David Armitage, ed. British Political Thought in History, Literature and Theory, 1500-1800. Cambridge and New York: Cambridge UP, 2006. xi+338pp. ISBN-13: 9780521870412.

Charles W. A. Prior
University of Hull

Charles W. A. Prior. "Review of David Armitage, ed. British Political Thought in History, Literature and Theory, 1500-1800"Early Modern Literary Studies 13.3 (January, 2008) 8.1-6<URL: http://purl.oclc.org/emls/13-3/revarmit.htm>.

  1. These essays stem from a conference held to mark the anniversary of the foundation of the Center for the History of British Political Thought, established by John Pocock and others at the Folger Shakespeare Library in 1985. The influence of the Center has been immense: 6 volumes of Proceedings edited by Gordon Schochet, a collection epitomising these proceedings and edited by Pocock and Schochet along with Lois Schwoerer, and a minor flood of monographs and edited collections. As Pocock noted in an article published in the Journal of British Studies in 1985-and which is now recognised as the Center's 'manifesto'-'No comprehensive history of British political thought in this period has to our knowledge been written, and it is an open question of what it should consist and what its organising themes should be'. As this collection reveals, the question is still very much open. Or is it?

  2. Pocock made two major contributions to the founding of the Folger Center. The first was the methodological approach of the 'Cambridge school', consisting of Pocock, Schochet, John Dunn, Quentin Skinner, and others who were taught and influenced by Peter Laslett. It was the latter's edition of Locke's Treatises that set the bar for establishing texts within their historical contexts, and Pocock has continued to add to the methodological position of the Cambridge School in a series of seminal articles on political languages and speech. The second contribution was the perspective on the 'new' British history, itself traceable to a lecture Pocock delivered in New Zealand in 1973, and which was published in North America in 1975. Most recently, Pocock's essays on the subject have been published as The Discovery of Islands (2005). Hence, from the early 1960s, Pocock has been concerned not only with defining what political thought is and how it should be studied, but also with the topical and geographic scope of what and where British political thought is and can be found.

  3. The present collection is less a salute to the achievements of the Folger, than it is an exercise in taking stock, pointing out new modes of enquiry and engaging in what Armitage calls 'disciplinary dialogues'. The book is divided into three sections of four essays each; an introduction by Pocock, Schochet and Schwoerer recalls the context in which the Center was established, and an Afterword by Quentin Skinner weighs in on the merits of each contribution. The first section, with essays by John Morrill, Colin Kidd, Nicholas Canny and Tim Harris, deals with topics that have been central to activity at the Folger since its foundation: the 'new' British history, and the 'matter of Britain'--that is, how to fit three kingdoms into a single history and a coherent conceptual framework. Morrill and Kidd think this worth doing, while Canny and Harris have their doubts, given that there were vernacular and 'national' political issues that are not readily intelligible within a 'British' context, and vice versa. Kidd meanwhile argues that we should pay closer attention to ecclesiology (debate on the nature of the doctrine and discipline of the Church) as an engine of political thinking. As he remarks,
    British debates over ecclesiastical jurisdiction developed into disputes over church government, the relationship of church and state, and, by extension, over the location of sovereignty within the state. (55)
    Within the vast and largely unstudied body of pamphlet literature published in the early modern period, surely the largest sub-set deals with the Church and its relation to the realm. Recent scholarship has demonstrated that this literature repays careful political analysis, not least because the Reformation brought the Church within the channels of civil sovereignty, while leaving a number of political and legal powers in the hands of clerics. As respects the 'British' dimension, the arguments of Canny and (especially) Harris are tempered somewhat by the fact that the Union of the Crowns brought two churches (those of Scotland and England) together under the rule of a single sovereign, while Ireland remained a polyglot kingdom/colony, part Protestant and part Catholic. In 1641, all Three Kingdoms went to war over the matter of religion, as well as their relation to one another as political units gathered into one whole. The implications of this conflict were played out at the Boyne and at Culloden in the eighteenth century, and can be seen to constitute a major theme in the political history of the Isles throughout the early modern period.

  4. The next section deals with literature, itself once a topic of interest among the historically-minded, but lately obscured by the murk of post-colonialism and other approaches of the moment. Andrew Hadfield takes up the language of republicanism and reminds us of the extent to which it was rooted in the grammar school curriculum and the works of Livy, Polybius, Cicero and others. A nice point, but how did these ideas fit within the monarchical and religious culture of early modern England? Similarly, Jean Howard's discussion of Shakespeare's history plays relies on a connection between drama and political life that is in need of more exploration. She argues that these plays served as occasions at which 'theatregoers confronted their national past' and were invited to interpret it within the context of debates on sovereignty and 'the proper relationship of the people to their rulers' (143). The problem with extracting political meaning from literary sources may lie in close readings that are not sufficiently anchored in the surrounding historical context. As much is suggested by Steven Zwicker's characteristically fluent essay on Dryden, which argues that the use of irony, 'veiling' and innuendo all serve as a 'report on the condition and capacities of political language' (153). This would appeal, as Zwicker puts it, to the 'esoteric and exoteric' communities of readers, and at this point one wonders if the goods were not delivered more clearly by the lesser lights in the constellation of the Poems on Affairs of State. By far the strongest essay in the section is Karen O'Brien's analysis of literature as a venue for the elaboration of discussions of 'liberty' and 'benevolence' in connection with the British empire. It was not until the nineteenth century that ideas of trusteeship came to be applied to the relationship between empire and its indigenous subjects, and O'Brien convincingly shows that these themes were first aired in early eighteenth-century verse.

