October 24, 2009

Review: Paul Rahe Against Throne and Altar: Machiavelli and Political Theory under the English Republic

Paul Rahe's Against Throne and Altar is nothing if it is not ambitious. Starting with Al Farabi, working through Avicenna, Averroes and Maimonodes, he traces a line of thinking into the work of Machiavelli and through his ruminations into the thought of Francis Bacon, Marchamont Nedham, John Milton and James Harrington. His work culminates with a discussion of the way that Thomas Hobbes reformulated the concerns of Machiavelli- we finish with Hobbes and Harrington in the world of what Rahe calls a bourgeois republicanism. The vastness of the work means any reviewer will be taken outside the world they are comfortable with- and the vastness of the erudition means that Rahe's work is not merely difficult to challenge, when he is not on your own ground, he is impossible to challenge. I noticed as you might in such a work a couple of errors: John Wildman for example is given authorship of the tract, the Case of the Army truly stated, when as recent scholarship (published before Rahe published) suggests the author might have been Edward Sexby. But small errors are bound to exist in a work of this breadth and in general the scholarship is magnificent and awe inspiring: there are not many civil war students who comb the Bodleian Library Record for example for Jason Peacey's interesting article on Marchamont Nedham and the Lawrens letter, but Rahe has read it and absorbed it.

The argument he advances in the book is that there was a hidden tradition from the Arabic scholars forwards in philosophy. Let us describe the tradition and then describe the 'hidden element'. The tradition that Rahe describes has two elements that we must understand: in describing them we must commit a caricature. The first is that these thinkers from Averroes and Maimonides forwards problematised the cultural hegemony of revealed religion (83)- they viewed that as a political issue for philosophers and Kings to understand and work with or against. Rahe agrees with Marlowe who had Machiavelli say 'I count religion but a childish toy and hold there is no sinne but ignorance' (cited 85). Marchamont Nedham held a 'skepticism in matters religious or moral'. (185) Francis Bacon also repudiated Christianity (256) as did Hobbes (259). Rahe associates all of the later thinkers with the reception of Paolo Sarpi's history of the Council of Trent and Hobbes in particular he moves close to the sceptical French clergymen, Gassendi and Mersenne.

The second strand of Rahe's argument is to suggest that what bound all these thinkers together was a repudiation of a classical concept of Republicanism, based on virtue and education. He suggests that Machiavelli was not a classical republican and that neither were his followers. Rather Rahe suggests Machiavelli created a Republicanism based upon interest: and the assumption that all human beings were selfish and evil. This Republicanism then became the model for Thomas Hobbes, Nedham, Milton and Harrington in different ways. Hobbes created a psychology for the Machiavellian individual, Harrington created a political sociology for that individual. Both though benefitted from Francis Bacon who suggested that striving could take a peaceful and a warlike form: Machiavelli had supported states who were internally unstable, Bacon argued that human striving could be turned in an apolitical direction. The revolution that produces the bourgeois concept of history and the bourgeois concept of politics is one that turns political theory of an Aristotelian nature into historical speculation (Machiavelli) and thence into economics and sociology with Harrington and Bacon. This second trajectory ties to the first because in its rejection of reason and virtue as things that govern politics, it rejects the classical and Christian concept of man, placing over that a Epicurean concept of man as one who seeks, in Hobbes's phrase, power after power.

