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15 December 2023

JGA Pocock: an ancient among the moderns

How the historian’s historian transformed the study of the past.

By Anton Jäger

For a man who dedicated his career to the study of temporality, John Greville Agard Pocock’s passing at the age of 99 on the 13 December – shortly before the historian was due to celebrate his centenary – seems symbolic. It is a truism that historians study historical change. Yet it is quite different for a historian to concern themselves with the history of notions of historical change, and how these notions come to steer human affairs. It was Pocock’s reputation as a historian of historiography which goes a long way explaining his continuing relevance and attraction, next to the uncompromisingly universal scope of his scholarship.

If the notion of ‘global Britain’ has any residual meaning at all, Pocock’s lifespan might be a suitable paragon for it. Born in London in 1924, he moved to New Zealand at the age of 3, after his father – a classicist – got an appointment at Canterbury College. Studying in the imperial archipelago, he returned to the UK for postgraduate studies at the University of Cambridge, earning a PhD under the tutelage of the conservative historian Herbert Butterfield in 1954, on historical theories of English common law. Butterfield had already established his reputation with the 1931 book The Whig Interpretation of History, which pitted itself against one-sidedly progressive accounts of the British polity. The work clearly exuded a sense of indeterminism which his tutee was to reabsorb in later academic work. After his doctorate, Pocock returned to New Zealand to teach at Canterbury University College. After launching his career at home, he took up a post at Washington University in St. Louis, Missouri in 1966, and then at John Hopkins in the 1970s.

Pocock’s move across the Pacific augured his breakthrough into the international academic scene. This breakthrough owed much to his 1975 book The Machiavellian Moment: Florentine Political Thought and the Atlantic Republican Tradition. The monograph was to establish itself not just as a classic of 20th-century historiography, but also a founding document for a new genre in the history of ideas. With fellow Cambridge historian Quentin Skinner, this ‘contextualist’ approach was premised on the idea that readers could only achieve proper access to past thinkers when their work was placed in its original setting. The Machiavellian Moment was itself a splendid even if counter-intuitive illustration of this approach. With hundreds of pages covering a dizzyingly large historical span, the book’s conceptual core was nonetheless easy to discern: Pocock pleaded for the revaluation of a republican tradition c somewhere in the Renaissance and persisting into the age of the revolutions of the 18th century. This was a tradition different both from the Marxism out of the 19th century and the liberalism which Cold Warriors celebrated as the West’s great civilisational achievement. Its central categories were not so much ahistorical notions of liberty or stability but virtue and corruption, two concepts with an immediate historical index to Pocock. This republican tradition had been obscured or retrospectively collapsed into other hegemonic political traditions, its distinctiveness lost to the historical record.

Pocock’s rediscovery was not wholly novel. German scholars such as Hans Baron had already insisted on the existence of his republican tradition in the 1950s, while 19th-century scholars as Jean Charles Léonard de Sismondi had eulogised Italian city republics. Keeping the decline of the Weimar republic in mind, Baron stated that Machiavelli devised an offensive theory of how republics could guard themselves against instability and halt a potential slide into tyranny.

Pocock’s version of this argument acquired a newly iconoclastic slant in the 1970s, however. At the time, the dominant visions in political thought were still firmly organized around the idea that modernity meant the maturation of a liberal tradition.  This vision united both left and right to an extent: Cold War liberals saw a homogeneous liberal tradition dedicated to constitutional government that rose out of the Renaissance into the Reformation and the Age of Revolutions. Marxists focused on the rise of the modern bourgeoisie and its search for a suitable state form.

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In this consensual space, Pocock thought, certain key strains threatened to disappear, strains which were indigenous to modernity but also not reducible to it, and often with much older lineages. His republicanism was a tradition of thinking that shared liberalism’s fear of arbitrary government. Yet it had no illusions about the idea that regimes could somehow be made resilient to historical change and corruption.  More than liberalism, he claimed, it also insisted that the idea of individuals with a package of rights was insufficient as a basis for political order. Instead, liberty presupposed a notion of virtue different from the pre-modern Christian one. As Machiavelli saw it, Christian virtue should be distinguished from the pagan virtu, which implied a commitment to political action in the here and now, not the payoffs of the celestial kingdom. This recovery of politics in secular and sacred time proved the key insight of Pocock’s republican synthesis, which had migrated from ancient Roman thinkers to the Italian city republics of the high Middle Ages to the early modern revolutionaries in Britain and the United States. Begun in the Italian city republics with a more direct memory of Roman legal tradition, this political language united Florentine thinkers and 17th-century British radicals. When the 1688 Glorious Revolution restored kingship, Pocock argued, Britain had fatally drifted away from its republican origins. In the British colonies, however, identification with this legacy continued. American thinkers hoped that their newly independent republic could redeem the promise of a metropolitan British tradition.

