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.”1 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 historians and unhistorical textualism by philosophers that Quentin Skinner, a Cambridge historian-cum-philosopher, has, over the past fifteen years, waged a methodological battle of great eloquence and sophistication. Since 1964, when he published a review protesting against F.C. Hood’s highly unhistorical portrait of a devoutly Christian Hobbes,2 he has refined and developed his attack in a long series of closely argued articles.3
Drawing his intellectual inspiration from an eclectic mixture of R.G. Collingwood and modern British analytical philosophy, and often following a path closely parallel to that beaten by his intellectual associates J.G.A. Pocock and John Dunn, he has repeatedly urged that political texts must be understood according to their authors’ intentions and that those intentions can only be recovered by close attention to the linguistic conventions of the time. Works of philosophy or literature, he urges, should be seen as if they were speech acts, possessing what the philosopher J.L. Austin would have called “illocutionary force”; and it is that original “illocutionary force” which the interpreter must recapture. For this, wide reading in the writing of the period is essential. Otherwise it would be impossible to distinguish what was genuinely distinctive about an individual theorist’s work from what was merely commonplace. One would not notice when the theorist was significantly declining to employ some conventionally accepted argument, as when John Locke silently refused to base his politics upon a historical appeal to the true nature of the ancient English constitution. One would not even know whether the writer was being ironic. How naïve a view of Gibbon’s religious beliefs might a reader not form if, knowing nothing of the eighteenth century, he embarked upon a close study of The Decline and Fall, taking every sentence at its face value?
Quentin Skinner does not therefore merely urge the value of a historical approach as against an exegetical one. His real point is that true exegesis is impossible without a knowledge of history. Perusal of the text alone will never tell us what its author was really trying to say; indifference to the wider context and to the linguistic conventions of the period can only lead to howlingly anachronistic interpretations. It is, therefore, not enough to read Leviathan by itself; one must also study the hundreds of other contemporary tracts. By following this method, Mr. Skinner has been able to point out that Hobbes’s actual political recommendations were common enough in the England of the 1650s, when many writers urged the advantages of submission to a de facto Commonwealth government. Hobbes’s distinctiveness lay not in his beliefs, but in his reasons for holding them; his political creed was not unique, but his epistemology was.
Some historians might reasonably retort that they have long been trying to proceed intuitively along much the same lines that Mr. Skinner advocates, albeit without such exquisite methodological self-consciousness. After all, J.W. Allen remarked fifty years ago in the preface to his A History of Political Thought in the Sixteenth Century (1928) that students of political thought would get nowhere if they confined their attention to a few outstanding texts; it was essential that they should soak themselves in the period as a whole.
Yet historians would be wrong to conclude that Mr. Skinner’s intricate philosophical arguments merely expound what they have already thought but never so well expressed. For he has lessons to teach historians, no less than philosophers. In particular, he argues that political ideas should not be written off as mere rationalizations of political action. On the contrary, prevailing ideas can themselves determine political behavior. He instances the case of the early eighteenth-century politician Bolingbroke, whose political ideas the Namierites dismissed as self-interested “flapdoodle,” though without pausing to ask why they should have been one kind of flapdoodle rather than another. In a penetrating essay Quentin Skinner has shown how Bolingbroke, when opposing Walpole’s ministry, was forced to base his case upon Walpole’s corruption and reliance on a standing army, because these were the tools which, in contemporary political theory, absolutist rulers employed to crush popular liberties. Prevailing political assumptions thus set limits to the kind of opposition Bolingbroke could conduct.4
Methodological debate can easily become an end in itself; and those who set out programs do not always put them into action. But any fears lest Quentin Skinner should devote all his energies to purely philosophical combats will have been totally dispelled by the appearance of these two splendid volumes on European political thought from the late thirteenth to the end of the sixteenth century. They triumphantly vindicate the judgment of the electors who recently appointed him to the Cambridge chair of political science; and for those who have followed his methodological campaign in the philosophical journals their appearance is a genuinely exciting event. These volumes will be scrutinized not just for up-to-date guidance to a long and decisive period of political thinking, but also for an exemplification of a novel and long-pondered methodology.
In his preface the author says his work has three purposes: to provide an authoritative account of the chief political texts of the period; to show the process by which the modern concept of the state was formed; and to exemplify a particular way of approaching historical texts. Of these the third is the most notable. For instead of concentrating on the great individual theorists, the book seeks to construct a general frame within which those theorists can be placed. By studying political ideologies rather than classic texts, the author aims at “a history of political theory with a genuinely historical character.” (The publisher’s blurb puts it more boldly: “the work aspires…to give the first genuinely historical account of the political thought of the period.”)
