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The hegemony of history

Johnny Lyons

Machiavelli: a Very Short Introduction, by Quentin Skinner, Oxford University Press, 128 pp, £8.99, ISBN: 978-0192854070

Not long ago there prevailed a certain way of studying the history of philosophy in which the great books of Western speculation were treated as repositories of perennial insight accessible to inquiring minds of any period and place. Classic works such as Plato’s Republic, Hobbes’s Leviathan and Rousseau’s Social Contract were chosen for their reserves of unchanging and universal wisdom. Unsurprisingly, only grudging lip service was paid to the specific historical conditions from which past thinkers and their ideas emerged. For why would one bother to study the historical context of the venerable classics when all their really interesting and important ideas already lay open to view?

The Cambridge historian of ideas Quentin Skinner has, over the last fifty years, been providing an original and arresting response to that apparently rhetorical question, one that has been instrumental in turning the subject on its head. The publication of a revised edition of his superb short study of Machiavelli provides an opportunity to discuss his understanding of the history of ideas and its relevance ‑ if any ‑ to our present concerns.

There are, I would suggest, three basic elements that explain the nature and power of Skinner’s radical reorientation of the history of ideas, and they can be illustrated through his account of his account of the thought of the Renaissance thinker Niccolò Machiavelli, one of the two major political theorists that Skinner has spent much of his career researching and also a figure about whom most of us know something.

Skinner argues that if we want to understand a book like Machiavelli’s The Prince it is not enough just to read it in isolation, since texts do not emerge from nowhere, being invariably written for a reason. It is the job of the historian to discover what that reason was. This leads us to trying to recover the meaning of a text, which in turn can be reconstructed only by interpreting the text as an intervention in a particular historical milieu, one that is defined by its own specific linguistic practices and ideological preoccupations. In short, the historical context provides the key to unlocking the meaning of a text.

This might not appear so unusual an approach, but the implications of Skinner’s insistence on the centrality of context are far more consequential than they seem. For once we take contextualism seriously traditional ways of pursuing the history of long-dead thinkers can strike us as methodologically vapid and historically unaccountable, a distinctly pointless, if time-honoured, ritual in self-congratulation. We are told that all political careers end in failure yet there are few, if any, conventional “histories” of Western political thought that end in anything but victory. This should give us reason, at the very least, to suspect that the profound and timeless discoveries of past thinkers may exist in our heads rather than theirs.

This brings us to the second major strand of Skinner’s work – the practice of what he preaches. His historical writings seek to exemplify and validate his methodology. For instance, in the first volume of The Foundations of Modern Political Thought, Machiavelli looms large. He is a figure who has had more anachronistic and contradictory sins committed against him than most major thinkers have had to endure: over the years he has been labelled Satan, a satirist, the father of political science, a proto-nationalist, the originator of realpolitik, a candid chronicler of gangsterism in high politics, and so on. Skinner slashes his way through the thick forest of wildly diverse and conflicting readings and anchors Machiavelli and his ideas in their authentic historical setting. What emerges is a theorist who was both typical and atypical of his time. In the case of his short masterpiece The Prince, we are presented with an account of how its author conformed to the humanist genre of “mirror for princes” literature, and precisely where he departed from the conventional assumptions and norms of that influential tradition. His new and revised edition of Machiavelli: A Very Short Introduction succeeds in providing us with an even more nuanced and historically grounded picture of where the text’s principal originality resides, namely, in its unblushing rejection of the sacred tenet that the legitimate aims of a ruler can be achieved only by following the dictates of traditional morality, a conviction reflecting the apparent consensus of Christian and classical, mainly Ciceronian, ethical precepts.

One might object that surely such an understanding of The Prince is achievable without having to worry ourselves unduly with all the historical hullabaloo, that it is sufficiently clear even from a cursory reading of that infamous book that its author is saying that a truly Machiavellian ruler must act immorally to secure and defend his state. The problem with this seemingly common-sensical retort is that it misses the underlying point and power of Skinner’s historical writings. It is not that he is denying that there exists a degree of overlap between ahistorical versions of past political thinkers and his own genuinely historical account of the subject. His more fundamental thesis is that the convergence between ahistorical and contextual histories of ideas is more often than not superficial or uninteresting rather than deep and illuminating, that the former behave more like entities untethered to anything more than the invasively present-minded and parochial concerns of their interpreters. The validity of this argument asserts itself most clearly and effectively when one applies it to the more madcap, yet common, claims of mainstream “historians” of political theory. For example, the notion that Machiavelli is first and foremost a satirist or that Hobbes ought to be viewed as a proto-rational choice theorist look effete and even farcical in the light of Skinner’s meticulous scholarship.

A third key element of Skinner’s thought relates to the question of whether contextual intellectual history possesses any contemporary relevance.  Again, his analysis of Machiavelli’s political ideas is instructive, though on this occasion it is his more substantial work, The Discourses on the First Ten Books of Livy which takes centre stage. Skinner’s reconstruction of Machiavelli’s work on republican government brings out one particularly notable point, that is, the assertion that febrile dissension among the citizenry is often more of a virtue than a vice since it testifies to the presence of political interest and participation, both of which are essential to a properly functioning republican city-state.

