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 “virtù” 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.

On the other side were the Whig moderns, supporters of commerce, finance, and the march of economic progress. Their defense was formed in conscious opposition to the neo-Harringtonian criticism of the modern economy. They therefore appropriated the one-time Tory argument that liberty was a recent growth, not to be found in the Middle Ages. They built up Addison’s ideal of politeness and cultivation into a quite different model of virtue, designed to supersede the classical one, which they derided as primitive and unsophisticated. Without commerce, they claimed, there could be no true refinement and cultivation. The social theorists of the Scottish Enlightenment developed a four-stage scheme of human evolution. First came the hunters, then the shepherds, then the farmers, and finally the merchants. Only at the fourth stage did true civilization arise. The division of labor was necessary for the full development of human personality.

By making commerce the great motor force behind the growth of manners and the progress of society, the writers of the Scottish Enlightenment constructed an ideological defense of the new Whig regime. In Pocock’s words: there was

an antithesis between virtue and commerce, republicanism and liberalism, classicism and progressivism. The Old Whigs identified freedom with virtue and located it in a past; the Modern Whigs identified it with wealth, enlightenment, and progress toward a future. Around this antithesis, it is not too much to say, nearly all eighteenth-century philosophy of history can be organized.

In Virtue, Commerce, and History Pocock concentrates on the defenders of the new order. He has a marvelous essay on the varieties of Whiggism between the Exclusion Movement and the Reform Bill, polarized as he sees them by the antitheses between virtue and corruption, land and commerce, ancient liberties and modern progress. He lovingly disentangles Old Whigs from New Whigs, Court Whigs, from Country Whigs, skeptical Whigs from Vulgar Whigs, True Whigs from Independent Whigs, and dissects a great many other brands of Whiggery, whether Polite, Regime, First, Modern, or Honest.

This piece is a tour de force, essential for anyone interested in eighteenth-century English politics and thought. Equally suggestive are Pocock’s subtle studies of the reactions of some leading thinkers of the period to the same issues. David Hume did not mind the disappearance of virtuous republics, because he felt that civilization was possible without them, but he remained suspicious of paper credit as a potentially destructive and unstable force. Edward Gibbon, for all his lament for lost republican liberty, was emphatically a modern, in no way nostalgic for primitive virtue. Josiah Tucker regarded the development of exchange relationships and the division of labor as preconditions of liberty and intellectual progress. Edmund Burke came near to breaking with the Whig tradition altogether by reversing the sequence propounded by the Scottish theorists and maintaining that manners and refinement were the creation of the medieval Church and chivalry and thus came before commerce, not afterward. With the suggestion, implicit in Burke and explicit in Coleridge, that a “clerisy,” or educated elite, was necessary to civilize the commercial classes, the ideological defense of trade and finance created by the Scottish Enlightenment quietly subsided.

One hesitates to summarize Pocock’s argument so crudely, for he is a master of nuance, and his prose, though often achieving a felicitous eloquence, can sometimes descend into labyrinthine complexity. He adores abstractions and employs an esoteric vocabulary with fastidious relish. He has a penchant for such transliterated Greek expressions as adikos logos or anakuklusis and he is continually witty in an allusive, rather academic way. The tone is that of conversation in some elevated intellectual salon. Pocock may be a New Zealander, but he does not affect a homespun antipodean style.

The present volume is essentially an elaboration of ideas that the author has already sketched elsewhere, and its chapters, many of which began life as conference papers, are excessively repetitive. No attempt has been made to convert them into a consecutive book; and the reader is taken over the same ground again and again, though usually some new detail of the landscape becomes apparent on each trip. What also becomes clear is that Pocock has created a new synthesis which is intended to challenge once-accepted views of the eighteenth century in at least three separate ways.

