without a class of salaried officeholders. For the perpetuation of so virtuous a regime, free and frequent parliaments were essential. So was the possession by the citizens of freehold land, for commercial or financial forms of property would corrupt their owners by making them dependent on others. Henceforth republican virtue and the practice of commerce were seen as incompatible.

Oceana marks what Pocock calls “a moment of paradigmatic breakthrough.” The next such moment came around 1675, when the “neo-Harringtonians,” grouped around the Whig opposition politician Shaftesbury, located a republic of landholding warriors in the Gothic past. This was an inversion of Harrington’s message, for he had no belief in the ancient constitution and considered that a commonwealth of freeholders had emerged only after the end of feudalism.6 But the neo-Harringtonians brought the two myths of classical liberty and the ancient constitution together into a single synthesis. Theirs was a country party ideology. Its twin bogeys were a standing army and ministerial corruption. It justified opposition to placemen, pensioners, high taxation, and, in due course, the Bank of England and the national debt.

The establishment of the latter two institutions during the 1690s is seen by Pocock as the cause of a turning point in the history of English and Scottish political ideology. The neo-Harringtonian version of the classical republican myth was now generally adopted by those in opposition to the reigning oligarchy. A paranoid fear of stockholders was rationalized by the theory that a system of public credit created dependent relationships incompatible with the practice of classical virtue. Indeed this conflict between commerce (or “corruption”) and virtue would, in Pocock’s view, become the central theme of eighteenth-century social thought and political argument.

On one side were the upholders of “ancient virtue,” hostile to the division of labor, suspicious of ministerial influence, committed to the ideal of the small, independent landowner. They could be nostalgic and backward-looking, but they could also be radical and republican. They included Bolingbroke and the Tory opponents of Sir Robert Walpole’s oligarchy, but they were also represented among the radical reformers of the later eighteenth century.

  1. 1

    His books include The Ancient Constitution and the Feudal Law: A Study of English Historical Thought in the Seventeenth Century (Cambridge University Press, 1957); Politics, Language, and Time (Atheneum, 1971); The Machiavellian Moment: Florentine Political Thought and the Atlantic Republican Tradition (Princeton University Press, 1975) and his article, “The Machiavellian Moment Revisited: A Study in History and Ideology,” Journal of Modern History 53 (1981); and he is the editor of The Political Works of James Harrington (Cambridge University Press, 1977), and Three British Revolutions: 1641, 1688, 1776 (Princeton University Press, 1980).

  2. 2

    Discussed in my article “Politics Recaptured” in The New York Review (May 17, 1979), pp. 26–29.

  3. 3

    The essays appeared in the Cambridge Journal for April 1951, October 1951, October 1953, and August 1954. The book is Hume’s Philosophical Politics (Cambridge University Press, 1984). See Sir Robert Filmer, Patriarcha and Other Political Works, Peter Laslett, ed. (Basil Blackwell, 1949) and John Locke, Two Treatises on Government, Peter Laslett, ed. (Cambridge University Press, 1960; second edition, 1968).

  4. 4

    Zera S. Fink, The Classical Republicans: An Essay in the Recovery of a Pattern of Thought in Seventeenth-Century England (Northwestern University Press, 1945); Caroline Robbins, The Eighteenth-Century Commonwealthman (Harvard University Press, 1959).

  5. 5

    Hans Baron, Humanistic and Political Literature in Florence and Venice at the Beginning of the Quattrocento (Harvard University Press, 1955); The Crisis of the Early Italian Renaissance, 2nd ed. (Princeton University Press, 1966).

  6. 6

    Indeed the so-called “neo-Harringtonians” rejected so many of Harrington’s ideas that some commentators find Pocock’s label for them inappropriate. (Jesse R. Goodale, “J.G.A. Pocock’s Neo-Harringtonians: A Reconsideration,” History of Political Thought, Vol. I, 1980; J.C. Davis, “Pocock’s Harrington: Grace, Nature and Art in the Classical Republicanism of James Harrington,” Historical Journal 24, 1981.)

  • Email
  • Single Page
  • Print