View all newsletters
Sign up to our newsletters

Support 110 years of independent journalism.

  1. The Weekend Essay
10 February 2024

JGA Pocock’s days of rage

How the violent upheavals of Seventies America helped forge the greatest historian of our time.

By Madoc Cairns

It was the summer of 1953, on a small island at the edge of the world, and JGA Pocock was hunting ghosts. Pocock, who died in December last year at the age of 99, spent his life travelling between England, New Zealand and the United States, where he built his career as a pioneering intellectual historian. In 1953 he was an ocean away from all three: on Sicily following his father, the classicist LG Pocock, as he listened for the voices of the dead. Pocock senior was an expert on Homer’s Odyssey, poem of Odysseus’s search for Ithaca, his island home. Twenty-six centuries on, LG Pocock was retracing his steps.

Pocock’s father believed Ithaca was Sicily, and within the Odyssey’s poetry, a history lay concealed. If the events were allegory, the geography was real: and the landscape he and his son walked through held a key to the true meaning of the poem; and perhaps far more than that. “The personality behind the Odyssey was so vivid to him,” Pocock Jr recalled, “that he sometimes felt as if he and the poet were speaking directly to one another.” Pocock was then aged 29; the work of that season would define his life.

History, as he would practice it, involves “effecting re-entry into the linguistic universe of the past”: deciphering the conceptual vocabulary through which writers made sense of their world. In so doing, we “learn how to read” lost languages, entering into “past-relationships” with those who spoke them; and this is less like a science, Pocock argued, than a conversation. We write history from within it, one context encountering another, voyages made between islands in time.

In his years of wandering, Odysseus once sailed west, to the edges of the Earth and a country without sun. There, he made landfall and offered libation; poured blood on the earth, and heard the dead speak. This is an image of the historian, says Pocock, the gift and the price: “The blood one gives the ghosts must be one’s own.”

When Pocock left Sicily, he sailed east, to an island that was not Ithaca, and, although he had grown up there, was not his home. He never felt he had one. Resident from the age of three in New Zealand “where human occupancy was not more than a thousand years old and English civilisation with its books not more than a hundred”, he never felt like he had much of a history either. The indigenous Maori described themselves as Tangata whenua, people of the land. Pocock was always a Tangata waka, a person of the ship; oceanic, transitory, looking outwards. After Odysseus, the symbol Pocock most identified with was the Godwit, a migratory bird that spends ten months of every 12 traversing the Pacific.

Select and enter your email address Your weekly guide to the best writing on ideas, politics, books and culture every Saturday. The best way to sign up for The Saturday Read is via saturdayread.substack.com The New Statesman's quick and essential guide to the news and politics of the day. The best way to sign up for Morning Call is via morningcall.substack.com Our Thursday ideas newsletter, delving into philosophy, criticism, and intellectual history. The best way to sign up for The Salvo is via thesalvo.substack.com Stay up to date with NS events, subscription offers & updates. Weekly analysis of the shift to a new economy from the New Statesman's Spotlight on Policy team. The best way to sign up for The Green Transition is via spotlightonpolicy.substack.com
  • Administration / Office
  • Arts and Culture
  • Board Member
  • Business / Corporate Services
  • Client / Customer Services
  • Communications
  • Construction, Works, Engineering
  • Education, Curriculum and Teaching
  • Environment, Conservation and NRM
  • Facility / Grounds Management and Maintenance
  • Finance Management
  • Health - Medical and Nursing Management
  • HR, Training and Organisational Development
  • Information and Communications Technology
  • Information Services, Statistics, Records, Archives
  • Infrastructure Management - Transport, Utilities
  • Legal Officers and Practitioners
  • Librarians and Library Management
  • Management
  • Marketing
  • OH&S, Risk Management
  • Operations Management
  • Planning, Policy, Strategy
  • Printing, Design, Publishing, Web
  • Projects, Programs and Advisors
  • Property, Assets and Fleet Management
  • Public Relations and Media
  • Purchasing and Procurement
  • Quality Management
  • Science and Technical Research and Development
  • Security and Law Enforcement
  • Service Delivery
  • Sport and Recreation
  • Travel, Accommodation, Tourism
  • Wellbeing, Community / Social Services
Visit our privacy Policy for more information about our services, how New Statesman Media Group may use, process and share your personal data, including information on your rights in respect of your personal data and how you can unsubscribe from future marketing communications.
THANK YOU

In 1948, receiving a PhD offer from the University of Cambridge, Pocock takes flight. As an undergraduate, he had been introduced to the history of ideas by the Austrian philosopher Karl Popper. Popper and his co-thinkers, such as the historian Isaiah Berlin, saw the Cold War as a conflict between the liberal, humanistic Enlightenment tradition and the terrible aberration of Marxism. This narrative could be summarised, Pocock wrote, as “Plato to Nato”: a genealogy of freedom, and a prophecy of war.