First, he rejects the old idea that the political thought of the eighteenth century was one of inexorable progress “from Locke to Bentham,” to quote the title of the Home University Library volume published by Harold Laski in 1920. Pocock allows neither of these two thinkers more than a marginal place. He joins Peter Laslett, John Dunn, and others who have argued that Locke’s ideas were too radical to be acceptable to the makers of the 1688 Revolution and were largely irrelevant for much of the ensuing century.7 As for Bentham, he cannot be fitted at all into the virtue/commerce paradigm and is therefore dismissed as an anomaly: “The parameters within which occurred the mutation of discourse that produced him and his mind are hard to establish and seem not to belong to the history of English public debate.”

Second, Pocock dissociates himself from the habit, set by Sir Lewis Namier and his followers, of deriding eighteenth-century political rhetoric as “cant,” a flimsy and unimportant rationalization of Whig oligarchical practice. Instead, he reveals that oligarchical regime to have been marked by a ferment of bitter argument and self-criticism. Rather than enjoying what George Saintsbury called “the peace of the Augustans” or what Laski dismissed as “the era of stagnation,” the half-century after 1688 is now said to have witnessed a “great breakthrough in the secular consciousness of political society.” It was a period of intellectual change, “in some ways more radical and significant even than those of the Civil War and Interregnum.”

Third, Pocock is extremely hostile to anything that looks like a Marxist interpretation. He rejects the notion that political thought is a mere reflection of social realities. Instead, he urges the virtual autonomy of political rhetoric: “The paradigms which order ‘reality’ are part of the reality they order.” He will not allow eighteenth-century thinkers to be polarized into aristocratic reactionaries and bourgeois progressives. He prefers to point to the identity of interest between Hanoverian lords and the new world of public credit. To defend “commercial” society was to justify the Whig aristocracy. Conversely, the opposition rhetoric of Tory “reactionaries” and radical “progressives” was almost identical.

This is why Pocock is so ready to applaud Locke’s displacement from the center of political influence. He denounces what he calls the “myth of liberalism,” the notion (first propounded, he thinks, by the Romantics) that English eighteenth-century thought was dominated by the succession of Bacon, Hobbes, Locke, and Newton, “the cold mechanical philosophers of rationalist individualism.” Whig society, he maintains, did not rest on such “bourgeois foundations.” It was not perceived by its supporters as selfish and materialist, but was

philosophically defended on grounds of its richness, fecundity, and diversity, its capacity to develop sentiment and sympathy, transaction and conversation, taste and science, the polite together with the mechanical arts.

Up to a point, Pocock’s contentions have proved very fertile, particularly when applied to the thought of the Scottish Enlightenment. A recent volume of lively essays has fully justified his claim that the need to defend commercial society against the civic humanist critique was a central preoccupation of the Scottish social theorists and political economists,8 though the defense they put up was sometimes rather different from the one that he describes. Adam Smith, for example, claimed that the new order was fairer than that of the ancient republics because it was more productive. The division of labor enabled modern economies to break out of the inexorable cycle of luxury, corruption, and decline; they could achieve self-sustaining growth, under which even the wage laborer would enjoy a better living than that of the property-owning citizen of the classical polis.

But Pocock’s argument has proved more controversial when applied elsewhere. In America, he claims, the anti-Federalist polemic of Jefferson and Madison in the 1790s was a mere replay of country party arguments in England. Like the opponents of Walpole, they denounced a strong executive, based on public credit and political patronage. But it is one thing to invoke classical republicanism to explain why the Jeffersonians saw the Federalists as a threat, another to deny the importance of liberal individualism in Jeffersonian thought. Only recently, a fierce implicit attack on Pocock’s interpretation was launched by John P. Diggins, while Joyce Appleby, in an elegant and lucid set of lectures, has shown how the Jeffersonians rejected the elitist implications of civic humanism and asserted an economically progressive definition of freedom as the right of all men to the enjoyment of property and to participation in an expanding commercial system.9 The true nature of early American republican thought remains a topic of fierce dispute among historians. But it is clear that it amounted to something more than just another version of classical republicanism.

