Few areas of the humanities have undergone such a remarkable transformation over the past half-century as the history of political thought. Students were once introduced to it by way of its giants – the likes of Aristotle, Machiavelli, Hobbes, Locke, Rousseau and Marx. Rather than a living discussion among contemporaries, between great thinkers and lesser fry, political thought was reckoned to be a more elevated – if stilted – affair, of giant responding unto giant, sometimes across centuries of silence. Its history belonged not to historians but to philosophers; and political scientists, broadly speaking, concurred. They too studied political thought by way of its canonical figures, for the light their ideas shed on perennial problems in government.
Unconvinced that the concerns of political philosophy were timeless and universal, a group of scholars, who have come to be known as the Cambridge School, inaugurated a contextualist revolution. The school’s founding father, Peter Laslett, pointed out the errors and anachronisms of political philosophers who paid no attention to the genesis of the texts they studied. Although Locke’s Two Treatises of Government wasn’t published until after the Glorious Revolution of 1688, Laslett’s edition of 1960 showed that it had been composed during the Exclusion crisis of the early 1680s and was framed in response to that immediate context, in particular the posthumous publication of Robert Filmer’s patriarchalist theory of government. Since then, authorial intent and context have been the central preoccupations of the Cambridge School and its leading proponent, Quentin Skinner, whose recent retirement from the Regius chair at Cambridge signals just how far from the margins of history the history of political thought has travelled since the middle of the 20th century.
John Pocock is often associated with the Cambridge School, with good reason. He took his doctorate at Cambridge, where he came into contact with Laslett, and has played a leading role, alongside Skinner, in the contextualist revolution. Yet his formative experience occurred outside the emerging Cambridge School – indeed, beyond the bounds of political thought proper. Under the influence of his postgraduate supervisor, Herbert Butterfield, Pocock’s first book, The Ancient Constitution and the Feudal Law (1957), drove a bypass round Locke. It concentrated instead on a set of debates among such obscure antiquaries as William Petyt, James Tyrrell, William Atwood and Robert Brady. Late 17th-century Englishmen, it transpired, were less concerned with a hypothesised original contract between monarch and people than with the question of whether the historic free constitution of the Anglo-Saxons had survived the Norman Conquest and feudalism. Did the ancient constitution persist into the present, as Whig antiquaries contended, or was there a feudal discontinuity in the course of English history, as argued by royalists and Tories? The debate that had most purchase on contemporaries, it appeared, was conducted among late 17th-century historians, not among political philosophers.
Here we come to one of the principal differences between Pocock and the Cambridge School. Who now cares about late 17th-century interpretations of the Norman Conquest? Certainly, remote squabbles of this sort are of scant interest to most philosophers and political scientists or to the public at large. In his inaugural lecture in 1997, Skinner confessed to a legitimate worry that history which did not inform present-day concerns amounts to little more than self-indulgent antiquarianism, but presented his practice as socially useful for its ‘excavation’ of the hidden or misunderstood concepts that underpinned the modern state. Pocock, on the other hand, feels no embarrassment about the sorts of inquiry that hard-nosed political scientists might deride as a kind of intellectual morris dancing: clerical erudition, sacred history, ecclesiology, patristics, Christology and the esoteric stuff of antiquarianism, whether classical, medieval or even Orientalist – all are germane to his expansive definition of the history of past political argument. Moreover, the lines between the history of political thought and other kinds of intellectual history, historiography especially, begin to blur. Pocock insists that political thought is as often to be found in historical narrative as in philosophical argument, and sometimes – not least in colonial settings – at the confluence of history, anthropology and jurisprudence.
There are other significant divergences from the Cambridge School, stylistic and substantive. Whereas Skinner is justly praised for the way his elegant, crystalline prose brings clarity and order to material of immense difficulty and complexity, Pocock’s style is oracular. Whether on the page, at the lectern or – astounding when one hears him – in ad-libbed seminar discussion, Pocock communicates in lapidary paragraphs dense with aphorism and wit, literary and philosophical allusion, and copious historical learning drawn from all periods and continents. If he makes enormous demands of his audience, the effort is worthwhile, for he brings talents and perspectives to the discipline which nobody else possesses. In particular, he puts a geographical sensitivity to place – to territories, boundaries, oceans, empires – back into the history of political thought, whose preoccupation with the language of politics tends to conceal the spatial and topographic realities of government. More than thirty years ago, Pocock reminded anglocentric historians that British history encompassed the interactions of the various political communities to be found in our North Atlantic ‘archipelago’. Long before revisionist historians of the English Civil War decided that their subject should really be known as the British Wars of Religion or the Wars of the Three Kingdoms, Pocock had begun to explore the archipelagic dimensions of Stuart history.
