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Quentin Skinner: Liberty Before Liberalism. (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998. Pp. xiv, 142. $34.95. $9.95, paper.)

Quentin Skinner's inaugural lecture as Regius Professor of Modern History in the University of Cambridge is a reply to the inaugural lecture that Isaiah Berlin delivered just over forty years ago, on 31 October 1958, when he assumed the Chichele Chair of Social and Political Theory in the University of Oxford. Berlin gave his lecture the title Two Concepts of Liberty (1958). Skinner insists that there are three such concepts. He accepts Berlin's distinction between "positive" and "negative" liberty; he endorses his diatribe against the former; and he then argues that his predecessor failed to recognize that "negative" liberty takes two forms--a form "republican" or, as he now prefers to call it, "neo-roman" (p. 11, n. 31; pp. 54-55, nn. 174, 176). and a form "liberal."

Skinner warns us that "it is easy to become bewitched into believing that the ways of thinking...bequeathed to us by the mainstream of our intellectual traditions must be the ways of thinking about them" (p. 116). He invites us to see the past "as a repository of values we no longer endorse, of questions we no longer ask." The intellectual historian we are to think of as "a kind of archaeologist" whose "excavation" into the past can bring "buried intellectual treasure back to the surface" (p. 112). "This is not to suggest," he adds by way of caution, "that we should use the past as a repository of alien values to be foisted off on to an unsuspecting present. If the study of intellectual history is to have the kind of use I am claiming for it, there must be some deeper level at which our present values and the seemingly alien assumptions of our forbears to some degree match up" (p. 116).

Skinner hopes--by digging up the "theory of free states" first elaborated by Sallust, Livy, and the Roman jurists, and then revived by Machiavelli and further developed by the Commonwealthmen and Whigs of seventeenth-century and eighteenth-century England and America; by dusting this theory off; and by presenting its rediscovery as an occasion for rumination--to enable us to escape a "bewitchment" that is so pervasive that "an element" of it "has entered even into Berlin's justly celebrated account" (pp. 113-18). In his zeal to prevent his contemporaries from being bewitched by the old Left's derisive dismissal of the formal liberties guaranteed by the liberal state, Berlin wrongly assumed "that negative liberty is jeopardised only by coercive interference" and failed to see that "it will always be necessary for the state to ensure...that its citizens do not fall into a condition of avoidable dependence on the goodwill of others" (pp. 115, 119).

Skinner is best known as an exponent of linguistic contextualism. In contrast, however, with J.G.A. Pocock, who practices what they both preach, he has tended, especially in recent years, to do work reminiscent of that of Arthur O. Lovejoy, tracing the history of what Lovejoy called "unit-ideas." Such was his practice in Reason and Rhetoric in the Philosophy of Hobbes (1996); such is his practice here.

Skinner sets up his argument by briefly rehearsing the debate over sovereignty occasioned by the outbreak of the English Civil War and b) drawing attention to Thomas Hobbes's deployment, in his contribution to that debate, of the "liberal" understanding of negative liberty as part of his attack on "the classical ideal of the civitas libera or free state" (pp. 1-10). Then after suggesting that this ideal was in play from the time of Richard Beacon and Francis Bacon to the age of the American Revolution (pp. 11-13), he focuses his attention "on those who fastened on neo-roman ideas after the regicide of 1649 and the official proclamation of England as 'a Commonwealth and Free State,'" most notably, Marchamont Nedham, John Milton, James Harrington. Henry Neville, and Algermon Sidney (pp. 13-16). According to Skinner, these thinkers shared four assumptions--that "any understanding of what it means for an individual citizen to possess or lose ... liberty must be embedded within an account of what it means for a c ivil association to be free"; that "if a state or commonwealth is to count as free, the laws that govern it ... must be enacted with the consent of all its citizens"; that "to speak of a loss of liberty in the case of a body politic must be the same as in the case of an individual person", and, finally. "that what it means for an individual person to suffer a loss of liberty is for that person to be made a slave" (pp. 23-37). These assumptions they derived from the Roman moralists, especially Sallust and Livy, who were merely reflecting the understanding of slavery and freedom embedded in Roman law. Just as no man is genuinely free "who depends on the will--or, as we say, on the goodwill--of someone else," so a polity in the same condition is likewise enslaved. From this, the "neo-romans" concluded that only a republic or what we would now call a constitutional monarchy can be a free state (pp. 38-57).

Skinner acknowledges that Roman writers, such as Sallust, valued the civitas libera because it opened up for the citizen the possibility of "attaining glory and greatness," and he recognizes that, while something of the sort was true also for Machiavelli and to some degree for Nedham and perhaps even Harrington as well (pp. 61-64), his English "neo-romans" were for the most part primarily concerned with the protection of man's natural rights, especially those pertaining to life, liberty, and property (pp. 18-21). In consequence, he concedes, "their main emphasis" was therefore placed "on the capacity" of free states "to secure and promote the liberties of their own citizens"; and the example of Oliver Cromwell made them re-read Sallust with an eye to the relationship between "the ethics of glory and civic greatness" and the fall of the Roman republic (pp. 64-67). What nonetheless united the English "neo-romans" with Machiavelli and with the Romans was this: that where Hobbes denied "that there is any connect ion between the establishment of free states and the maintenance of individual liberty," they insisted that the latter depended on the former--"that it is only possible to be free in a free state" (pp. 60-61, 8-76). The cogency of this conviction came to be forgotten in the course of the nineteenth century when "we in the modern West" took a wrong turn as a consequence of the revival of the Hobbesian argument by "classical liberals" such as William Blackstone, John Lind, William Paley, Jeremy Bentham, John Austin, and Henry Sidgwick (pp. 77-83, 96-99, 112-16, 119). But in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries it exercised great influence, informing the rhetoric of figures as disparate as the Whig John Locke (p. 55, n. 177) and the Tory Bolingbroke (pp. 12, 72).