  5. The final section seeks to 'use' history as a way of more firmly understanding aspects of contemporary political theory. This was never really part of the Folger's mandate, and Pocock himself has recently cautioned against seeking to elide political philosophy with the history of political thought, and has noted (quite rightly) that each has a different relationship to history and should be so treated by the historian [1]. Tracing the 'history' of a concept such as 'rights'--as Duncan Ivison here attempts--is complicated by the fact that it is impossible to establish a precise genealogy and grasp of what each author 'intended' by the word which, in modern usage, has become a concept. So much was the thrust of Quentin Skinner's stern injunction of 1969, but lately he himself seems to have abandoned the position by seeking the roots of 'liberty' in what he conventionally calls 'the English revolution'. If we recall the essays by John Morrill and Colin Kidd, we realise that what took place in the 1640s was neither English nor a revolution, a fact that complicates Skinner's chosen point of origin for his search into the roots of 'Liberty before Liberalism'. To return to the essays in the final section, the reader familiar with the aims and output of the Folger Center will find them a curious group: here we have Bahktin and radical feminists (in essays by Joanne Wright and Kirstie McClure) and with them we journey back in time to the seventeenth century, where the 1660s are made to look like the 1960s. In McClure's occasionally brilliant discussion of the afterlife of certain political texts, we leave behind the soundly historical and contextual method that has distinguished the work of the Folger, and are invited to embrace the democratising principles of the internet, 'where the reading of historical texts and the theorizing of future possibilities is [sic] likely to take shape' (253). In the final chapter, Richard Flathman wonders if history has any relevance for the study of political thought, and concludes by embracing the relativism that lurks below the surface of the final section: rather than deliberately composed responses to a clearly defined and clearly understood issue, our sources are mere sallies in a series of 'language games' and, as McClure tells us again, the internet makes it possible for 'contemporary readers to make what they will of them' (277, 253).

  6. The book concludes, as has been mentioned, with an Afterword by Quentin Skinner, whose typically sharp observations go some way toward undermining the arguments put forth in the preceding essays. For example, concluding his discussion of the section on literature and the significant labours of Hadfield, Howard and Zwicker, he is prompted to wonder 'if there may not after all be a relatively limited role for poetry to play as a vehicle for effective political argument' (281). Here we find the cat is out of the bag, for what does Skinner mean by 'effective' political argument, especially in an historical context? Effective for whom, and for what? The answer emerges over the page, where Skinner urges us to ponder the relationship between 'early modernity and the present'--by which he must mean 'modernity' itself. He continues: 'Unless we wish to turn ourselves into the kind of antiquarian seemingly commended at the end of Professor Kidd's chapter, we shall want to take advantage of whatever insights we can gain from each of these historical periods in order to illuminate the other' (282). Hence, the past is there to serve us as we grapple with what Skinner calls 'our present predicament', as if such a phenomenon is agreed to exist in such definitive singularity. Once again, the answer comes later, for what Skinner has in mind are 'rights' and the 'institutions needed to enforce' them.

  7. Instead of the disciplinary dialogue touted by its editor, this collection more closely resembles the emergence of a single set of perspectives. Rather than belonging to its own context, the past serves as a place to look for the origins of ideas aligned with Rawlsian liberalism, and as a source of precedent to vindicate the legitimacy of a particular branch of contemporary political philosophy. Gone too are the tools and techniques of the historians, as all are invited to 'play language games' with historical sources, the better to 'make what they can of them'. And what of the attention paid to the 'ephemeral tracts and pamphlets' described in Pocock's article of 1985? As Skinner notes, 'As many of the chapters in this book reveal, we scarcely consider it worthwhile to contextualise writers whom we take to be of marginal interest or importance'. Instead, it is back to the Canon of 'great books', and to 'decoding the myriad speech acts they contain' (283, 284). So here we have the historian as gate-keeper and decoder, engaging with the past on his own terms, and allowing it to speak to him in a language (comprised of 'codes' and 'games') that he has devised for it. In the end, I suspect that most readers of this collection will set it aside without being convinced that the new directions and methods proposed by Skinner represent an improvement on the Folger's demonstrated commitment to, and success at, sound historical contextualism.


[1]J. G. A. Pocock, 'Quentin Skinner: The History of Politics and the Politics of History', Common Knowledge, 10 n. 2 (2004), pp. 532-50.

Responses to this piece intended for the Readers' Forum may be sent to the Editor at M.Steggle@shu.ac.uk.

© 2008-, Matthew Steggle (Editor, EMLS).