However, geography is not a straightforward determinant of history. Sometimes the geographical underpinnings of grand narratives are as much a human construct as the narratives themselves. This is one of the dominant themes of Pocock’s collection of essays The Discovery of Islands, whose autobiographical passages reveal the source of his fascination with geography. Though born in London in 1924, Pocock comes of ‘settler descent in the fourth generation’. (His great-grandfather had gone to the Cape Colony in South Africa in 1842.) The young John Pocock moved in 1927 to New Zealand, where his father, Lewis, who had taken a degree in classics after his wartime service, became a professor at Canterbury University College. Pocock’s mother, Antoinette Le Gros, was born in the Channel Islands, the daughter of a French-speaking Methodist minister. Although Pocock has spent most of his career in the United States, the condition of New Zealand has had a profound influence on his historical imagination.
As his essays show, he retains a keen sense of his identity as a pakeha, the Maori term for a European settler. The Maori, notwithstanding their own oceanic voyages to the Antipodes, think of themselves as the tangata whenua, the people of the land. New Zealand was created as a unitary state by the Treaty of Waitangi of 1840, an event that is understood in quite different ways by the pakeha, with their European traditions of sovereignty and jurisprudence, and the tangata whenua, who have their own – far from rudimentary – language of community and possession. As in late 17th-century England, there is a contest for authority between two alternative histories, which are ‘not simply alternative accounts of the same events, but alternative cultural codes which give conflicting accounts of what authority is’. What the Maoris ceded to the crown in the Treaty of Waitangi was a kind of high kingship or kawanatanga – in the Maori text – or sovereignty in the English version. But Maori and pakeha did not conceive the relationship of sovereignty to property in the same way. The Maori of 1840 thought that the treaty’s guarantees of chieftainship, or rangatiratanga, preserved Maori possession of land according to their old tribal ways. The ‘ancient constitution’ of 1840 remains a tragic site of disputation and mutual incomprehension.
But the white pakeha too have been dealt a treacherous hand: ‘A New Zealander has some reason to know what it may be like to belong to a people which thought it had a history and is now instructed by others that it has none.’ In 1973, the United Kingdom acceded to the European Common Market, and – without much of a thank you for support in two world wars and much else besides – abandoned its loyal commonwealth to an uncertain, un-British future. Pocock’s archipelagic interpretation of British history sprang from a perverse desire to instruct ‘the British peoples that they inhabited a history more complex than they could readily terminate’. While British historians largely read Pocock’s plea for ‘the new British history’ as an assault on complacent Little Englanders in the profession, his real target was the smooth cosmopolitan presentation of British history as an integral part of the European past. British history was a set of stories about an archipelago, not about ‘the promontory of a continent’. Pocock is that rarity, the liberal Eurosceptic intellectual. His scepticism is not confined, however, to visions of European integration and the claims of the EU. He has doubts about Europe even as a geographical term. Europe, he insists, is no more than a ‘sub-continent’; but whereas the Indian sub-continent has at least a ‘clearly marked geophysical frontier’ in Afghanistan and the Himalayas, there are ‘vast level areas’ in central Eurasia where ‘conventional “Europe” shades into conventional “Asia”, and few would recognise the Ural mountains if they ever reached them.’
Pocock’s conception of Europe as an open-ended ‘peninsula of the Eurasian land-mass’ is one of the keys to appreciating his vast, multi-volume project on Edward Gibbon and his contexts. The subject matter of the sequence, titled Barbarism and Religion, is not simply Gibbon’s masterwork, The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire (1776-88): it expands beyond Gibbon to include the world of possibilities that were open to him, such as the types of narrative to which he was exposed or might have written. Pocock’s main aim is to erase the conventional caricature that Gibbon was ‘a neoclassical rhetorician, reiterating in a stately silver-Latin English the humanist vision of Rome’s history’. Although Gibbon’s book begins in the late second century, his real topic is the triumph of medieval barbarism and religion which followed the decline of Rome. In the first two volumes Pocock located Gibbon in the contexts of the multiple Enlightenments of 18th-century Europe which helped to shape his outlook – the Huguenot Enlightenment, the Scottish Enlightenment and England’s forgotten clerical Enlightenment – but he went on to show how the standard historical narrative of the Enlightenment era traced the rise of commerce and refinement from the age of medieval barbarism and religion. Gibbon’s contemporary originality was to have filled the gap between classical antiquity and the Enlightenment’s own remote origins.
In Volume III Pocock firmly establishes Rome’s corruption and decline as central topics in the history of Western political thought. Tensions between empire and liberty, the inner politics of the imperial household and the vexed and enduring relationship in political thought between the distribution of land and the maintenance of arms, are all grist to his mill. Indeed, he reminds us that commentaries on ancient historians – on Tacitus most frequently, but also Machiavelli’s Discourses on Livy or the neo-Stoic Justus Lipsius on Polybius – constituted an important genre of early modern political thought. The third volume also relates how the concept of ‘decline and fall’ – or something approaching it – emerged out of the long historiography of Rome from the Empire to Gibbon’s present. For much of the medieval period the organising concept of this history was that of the translatio imperii, the transfer of imperial authority to Byzantium and eventually to the Holy Roman Empire: a trope antithetical to ‘decline and fall’. Pocock shows that the older framework shifted subtly from the Renaissance into something more recognisable as ‘decline and fall’. Yet ‘decline and fall’ was itself to be supplanted by ‘the rise of barbarism and religion’ as the overarching theme of Gibbon’s evolving masterwork.