Pocock’s influences at Cambridge – his supervisor Herbert Butterfield, arch-vivisectionist of “Whig history”; the “Tory anarchist” Michael Oakeshott; and the “contextualist” historian Peter Laslett – differed from Popper in methodology but shared his anti-communism. If the Cold War wasn’t won on the quads of Cambridge, it was fought there. And the “contextualist revolution” was, as Pocock described his own practice, something of a “counter-revolution”: a turn from the grand-scène taxonomies of Marxist histories towards the irreducible subjectivity of human experience. For this reason, Pocock would later insist he was a historian not of ideas, but of the means through which ideas are articulated, contested and understood: language.

But language “is an impure medium”. Words are always changing sides. And Pocock’s historiography could easily be redeployed, he later remarked, against its conservative origins. When the Cold War turned hot in Vietnam, now-Professor Pocock, back in New Zealand, told a 1965 teach-in not to support either side. The US couldn’t win; its opponents shouldn’t. The “noble dream of revolution” abroad in North Vietnam, premised on a kind of unilateral speech, always tends towards violence: the ultimate one-way communication of a bullet or a bomb. The benefits of this kind of anti-language are obvious; so are the costs. Those who see violence as inevitable kill off those who don’t, and – Pocock reflected later – we arrive in the world of WH Auden’s poem “August 1968”: an ogre without language rules a plain of the unspeaking dead.

In 1966, Pocock took up a position at Washington University in St Louis, hoping the resources of American academia would assist him in writing his next book. By October 1968, Pocock had reached halfway on the project – then intended to cover Florentine, French and English republicanism. But around him a nation divided by civil rights, the counterculture, and the intensifying conflict in Vietnam approached a discord unseen in a century. Over the next year, as Pocock found himself witness to a “profound crisis of American thought and values”, he found himself writing a very different book.

The Machiavellian Moment begins with the end of the world. For 1,000 years, Christianity had transformed time. The cyclical worldview of the ancients was displaced by eschatology; a circle redrawn as a straight line. “Salvation was in society and history,” Pocock wrote, “but in a history yet to come.” The chaos of this world – fortuna – concealed a divine logic visible only in the next.

Pagans saw fortuna as an arena for heroic action; Christians saw it as a test. Aside from those brief periods where prophecy reunited the time-bound and the timeless, politics followed theology. Timeless hierarchies on Earth imitated the unchanging sovereignty of God. Then, in the 14th century after Christ, the dead began to speak.

Renaissance thinkers had discovered others in the past, much like themselves; thinkers from ancient Greece and Rome grappling with the survival of republics in an imperial world. “The republic solved the problem of authority and liberty by making citizens participants in authority,” wrote Pocock: “both ruling and being ruled”. This required virtue; now not just a means to endure fortuna but to master it. Breaking up the seamless arc of salvation into a series of repeatable moments, history became permeable to human action. Homo credens, believing man, gave way to homo rhetor, the man of speech; the cathedral receded before the public square. Locating themselves in time, the civic humanists entered history; and there they found themselves free.

Yet republics, being born in time, could also die there. And the resurrection of the “liberty of the ancients” had set long-dormant cycles into motion. If weak, the republic risks destruction. If strong, its prosperity entails corruption, the pursuit of private interests over the common good, and so invites tyranny and ruin. Virtue could be regained by a return to first principles, but only ever for a time.

Consciousness of this begins what Pocock calls a “Machiavellian moment”: the republic’s foreknowledge of its own decline. Girolamo Savonarola confronted this crisis of legitimacy in the philosopher-priest’s rule of Florence between 1494 and 1498. Speaking a dialect both humanist and prophetic, Savonarola identified the republic with God’s entry into history, a just community “appearing at an apocalyptic climax of sacred time”. The tension between Christian virtue and the exigencies of power could be resolved, Savonarola believed, in the work of grace.

