In the mid-twentieth century most Anglo-American historians regarded the study of political thought as a peripheral subject. At one extreme, Marxists often dismissed ideas of any kind as mere epiphenomena of history, the mental reflections of deeper material forces. At the other, the followers of Sir Lewis Namier cynically wrote off the political philosophy of eighteenth-century politicians like Edmund Burke and Lord Bolingbroke as “cant” and “flapdoodle,” the specious rationalization for self-interested political maneuvers. In the US and Great Britain the historical study of political thinkers tended to be left to German refugees like Leo Strauss or Ernst Kantorowicz, who came from a different intellectual tradition, or to Australians and New Zealanders, whose distance from European archives gave them no option but to fall back on easily available printed texts for their research.
Fifty years later, the situation has changed beyond recognition. Now that both Marxism and Namierism have lost their appeal, there is an enhanced preoccupation with the mental processes of the people of the past, a new concern to reconstruct the ways in which they viewed the world, and a greater readiness to take at face value the reasons they gave for their actions. For some historians, such as Natalie Zemon Davis or Carlo Ginzburg, this means exploring the values and unstated assumptions of the inarticulate. For others, such as Ian Maclean or Anthony Grafton, it involves close attention to the intellectual traditions which shaped the thinking of the sophisticated.
This shift from the material to the mental has affected most branches of history in most parts of the world. But a conspicuous beneficiary has been the history of political thought; and a key contribution to its renaissance has been made by the University of Cambridge. This association can be traced back to the end of the nineteenth century, when F.W. Maitland, Cambridge’s professor of law, showed the importance of legal concepts for historical understanding, and when the Regius Professor of History, Lord Acton, devoted years of labor to an ambitious but never completed history of liberty. But the decisive decade was the 1950s, when J.G.A. Pocock, under the supervision of Sir Herbert Butterfield, wrote his study of seventeenth-century thought, The Ancient Constitution and the Feudal Law (1957), and when Peter Laslett’s vigorous proselytizing activities on behalf of the study of political ideas culminated in his great edition of John Locke’s Two Treatises of Government (1960).
In the past two decades, Cambridge University Press has published about seventy monographs in its series Ideas in Context, and over a hundred titles in Cambridge Texts in the History of Political Thought. Along with some important books in the collaborative Cambridge histories of philosophy and political thought, these series have served to disseminate several closely associated notions: that political thought is an important subject, that it needs to be studied historically, and that many of its central issues have been identified by the current holder of Lord Acton’s chair, Quentin Skinner.
For what consolidated the link between Cambridge and the historical study of political thought was Quentin Skinner’s appointment, first, in 1962, to a fellowship at Christ’s College, then, in 1978, to the professorship of political science, and finally, in 1996, to the Regius Professorship of History. Skinner has played a major part as an editor of Cambridge University Press’s two important series; and although he has been powerfully abetted by such other scholars as John Dunn and Richard Tuck, it is primarily because of his influence and example that the history of political thought is conspicuous in the Cambridge history syllabus, that numerous members of the Cambridge history faculty practice some form of intellectual history, and that Cambridge University Press has invested so heavily in the subject.
Skinner established his reputation in the late 1960s and early 1970s as an eloquent polemicist who drew upon contemporary linguistic philosophy in order to urge that classic texts should be seen as products of their histor-ical setting rather than treated as timeless repositories of enduring wisdom. The two volumes of his The Foundations of Modern Political Thought (1978) quickly achieved canonical status as a guide to the political thought of late medieval and early modern Europe. His enduring interest in Thomas Hobbes resulted in an impressive study, Reason and Rhetoric in the Philosophy of Hobbes (1996); and his growing preoccupation with the classical-republican, or, as he now calls it, “neo-Roman” tradition was signaled by his succinct study of Machiavelli (1981) and his inaugural lecture in 1997 as Regius professor, Liberty before Liberalism.
Skinner’s long campaign to establish intellectual history as a central pursuit and to insist that it should be practiced in a distinctive way has brought him justifiable celebrity. An unfailingly punctilious and courteous correspondent, he is a familiar visitor to academic centers from Canberra to Helsinki, Paris to Princeton. On the lecture podium, his slim, intense, sharply focused presence, his relentless verbal precision, and his unfailingly elegant delivery make him an academic lecturer of rare quality. Even if the panache of his oral delivery does not always carry over to the printed page, his meticulous reasoning, fastidious documentation, and consistent lucidity give his writing an exceptional rhetorical force.