Pocock’s fourth volume, Barbarians, Savages and Empires, brings us back to his hobbyhorse – the ‘indeterminacy’ of Europe on its eastern side. Pocock presents Decline and Fall as a global history of the ‘Old World’, an account of post-classical and medieval ‘Afro-Eurasia’, which linked the ‘Greco-Latin, Arab-Iranian and Chinese cultural regions’. The movements of nomadic pastoralists – barbarians – provided narrative connections between these isolated worlds. Behind Gibbon’s vision of the Old World, Pocock shows, was the French Orientalist Joseph De Guignes’s Histoire générale des Huns, des Turcs, des Mogols et des autres Tartares occidentaux (1756-58). Notwithstanding the prevailing legend that the story of Oriental despotism was one of stasis and torpor, De Guignes demonstrated that the long-term stability of Chinese history was punctuated by occasional spasms of drama – not only nomadic irruptions, which sometimes culminated in palace revolutions, but also Chinese expulsions of unassimilated barbarians. The interaction between nomad and Confucian on the eastern reaches of Eurasia had reverberations that were felt far to the West. The later Roman Empire, according to the Eurasian interpretation of history found in De Guignes and Gibbon, was on the ‘receiving end of a domino effect’ beginning in China, whereby ‘no one people need move far – though some do’ to bring about great race migrations on the Roman frontiers. The study of barbarism provided a means of comprehending the apparently unconnected histories of western and eastern Eurasia within a single system of interpretation.
Pocock provides a lush and eccentric catalogue of the varieties of barbarian and accounts of barbarism known to the 18th century. Non-Greek-speaking Persians form one of the oldest elements of the Western tradition, and Gibbon was indebted to the Persian scholarship of Abraham-Hyacinthe Anquetil-Duperron, who published an edition of the Zoroastrian Zend-Avesta in 1771. Another ancient definition of ‘barbarian’ was derived from the Old Testament. At the margins of sacred history – which told of the Hebraic descendants of Shem – were the gentes, or gentile nations, who were the offspring of Noah’s other two sons, Ham and Japheth. Early modern antiquaries had tried to join up the stray references to the Hamites and Japhethites found in scripture with other accounts of barbarism, including Tacitus’s account of the ancient Germans and the depiction of the womb of nations found in Jordanes’s sixth-century history of the Goths. Many antiquarian treatises of the 17th and early 18th centuries yoked Japhethites, Germans and Goths indiscriminately into a single account of the ethnic origins of Europe.
Not that Gibbon fell for any of that. The 18th century saw the emergence, from the modern theory of natural jurisprudence pioneered by Grotius and Pufendorf, of a naturalistic account of the history of mankind that traced the progress of primitive societies from savagery through herding and pasturage – the barbaric way of life – to settled agriculture and, eventually, to commerce. This stadialist interpretation of history, by way of three or usually four stages of social development, was a means of telling a universal history without resorting to unwarranted speculations about barbarian peoples whose genealogies since the Flood lay beyond the authorised pages of scripture. Nevertheless, as Pocock shows, 18th-century historians did not suddenly abandon the old ways of studying barbarism. In the works of Antoine-Yves Goguet and Thomas Carte, old-time post-Diluvial antiquarianism and modern stadial sociology coexist quite happily. Pocock never forgets that Gibbon – notwithstanding his sophistication, his scepticism and his raillery at the expense of Christianity – had ‘a continuing foothold in an older scholarship’.
In striking contrast to the various types of barbarian found in Western historiography, Pocock argues, the ‘savage’ was a recent coinage, which emerged during the early modern expansion of Europe into the New World. Similarly, the European conquest of the Americas produced a new form of oceanic empire very different in character from the territorial empires of ancient and medieval Eurasia. Pocock uses the Histoire des deux Indes (1770) of the Abbé Raynal and his collaborators to set out the histories of savagery and maritime empire that Gibbon might have written, but didn’t.
It should be clear by now that Pocock’s cosmology of the Gibbonian universe encompasses even its dark matter. He maps in considerable detail not only the histories that influenced Decline and Fall, but also the patterns of historical explanation and narrative that Gibbon dismissed. This compendious approach – however welcome to students of historiography and Shandean connoisseurs of the learned detour – comes at a cost. Only in the next volume will Pocock deal – at last – with religion. For, strictly speaking, although we are now four volumes and almost 1700 pages into Pocock’s project, we have yet to reach the controversial Chapters 15 and 16 on the origins of Christianity in Gibbon’s first volume.