His failure convinced Machiavelli that such a resolution was impossible. For Machiavelli, civic humanism’s “new prince”, who Pocock terms “the innovator”, living in a history no longer sacred, had to find tools suited to it. Contingency appeared as a “destructive river” of terrifying power: only with virtù – “a political leader’s skill, determination, strength of character, and flexibility” – could it be tamed.

“When the world is unstabilised and the unexpected a constant threat,” action – exemplified in military force – is preferable to inaction. Machiavelli’s remedy for corruption took consonant form: a warrior-citizenry, co-participants in the civic struggle against fortuna. Yet what makes survival possible renders imperialist expansion likely: and here too, the republic’s “balancing act” ends in decline and fall. Rome, mastering the world, became an empire: and mastered herself. Republics are haunted by the spectre of self-defeat.

In January 1968, the Vietnamese revolutionaries launch the Tet Offensive, shattering hopes of an early end to the war. In February, revolutionaries execute hundreds of civilians in Huế; one month later, in the village of My Lai, American soldiers do the same. A few weeks later Martin Luther King tells striking workers in Memphis that America is sick; we must choose, he says, between non-violence and non-existence. The next day, on 4 April, King is shot dead. Paying tribute to King, the presidential candidate Robert F Kennedy warns that the war is corrupting the nation’s soul. Two months later, on 6 June, Kennedy is shot dead. That autumn, an anti-war demonstration in Chicago is attacked by police. The organisers are falsely put on trial for charges of conspiracy. The anti-war Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) claims 100,000 members. Nearly a tenth that number have been arrested for protesting on university campuses.

By winter 1968, there are 500,000 American troops in Vietnam. In five years, American planes have dropped the equivalent of 100 Nagasaki bombs. Estimates of civilian dead run into the millions. On 5 November, Richard Nixon is elected president. During his campaign, Nixon promised to end the war. In office, he plans to escalate it. A fortnight after Nixon’s election, Pocock gives a presentation on The Machiavellian Moment at Princeton University. Two weeks later, on 3 December 1968, at the campus Reserve Officers’ Training Corps (ROTC) building, five minutes’ drive from Pocock’s office, a Washington University student is arrested. He was carrying a bomb.

Pocock’s first book, The Ancient Constitution and the Feudal Law (1957), argued that authority in early modern England was understood through the vocabulary of the “ancient constitution”, rights and traditions inherited from the immemorial “folkmoots of a Teutonic dawn”. As the English Civil War of 1642-51 approached, this collective political imagination was torn apart by the contending sovereignties of crown and parliament. Language died.

And out of the ruins marched “radical saints”. Protestants had long identified England as an “Elect Nation… living and acting in sacred time”. The saints, witnessing the antebellum state’s disintegration, found themselves patriots of a country that didn’t exist. Radically alienated from the world, and radically committed to living out the truth of a better one, “saints” reunited civic virtue and salvation in an apocalyptic assault on Babylon. Republicanism entered the bloodstream of Anglo-American thought as an “activist ideal”, here, Pocock thought, in the “revolution of the saints”.

Machiavellianism reached England in the wake of their defeat. James Harrington – a philosopher that Pocock saved from near-obscurity – envisioned a tripartite republic that would restore the virtuous independence lost under feudalism. “Man emerges from the medieval,” Pocock paraphrased, “to recapture the ancient.”

Harrington’s agrarian soldier-citizenry, Pocock wrote, retained an apocalyptic edge: “The recovery of citizenship was the recovery of grace.” In England, the “minds that moved out on to the fortune-tossed waters of republican theory did so under the guidance of theologically based concepts”.  It was that voyage, he told his audience in 1969, that brought republicanism across the Atlantic. Arriving in America, he had expected a country of pragmatic liberals: instead, Pocock discovered a nation of “tormented saints”.

On 20 January 1969, Richard Nixon, in his inaugural address as president, pledges to “consecrate my office… to the cause of peace”. Two months later, he orders the air force to begin bombing neutral Cambodia. A week after that, on Washington University’s campus, 9,000 students march against the war. In April, the number of American troops in Vietnam reaches 543,000. On 22 June the SDS calls for a militant demonstration in Chicago against the war. Fred Hampton, head of the Chicago Black Panthers, tells them the “days of rage” are a deadly mistake. He is ignored.