The three volumes of Visions of Politics provide the opportunity to look back at the development of a major intellectual historian. Or, rather, they would have done so, had the papers they contain, which are drawn from Skinner’s output over the last thirty years, been reprinted in their original form. Unfortunately for those interested in his intellectual evolution, Skinner has taken the opportunity not just to make minor corrections, but to engage in substantial rewriting and even retitling. One of his most attractive features as a historian has always been his readiness to change his mind, sometimes quite substantially, when new evidence or cogent criticism by others makes him feel it necessary to do so. In Visions of Politics, virtually every chapter has been “revised” or “abbreviated and extensively revised” or “much altered and updated.” This has been done with the understandable, but surely misplaced, intention of ensuring that the collection embodies his views in their most up-to-date form. It is ironic that someone who has argued effectively against attempts to find coherence in the doctrines of the classic philosophers should take so much trouble to impose coherence on his own.
The result is that those who wish to appreciate the full force of Skinner’s intellectual impact will have to return to the originals, while anyone who wants to cite one of his earlier publications must read it all over again in its new guise. At the same time, readers have to be on their guard, for the work of revision has not been consistent or complete; on several occasions in these volumes Skinner puts forward a view, only to remark disconcertingly in a footnote that it is one he no longer holds. Moreover, since these papers involve successive attempts at answering the same question, there are repetitions, or inconsistencies, as when the same passage from a medieval text is quoted twice but translated differently on each occasion. Frequently one feels that it might have been more helpful if Skinner had provided a single coherent, up-to-date statement of his position, rather than a series of overlapping approximations to it.
Nevertheless, this is a deeply impressive collection which displays Skinner’s exceptional range. What other historian has either the competence or the confidence to cross swords with philosophers of the stature of Donald Davidson, Richard Rorty, and Charles Taylor? In his admiring study of Skinner’s work, the Finnish scholar Kari Palonen calls him a “decathlete of the human sciences.”
Much of the first volume, Regarding Method, consists of revised versions of articles that have already been reprinted in a volume edited by James Tully.1 Skinner’s robust “Reply to my critics” on that occasion has now been sliced up to make two separate chapters. To them is added a pungently sardonic dissection of the naively empirical philosophy espoused by Skinner’s recent predecessor in the Regius chair, the historian of Tudor England G.R. Elton. Devastating though this analysis of Elton’s cult of hard facts undoubtedly is, one suspects that Elton’s real offense in Skinner’s eyes is to have declared that intellectual history was not “real” history, because it tends to “lose contact with reality.” Misgivings about the seemliness of this posthumous assassination are dispelled by the reflection that no one took more pleasure in dancing on the graves of his predecessors than Geoffrey Elton himself.
More generally, Skinner reiterates his now-familiar doctrine about the way in which historical texts should be studied. He stresses the importance of situating them in their intellectual and linguistic context, in order to establish the purpose their authors had in mind when advancing their arguments. Not until the work has been related to all the others which preceded it is it possible to grasp the full nuances of its meaning. As Dr. Samuel Johnson remarked long ago,
The Reason why the authours which are yet read of the sixteenth Century are so little understood is that they are read alone, and no help is borrowed from those who lived with them or before them.2
In a beguiling example of how to identify in a text what the philosopher J.L. Austin called its “illocutionary force,” Skinner cites the novelist E.M. Forster’s signing off of A Passage to India with the words “Weybridge, 1924.” We would never appreciate the deflationary significance of this invocation of a deeply unexotic Surrey suburb if we did not know that it came two years after James Joyce had concluded Ulysses with the postscript “Trieste-Zürich-Paris, 1914–1921.”
Skinner offers some excellent advice on the need to take past beliefs seriously; however bizarre they may seem to us, it is important to identify the intellectual context which made them seem rational at the time. Above all, one must recover the agent’s point of view. When one does that, one discovers that “the classic texts are concerned with their own questions and not with ours.” Attempts to apply them to the issues of today are, in Skinner’s view, profoundly anachronistic.
Skinner’s preoccupation with the linguistic context of political writings is reminiscent of the idea of “political languages” employed by the other leading figure in this field, J.G.A. Pocock, to whose much less lucid writings he pays respectful tribute, though warily declining to engage with them very directly. Pocock, however, tends to treat political argument and discourse as if they had an autonomous existence, independent of the context in which they were employed, whereas Skinner regards works of political theory as deliberate interventions into politics; their authors were political actors, whose words, as Wittgenstein put it, were also deeds. Skinner’s subject is not the history of concepts, but the uses to which they were put.
