U.S. Intellectual History Blog

The Voyages of J.G.A. Pocock

Editor's Note

Matthew Crow received his PhD from UCLA and teaches history at Hobart and William Smith Colleges in Geneva, NY. He is the author of Thomas Jefferson, Legal History, and the Art of Recollection (Cambridge, 2017), and is working on a new project, Cetacean Constitutions: Whales, Humans, and Historical Change in the World of Herman Melville.

Thanks to USIH blog editor L.D. Burnett for the chance to think in public about the work of J.G.A. Pocock. I want to suggest that Pocock, in some ways he probably didn’t intend, gives us some of the best tools we have to think politically about historiography, and historiographically about politics. I think it would be good for historians to do more of both of those things, or better yet, to think of these things as inseparable and an important part of what it means to be a historian.

I should say at the outset that part of what I see myself doing here is just geeking out about L.D.’s Pocock posts, having seriously entertained the idea of working on Pocock as part of modern global intellectual history for a second book project. I gave up on that, for now (and I don’t regret it), largely because in discussing this with people I never had anyone who could tell me with a straight face that it sounded like a good idea, or that I had the requisite blessings and authorities to proceed with such a project in the first place. Other reasons, too, but that is what stands out. It is actually pretty tough to acknowledge an intellectual debt and work on a thinker while maintaining some control over one’s powers, as Walter Benjamin would put it, without surrendering the analytical engine over to them and their terms. I’m still figuring that out, but I know from reading Pocock that no thinker gets to fully control the uses and meanings of their own words. I also know that I’ll be exercising my debt to his writing for the rest of my life, even as I think with it in ways that I hope break it down a little, set it adrift and let it get hammered a bit by the waves of the oceanic history of law and empire to which it points, and put fragments of it to new and hopefully constructive use.

Appropriately enough, L.D.’s posts are part of her public reflection on her research (and experience) of the culture wars and the western canon curriculum at Stanford. And what are the culture wars but fights over public or civic historiography, over the narratives that constitute politics and political imagination in the present? That this is a large part of what politics consists of, and that historical interpretation of those narratives and their constructions and uses over time is therefore inescapably a civic and political act, seems to me a large part of what J.G.A. Pocock’s career is about. Those concerns are signposted in his first book, The Ancient Constitution and the Feudal Law (1957), about the emergence of critical historical thought in the common law theory of seventeenth century England, and they get carried right through to his magnum opus, Barbarism and Religion (1999-2015), a six-volume study of Gibbon’s first three volumes of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire (1776-1781).

For scholars of early American and US intellectual history, Pocock’s name is largely associated with his Machiavellian Moment (1976). But the US engagement with that book was pretty narrow and focused almost exclusively on the last two chapters at best, dealing with the how the argument touched on the American Revolution and Founding, Actually, the Machiavellian Moment is a comparatively small piece of a larger inquiry into the relationship between politics and historiography.

So, what is that relationship? For Pocock, I think Machiavelli and Gibbon are the big touchstones here, with help from Sir Edward Coke and James Harrington. In the Machiavellian vein, what is at stake in princely conduct is the art of literally forming the material of the polity, including the history, the built environment, and the kind of people that will make it up. There is a relationship to history here that is activist and constructivist. Machiavelli is highly attuned not just to classical wisdom and exemplars, but to the possible reception history of those models and memories as they get put to use in the present, or to put it simply, to the politics of history. Historical thinking can and should include the goal of a developed and collective ability to put history work in politics. If you don’t use the past, you can be certain that someone else will. When Machiavelli’s advice to wrestle fortuna to the ground remains the foundation for a male-dominated political world and historical self-understanding, it is time for some untimely re-appropriation, as Hannah Pitkin and Bonnie Honig suggest (1).

William Hodges, “A View of the Monuments of Easter Island, Rapanui” 1775-1776

Contrary to the frequent image we have of traditional (and traditionalist) “Cambridge school” intellectual history, in his methodological writings Pocock makes his debts to this Machiavellian, even Nietzchean attention to the uses of history pretty clear (2). What balances that out for him is a sense of custom and prudent regard for the development of civic culture over time (Pocock mixes the conservative tradition of Michael Oakeshott into his thinking, too). Gibbon, the Tory historian writing in the age of revolutions, works both of these threads into his extended analysis of Roman history. In Gibbon’s concluding chapters, and later in Pocock’s hands, that analysis becomes a consideration of how the idea of decline and fall haunts the history of the making of modern Europe. The story of early modern European and American political thought is the story of the tension between that haunting and the emergent narrative suggesting that commerce and print (economics and communications technology) make many of the problems posed by the haunting legacy of Rome merely academic. For all of our progress, the appeal of that old civic humanist and neo-Roman tradition of the inevitable corruption of republics has enjoyed a renaissance of its own since 2016, and understandably so. Call me an early modernist, but I think we still live in that tension.