Yet, in its main outlines, the outcome, for all its claims to intellectual novelty, is reassuringly (some might say disappointingly) familiar. There is nothing here which Otto von Gierke or John Neville Figgis or A.J. Cariyle or J.W. Allen would not have recognized as in direct line of descent from their own pioneering attempts to map out the political thought of the late medieval and early modern period. Even Mr. Skinner’s search for the origins of the “modern” concept of the state has recognizably nineteenth-century Whiggish overtones. He discusses few theorists whose works were not familiar to earlier scholars; indeed he omits some to whom they gave a good deal of attention and his treatment of some others is tantalizingly brief. Yet he is splendidly versed in the modern secondary literature, through which he picks his way with fastidious discrimination and to which he makes scrupulous and almost excessive acknowledgment (all the references appear, rather irritatingly, in parentheses in the body of the text and, since authorities are cited for even the best-attested historical facts, the parentheses are distractingly frequent).
Professor Skinner has worked through numerous untranslated theorists in Latin, French, and Italian, though he side-steps many of those modern commentators whose writings are available only in German. By contemporary standards, his learning is immense, even if it does not really equal the staggering range of acquaintance with late medieval canonists and legists displayed by such nineteenth-century scholars as the formidable Gierke. Quentin Skinner’s combination of historical scholarship with philosophical acumen makes his book both an indispensable piece of synthesis and an intellectual achievement of the first order. It is because he has built so skillfully upon the labors of his predecessors that his is surely the best account of early modern political thought yet written.
A work that covers three centuries and occupies over seven hundred tightly written pages does not lend itself to easy summary. But there are at least four separate features of the book that deserve particular mention. The first is the limpid clarity of the prose. Professor Skinner avoids the cloudy verbosity and mannered affectation characteristic of several contemporary writers on the history of political thought. Instead, he sustains a remarkable lucidity and evenness of tone. Every allusion is explained in such a way as to be fully intelligible to the beginner, without any loss of subtlety or nuance for the more sophisticated reader. In a book of such length there is inevitably some backtracking, repetition, and occasional inconsistency. But in general the work has been admirably shaped and digested.
The book’s second notable characteristic is its consistent attempt to relate political ideas to the pressure of political events. Although political thought to some extent developed in accordance with its own internal logic, Quentin Skinner makes it clear that external political occurrences usually provided the stimulus to intellectual change. In his first volume he shows how the North Italian cities of the early fourteenth century found it necessary to defend their urban independence against the encroachments of the Emperor and the Pope from without and of would-be despots from within. It was in response to this challenge that the jurist Bartolus of Saxoferrato reinterpreted the Roman Law in such a way as to justify the sovereignty of the city-state against the Emperor, thereby making a decisive move toward the concept of the autonomous, sovereign state.
Similarly, the theologian Marsiglio of Padua defended the city republics against the Pope by denying the Church’s right to secular jurisdiction. Professor Skinner emphasizes the earlier antecedents of that “civic humanism” which is normally said to have emerged in the early fifteenth century. He shows how thirteenth-century teachers of rhetoric pioneered a genre of political writing which later humanists developed into a fully fledged defense of the values of the city republic. The praise of civil liberty thus became one of the great themes of humanist writing, particularly in Florence; and it was the constant need to preserve self-governing city-states against overthrow by despotic ruling families which stimulated that wealth of reflection upon the causes of political strength and weakness which is characteristic of late medieval Italian thought and of which the best-known example is Machiavelli’s Discourses. Professor Skinner gives an excellent account of the growth of humanism and its diffusion north of the Alps. In political thought its main message was the need for educational reform to inculcate the right moral qualities in both rulers and people.
In the second volume, on the Reformation, the pressure of external events becomes yet more insistent. Professor Skinner shows how Lutheranism at first helped to strengthen the claims of the secular state by demanding the absolute obedience of its subjects. But when the Emperor Charles V sought to suppress the new religion, the Lutherans were forced to develop theories of resistance. They began to do so as early as 1530, whereas the Calvinists, by contrast, did not justify disobedience until the 1550s; it was only the threat of Catholic reaction in England, Scotland, France, and the Netherlands which forced them to change their minds. Later, the outbreak of the religious wars in France would stimulate Jean Bodin into developing notions of legislative sovereignty as a counter to political anarchy. Professor Skinner’s reconstruction of these external political pressures is detailed and careful, while his account of the interplay between political event and political theory is subtle in the extreme. Theorists who wished to justify new policies had to work within the severe limits imposed by inherited concepts; and there is much piquancy to be derived from watching their struggles to adapt an old vocabulary to a new purpose.
