Epic-Making

In 1957 J.G.A. Pocock published The Ancient Constitution and the Feudal Law, an illuminating, and in some ways groundbreaking, investigation of seventeenth-century English historiography. It argued that Whiggish political theory before the advent of John Locke was essentially historical in character. Its exponents (for instance James Tyrrell as late as his General History of England in 1697) held that English common law had subsisted, fundamentally unchanged, from an immemorial past, far antedating the Norman Conquest, and that it enshrined an ancient constitution of a parliamentary, or quasi-parliamentary, kind. As a theory, this had done great service for the opponents of James I, and again for the Levellers; but as historical scholarship developed, and the nature of feudalism came to be better understood, it became something of an embarrassment. Hence the extreme effectiveness of Locke’s approach, which, breaking with previous tradition, based its arguments entirely on reason and “natural rights.”

Pocock’s argument has, deservedly, had great success; and it is still very much alive in his present book, in which he comes to assessing David Hume as a historian. Hume, as he shows, regarded the “ancient constitution” theory as nonsense but found it impossible to ignore; indeed it was still, extraordinarily, being bandied about in Hume’s own day, by “those insolent rascals in London and Middlesex,” the supporters of John Wilkes, who claimed that a member of Parliament enjoyed freedom from arrest.

From seventeenth-century historiography Pocock was led on, rather naturally, to the British historians of the next century: to Hume, to William Robertson, the author of a History of Scotland (1759), and in particular to Edward Gibbon and his History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire.

He conceives of Gibbon, in a tradition of thought going back to Machiavelli, as a “civic humanist.” For, according to Pocock’s account, Machiavelli led a revival in the early modern West of the ancient ideal of homo politicus—the “political animal” as evoked by Aristotle. According to this theory, a vigorous and healthy republic needed to aim continually at territorial expansion, and for this it had to employ a citizen army, armed with its own weapons and endowed with the quality of virtù—not so much “virtue” in the Christian sense as virtus (spirit, resolution, valor) in the classical sense.

Was such virtù compatible with a modern civil society, devoted to commerce and the arts of peace? The question, by the eighteenth century, was in the forefront of historians’ minds. The Roman republic had eventually been led on by its own success to employ mercenaries instead of training its own citizens, and this, according to the Machiavellian tradition, had been a large factor in its decline and fall. The issue has a nice aptness to Gibbon, who in the years between 1760 and 1762 served with his father in the Hampshire militia. Not for nothing did he write in his Memoirs that “the captain of the Hampshire grenadiers (the reader may smile) has not …

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