Skinner’s methodological exhortations, I suspect, have not had much effect on professional philosophers, who continue to stimulate their own thinking by picking out bits and pieces from classic texts, regardless of context, in the way they have always done. But Skinner long ago conceded that major works of moral and political philosophy may be used for many purposes, “some of which may carry us far beyond the works themselves and the intellectual milieu within which they were conceived.” He is, however, emphatic that if historians want to understand what these authors were saying and doing, then they must follow his rules for taking account of contemporary language and social influences in discussing ideas. His achievement is that most historians of political thought now do so.
The second volume, Renaissance Virtues, concentrates on the fortunes of republicanism as a theory of freedom and government between the thirteenth and sixteenth centuries. The topic is further developed in the two volumes of Republicanism: A Shared European Heritage, a collection of essays sponsored by the European Science Foundation and devoted to republican thought in different European countries between the mid-sixteenth and late eighteenth centuries. Here Skinner enters heavily populated territory. Ever since the German scholar Hans Baron (later a refugee in the US) coined the expression Bürgerhumanismus (“civic humanism”) to characterize the classically derived philosophy of active political engagement which he believed to have made its appearance in Florence at the beginning of the fifteenth century, “classical republicanism” has been an increasingly popular theme. Once confined to historians of the Italian Renaissance, interest in the subject became obsessional when it seemed that ideas generated in fifteenth-century Florence could be linked to the subsequent revolutions in seventeenth-century England and eighteenth-century America.
In the 1960s, the American historians Bernard Bailyn and Gordon Wood showed how the colonial rebels of 1776 invoked “the public good,” denounced “corruption,” lauded a “virtuous” citizenry, and claimed that dependence on the will of George III and his Parliament was “slavery.” All these were recognizably “republican” slogans, deriving from eighteenth-century Britain, but with a classical ancestry. Their lineage was established by J.G.A. Pocock in his The Machiavellian Moment (1975), a work whose title was suggested by Quentin Skinner. Pocock argued that the classical republicanism of Machiavelli, with its stress on balanced government, civic virtù, and an arms-bearing citizenry, was transmitted to Civil War England, where the philosopher James Harrington in his Oceana (1656) developed a distinctively “neo-classical conception of politics.” In the ensuing century, “neo-Harringtonian civic humanism” would be employed by opposition politicians to attack standing armies, government patronage, and public credit; and in due course its terminology was appropriated by the American colonists.
Although Joyce Appleby and others have shown that its contribution to the creation of the United States has been vastly exaggerated, classical republicanism has been the subject of a torrent of writing, which as yet shows no sign of abating. Part of the reason is that “republicanism” has been revived as a modern ideology. Disillusion with classical liberalism, because it has led to unrestrained capitalism, and with Marxism, because it has resulted in political tyranny, has created a vogue for a “republican” philosophy, with a commitment to effective legal restraints upon the executive, an active ideal of participatory citizenship, and a belief that the collective good should take priority over private interest. Thus defined, “republicanism” appears to be an attractive, nonsocialist alternative to capitalism and globalization.3
Since the early 1980s Skinner has been increasingly involved in this debate; and many of the volumes in the Ideas in Context series are related in one way or another to classical republicanism and its history. The early part of Renaissance Virtues develops an argument originally set out in his The Foundations of Modern Political Thought. Drawing on the work of other historians, he maintains that the republican ideas expressed by Leonardo Bruni in fifteenth-century Florence were the product of a long, incremental process stretching back to the foundation, centuries earlier, of the city-republics of northern and central Italy. The rediscovery of Aristotle’s Politics in the mid-thirteenth century merely confirmed patterns of republican thought which were already entrenched. In two virtuoso essays, Skinner examines the political ideas expressed in the frescoes of Ambrogio Lorenzetti in the Palazzo Pubblico in Siena (1337–1339), finding in them a distinctive view of citizenship and republican government which owed nothing to Aristotle but would broaden out into the civic humanism of the Renaissance.
