Morality takes a step back in time

Visions of Politics
September 26, 2003

Quentin Skinner is one of the world's foremost historians of political thought. This massive collection brings together 36 of his essays, written over a period of nearly 40 years. The selection in the first volume sets out Skinner's approach to reading and interpreting historical works of political thought. Those in the second and third volumes use this approach to study political thought in early modern Europe.

As a retrospective showcase of the work of a major scholar, this is impressive. Skinner's ability to combine political and philosophical insight with minute knowledge of several centuries of political literature is awe inspiring. It can also be daunting. Anyone who reads all three volumes from cover to cover is in danger of being overwhelmed by the mass of detail and of losing the sense of where the arguments are leading. Despite the unity of subject matter, these densely written essays are perhaps best read separately.

Skinner's methodological starting point is that, in studying any text, we should ask what the author was doing in writing it. His assumption is that works of political theory are written as contributions to political debates. Thus, to understand a text, we need to know the arguments that were going on when it was written. This requires us to study the literature of a historical period as a whole. We cannot select a canon of great books and ignore the rest.

Philosophically, Skinner opposes a position advocated by Martin Hollis, which arguably derives from the work of Donald Davidson. This is that, as a matter of conceptual necessity, we cannot understand the beliefs of people from another period or culture unless we presuppose they share our core concepts of rationality. Skinner sees this approach as "fatal to good historical practice". In trying to understand the beliefs held in another period, it is anachronistic to use current standards of rationality.

Rather, we should try to reconstruct whatever processes of reasoning were treated as valid in that society.

Skinner's opponents also include critical theorists who maintain that our response to a text should be independent of our beliefs about the author's intentions. Skinner accepts the meaning of a text is independent of an author's motives for writing it since these are connected to the text only contingently. But he insists that an author's intentions are an essential part of the text's meaning, and that intentions can be recovered by historical inquiry.

However, Skinner seems to perceive his principal opponents to be political theorists who treat their discipline as a timeless debate to which the great writers of all periods contribute on equal terms. We can set, say, John Locke's doctrine of liberty against John Stuart Mill's, or Aristotle's concept of virtue against John Rawls'; we can treat each writer as our contemporary, stating propositions that we can accept or reject.

Skinner rejects this. His fundamental objection is that all "serious utterances" are intended as acts of communication, and that to understand any proposition, we need to see it "not simply as a proposition but as a move in an argument". One might question whether these claims are the self-evident truths that Skinner takes them to be. Think of a solitary mathematician or natural scientist who devotes his life to proving a theorem or (like Gregor Mendel and his peas) to investigating a feature of the natural world. Their notes may not be addressed to anyone in particular: they may simply be records of propositions that have been found to be true, and whose truth is independent of time. Skinner makes a strong case for the value of studying the great texts of political theory - and those of natural science - as contributions to historically placed debates.

But he fails to show that the alternative perspective, in which those texts are read as statements of timeless propositions, is conceptually flawed.

In his studies of early modern political thought, Skinner focuses on the debate between the advocates of two alternative models of government. The "republican" or "civic humanist" model drew inspiration from ancient Rome; it was exemplified in some of the city states of Italy up to the 16th century, and inspired some of the supporters of the Commonwealth in 17th-century Britain. Republicanism was articulated in opposition to the model of absolute monarchy, which came to be adopted by most major European states in this period. Skinner takes Niccolo Machiavelli and Thomas Hobbes to be the most significant theorists of these positions.

Skinner is particularly concerned with understanding the republican conception of politics. He sees this as a tradition of western thought that has been neglected by modern political theorists of liberalism. Applying Skinner's methodology to his own texts, my sense is that part of the argumentative intention behind them is a desire to recover some aspects of republicanism as a viable "vision of politics" for the present day.

At the heart of republicanism, as reconstructed by Skinner, is a conception of liberty. This - for individuals and political societies - is a state of self-governance, of independence of the will of others. For a political society to be free, it must be self-governing; it must be secure against the external threat of attack from other societies; and it must be secure against the internal threat of its political system being taken over by powerful individuals. For an individual to be free, he must be as free as possible from interference in acting according to his own will and judgement in the pursuit of his own ends.

The republican understanding of individual freedom is similar to modern conceptions of negative liberty. However, republicanism insists that individual freedom is secure only in a political society that is also free.

This is not a conceptual claim about the meaning of "true" freedom: it is a contingent claim about the way the political world works, about the kinds of societies that can deliver individual freedom. For a free society to be stable, its citizens must be vigilant against the internal and external forces that threaten it, and so must be active participants in politics and in military service. The virtues that induce civic engagement are not spontaneous products of human nature; they are constantly endangered by individual ambition and laziness. To counter these dangers, the community may have to exercise control of education and religion, and to prevent individuals from accumulating excessive wealth. On Skinner's account, however, republican political theory does not invoke any conception of the good other than a commitment to the value of liberty. It does not postulate a collective good distinct from individuals' interests, as they perceive them. The more chilling features of republicanism are to be understood as issuing from a clear-sighted recognition of the price of self-government.

Hobbes' rival vision is based on a similarly harsh sense of political realism. For Hobbes, the fundamental value is peace rather than liberty; the price of peace is the subjection of individual autonomy to the will of an absolute sovereign. Hobbes collapses the distinction between free citizen and subject, by construing the absolute sovereign as the representative of the people. Skinner seems drawn to Hobbes' ruthless logic.

Skinner presents Hobbes as the first proponent of the modern concept of the state. In his reconstruction of Hobbes' theory, "the people" does not exist as a single entity until someone is authorised to speak and act on its behalf. The covenant that takes individuals out of the state of nature simultaneously creates a collective entity to be represented and authorises an agent to represent it; there could not be the first without the second.

The collective entity is "the state" and its authorised representative the sovereign. One implication of this theory is that it is a contradiction in terms to suppose that the sovereign can be called to account by the people collectively.

For Skinner, one of the benefits of studying the history of ideas is that it can allow us to escape from the constraints of our contemporary imagination, showing us a variety of moral assumptions that have proved viable in different societies. These essays allow us to see the force of the political ideas of a period in which politics was played for the highest stakes. Having immersed oneself in these ideas, it is easy to see modern theories of well-ordered liberal societies as colourless and complacent. But I hope Skinner's readers will think long and hard before trying to revive republicanism.

Robert Sugden is professor of economics, University of East Anglia.

Visions of Politics: Regarding Method (vol 1); Renaissance Virtues (vol 2); Hobbes and Civil Science (vol 3)

Author - Quentin Skinner
ISBN - 0 521 81382 4 and 89075 6 (3-volume set)
Publisher - Cambridge University Press
Price - £130.00 and £47.50 (3-volume set)
Pages - 209; 461; 386

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