On 8 October, six SDS protesters are shot by police. One month later, an SDS organiser, Ted Gold, visits Pocock’s campus. He tells a meeting of activists that voting and protests and words have all failed. He tells them to prepare for what’s coming. On 4 December, Fred Hampton is shot dead by police. Three weeks after that, at the 1969 American Historical Association conference, Pocock gives a paper about Machiavelli’s influence on the American Revolution. Two days later, on 30 December, the SDS votes to dissolve itself. They call the meeting a council of war.

We can read thinkers in their own language, Pocock warned, but we always write in our own. Harrington’s words found new meanings in the minds of his readers, just as Machiavelli’s words found new meaning in his. In the early 1800s, republican rhetoric – virtue and corruption, public life and private interest, the armed, propertied citizen and his imperial nemesis – found broad political purchase. As public debt and private armies tied the state to the “fantastic and non-rational” realm of the passions, and credit displaced fortuna as history’s capricious queen, the gap between values and practice took on an abyssal aspect. England found herself in history; and it took the form of a profitable hell.

What followed might be called a Pocockian moment: meanings multiplied, and one language became two. “Old Whigs” accused the emergent “commercial society” as undoing the state by patronage and the individual by fragmentation. With farming and fighting delegated to specialists, and politics, once a common task, redefined as the “policy and police of states”, virtuous self-government would recede into impossibility. Harrington’s dream would become a fantasy.

Yet partisans of the new dispensation insisted this retreat from virtue was a movement towards culture. Classical man was self-governing – and “barbaric”; a violent, slave-holding illiterate. Specialisation and scale enabled relationships “with persons and with things” of a variety and number unthinkable to the ancients; a life enriched, peaceful and “civilised”.

Homo rhetor gave way to homo economicus, but as the values of the ancients receded, their anxieties endured. The Enlightenment’s faith in progress was inseparably accompanied by terror of impending moral collapse, an antimony that continues to “furnish liberalism with one of its modes of self-criticism and self-doubt”, Pocock wrote. In the outrage of the Old Whigs, “the first intellectuals of the left”, we see, Pocock thought, “the beginnings of the sort of thought found in Marx”. Communist man, “unspecialised and undistracted”, is, he argued, “in the long view an Aristotelian citizen”. Marxism is not an aberration from the Western tradition liberalism inherited; if anything, the opposite is true.

Both were becoming, he feared, irrelevant. Pocock saw historians as operating a kind of two-way radio, antennae trained backwards in time to “receive and decipher a transmission from our predecessors”. Someone, he began to suspect, was jamming the frequency. Writing in 1970, he blamed the telecommunications revolution. Distilling meaning from the “uncontrollable” ambiguities of language necessitated negotiation; it requires us to recognise “others like ourselves exist”. Locating such others in the past enabled “Gutenberg man” to locate himself in time; we entered history, and discovered freedom. Books created democrats. But television exalted demagogues. And frictionless, instantaneous communication might enable “high-speed manipulators” to “disorder the whole structuring of time” – to end history, annul politics; even liquefy the self.

In the waning years of the Roman empire, citizenship was conferred on ever-widening circles of imperial subjects; “neo-romans” were co-participants in the life of a city they had never seen. Pocock’s education was “neo-Briton” and “neo-Latin”, conferring dual citizenship in two traditions – Anglo-imperial and classical humanist. Writing The Machiavellian Moment, Pocock told a story that was in part his own. It ended as he wrote it. His was the last generation in 1,000 years to be taught Latin; by the late Sixties the subject had collapsed. As Britain entered Europe in the early Seventies, choosing a continent over the commonwealth, Pocock felt another part of himself recede into the past. The blood he gave the ghosts had been his own.

During the night of 23 February 1970, Washington University’s Army ROTC building is destroyed by arson. Those responsible are never identified. One month later, Nixon announces that US troops have invaded Cambodia. Demonstrations break out nationwide. Four days later, on 4 May 1970, four protesters are shot dead by the Ohio National Guard at Kent State University. Four million students walk out of classes. On 5 May, 3,000 Washington University students protest the Kent State shootings. At midnight they march to the Air Force ROTC building. They burn it to the ground. Two weeks later, an organisation calling itself the Weather Underground releases a statement addressing the government of the United States of America. The title of the document: “A Declaration of a State of War”.