In later chapters of Renaissance Virtues, Skinner considers the fate of these republican traditions when civic self-government gave way in many Italian city-states to the rule of princely tyrants, the signori. He discusses the views of Machiavelli, who insists that citizens cannot retain their liberty unless the government remains in their collective control. For him, the conditions of freedom include a citizen army, curbs on the wealth and ambition of the great, and the outlawing of otherworldly religions which discourage active citizenship. Skinner also draws attention to Thomas More, who in his Utopia (1516) endorsed the republican ideal of frugality, by showing the inadequacy of Thomas Aquinas’s view that wealth was necessary for the virtuous life. Thomas More also invoked Ciceronian arguments to justify active involvement in public affairs (negotium) as a more fulfilling option than that of scholarly withdrawal (otium).
In recent years, Skinner has taken to describing the values transmitted to the early modern world by the republics of late medieval Italy as “neo-Roman,” rather than “republican.” He does so because some of their adherents did not oppose monarchy as such, provided the king ruled in a constitutional way. He is particularly concerned to expound what he calls the “neo-Roman” idea of liberty. He traces this notion to Roman law, which defined a slave as someone who was dependent upon the will of another. It followed that a state which was dependent on the will of an external power was in a condition of servitude. So were citizens whose ruler had the discretionary power to abridge their liberty, even if the ruler did not exercise that power. Skinner argues that Roman authors such as Cicero, Sallust, and Livy underpinned this notion of liberty as freedom from domination by stressing the importance of self-government, civic participation, and the pursuit of the common good.
The term “neo-Roman” presents some difficulties, since, as Skinner himself concedes, authors like Cicero were heavily indebted to the Greeks for many of their ideas. Something very close to the “neo-Roman” idea of liberty was expressed as early as 472 BC by the Greek tragedian Aeschylus, whose play The Persians portrayed the Greeks as resisting the Persian invasion in the name of freedom from domination by a foreign power (especially lines 401–405). It was not from the Romans but from the Athenians that Thomas Hobbes believed some of his contemporaries had derived their conviction that “all that lived under Monarchy were slaves.” Hobbes drew no distinction between “the Greek and Latine writers, in their books, and discourses of policy”; and some modern scholars are equally resistant to the suggestion that Roman republicanism differed from Greek in any important respect.4
One of Skinner’s pupils, Eric Nelson, however, has recently attempted to shore up his mentor’s concept of a specifically neo-Roman tradition by distinguishing it from its Greek counterpart in several respects, notably its more positive attitude to private property and its greater emphasis on the merits of political participation, as opposed to private contemplation.5 Yet though it is true that Aristotle regarded contemplation as the highest form of activity for those rare spirits capable of it, it is also the case that in practice he regarded political activity as an essential ingredient of the good life.
Skinner’s most striking claim for his neo-Roman theory is that it played a central part in the parliamentary opposition to Charles I at the outbreak of the English Civil War. The influence of classical republicanism upon the events of the 1640s had already been suggested by his Cambridge colleague Richard Tuck,6 but Skinner argues that “far more than has generally been recognised, the outbreak of the English revolution was legitimised in neo-Roman terms.” He states this case in a new essay printed in Renaissance Virtues and in his contribution to Republicanism: A Shared European Heritage. He has developed it further in his Isaiah Berlin lecture of 20017 and his Ford Lectures, given at Oxford in 2003.
Picking up a passing remark by Hobbes, Skinner argues that the members of the Long Parliament, which began in 1640, included sundry “Democratical Gentlemen” whose reliance on classical doctrines led them into a position that was “virtually republican.” Adopting the Roman assumption that anyone dependent upon the will of another was in a condition of servitude, they argued that Charles I’s subjects could not be free unless their lives, liberty, and property were protected from the arbitrary exercise of the royal prerogative. They also invoked the safety of the people (salus populi) as justification for denying the King’s right to exercise his veto over the bill which in the spring of 1642 gave Parliament control over the militia. “From the Parliamentary perspective,” claims Skinner, “the civil war began as a war of national liberation from servitude.”
This is very different from the conventional view, which is that the Parliamentarians typically justified themselves by appealing to the ancient English constitution and denouncing the dangers of popery. One must therefore ask how widely held was the “neo-Roman” opinion that dependence on the will of the monarch made the English people slaves. As Skinner admits, the use in 1642 of such everyday terms as “liberty” and “slavery” did not in itself indicate any acquaintance with classical political thought. His case for neo-Roman influence rests heavily on some pamphlets published in the summer and autumn of 1642, particularly Henry Parker’s Observations upon Some of His Majesties Late Answers and Expresses, with its appeal to the practice of “the Venetians, and such other free Nations.”