This doctrine of The Discourses forms a central and recurring theme in his more normatively engaged writings. Why he finds this element of Machiavelli’s republicanism of more than intrinsic historical interest reveals how his distinctive view of intellectual history can acquire an unexpected contemporary twist. Unexpected because one might easily infer from his strictly historical – some might say historically fundamentalist ‑ approach to the history of ideas that the very possibility of the subject retaining any kind of normative relevance to present-day concerns had all but vanished. For if we are prepared to go along with the notion that the traditional approach to the canonical texts of the past is historically and philosophically baseless then it is difficult to see how history could be germane to contemporary issues. The answer lies in Skinner’s richly provocative suggestion that the more we gain a genuinely historical grasp of the past the more we are in a position to see that it consists of a series of roads taken and not taken, of paths celebrated and others closed off.

Skinner illuminates several of the forgotten but fascinating historical roads not taken. One such road is that defined by Roman civic republicanism and the revival of that tradition in the late Renaissance, a tradition that was left behind in favour of the competing and eventually triumphant rights-based conception of liberty. He reminds us not just what we gained from adopting a Hobbesian rights-based notion of liberty that gradually evolved into modern-day liberalism, but also what we lost as a result of turning our back on the neo-Roman ideal of liberty with its emphasis on the indispensability of active political participation on the part of citizens as a means of protecting and exercising their own individual liberty. One of the consequences of the victory of the liberal notion of freedom is that we are now almost exclusively preoccupied with the extent of our negative freedom and have largely forgotten about the source of our various political freedoms. The pertinence of this point to the dismal state of civic life in Skinner’s present-day England is obvious.

One of the most pressing questions Skinner leaves us with concerns whether his theory and practice as a historian undermines our seemingly inescapable sense that the great works of the past transcend their time? For surely the hallmark of a classic is that no one reading, including a historically vindicated one, can ever exhaust other possible and valid readings? This is perhaps the most intractable question raised by Skinner. He puts forward a characteristically cogent case for ditching the idea of ahistorical, transcendent meanings and for affirming that we must limit our assessment of the validity of past ideas according to the hermeneutically sober criterion of whether such ideas were rationally warrantable by the lights of their time. But this forces him to divorce rationality from truth and the jury remains steadfastly out regarding the wisdom of such a move. It is far from clear that reason can do all its work if it no longer has a non-trivial notion of truth to rely on, just as it is by no means obvious that acknowledging the insights of contextualism automatically rules out the possibility that the so-called classics of the past are incommensurable or indeed incapable of containing insights that manage to transcend the contingency of their time.

A brief comparison of Skinner’s interpretation of Machiavelli with that of Isaiah Berlin’s celebrated essay on the same thinker suggests that, at the very least, we may still have reason to resist dispensing with the notion of the truth when it comes to the history of ideas. Berlin famously claims that Machiavelli stumbled on a vital truth with his assertion that the priorities and values of a responsible ruler or indeed republican citizen often conflict with those of a pious Christian, that the virtues of decisiveness, bravery and the pursuit of worldly glory associated with political life are not just different from but in rivalry with what David Hume later called “the monkish virtues” of solitude, humility and self-denial. Much of Skinner’s interpretation not only overlaps with but indirectly vindicates Berlin’s core claim that Machiavelli’s permanent significance lies in unmasking the falsity of moral monism as well as the truth of value pluralism, the sense that human ideals and values do not form part of some structured and morally harmonious system but collide with each other not just in practice but in principle, that is, conceptually. Leaving aside the matter of whether Berlin is justified in appropriating Machiavelli as the original, if inadvertent, father of moral pluralism and ultimately liberalism, the more general point raised by this example is that a concern for the truth would appear to be a philosophically and historically feasible one in the study of the past, and also one that most of us find ourselves unable and/or unwilling to abandon.

Perhaps the idea or rather ideal that we should think for ourselves can happen only at the moment when we are fully conscious of the impact of history. In more recent times Skinner has shown an increasing preparedness to combine the preoccupations of the objective historian with those of the engaged moralist, to reveal the unpursued roads in the past with a mind to registering their relevance to matters of contemporary concern. In a paradoxical way, he has come full circle: after spending a great deal of his early and middle career putting methodological manners on how we go about pursuing the history of ideas, he is now more explicitly focused on affirming rather than playing down the relevance of the past to the present.

In any case, the sense that we now feel compelled, on the one hand, to address such questions, especially the peculiarly modern one of our complex relation to the past, with the urgency they require constitutes one of the many reasons why Skinner’s thought demands our attention. But the fact that it remains the case, on the other hand, that many of us continue to read the great Western canon non-contextually while managing to derive both pleasure and edification from the experience can hardly be considered a matter for regret. After all, that is precisely what happened to the young Skinner as a boarder at Bedford School, Manchester, when he first came across that inspiring anachronistic masterpiece, Bertrand Russell’s History of Western Philosophy. The rest is history.

1/9/2019

Johnny Lyons taught political theory at Trinity College Dublin before joining the commercial world more than twenty years ago. His book The Philosophy of Isaiah Berlin is due out next year from Bloomsbury.

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