There is a lot to absorb here and I have not done Rahe's argument full justice- but in the space of a review it is almost impossible to do so. I have a couple of major problems with it which I wish to outline and a styllistic point which irritated me as I read the book. The first major problem with Rahe's book is his wilful ignorance of religion as a factor in the minds of those he describes. I can understand suggestions that Thomas Hobbes was an atheist- that seems to have some evidence for it- but John Milton's atheism strikes me as a strange position to adopt. Milton was as minded of the Bible as of classical precedent. To interpret everything Milton says as atheistical is to me a misunderstanding: to take an example, Rahe quotes Milton protesting about the prelates of England being able to override the common law and suggests that this is evidence of Milton's anticlericalism and hence his atheism. Milton's argument is reminiscent of arguments made by impecably devout Parliamentarians (including Cromwell) against the court of Chancery: Rahe has taken a single case and blown it into an argument for Milton's atheism when actually it arises out of a political tradition that includes the impecabbly devout. Rahe is unwilling to acknowledge how wide some of the languages that he talked spread within early modern Europe, when Harrington talks about the public interest, he need not be quoting Machiavelli as Rahe presumes (325), plenty of other thinkers including Henry Parker and Oliver Cromwell made use of that concept.

The second major objection I have is to the idea that if someone writes something down, because of their own interests (most often fear) what they mean is something different. I would not disagree that this does happen within life and history- but when interpreting a text written hundreds of years ago, it seems to me to be an unsafe presumption that the way to craft a tradition is to assume that those you want to put in it are lying when they contradict it. I am happy where there is evidence to accept that sometimes people do create an impression in order to preserve them from public calumny: but it needs to be proved that this is the move they are making, before we accept that this is the basis of interpretation we should use for a political tract. So Rahe for example tells us that Milton took on a mask of orthodox Christianity: I am unconvinced because I see no evidence of it. This is afterall the poet who said that Greek and latin poetry 'will far be found unworthy to compare with Sion's songs'.

These objections are important because what Rahe is trying to do is create a tradition of early modern republicanism to replace those created by John Pocock and Quentin Skinner. I am not expert enough, particularly in Machiavelli, Hobbes and Harrington to provide an answer to whether he succeeds or not but I have concerns. There are points in common between Rahe and Pocock in particular, that he does not stress but I think are important. Both of them are alive to a historical turn in Early modern thought: to the problematic of Machiavellianism being the replacement of political philosophy by history. Pocock of course has taken this to its furthest extent by leaving the 17th century and going to the great English historian of the 18th Century- Edward Gibbon. Rahe shares Skinner's analysis of Hobbes's concept of freedom. But he differs from them: both in the sense that he suggests the Renaissance marks a break with what had gone before and in the sense that he wants Machiavelli as the founder of something, rather than the renewer of classical republicanism. Rahe has amazingly long footnotes and occasionally this quarrell is distractingly relegated to those footnotes- if you are reading this book, you must read the footnotes as well as the text. I will leave both substantive questions to specialists in Machiavelli and classical republicanism.

Where I do think he is in error though is in his overestimation of the importance of the classical and his dimnuition of the importance of the Biblical. Rahe seems to me to play down the biblical resonances in what some of his authors- particularly Milton- are saying. He seems forever able to find a quote from the classics that his authors are referring to: but there were moments in the book when I found myself spotting hints of biblical language Rahe did not mention. Furthermore this is definitely a book about the great men of political thinking and not about the lesser inhabitants of that world- it sells itself as such but it is important to remember- partly because it misses out the world around those thinkers, and partly because (as Skinner and Pocock would rightly suggest) you need to understand those other thinkers to understand the great men. Rahe lumps together his great men- assuming that they had a conversation beyond and above the conversation that lesser beings took part in: I am not sure that is a fair assumption nor am I that those 'great' men are necessarily above the fray for any reason greater than that generations of historians have said they were great.

Reading Rahe's book I was impressed by the scholarship and the argument: I am not sure I am convinced and will need to reread by Machiavelli before I acknowledge the main thrust of his argument. His book is not perfect and leaving out the biblical aspect of the world frustrates me (it does about many intellectual historians who tend to assume that their authors were atheist dons in the 20th Century debating about Bush and Obama not men of the 17th or 18th Centuries). But his footnotes are a delight, his scholarship is inspiring and if his book is difficult to respond to instantly, it is also provocative and interesting. It may not convince you immediately or ever- but it will make you think.