Yet, as J.W. Allen pointed out many years ago, relatively few of the apologists for Parliament shared Parker’s position.8 Only a minority claimed sovereignty for the Houses of Parliament against the King. Many protested that they had no desire to change the form of government. Even Parker himself combined his classically derived arguments with a more conventional appeal to Magna Carta and the ancient constitution; and although Hobbes blamed the influence of Greece and Rome, he also regarded the Presbyterian preachers as equally responsible for the Civil War. Skinner ignores the volume of Puritan sentiment and anti-Catholic propaganda which made waverers object to Charles I, not because the King possessed the royal prerogative, but because they felt he could not be trusted.
Moreover, the parliamentary leaders did not oppose the royal veto as such, but only its exercise in exceptional circumstances. In their Remonstrance, drawn up on May 26, 1642, but not published until November 1, they made a point of emphasizing that they fully accepted that the King’s assent was normally essential if a bill was to become law—“so farre are we from taking away his negative Voyce.” Only when it was “necessary for the preservation of the safetie and peace of the kingdome; and for the security of our Religion and Liberties” could Lords and Commons legislate without the monarch’s agreement. They added that, for many years previously, the King’s subjects had lived in a condition of freedom and security.9 This is hardly the language of those who thought that any form of dependence on the monarch’s will turned his subjects into slaves.
Of course, as the Civil War went on, more radical opinions emerged. Yet even after Charles I’s defeat and execution, it is not clear that republican sentiments were widely held. The British historian Blair Worden, whose admirably lucid and commonsensical chapter stands out among the rather uneven essays in Republicanism: A Shared European Heritage, criticizes the overreadiness of some recent scholars to detect proto-republicanism in early-seventeenth-century England. He also emphasizes that the abolition of the monarchy in 1649 was not a motive for the King’s execution, but the consequence of it. It was the absence of a suitable candidate to replace Charles I that led to a republic, not a theoretical commitment to republicanism as such. “Among most of the politicians responsible for the revolution of 1649, political theory was a low priority.” Only after the new commonwealth had been established did the language of civic republicanism begin to creep in.
It seems, therefore, that Skinner has helpfully identified one ingredient in the tangled mélange of arguments put forward by parliamentary supporters at the outbreak of the Civil War, but that the relative significance of his discovery can only be understood if it is put into a broader perspective. What is now needed is a new synthesis which will relate the “neo-Roman” element to the many other varieties of political argument in circulation at this time of exceptional mental ferment.
Even when that has been done, we should not mistake an account of the way in which the war was legitimized for an explanation of why it occurred. Skinner is right to insist that available methods of conferring legitimacy can constrain the behavior of political actors, but at times he gives the impression of believing that, once the arguments employed by the participants have been analyzed, the historian’s task is over. He does not concern himself with the social, economic, fiscal, administrative, religious, and personal contributions to the crisis between 1640 and 1642. Instead, he sees the Parliamentarians as highly cerebral theorists, deeply versed in sophisticated political reasoning, mounting “cases,” advancing “claims,” making “moves” (frequently “crucial” moves), following “strategies,” and developing “lines of attack” in a sort of intellectual chess game. Perhaps this is why G.R. Elton feared that intellectual history was “liable to lose contact with reality.”
Skinner’s interest in the “neo-Roman” theory of liberty extends beyond its possible contribution to the understanding of seventeenth-century history. He believes that in the later eighteenth century it was driven out by a rights-based liberalism that encouraged the pursuit of individual self-interest; he wants it to be welcomed back because it has something to offer modern-day political theorists. In particular, he maintains that, in an important way, it modifies Isaiah Berlin’s distinction, in his famous lecture, Two Concepts of Liberty (1958), between “positive” liberty, meaning our freedom to achieve some prescribed form of human fulfillment, and “negative” liberty, meaning absence of impediment to do whatever we want to do.
Neo-Roman theory, Skinner says, favored negative liberty, in that its object was to enable individuals to conduct their lives in whatever way they thought best. Machiavelli, for example, appealed to individual self-interest; the common good was to be pursued, not because doing so would enable the citizens to attain some ideal form of fulfillment, but because that was the best way of helping them to achieve their own private ends, whatever they might be. But unlike Isaiah Berlin, the “neo-Romans” Skinner portrays did not regard actual freedom from interference as a sufficient condition of their liberty. It was also important that the continuance of that freedom did not depend upon the discretion of another, however apparently benevolent. Citizens had to govern themselves; and civic freedom depended on the active exercise of civic virtue. This, Skinner asserts, amounts to a third concept of liberty.