The third notable feature of the book is the challenge it offers to several accepted orthodoxies. It is particularly striking for its emphasis on the fourteenth century as the decisive period when ideas of popular sovereignty and the independent state were first clearly articulated. This is not a new insight, for the point was often made by Gierke, Figgis, and A.J. Carlyle. But it has been much overlooked by modern writers, who tend to exaggerate the intellectual novelty of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries and to display a certain distaste for medieval authors whose works are locked up in the Latin language.
Professor Skinner himself had originally intended his book to run from the sixteenth to the early nineteenth century. His move back to the Middle Ages presumably reflects his growing conviction that the political thought of the sixteenth century could not be understood without analyzing its debt to what had gone before. He shows how Lutheran theorists drew on Marsiglio of Padua’s earlier denial of the Church’s right to secular jurisdiction; and he is particularly interesting on the subject of the two Paris teachers John Mair and Jacques Almain, not names known to many these days. It was they who at the beginning of the sixteenth century revived the doctrines of the fifteenth-century conciliarists, urging that the Pope was a constitutional monarch who could be called to account and that absolute sovereignty remained with the people.
Professor Skinner proceeds to show that it was not the Protestants who developed the first theories of popular resistance. On the contrary. All the ingredients out of which sixteenth-century resistance theory was formed were medieval in origin. The Lutherans appealed to the federal view of the Imperial constitution, urging the right of subordinate princes to resist the Emperor. They also exploited the Roman Law notion that unjust force could be repelled by force. The Calvinists added that resistance could be conducted by popularly elected magistrates, on the model of the Spartan “ephors.” But Lutherans and Calvinists alike continued to represent resistance to unsatisfactory rulers as a religious duty rather than a political right. Calvinist theory did not become genuinely revolutionary until the 1570s, when it turned back to the fifteenth-century tradition of radical conciliarism and the neo-Thomist notion that the state was founded on consent. When a thorough-going theory of resistance was finally developed by the Scottish Calvinist George Buchanan and the Spanish Jesuit Mariana, it was from the radical scholastics that they drew. Buchanan indeed had been a pupil of John Mair at St. Andrews.
Quentin Skinner thus repudiates the view of Michael Walzer in his The Revolution of the Saints (1966), according to which Calvinism was the first revolutionary ideology in modern Europe. The theories behind the Calvinist position had been developed by radical jurists and theologians in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries. So far from breaking away from the constraints of scholasticism to found a “new politics,” the Huguenots were merely developing a position which Catholic thinkers had already espoused. There were thus no specifically Calvinist elements in “the Calvinist theory of revolution.” Neither did the seventeenth century add much to this earlier inheritance. When Oliver Cromwell justified the execution of Charles I, he did so by invoking “the principles of Mariana and Buchanan.”
After this welcome reassertion of the importance of medieval political thought comes the fourth distinctive characteristic of the book: its claim to throw new light on the already much studied great theorists by placing them for the first time in their proper historical context. How different do they look? For most readers this will be the real test of Quentin Skinner’s methodology; and it is a test which the book passes with flying colors. Marsiglio of Padua makes infinitely better sense when, as here, the civic context of his thought is properly appreciated; and Sir Thomas More’s Utopia, though remaining enigmatic in some respects, is far more plausibly understood as a logical outcome of humanist thought than as a throwback to medievalism. To Professor Skinner, More’s criticisms of social hierarchy and private property represent a reaction against the blander assumptions of his fellow humanists. For they agreed that the only true nobility was that of virtue, but backed away from recognizing that the existing distribution of property often prevented that virtue from gaining recognition.
But it is above all Machiavelli who is illuminated by Mr. Skinner’s historical approach. He points out the conventionality of many of the Florentine thinker’s assumptions. The construction of handbooks of wisdom for princes had been going on for centuries before The Prince, and Machiavelli’s emphasis on the struggle between fortuna and human virtù was a humanist commonplace. So was his belief that princes should seek glory and do “great things.” Where he differed from his predecessors was in his appreciation of the importance of power, particularly military power, and in his devastating revelation that the conventional Christian virtues were not the ones most likely to bring the ruler success.
Machiavelli’s other great work, the Discourses, was also typical enough as an analysis of the circumstances helping and hindering the cause of republican liberty. His cyclical view of history was not new and neither was his faith in the merits of a citizen army. The real novelties were Machiavelli’s belief that Christian virtue would sap the political virtù needed by an active citizenry and his perception that internal conflict could sometimes be a source of strength rather than weakness: “tumults” were a sign of political involvement and therefore desirable. Quentin Skinner’s pages on Machiavelli are among the best parts of the book.