It was this American context that provided a more direct setting for Pocock’s intervention in the 1975. Written after the 1973 oil price shock, the book reflected the declinist mood in the US after Nixon’s retreat from Vietnam and worries about imperial adventurism. The idea that the former settler colony had drifted away from its status as a small agrarian republic and had become an industrial empire seemed irresistible. As the historian Mira Siegelberg noted, this declinism continued to shape Pocock’s own thinking in the 1960s. Unconsciously, Pocock claimed, Americans still conducted their debates in older republican categories. Yet the ascent of post-war liberalism meant that they also inhabited a political culture they did not fully understand. Part of the book’s purpose then was therapeutic: an attempt at self-understanding rather than a call to action. Narratives of republican decline were also a feature of Pocock’s writing on the historian Edward Gibbon’s The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, in which he showed how the Enlightenment thinker was much more indebted to an older republican historiography rather than the new scientific methods.

Clearly, Pocock could not repress a certain wistfulness about his republican tradition. This nostalgia is clear in his debt to the German émigré philosopher Hannah Arendt. Arendt claimed that ancient republicanism relied on a distinction between the vita reflectiva of the citizen and the vita activa of the worker, the former allowing for political action, the second constraining it. Early modern republicans including the American founders had recognised this point early on. At one point, Arendt claimed however, modern politics had shifted registers: citizens were said to ‘behave’ rather than to ‘act’, and people became the object of policy rather than subject of politics.

[See also: Germany’s new years of lead]

For Arendt as for Pocock, the connection between republican politics and slavery was often implicit: it was only when aristocrats could delegate productive activity to a slave caste that politics became possible as a human activity.  This clearly sat uneasy with the idea that modernity had let the ‘people’ into the public sphere, and Pocock repeatedly admitted the contradictions between his republican tradition and modern democracy. English Civil War republicans were no Levellers; except for Jefferson and Paine, the Founding Fathers were unlikely democrats. The French Jacobins, Pocock claimed in turn, were more enamoured with Sparta than Rome, and wielded an unduly inflexible and repressive notion of virtue. Neither purely democratic nor liberal, republicanism had once formed the lingua franca in which the moderns thought about politics. We were bound to misunderstand not just them but also ourselves if we failed to recognise this fact.

As Pocock insisted, his tradition was not so much European as it was Atlantic. Such a conviction implied a hesitancy to recast British history as somehow exclusively European. These scholarly views took on a particular acuity around the Brexit referendum. In Pocock’s view, Britain’s integration into Europe had paradoxically provincialized British political culture itself. He did not offer a paean to global Britain as some Tory Brexiteers did, but nonetheless worried about the erosion of a specifically ‘Old Whig’ republican culture. “Profoundly anti-democratic and anti-constitutional”, he wrote after the Brexit referendum, “the EU obliges you to leave by the only act it recognises: the referendum… If you are to go ahead, it must be by your own constitutional machinery: crown, parliament and people; election, debate and statute. This will take time and deliberation, which is the way decisions of any magnitude should be taken.”

Rather than a manifesto for little Englandism, Pocock’s defence stemmed from a desire for a fully anti-provincial British history, which showed how the ‘three kingdoms’ had been more intertwined throughout their history than previously admitted. An aversion to Eurocentrism also shaped his views on indigenous sovereignty in New Zealand. In his view, all societies had to configure their relationship to history to allow for political action; hence, it would be ridiculous to suppose that indigenous communities somehow lacked the sophisticated historical imaginary of settlers questing for republican freedom. The ‘Oceania’ which Pocock’s favourite English republican James Harrington had seen as the ideal commonwealth took on a strangely concrete meaning in his own roots as a New Zealander.

These claims invited no shortage of critiques. The opposition between virtue and commerce was shown to be problematic: court and country, gentry and aristocracy had always been more symbiotic in British history than he supposed. The idea that dedicated free traders such as Jefferson and Paine were opposed to ‘commerce’ was hard to maintain.

Others insisted that Pocock was wrong to even distinguish between a republican and a liberal tradition. Liberalism, his critics believed, grew out of republicanism’s encounter with the new commercial society, rather than being pitted against it. For other radicals, the idea that republicanism died in the 19th century and lost its specificity could also not be maintained. Recent scholars focused on how republican tropes also found their way into 19th-century socialism and feminism, while Pocock’s account had real difficulty accommodating the fact that modern capitalism originated in an English countryside populated by a republican gentry supposedly hostile to commerce.  

Yet such objections indicate rather than disprove the value of his oeuvre. Politically, a certain academicism was hard to escape: Pocock remained a historian’s historian, who transformed not just one field but several along the way. Perhaps this also explains why Pocock’s republicanism has not had the mass resonance that other reclamations of an emancipatory past have had. In the 2000s, the Spanish prime minister José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero proved a lonely adherent of a republican philosophy amidst the liberal consensus. In a world of representative institutions and constitutional states, the idea that politicians act in time rather than on time had become implausible, and civic ‘virtue’ was inevitably too thick a category to serve as a guide for contemporary Realpolitik.

In the early 19th century, the Swiss radical Jean Charles Léonard de Sismondi pleaded for a return to the Italian city republics as a model for modern European politics, a “brilliant flame of liberty” that shone through the ages. Sismondi worried that the end of landed independence and the creation of a market-dependent working class would make a return to this tradition impossible. The republican dream did not come to pass; instead, Sismondi’s writings on industrialization proved a source of inspiration to Karl Marx, who used them for his critique of political economy and a workers’ republic founded on labour. The moderns could not replicate the ancients – yet they could at least redeem their promise.

[See also: The new world disorder]

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