Here he echoes the claim made by the Australian political theorist Philip Pettit in his book Republicanism (1997), which appeared six months before Skinner’s inaugural lecture. Pettit conceded, however, that “but for Skinner’s work I would never have thought to look to the republican tradition for the third conception of liberty.”
Skinner’s claims for this third concept of liberty have inevitably aroused criticism. Some urge that his is a distinction without a difference and that the idea of nondomination is already contained within Berlin’s definition of negative liberty.10 Others deny that the liberty favored by the neo-Roman tradition was negative; on the contrary, they say, the Romans shared with Aristotle the belief in eudaimonia, a concept of human flourishing to which all should aspire.11 The debate over Berlin’s two concepts of liberty has absorbed political theorists for the best part of the last fifty years. Skinner’s intervention has not dethroned Berlin, but he has given the argument a new lease of life.
Meanwhile, connoisseurs of Skinner’s oeuvre will have noted that he now appears to regard the political thought of the past as relevant to present-day problems, a notion which he would once have sternly repudiated. In Visions of Politics, he claims that his work presents something of more than historical interest and is intended as “a contribution to the understanding of our present social world.” In his inaugural lecture of 1997, he described the intellectual historian as a kind of archaeologist, “bringing buried intellectual treasure back to the surface, dusting it down and enabling us to reconsider what we think of it.” The “neo-Roman” theory of free states and free citizens, he implies, has something to offer the modern world, particularly those of its inhabitants who are still in the grip of Berlin’s concept of negative liberty, a notion that was put forward in the cold war era, by way of reaction to Soviet totalitarianism.
Yet if there is any one doctrine for which Skinner is famous, it is the inappropriateness of attempts to apply the solutions offered by past theorists to modern problems which they were not designed to answer. It is therefore remarkable to see how ready he is to introduce the “neo-Roman” conception of liberty into contemporary Britain. In 2002 he protested against the view that
in times of emergency, civil liberties must bow to national security. We are being urged…to acknowledge that our liberties are held not as rights but by grace of our rulers, and that it is for them to tell us what counts as an emergency. These arguments are of course being put to us in the name of freedom and democracy. But it is worth recalling that, according to the American Founding Fathers, and to the democratical gentlemen by whom they were so greatly influenced, this is to speak the language of tyranny.12
Subsequently, he has written that the British people
now find themselves living more and more under asymmetric relations of power and powerlessness. The triumph of free markets, with the concomitant collapse of trade union movements, has left successive governments subject to blackmail by multinational corporations while leaving the work-force increasingly dependent on the arbitrary power of employers. Meanwhile the British people still lack a written constitution, and accordingly remain bereft of any liberties that their Executive cannot decide to take away.
Like Jean-Jacques Rousseau before him, Skinner declares that the British people are free only during general elections, when they can change their rulers. For the rest of the time, they are subject to
an unregulated system of Executive power, with the body of the people and their representatives alike condemned to a state of corresponding dependence. With the passing of the latest Anti-Terrorism Act, even the fundamental right of habeas corpus has been jeopardised. There is now a power of detention, without charge or trial, on mere suspicion of having committed an offence.13
The recent judgment by the British Law Lords that the UK government’s detention of suspected foreign terrorists without trial is a breach of European human rights legislation dramatically corroborates Skinner’s view that the very existence of such discretionary powers undermines freedom. Yet we may sympathize with his analysis of the plight of citizens who live under the rule of an elected but largely unfettered executive without feeling the need to adopt “neo-Roman” ideas more generally. It is easy to appeal to “the common good,” but what can that mean in a society whose members have many different values and pursue many different goals? The republicanism of late medieval Italy was the ideology of an exclusively male, property-based oligarchy, ruling a small, culturally homogeneous state, and committed to external aggression against unoffending neighbors. It is hard to believe that it can offer inspiration to the huge, democratic, gender-neutral, culturally diverse, and, allegedly, peace-loving states of the twenty-first century. Moreover, the “neo-Roman” theory shows no interest in the nonpolitical forms of dependence that still condemn the poor of many countries to a lifetime without freedom.
