J.G.A. Pocock’s roads not taken

  • Themes: History

The great historian’s life and works stand as a paean to the power and importance of historical knowledge.

Ceiling detail of Duomo di Firenze Cathedral.
Ceiling detail of Duomo di Firenze Cathedral. Credit: Life on white / Alamy Stock Photo

There are some works of history that can be read again and again: even as they are supplanted by new evidence, they continue to inspire new approaches and ideas. The rich, meditative writings of J.G.A. Pocock, the brilliant historian of political thought and historiography who died last week just short of his 100th birthday, are of this kind.

Pocock grew up in New Zealand, completed his PhD at the University of Cambridge, and spent most of his working life in the United States. Like his writings, his life was global in scope, yet attuned to particular (and oft-overlooked) contexts, especially the activities of Britons beyond England. He ranks among the titans of the 20th-century historical profession and maintained his output and relevance into the 21st. From his first book, The Ancient Constitution and the Feudal Law (1957), to his last, the six-volume Barbarism and Religion (1999–2015), Pocock opened up and enlivened new fields of historical enquiry: early modern republicanism, the ‘New’ British history, the history of historiography, even (in brief forays) Chinese philosophy and indigenous sovereignty in New Zealand.

Best known as a proponent of the so-called ‘Cambridge School’ contextualist approach to the history of political thought, Pocock insisted (alongside Cambridge colleagues such as Quentin Skinner and John Dunn) that political writings can only be understood by establishing what they were doing in their own time. Pocock’s personal interpretation of contextualism emphasised that political debate was conducted in overlapping and competing ‘political languages’, such as the juridical, the classical republican, the historical, or the ecclesiological. By tracing these varied languages, it was – he suggested – possible to see political ideas in motion.

In The Machiavellian Moment: Florentine Political Thought and the Atlantic Republican Tradition (1975), Pocock identified a civic republican tradition of politics, rooted in Aristotle’s injunction that politics is inherently reciprocal, involving both ‘ruling and being ruled’. He traced this participatory ancient republican ideal, which called for politics to be built on civic virtue, from its revival in the city-states of Renaissance Italy to early modern Britain and revolutionary America.

The book took the writings of Niccolò Machiavelli as its jumping-off point. Machiavelli had, Pocock suggested, recognised the potential – but also the limitations – of political virtù in the face of the destabilising forces of corruption and fortune. He thus captured the power and dangers of civic political life. The sense of politics as a finite endeavour contained within a specific historical moment is central to Pocock’s work; his title refers to the distinctive ‘moments’ in which republics are created, and when they fall apart. Politics in the Machiavellian, civic republican idiom is characterised by difficult choices and inevitable failures. But it is also of fundamental importance: political participation is the essential guarantor of human agency.

This Machiavellian vision Pocock found in the city-states of Renaissance Italy, however, posed increasing difficulties in the modern age. What does it mean to be a citizen in a modern commercial state? What role was left for virtù in a world of globalised finance? What remained of participation in a large representative democracy? What had been lost?

Pocock was fascinated by the interaction between the ancient and modern understanding of liberty. He argued that the ancient, civic republican emphasis on virtue and participation offered a view of the political world distinct from those captured either in Whig or Marxist interpretations of history. The rise of commerce and credit-based finance (Pocock viewed the Financial Revolution of the 1690s as a crucial moment of transition) posed new challenges to this ancient participatory ideal, taking agency away from the individual citizen. ‘Old Whig’ and ‘country’ critics raised concerns about new finance and a centralised standing army, viewing them as threats to virtue and ancient liberty.

Pocock noted that accommodations between virtue and commerce could be found throughout the 18th century. In his Virtue, Commerce and History, he traced the relationship between liberty, virtue, property and commerce as a source of continual debate and fascination. Debating politics in a London coffee house could become an exercise of civic virtue just as voting in the Athenian assembly had been: there was no straightforward dichotomy to be drawn between defenders of domestic liberty and the proponents of Britain as an outward-looking trading power.

Nonetheless, by the end of the century, Pocock identified an eclipse of civic republicanism in favour of the ‘fiction’ of representative democracy. Echoing Rousseau, Pocock expressed fears that such a system, in which a passive population relied on representatives to be virtuous on their behalf, was unsatisfactory and ‘might prove incompatible with the notion that one acted as a citizen or a being naturally political’.

Pocock’s championing of ancient liberty sparked valuable debate on the politics of commerce with relevance for both the 18th century and the rapidly globalising world of the late 20th century. It acted as a spur for the related, but very different, work of Istvan Hont, who developed the argument that the international market economy constituted a fundamental gulf between pre-modern and modern political thought, and thus highlighted the limited applicability of Pocock’s ancient republican ideal to the modern world. In a memorable phrase, one critic labelled Pocock’s Machiavellian Moment a work of Jacobite history, tracing a concept, civic republicanism, that had not survived into modernity. Yet for all that, Pocock had a knack for describing the constraints of modern politics: like his own ‘country’ critics, he clarified the dilemma.

Pocock’s books and essays are ambitious but careful, grand in scope yet closely tied down to textual and empirical detail. Liberally sprinkled with plurals (‘Enlightenments’, ‘republicanisms’, ‘whiggisms’), he creates a sense of competing possibilities, dead ends and roads not taken. In this sense, he was a fitting (and more effective) heir to Herbert Butterfield, his PhD supervisor and the author of The Whig Interpretation of History (1931), a forthright polemic against teleological historical narrative.

For Pocock, one of the great marvels of British history – in all its English, Irish, Scottish, British, Atlantic and imperial forms – was that it did have an underlying unity in shared (but unplanned and diversely interpreted) traditions and history. His interest in tradition and institutions as historical constructions came through strongly in his early work on early modern English legal thought, as well as in his later work on Edward Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, which – in a startling reassessment of the anticlerical 15th and 16th chapters – located Gibbon within a conservative Anglican Enlightenment. The Church of England, Pocock suggested, had fostered rather than hindered intellectual innovation.

Pocock viewed institutions as repositories of history and, in a Burkean vein, distrusted new top-down institutional creations. In comments printed in the London Review of Books after the Brexit referendum of 2016, he complained of the ‘profoundly anti-democratic and anti-constitutional’ EU, which forces members to leave by ‘the only act it recognises: the referendum’. In something of an elegy to his vision of a British history shaped by an active and informed citizenry, Pocock added:

‘If you are to go ahead, it must be by your own constitutional machinery: crown, parliament and people; election, debate and stature. This will take time and deliberation, which is the way decisions of magnitude should be taken. The Scots will come along, or not, deciding to live in their own history, which is not what the global market wants us to do. Avoid further referendums and act for yourselves as you know how to act and be.’

Of course, to live in one’s own history, one has to know it. Pocock’s life and works stand as a paean to the power and importance of historical knowledge. He made British history, political history and early modern intellectual history exciting and built a case for their continued importance in understanding our modern political predicament.

Pocockian history of political thought does not aim to solve modern dilemmas. He does, however, invite us to recognise the ‘many ways in which we have been making ourselves’, that by understanding the breadth of historical thinking and possibility, we avoid being ‘reduced to the choice between being our own solitary fictioneers and being the passive material of those always anxious to do our inventing for us’.


Eloise Davies