Pocock writes of Gibbon, who lived and wrote in the age of revolutions and the multiple upheavals of the crises of empire in the eighteenth century, that “he had himself wondered if history could continue to be written under the conditions surrounding him as he wrote.” It is fair, I think, to see Pocock using Gibbon here to think about himself and what it means to write history today (anyone who spends their eighties and nineties writing a six volume book about the writing of a six volume book has some skin in the game, and there’s nothing wrong with that: history should be used to think about ourselves and our worlds, otherwise it really is just academic). History requires a political setting of people debating and changing their stories about themselves to be something else besides just one thing after another. Likewise, politics requires history in the sense that political argument and reflection are made up of the contest of different narratives and images of the past. It would be difficult to conceive of a politics that was not in this sense identity politics. One way of taking stock of the health of a polity is the availability and use of a plurality of its histories, of its comfort in criticizing and reassessing those histories, and so if its access to its history, or of what one might call civic historiography. Today, political discourse and a good deal of our consciousness of the history being made seems to be largely focused on palace intrigue, the bed and psyche of the king and not the debates in our councils. That in and of itself is a sign of an unhealthy republic. In other words, as many have accepted, for many different reasons, we’re screwed.

But maybe not. New histories are being imagined and dreamt of in the service of new kinds of politics and new kinds of belonging. If the politics of the United States today is driven by the resurgence of all sorts of narratives and histories thought to have been put aside, then historians (and especially intellectual historians) have an opportunity to think broadly about their role in providing access to the narratives that make up politics, to broaden what gets acknowledged as political narrative, and just as importantly, to provide access to the making and unmaking of those narratives, to get students and readers and people at large to see themselves as actors in the putting together of the stories they tell themselves rather than mere inheritors, or worse-yet, instruments of the stories told by others. Museums and archives are a good place for this, but they are not the only good places. They can’t be. One wonders, with hope, what a collective identity politics could look like. I can’t say I know for sure, but in the profound recollections and upheavals of the present, you can see it coming.

That means, I think, that one other tension or question that comes up here is how useful these traditional humanist narratives and concepts can be today. They seem as relevant as they have ever been, but can they contribute to a new conjecture or are they getting in the way? What of the relationship between republican constitutionalism and its Jeffersonian ties to white supremacy, gendered mastery, and settler colonialism can be rescued, if anything, or is that even the question? Can we afford to tell ourselves we have moved on to other problems, that we are “after” them, as has become so fashionable to argue about nature and history and the human and the humanities today? I don’t know. If “we have never been modern,” are we then still early modern? (3).

What I do know is that the polite contextualism and the history of scholarship for its own sake that seems to have won the day “after” Pocock has real limits, and Pocock, in spite of himself, helps us be a bit more realist and political about the uses of history for thinking about the present. His Machiavellian Moment, after all, is the work of a historian raised in New Zealand who grounded his argument in the importance of a previously little-studied seventeenth century English political tract, James Harrington’s Commonwealth of Oceana, which ends with a vision of settler colonial liberty extending outward into the world. This is the history of voyaging, settlement, and empire that Pocock calls attention to in his volume of essays The Discovery of Islands (2005). So, certainly, one way to think about the great books curriculum at Stanford (or at the royal and ancient Revelle College of UC San Diego, my own alma mater) would be as the accumulated and authoritative wisdom of the Mediterranean neatly inherited across the Atlantic and distilled for young minds as the western tradition.