In the week following Kent State, 30 ROTC buildings burn. Over the next month, there are 194 incidents of bombing or arson; the highest since records began. Five weeks after Kent State, Nixon tells his administration that “revolutionary terrorism” is the single greatest threat the country faces. Across the rest of 1970, an average of four bombs detonate every day. Polls indicate 40 per cent of students – more than three million people – think the US needs a revolution. In September 1970, the President’s Commission on Campus Unrest concludes: “If this crisis of understanding endures, the very survival of the nation will be threatened.” By the end of the year, more bombs have been dropped in Vietnam than on any other country in history. On 1 March 1971, the Weather Underground bomb the Capitol.

The FBI considers the Weather Underground their most dangerous opponent in decades. The “Weathermen” see themselves as forerunners of something greater: a “New Nation” refusing the corrupted values of the old: racism, violence, greed. Their communiqués talk about the need to become a new kind of person, to “live and fight and love inside Babylon”. They are radically alienated from their own society, and radically committed to living out the truth of a different one. They have enough dynamite to plant a bomb every day for the next 30 years.

By 1972 Pocock posited the 1775 American Revolution not as “the first act of the revolutionary Enlightenment but the last great act of the Renaissance”. American republicanism was, Pocock argued, the terminus of a tradition both English – in Harrington’s tripartite, agrarian polity – and European. Pocock called it a “mid-Atlantic” history; a Godwits-eye view of an oceanic world.

Interregnum England’s “chiliastic revolution” found a new Elect Nation across the ocean; Augustan England’s debate between commercial and classical man continued on American shores in the shape of a civil war. “What was involved was a flight from modernity and a future no less than from antiquity and a past,” Pocock wrote, “from commercial and Whiggish Britain no less than from feudal and popish Europe.”. Yet the republican ideal contained painful contradictions – between “virtue and commerce, citizen and government, republic and empire” – which could never be entirely escaped. In Thomas Jefferson’s dispute with the federalists, we overhear, Pocock thinks, the turning of an ancient, malign wheel. The most modern of nations was founded with the “dread of modernity” in her bones.

And republicanism was not, as it was for one of Pocock’s influences, Hannah Arendt, “lost treasure”. “What went on,” he wrote, on the hypothesised transition to “liberalism”, “was not a unidirectional transformation of thought… but a bitter, conscious and ambivalent dialogue”. When “ghosts cannot exorcise one another”, Pocock wrote, commenting on the torments of another failed republic, they wage war instead. The US was haunted by herself.

In 1968, student unrest struck Pocock as a contemporary reiteration of the old, dangerous dream of revolution. The violence of the state response drew him to different conclusions. By the “dark spring” of 1970, the mute ogre of Auden’s poem seemed to Pocock two-faced; dictatorial Marxism mirrored by a brutal, hypocritical liberalism.

The Weather Underground, Pocock wrote “might not be worse than the Ohio National Guard but was more often at one’s doorstep”: its demands “arose from within one’s own values”. Responding to “self-appointed Red Guards” with force repeated the “fallacy of Chicago”: a false choice, typified in the “days of rage”, between a system “hardened into armoured shells of hollow authority” and those who believe that is all the system could ever be.

Speech had to win out over violence, Pocock thought: which required a politics not against revolution but beyond it; a civic life determined by every citizen. A good society is, for Pocock, like a good conversation, “a polity of shared power”, speaking languages that are “plural, flexible, and non-final”, and in which, he says, no one can have the last word, because last words do not exist.

Just as civic humanism is “a language, not a program”, The Machiavellian Moment doesn’t evince a politics so much as a strategy: the construction of a context complex enough to “introduce frictions into the medium”, slowing communication until negotiation becomes necessary, and self-determination possible. Living under the dictatorship of the image, the art of speech can be an act of sabotage. “A book,” Pocock wrote in 1970, “is a spanner in the network.”

Man-eating Polyphemus is defeated by Odysseus not through force but by misdirection. “Speech… may fight the Ogre to win leisure for thought,” Pocock wrote, “language may reconquer time for politics.” For Pocock the first historians were not philosophers but rhetors, artists of speech; rhetors like Odysseus, the man of many tales.