In the conclusion he offers some reflections about the origins of the modern concept of the state. For most of the period, “state” meant the condition in which the ruler found himself; his “state” was something he had to maintain. But by the mid-sixteenth century the word had begun to acquire its modern meaning of an entity independent of both ruler and ruled. Professor Skinner lists the intellectual changes which had encouraged the evolution of the new concept: the challenge of fourteenth-century jurists to the Emperor’s sovereignty over subordinate principalities; the denial by theologians of both the papal plenitude of power and the Church’s right to secular jurisdiction; and the emerging view that rulers should devote their energies to purely secular functions. The whole process, he observes, had been under way since the reception of Aristotle’s Politics in the mid-thirteenth century. Aristotle provided both the concept of a self-sufficient community and a persuasive demonstration of how political change could best be analyzed. It is one of the few weaknesses of these two volumes that Aristotle’s influence in shaping the political concepts of the late medieval and early modern period, though by no means unmentioned, is distinctly underplayed.
Quentin Skinner has thus provided an impressive vindication of the historical study of political thought. He has breathed new life into what has of late been a languishing subject. His account of what the great theorists of the period were really up to is the most convincing we have; and even if there are matters on which his interpretations are open to debate he has almost certainly determined the setting within which any future debate will have to be conducted.
Of course, his historical approach to political thought will not satisfy everyone. Some readers will think that the subject has been trivialized by Mr. Skinner’s demonstration that so much political thinking has been primarily an attempt to legitimate the latest move in the political game. They will be disconcerted to find that most of his theorists were engaged in “tactics,” almost as if they were hired lawyers. They are portrayed here as making “moves” in a dialectical contest in order to satisfy “pressing ideological needs.” Arguments are raised and dropped, according to changing political circumstances. Only a minority, like More or Machiavelli or Bodin, manage to rise above the political scene; and they are the theorists who remain least susceptible to a totally historical explanation because in so many ways they transcend their immediate circumstances. After all, historians can explain why playwrights should have written for the Elizabethan theater. But they can never “explain” Shakespeare. It is no accident that Quentin Skinner devotes so much discussion to the “legitimizing” aspect of political writing, as opposed to the more speculative or more analytic kind.5 For in the latter realm history is less helpful.
For all the merits of Quentin Skinner’s approach, therefore, there will still be some recalcitrant readers who, innocent of all historical knowledge, will remain content to come straight to the political masterpieces of the past, just as they come straight to the literary ones. Their reading of the great texts will, no doubt, be as confusedly anachronistic as a production of Shakespeare in modern dress. But that will not prevent them from deriving an indispensable imaginative stimulus from the encounter. The truth is that historical texts can have a valuable meaning for modern readers, even if it is not the meaning which their authors intended.6 Indeed, it is out of their misreadings of past texts that many thinkers construct a future. How genuinely historical, after all, were Machiavelli’s Discourses on Livy? Henceforth, anyone seriously concerned to know what early modern political thinkers really intended will turn to Quentin Skinner’s magisterial volumes. But some of those who conduct the most creative dialogues between the present and the past will continue to reject the services of the historian as interpreter.
May 17, 1979
Howard Warrender, The Political Philosophy of Hobbes (Oxford University Press, 1957); F.C. Hood, The Divine Politics of Thomas Hobbes (Oxford University Press, 1964). ↩
Quentin Skinner, “Hobbes’s Leviathan,” The Historical Journal, 7 (1964). ↩
See in particular: “History and Ideology in the English Revolution,” Historical Journal, 8 (1965); “The Limits of Historical Explanations,” Philosophy, 41 (1966); “The Ideological Context of Hobbes’s Political Thought,” Historical Journal, 9 (1966); “Meaning and Understanding in the History of Ideas,” History and Theory, 8 (1969); “Conventions and the Understanding of Speech Acts,” The Philosophical Quarterly, 20 (1970); “On Performing and Explaining Linguistic Actions,” The Philosophical Quarterly, 21 (1971); “Conquest and Consent: Thomas Hobbes and the Engagement Controversy,” in The Interregnum, ed. G.E. Aylmer (Shoe String Press, 1972); ” ‘Social Meaning’ and the Explanation of Social Action,” in Philosophy, Politics and Society, series IV, ed. Peter Laslett, W.G. Runciman and Quentin Skinner (Barnes and Noble, 1972); “Motives, Intentions and the Interpretation of Texts,” New Literary History, 3 (1972); “Some Problems in the Analysis of Political Thought and Action,” Political Theory, 2 (1974). ↩
“The Principles and Practice of Opposition: The Case of Bolingbroke versus Walpole,” in Historical Perspectives: Studies in English Thought and Society in Honour of J.H. Plumb, ed. Neil McKendrick (Europa Publications, 1974). ↩
For example, he does not discuss the interesting utopian thinkers of sixteenth-century Italy described by Paul F. Grendler, Critics of the Italian World, 1530–1560 (University of Wisconsin Press, 1969). ↩
For an interesting statement of this view see Margaret Leslie, “In Defence of Anachronism,” Political Studies, 18 (1970). ↩