In England the dominance of the civic humanist model is equally difficult to perceive. After promptings by Quentin Skinner, Pocock now concedes equal weight to the influence of a different kind of humanism, Ciceronian and Stoic in origin. This had, since the sixteenth century, reduced the tensions between virtue and commerce by moderating the demand for political participation and allowing that the citizen might choose to concentrate on his private affairs, leaving the business of fighting and governing to others. Pocock also recognizes the strength of the political language of jurisprudence, concerned not with virtue and corruption, but with rights and justice. Indeed he accepts that until 1688 such semi-legal issues as sovereignty, obligation, and resistance were the principal themes of English political thought. Only after the Glorious Revolution did the central question shift from that of whether a ruler might be resisted for mis-conduct to “whether a regime founded on patronage, public debt, and professionalization of the armed forces did not corrupt both governors and governed.”

Yet issues of allegiance and resistance did not go away so suddenly. They were vital to the Nonjurors and Jacobites, who were hostile to the Hanoverian succession; and the same issues surfaced again with the American revolt. In Scotland Pocock allows that the language of civic jurisprudence was at least as influential as that of civic humanism; and it was a language of rights, liberties, and possessive individualism. The liberalism that had earlier been described as “mythical” now seems to be given a more central place.

By the later eighteenth century, the language of virtue and corruption was only a tiny element in radical thought. Pocock detects the influence of country party rhetoric upon the writings of radicals like James Burgh, John Cart-wright, and John Thelwall. He also points out that Tom Paine began The Rights of Man with a denunciation of the credit structure. Yet for all their attacks on Old Corruption, paper money, and the national debt, the main preoccupation of late-eighteenth-century reformers was with representation and equality, not with the classical ideal. For them, the most relevant thinker was not Machiavelli or Harrington, but John Locke, as Isaac Kramnick has rightly claimed.10 Of the two key critics of the old system at the end of the century, neither Bentham nor Paine owed much to civic humanism, though both owed a great deal to the natural-rights tradition bequeathed by Hobbes and Locke. It is surely because of his excessive readiness to play down the influence of this tradition that Pocock finds the reasons for the emergence of the Philosophic Radicals so “obscure.” It is also because he largely ignores the influence upon English thought of the French Enlightenment. As Bentham himself recalled, it was “most of all” the Frenchman Claude Helvetius whose writing set him onto the “principle of utility.”

So, although civic humanism explains a good deal about eighteenth-century political thought and rhetoric, it does not explain everything. Neither, to be fair, does Pocock claim that it does. His most recent pronouncement is that “some aspects of Scottish social thought in the eighteenth century will continue to answer to the civic humanist paradigm, while others yield better results when treated by the jurisprudential.” He concludes wryly that more work needs to be done on the relationships among all the various paradigms in circulation, whether humanist, jurisprudential, or derived from the ancient constitution. “Outside America, it seems unlikely that the history of thought in this period can be organized with the clash of virtue and commerce at its center.”

This appears to be something of a climb-down on Pocock’s part. But it is hard to be sure, for it has never been clear just how much influence he is claiming for the tradition he has charted. His work is so protean, his revisions so frequent, his readiness to recognize and assimilate criticism so disarming, that his position has become distinctly elusive. In this it bears some resemblance to the concept of “civic humanism” itself, for that is a tradition whose boundaries are particularly hard to fix.11 The terminology it employs (“virtue,” “luxury,” “corruption”) is so ambiguous and so capable of being used in different senses that one can never be sure whether or not one is confronted by it. Fortunately, it is not necessary to weigh all the different paradigms in which the political argument of the eighteenth century was conducted. It is sufficient to know that they were there, to recognize that any interesting text is likely to be a mixture of several of them, and to applaud the historian who, at the cost of some exaggeration, has done the most to make us aware of their existence.

This Issue

February 27, 1986