On 30 March 1972, the Vietnamese revolutionaries begin a new offensive. Nixon escalates in response: over the next nine months the equivalent of 20 Hiroshima bombs are dropped on Vietnam. Pocock has writer’s block: it’s not a question of whether civic humanism survived, he writes in a letter on 10 May, but how on Earth it did. On 19 May, the Weather Underground bomb the Pentagon. One month later, five men are arrested at the Watergate hotel, breaking into the Democratic National Committee headquarters. They are there on the orders of the President of the United States.

Over the next 18 months corruption scandals bring down the heads of the CIA, the FBI, the vice-president, and dozens of other federal officials. The Machiavellian Moment is completed in December 1973, just as Congress begins the investigation that will topple Nixon himself. In 1964, 77 per cent of Americans expressed trust in their government; by 1974 the figure has dropped to 36 per cent. It’s striking, Pocock writes, how corruption in the US operates according to the 18th-century calculus she was intended to escape – and inspires the same existential terror. “The Nixon administration was immolated on altars originally built by the Old Whigs,” Pocock wrote; “and the knives were still sharp”.

Nixon resigns on 8 August 1974. In January 1975, the Weather Underground bomb the State Department; over the next year the organisation quietly disintegrates. It had realised, one leader reflected later, that the apocalypse wasn’t coming. Three months later, revolutionary forces enter Vietnam’s capital, Saigon, ending a decade of war. Up to four million Vietnamese are dead. One month later, in May 1975, as biennial celebrations of the American Revolution begin, The Machiavellian Moment is published.

One of Pocock’s critics suggested he “entered the world of civic humanism as a scholar and returned as a partisan”. But Pocock understood republicanism as a language, not a programme; and language is always “impure”. The founder’s belief that self-rule was possible was bound up with the conviction that America was “capable of empire without being corrupted by it”.

Machiavelli’s pessimism had been lost in English translation: Harrington was convinced an equal distribution of property could help his republic evade the corruption that doomed her predecessors. His transatlantic epigones, “with the aid of a little-contemplated genocide” applied Harrington’s theory to the frontier, where “an infinite supply of land”, assured “an infinite supply of virtue”. Votaries of the Elect Nation saw the circle of republican history redrawn as a straight line; an “apocalyptic Machiavellianism”, chasing the millennium west. A “Fourth Rome” rose on the banks of the Potomac, “perpetuating republican virtues as the Third Rome of Moscow perpetuated sacred empire.”

But Machiavelli’s pessimism has, Pocock thought, been proved right. Since the closing of the frontier in the late 1800s, America experienced “a crisis of self-perception” redoubled by the rejection of her millennial mission in Vietnam. And recovering the liberty of the ancients restored something of their madness, too. If Nixon was immolated on the altars of the old Whigs, James Harrington kindled killing flames in the forests of Vietnam; and the bomb that ignited the Capitol was set by the revolution of the saints. In the contemporary horrors of mass shootings, we can glimpse, Pocock thought, Machiavelli’s armed citizen, in anxious possession of his undivided self.

And in this, Pocock suggested, America is not exceptional at all. We know modernity, he wrote elsewhere, when we quarrel with it. The Enlightenment – or, as Pocock would clarify in his six-volume study of Edward Gibbon, the Enlightenments, plural – imagined a post-Christian civilisation by writing secular histories; they found the words with which to write them in the language of the pre-Christian dead. To be modern, Pocock wrote, is to be ancient; in past-relationships, as in all relationships, we recognise others and discover ourselves. The strange thing about voyages of discovery, he noted, is that you meet yourself on the journey back.

But to return is not to remain: as Pocock’s understanding of the past shifted, he saw the present differently. The Cold War was a family quarrel – the Fifth Rome against Red Sparta – and the fall of communism an “extinction of the last sparks of revolutionary virtue”. And although Marx’s attempt to bring history under human control ended in despotism, life under the “dictatorship of the markets” was a “second-rate freedom”: a subjugation of persons to things so total it threatened “the disintegration of the self”. “Markets had no need of historical narratives sustained over time,” Pocock wrote, “but only of constantly shifting images.” If human agency was not to be dissolved in the impersonal flux of exchange, history had to be written, and written from a self-defined – sovereign – somewhere. Even Godwits have need of solid land.