If Skinner's purpose were merely to trace the history of an idea, the argument advanced in his inaugural lecture would be uncontroversial: one would need only correct him on a relatively trivial point by drawing attention to the fact that from the time when Aeschylus wrote The Persians, if not well before, the notion that individual freedom depends on public liberty and the attendant conviction that the subjects of monarchs are slaves was already commonplace in Greece. If his purpose were merely to remind "the modern West" that the Whig account of individual liberty's prerequisites is by and large more persuasive than the one advanced byHobbes and the utilitarians, we in America would need only inform him that, whatever may be true in Britain, on our side of the Atlantic Locke is more influential than all of those whom he terms "liberals" put together, and that in America the old Whig argument is alive and well. There appears, however, to be more to Skinner's purpose than either of these summaries would sugg est.

To begin with, Skinner seems to believe that the sharing of an idea concerning the conditions prerequisite for the exercise of individual liberty is tantamount to understanding the concept of liberty in the same way. This is a simple category mistake: as Berlin insisted, and as I have tried to show in detail in Republics Ancient and Modern (1992) liberty has to be understood in terms of its ends: it matters a great deal whether the exercise of political freedom is embraced as an end in itself, as an essential and even central element within the good life for which individual liberty is prerequisite, or whether it is conceived of merely as an instrument for the protection of life, individual liberty, and property. The fact that Hobbes (Leviathan, II. xxi. 9) first cites Aristotle's attribution (Politics 1317a40b16) to the ancient Greek democrats of the claim that individual freedom depends on public liberty and then lumps him together with Cicero and those, such as Machiavelli, "who by reading of these Greek and Latin authors ... have gotten a habit (under a false show of liberty) of favouring tumults" should have tipped Skinner off to the fact that freedom from coercion was as important to the ancient Greek proponents of positive liberty as it would later be to Skinner's English "neo-romans."

In fact, Skinner would be well-advised to abandon the classical connection altogether. As I have tried to demonstrate in an essay examining his treatment of Machiavelli (Paul A. Rahe, "Situating Machiavelli," in Renaissance Civic Humanism: Reappraisals and Reflections, ed. James Hankins [2000]), the Romans were on Aristotle's side of the great divide: they, too, thought that man was a political animal who fulfilled his nature in the public arena. Like the Greeks, they valued freedom from external coercion for the sake of political action. The abandonment of positive liberty came with Machiavelli--who, by severing the relationship between political liberty and the perfection of man's natural capacities, opened the way for those, such as Hobbes and his opponents among the Commonwealthmen and the Whigs, who would jettison as unfounded the Florentine's enthusiasm for civic glory and assess the value of political liberty solely with an eye to its contribution to the preservation and comforts of the individual.

There is a second problem that deserves attention as well. In the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, in America as well as in England, Commonwealthmen and Whigs were inclined to exclude from the franchise those who were dependent on the goodwill of others, for they feared that voters of this sort would refuse to respect property rights or become the tools of oligarchic ambition. No one but the proponents of James Harrington's agrarian law ever contended, as Skinner does, that it is "necessary for the state to ensure ... that its citizens do not fall into a condition of avoidable dependence on the goodwill of others." In fact, Whigs tended to fear the state--above all else for its propensity to encroach on their liberties--and they suspected that what Thomas Jefferson called "energetic government" would by means of patronage render its citizens dependent on the goodwill of those in control of its administration.

To find a third way genuinely to his liking, a virtuous republicanism in which the citizens are "forced to be free" (pp. 32-33, n. 103), Skinner would have to abandon England and America, cross the channel, and embrace the thinking of Jean-Jacques Rousseau. Were he to recommend such a writer to his compatriots, however, he would risk being hauled before the dock by English and American admirers of Isaiah Berlin's classic defense of liberalism and accused of using "the past as a repository of alien values to be foisted off on to an unsuspecting present." The late Chichele Professor of Social and Political Theory at Oxford was more closely attuned to the ideological proclivities of his adopted countrymen than is the current Regius Professor of Modern History at Cambridge; and, like his hero Benjamin Constant, he was far too sensitive to the despotic propensities of modern democracy to be willing to countenance forcing its citizens to be free.

PAUL A. RAHE, author of Republics Ancient and Modern, is the Jay P. Walker Professor of American History in the University of Tulsa.
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Title Annotation:Review
Author:Rahe, Paul A.
Publication:The Review of Politics
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Mar 22, 2000
Previous Article:DOGMATIC BORE.

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