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.

October 22, 2009

Animal Studies


Years and years ago, my brother was a vegetarian. Because I was an immature student I would tell him that he was participating in the mass murder of plants. It is not a particularly subtle or good argument against vegetarianism but it does raise what I think is a legitimate question about the reasons why we accord moral personality to some things and not others. We do so on the basis of the reactions whereby the other agent demonstrates to us a feeling that we identify with and empathise with. If I hit you, your reaction reminds me of what it is to be hit. If I shoot a pig, its squeel reminds me of what it is to be shot. Even those who advocate that we should give plants rights use this argument by suggesting that plants scream as their stalks are cut. This drives me onto a point of worry in terms of what is now called Animal Studies.

Animal Studies is a new field- spanning all the humanities. It looks at animals as interesting units. So a historian might write about the fate of dogs and horses in world war one as they were used for military reasons- a philosopher might consider the rights of animals and a literature theorist the division between humans and animals in literature. Reading an article in Chronicle which serves as an introduction to the field, despite the fact that as one commenter says it does not mention the leading philosopher of animal rights Peter Singer, something struck me. The problem with according animals rights or moral personality is not a problem about whether they should have rights or personality- ie it is not a problem about whether human life is preferable to animal life. Rather it is a distinct problem about the fact that the mind of an animal is unknowable: I presume to guess that you think similarly to me: so we would both abhore slavery even if it came with unlimited sufficiency- but I cannot do so with a pig.

This affects our moral judgements and our ability to judge for animals about what they would prefer in a given situation. Take the situation of a pig being fattened for slaughter. All human beings that I know would say that they object to that: they can see that the pleasure of more food and comfortable surroundings is being exchanged for an uncertain, painful and final future. We discount present happiness into the future: we do so with sadness too- studying for exams is no fun, but students do it to acheive a degree or qualification that will they hope benefit them. Are the same calculations made by pigs though? How do we know whether a pig would prefer to have an endless supply of food in exchange for a shortened life? The answer is that we do not know whether a pig would prefer that because we do not know what kind of idea of the future the pig has. We could imagine that the pig is a human being: but that seems to me to unwrite the whole idea of the animal having rights, the fundemental right is the right to define what is good for me.

There are two reasons why animal feelings are inaccessible to me whereas human feelings are not so inaccessible. The first is the obvious: I am a human so are you. Therefore when you and I come to the same situation we are likely to react in the same way. Despite our greater simularity this begs the same question though as my pig example- how do I know that I am not defining through my sympathy your good, how do I know that my morality is not moral but paternalistic. That is where the second key distinction comes in, language. You can tell me what you prefer in a given situation- you can inform me of what you see as the good and I can adjust my perceptions in response. Language is not a perfect tool of communication but it beats a grunt. The pig cannot tell me what it wants and therefore how can I presume to know what it wants- in that sense is it meaningless to talk about animal desires and animal wants, and therefore the rights to acheive them?

I don't say this to dismiss the whole idea of animal rights- others will know more and think more about this than me and may have answered these questions. But that is the central issue to me: defining animal rights means defining what is good for an animal and ultimately the internal consciousness of an animal is an undiscovered country to me. Its subjective impression of what it wants is something I do not know and therefore I cannot know if it would prefer say, a short life of abundant plenty followed by death or a longer life of scarcity but without the prospect of the farmer's knife. I know what I would prefer, but I don't think its my right to impose my preference on a pig, a chicken or anything else for that matter.

October 20, 2009

Book Review: Forlorn Hope: Soldier Radicals of the Seventeenth Century

Antonia Southern's Forlorn Hope is an account of the English Civil War from the perspective of its military. She writes a collective biography of four radical soldiers- Thomas Rainborough, his brother William Rainborough, Edward Sexby and Richard Rumbold. All three lived interesting lives. Thomas Rainborough fought in Ireland, then in England- was an experienced commander on land and sea and Vice Admiral of the English navy for a couple of months. He was an opponent of Cromwell's at Putney, famously saying that the poorest he in England had as much a right to life as the richest he and consequently as much a right to the vote. His brother William was less senior and less famous- also commanded in Ireland and returned to England. William Rainborough was active within the army politically and later became a ranter- a religious radical who beleived that he was saved and therefore that it was impossible for him to sin. Edward Sexby was another radical figure whose political career began in 1647- also present at Putney, he memorably told the generals that if he did not receive the vote he did not understand what he had been fighting for. Sexby was promoted until 1653, when he was tried for corruption in Scotland and then he drifted into intelligence work and becoming a plotter with the royalists against Cromwell. Rumbold lastly was a soldier who signed one pamphlet during the civil war- he later emerged as a plotter against Charles II and was executed for his part in the Rye House Plot in 1683.