But a better way to think about it is the story of the plurality of narratives generated by settler colonialism and its discontents on a global scale. In other words, two transplanted Northern Californians reading Pocock has little to do with the western canon and much more to do with the settler polities of the Pacific Rim and the increasing necessity of coming to terms with indigenous, postcolonial, and imperial histories of themselves and the other people who live and have lived there. I’ll speak only for myself here: from my vantage point in central New York this perspective of ocean and empire is the history of the Great Lakes, the St. Lawrence River’s seaway to the North Atlantic and Arctic, and of the Iroquois northern borderlands of the watersheds of the Chesapeake, and just to the east, of the Connecticut River valley and the southern coast of New England, themselves historically tied to the Atlantic and the Caribbean, to slavery and the central Atlantic coast of Africa and the civilizations around its great rivers; to the indigenous people of the islands of the central Atlantic and the Pacific; to the Indian Ocean and the global constitution of commerce and empire; and to the Southern Ocean and its gateway to the Pacific, and, for that matter, to the whales that empire followed there. Plurality, indeed. I think our histories have barely begun to gage their own depth.

Pocock’s work is about the collection of old histories and their places in the present, and I think it can help make new history. For all of the skepticism and weariness justly felt today, in and out of the academy, a careful reader of Pocock (and Melville, and this blog) keeps a weather eye on an expanding historical horizon.


1) Hannah Pitikin, Fortune is a Woman: Gender and Politics in the Thought of Niccolo Machiavelli (California, 1992); Bonnie Honig, Political Theory and the Displacement of Politics (Cornell, 1993).

2) Pocock, Political Thought and History: Essays on Theory and Method (Cambridge, 2009).

3) Bruno Latour, We Have Never Been Modern, Catherine Porter, trans (Harvard, 1993).

6 Thoughts on this Post

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  1. Enjoyed this essay.

    To pick up on only one, and admittedly probably not the most important, of the several threads in the post — namely, the decline-and-fall (of republics and/or empires) theme and its tension with other views — it strikes me that it might be interesting to look at how the theme of declinism w/r/t the U.S. has played out in both elite and mass politics and discourse in the last several decades. (Someone has probably already done this.)

    The notion of the inevitable corruption of republics has enjoyed a renaissance since the election of 2016, as you mention, but well before that the idea that the U.S. as an “imperial republic” (Raymond Aron’s phrase) was on a downward (whether reversible or not) trajectory had been in the air. To take an arbitrary and fairly recent jump-off point, one could back to the not-so-veiled message of Paul Kennedy’s The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers (1987), and the responses to it, and trace it from there, to Trump’s notorious 2016 campaign slogan and HRC’s rejoinder.

    How one could get, say, Pocock, Gibbon, Montesquieu, James Harrington, Paul Kennedy, Thomas Friedman [!], Trump, and Hillary Clinton between the covers of one book I’m not too sure, but for someone out there in search of a diss. topic, perhaps it’s worth considering…

    • Thanks for this comment, and I totally agree that a really interesting series of projects would be cultural and intellectual histories of decline-and-fall-ism(s). Puritans and modern Puritan historiography would come into that, republic and empire discourse, corruption, etc. I think republican/democratic criticisms have a long life here (the agrarian tradition, Hannah Arendt, communitarianism, Sheldon Wolin would be another one. And it would play into a history of conservatism, too. Lots of stuff there. Gary Hart is another voice that brings that tradition to the present.

      I don’t think, though, that republican constitutionalism can be just reasserted or recovered, not without some active reworking. It has a history of racial occlusion, gendered mastery, and settler colonialism that really needs to be addressed and thought through. What is the history of the idea of the citizen, and what can we do with it today? One of the things that makes Pocock so interesting to me is he is always suggesting its not to easy to just pragmatically change tones or directions, that history has a way of sticking to your shoes. That often gets taken as a conservative position, and perhaps in some ways it is and maybe not in a bad way, but it doesn’t have to be.

  2. Thanks for this. I was unfamiliar, generally, with Pocock’s work, so this has served as fine introduction.

    Loved—and heartily agree with—this line: “If you don’t use the past, you can be certain that someone else will.” – TL

  3. Matthew, thanks again for this really wonderful essay.

    On the historiography of “decline…” — I have Arthur Herman’s book, The Idea of Decline in Western History (Free Press, 1997). I haven’t read it yet, but I am expecting to use it as a primary source re: the state of conversation about “Western Civilization” in the 1990s, rather than as a work of history itself (though it may indeed be useful on both counts).

    • Thanks for this reference. I definitely think the 90’s would be a really fruitful ground for historical investigation along those lines, because you have the end of history business existing alongside (even sometimes in the same circles as) fears of cultural decline and moral corruption and the great power neoconservative discourses, all in increasing intensity. Hmmmmmmmmm. Can’t wait to read more!

      I don’t know whose name intellectual historians would attach to that moment, but a moment it most certainly is.

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