Although Skinner’s discussion of the “neo-Roman” ideology is foremost among his current preoccupations, his collected papers remind us of the remarkable range of other topics which he has illuminated over the past four decades. He is particularly enlightening on classical rhetoric and on the technique known as paradiastole, whereby virtues can be made by re-naming to appear vicious and bad habits put in a favorable light. Thus Machiavelli condemned clemency as weakness, while the Puritan clergy were infuriated to find that their flocks condoned drunkenness as “good fellowship.” Above all, Skinner is nonpareil as a commentator on the political philosophy of Thomas Hobbes, or at least he was until Noel Malcolm’s recent emergence as a Hobbes scholar of exquisite talent.
Skinner’s volume on Hobbes and Civil Science is devoted to a thinker for whom classical republicanism was anathema. It contains a meticulous summary of Hobbes’s biography, along with studies of Hobbes’s humanistic education and his attitude toward rhetoric. A superb piece on the classical theory of laughter is followed by acute analyses of Hobbes’s theory of liberty and of the political and intellectual context of his masterpiece, Leviathan. The chapters on Hobbes’s disciples in France and England and on his exclusion from the Royal Society have now been overtaken by Malcolm’s work.14 But Hobbes and Civil Science stands as a reminder that no one has done more than Quentin Skinner to define the intellectual importance of England’s greatest political philosopher.
Modern scholarship is a highly competitive activity and the intellectual dominance of any writer never goes unchallenged for long. Skinner is somewhat embattled these days, as the learned journals fill up with articles by young scholars seeking to break a lance with the master. He can allow himself the wry reflection that most of his critics might not be there at all had he not worked so hard to revivify a dormant subject and turn it into one of all-consuming intellectual interest.
May 26, 2005
Meaning and Context: Quentin Skinner and His Critics (Polity, 1988). ↩
Letter to Thomas Warton, July 16, 1754, in The Letters of Samuel Johnson, edited by Bruce Redford (Princeton University Press, 1992–1994), Vol. 1, p. 81. Johnson had in mind the difficulties presented by sixteenth-century vocabulary. ↩
See the editor’s stimulating introduction to Renaissance Civic Humanism: Reappraisals and Reflections, edited by James Hankins (Cambridge University Press, 2000). Steve Pincus comments on the neoconservative character of some “republican” thought in his article “Neither Machiavellian Moment nor Possessive Individualism: Commercial Society and the Defenders of the English Commonwealth,” American Historical Review, Vol. 103, No. 3 (June 1998), pp. 710–711. ↩
Notably Paul Rahe, Republics Ancient and Modern: Classical Republicanism and the American Revolution (University of North Carolina Press, 1992), and “Situating Machiavelli,” in Renaissance Civic Humanism; and Jonathan Scott, Commonwealth Principles: Republican Writing of the English Revolution (Cambridge University Press, 2004), Chapter 1. ↩
Eric Nelson, The Greek Tradition in Republican Thought (Cambridge University Press, 2004). ↩
In his Philosophy and Government 1572–1651 (Cambridge University Press, 1993), Chapter 6. ↩
“A Third Concept of Liberty,” Proceedings of the British Academy, Vol. 117 (2001). ↩
J.W. Allen, English Political Thought 1603–1660, Vol. 1 (London: Methuen, 1938), p. 424. ↩
“A Remonstrance of the Lords and Commons assembled in Parliament,” in An Exact Collection of all Remonstrances, Declarations, Votes, Orders, Ordinances, Proclamations, Petitions, Messages, Answers, and Other Remarkable Passages betweene the Kings Most Excellent Majesty and His High Court of Parliament (1643), pp. 727–728. ↩
See Matthew H. Kramer, The Quality of Freedom (Oxford University Press, 2003), Chapter 2. ↩
See Rahe, “Situating Machiavelli.” ↩
“A Third Concept of Liberty.” London Review of Books, April 4, 2002, p. 18. ↩
Quentin Skinner, “States and the Freedom of Citizens,” in States and Citizens: History, Theory, Prospects, edited by Quentin Skinner and Bo Stråth (Cambridge University Press, 2003), p. 25. ↩
Thomas Hobbes: The Correspondence, edited by Noel Malcolm (Clarendon Press/Oxford University Press, 1994), two volumes; Noel Malcolm, Aspects of Hobbes (Clarendon Press/Oxford University Press, 2002). ↩