Southern has assembled an interesting caste therefore- their political careers span 40 years- from 1641 until 1683. All of them have lives that were veiled partially in obscurity: we do not know much about either Rainborough before the 1640s, Sexby's life before 1632 is a complete mystery (we know that in that year he was apprenticed) and Rumbold's is a product of speculation. One of them was ambushed and killed during the civil war (Thomas Rainborough), two were executed (Edward Sexby in 1657 and Rumbold in 1683) and we know nothing of what happened to William Rainborough in America. All four were politically committed- and through them Southern is able to tell us about other figures: Oliver Cromwell, Thomas Fairfax and Charles I perhaps most notably. However the book is not a success and partially that is because of its format- Southern adopts the approach of writing an essay about all three characters, this means that she repeats territory in the 1640s three times (first with Thomas, second with William and third with Sexby). The second major problem though is historical.

Southern has done some good work here- she obviously has tried to find out what she could about these men and their careers, her notes are reasonable- and Rumbold definitely is a figure that civil war historians ought not to forget about. However her work is flawed- partly because she is ignorant of more recent historiography (not her fault but Putney in particular has been revisited importantly since she wrote by John Morrill and others in ways that have changed our understanding of what the great debate was about) and partly because she misses several key things in the sources. Most notable is the fact that this is a very secular history of a very religious society. William Rainborough was a Ranter because he believed in a form of antinomianism- it would have been nice to hear more about the creed for which he risked his life. Southern tells us nothing- save she presumes that he did it because he was disappointed politically. Thomas Rainborough's arguments at Putney are strongly marked by religion: Southern knows this is true (she mentions it) but passes over it as insignificant before his support for democracy. Sexby is a very interesting and subtle thinker- Southern has little to say in explanation beyond contrasting him with what we might think today. Her tendency is to always compare the past to the present: perhaps her most illuminating insight is the way that she sees the profession of soldiery changing from a politically active into a democratically servile proffession- that seems to be her main interest but it is still a contrast between past and present rather than an examination of the past.

At some point, as historians we have to try and understand the world as they saw it rather than as we see them. It is not easy to do and the inevitability of failure hangs in the air but constantly asking what is different from where we stand or similar may not lead us to see that. I think Southern made a creditable effort here- it was her misfortune to publish just as the kind of history of the army that she wrote was going out of fashion, and just as others were about to publish more illuminating work- but she could have approached her sources and her figures with more imagination. Arnaldo Momigliano once said that there are two tasks as a historian: the first is to find a good question, the second to answer it. Though she partially fails the second test- her decision to write a biography of Sexby, Rainborough (both) and Rumbold was a good one- hopefully others will follow her lead.

October 19, 2009

St Dominic's

William Dell, not his real name, published in the early 1980s an anthropological analysis of a Cambridge college called St Dominic's. St Dominic's is a real college in Cambridge under a disguise- the clue is in the name. The point about St Dominic's as Dell portrays it is that it is a little absurd: old dons fall asleep during governing body, the bursar's committee is the only committee in college to stand above the wine committee and the gardening committee, fines for being late come in claret and teaching is done over tea or sherry depending on the time of day and the mood of the don. Oxford and Cambridge have changed since then- they are more open places, open to women in particular- and they are less conservative than they once were. They still have oddities and they still harbour eccentricities that an unkind eye would stigmatise. They still live and die by a tutorial system that is as terrifying and rigorous an education as you can get, have within them exceptionally intelligent, learned and cosmopolitan people but still function on the basis of small rules and hidden insults. They are a mixture between the mannered, the kind, the cruel and the learned. St Dominic's has changed since William Dell wrote this article, but maybe not as much as some might have expected in the early 1980s.

October 18, 2009

The Virtues of Narrative History

Those who know me well will pause perhaps at the title of this post. Given my contempt for lazy narrative history it might seem strange that I think there is a large and important place for narrative history within historiographical studies- but I do. Narrative history appeals to the fundemental nature of historians- as this post comments, we are ultimately storytellers. Historia, in the original Greek, means story. But narrative history has another function. One of the depressing things about historians themselves as well as the general population is how little we know outside of our own specialism or time. For whatever is being studied there is always a greater context: so for example, there must be political ways in which the industrious revolution in India and in Britain in the 17th and 18th Centuries affected both countries. Narrative history is in its widest sense a cure for that kind of historical parochialism: it can make us aware as say Braudel made us aware of the long duree- of the great rhythms of history, whether those be the rhythms of the harvest or of the tides. As historians become narrower and narrower in their focus and less and less willing to make a mistake, it is worth maybe considering whether errors are better than parochialism, whether narrative can lead to insight, whether span of knowledge is really less important than depth.