In the clash between a “developed” world that discards her past and a “developing” world disinclined to understand its past on Western terms, Pocock saw a conflict between “history assimilated and history uncontrolled”. Grand narratives have perished, but not narratives themselves, and as accounts of the past multiply, they diverge. From Gaza to Crimea, histories are at war.

The only way forward, Pocock thought, could be found in the place he set out from. “New Zealand,” he wrote in 1965, was arriving in “the mainstream of world history – the Western domination and the non-Western revolution”. New Zealand’s postwar reckoning with colonialism required settlers recognise their “nation consists of two peoples, living two histories and two understandings of what history is”. A model, Pocock suggested in his 1973 call for an “archipelagic” history of the British Isles, their former hegemon could stand to imitate.

Maori culture – paradoxical and discursive – seemed to Pocock well-suited to postmodernity’s balancing act between freedom and contingency. Calling themselves Tangata whenua, people of the land; Maori understand they were also once Tangata waka, people of the ship, and see no contradiction between the two. His long journey to New Zealand as a child had not, as he thought once, taken Pocock out of history, but “beyond the islands of myth”. It taught him “to live in more places than one and more histories than one”. Not a bad lesson, he reflected, to spend the rest of the century learning.

Thirty years after the summer of 1953, Pocock, visiting the Italian city of Reggio Calabria, looked out again over Sicily, the island his father thought was Ithaca. The Riace bronzes displayed there, he thought, hold a key to the contradictions of republicanism. In the statues, Pocock almost felt he met Achilles, armed and self-reliant: “The heroic body and the heroically unreflective intelligence rush upon you, preferring glory to length of days. But there is no statue of Odysseus because he is too many-minded to be caught in the bronze.” Somewhere, Pocock adds, he is still travelling on.

The Maori believe the past is not behind us but ahead: it contains problems we encounter again and again. Pocock recognised in Odysseus’s wanderings an ancient model for the modern. Visiting many cities but finding rest in none, we cannot escape contingency: in making history, we make and unmake our own selves. Yet the price is also a gift. There are no edges on a round world, John Pocock wrote towards the end of his life; and all islands are Ithaca. Every voyage is a journey home.

[See also: The discovery of Stuart Hall’s A Cure for Marriage]

Content from our partners
Future proofing the NHS
Where do we get the money to fix the world's biggest problems? – with ONE
Labour's health reforms can put patients first

Topics in this article : ,
Select and enter your email address Your weekly guide to the best writing on ideas, politics, books and culture every Saturday. The best way to sign up for The Saturday Read is via saturdayread.substack.com The New Statesman's quick and essential guide to the news and politics of the day. The best way to sign up for Morning Call is via morningcall.substack.com Our Thursday ideas newsletter, delving into philosophy, criticism, and intellectual history. The best way to sign up for The Salvo is via thesalvo.substack.com Stay up to date with NS events, subscription offers & updates. Weekly analysis of the shift to a new economy from the New Statesman's Spotlight on Policy team. The best way to sign up for The Green Transition is via spotlightonpolicy.substack.com
  • Administration / Office
  • Arts and Culture
  • Board Member
  • Business / Corporate Services
  • Client / Customer Services
  • Communications
  • Construction, Works, Engineering
  • Education, Curriculum and Teaching
  • Environment, Conservation and NRM
  • Facility / Grounds Management and Maintenance
  • Finance Management
  • Health - Medical and Nursing Management
  • HR, Training and Organisational Development
  • Information and Communications Technology
  • Information Services, Statistics, Records, Archives
  • Infrastructure Management - Transport, Utilities
  • Legal Officers and Practitioners
  • Librarians and Library Management
  • Management
  • Marketing
  • OH&S, Risk Management
  • Operations Management
  • Planning, Policy, Strategy
  • Printing, Design, Publishing, Web
  • Projects, Programs and Advisors
  • Property, Assets and Fleet Management
  • Public Relations and Media
  • Purchasing and Procurement
  • Quality Management
  • Science and Technical Research and Development
  • Security and Law Enforcement
  • Service Delivery
  • Sport and Recreation
  • Travel, Accommodation, Tourism
  • Wellbeing, Community / Social Services
Visit our privacy Policy for more information about our services, how New Statesman Media Group may use, process and share your personal data, including information on your rights in respect of your personal data and how you can unsubscribe from future marketing communications.
THANK YOU