I have drunk quite a bit of wine tonight at a university occasion. I ought to be preparing a document for a meeting I have tomorrow about my academic probation. But instead I am going to pour myself a bottle of beer, and write about my dear friend Patrick Riley, the news of whose death reached me this afternoon.
So I spent part of the morning reading stuff by the eccentric eighteenth-century Welsh philosopher (and friend of Brissot) David Williams, as one does, in which he more or less calls for the Hanoverian political system to be replaced with something that looks quite a bit like what the Marxists later called democratic centralism. Anyway, I liked the rhetoric of this bit, towards the end of the sixth of his 1782 Letters on Political Liberty:
It will probably be said, that the revival of this mode of establishing political liberty would have all the effect of innovation; and that innovations, even on the most perfect principles, are hurtful, because they press on the prejudices of the people.
This is always the shallow pretence of political Jesuitism. The throne is daily innovating; while every step presses out the blood of the most industrious and excellent among the people. A standing army is an innovation against the prepossessions, habits, and judgement, of every independent man in the nation; and yet it has been established. Is it to be imagined, the people will object to the very little trouble attending to such an arrangement, as will afford them an intire security against the encroachments of the Crown, and the depredations of fluctuating parties in their legislature, who plunder them in succession? If they were to arm themselves slightly, they would also have a police on the best footing; and be perfectly secured against the collusions of thieves and thief-takers, watchmen, constables, church-wardens, overseers, trading justices, and the whole train of expensive appendages to the science of robbery.
Since I seem to have fallen back into a habit–goodness knows how long it will last–of posting here in a low-key way, here are three links to pages through which you can get to the audio files of talks I’ve given over the last few months and years that have found their way on-line, in case anyone is interested.
17 February 2011: ‘Why secular liberals need Roman Catholics (and Marxists)‘, a talk at ‘Republicanism and Religion: a colloquium in memory of Emile Perreau-Saussine’, Fitzwilliam College, Cambridge.
19 February 2014: ‘Towards a new, gendered history of property-owning democracy‘, a lunchtime Sussex University Lecture in Intellectual History.
15 May 2014: ‘Bees, Ants and Beavers in European Political Thought‘, an informal talk given to the King’s College Apicultural Society in Cambridge.
Last week I mostly sat at home, watched books by Donald Winch that I’d ordered online pop through the letterbox, and then started to read them. And today I’ve discovered that his 1995 Carlyle Lectures, ‘Secret Concatenations: Mandeville to Malthus’, are available on the web, thanks to the St Andrews Institute of Intellectual History. So that’s my Sunday afternoon sorted out.
This is from the opening discussion of the first lecture [pdf] as, following John Burrow, he presents a view of intellectual history as ‘eavesdropping on the conversations of the past’.
An attractive feature of conversations is that we can continue them at the point where our predecessors left them. The only restriction I would place on such freedom, speaking as an intellectual historian, is that the conversations should be between interlocutors who were genuinely aware of each other’s existence and arguments. This rules out those encounters in which the historian acts as ominiscient host at a kind of celestial cocktail party at which those invited only speak to one another through the intermediation of the host — indeed, can only speak through the host because they had no common language in life. I shall appear to break this rule in one respect only, namely by posing some counter-factual questions of my cast in some crucial instances. In other words, having established that a genuine conversation was taking place, I shall sometimes seek to reconstruct what their responses might have been when more direct evidence is unavailable.
Interesting conversations are usually free from the coercive dualisms that tend to be an occupational hazard of much intellectual history devoted to political thinking. Whigs and Tories have long since been replaced by debating teams bearing more sophisticated labels such as contractarians and anti-contractarians, liberals versus classical republicans, civic humanists versus natural jurisprudentialists, and so on — to mention only those dualisms that are current among students of the period and authors I shall be considering. Narratives that purport to be dealing with past social scientific conversations often attempt to enforce another powerful dichotomy — between positive and normative propositions, between statements of fact and statements of value or rights. As already hinted, one of the negative conclusions I would like to emerge from these lectures is that none of my cast was foolish enough to allow their conversations to be constricted by these dualisms. That is something we have done to them in retrospect and for our own purposes, taxonomic or ideological.
A writer may tell me that he thinks man will ultimately become an ostrich. I cannot properly contradict him. But before he can expect to bring any reasonable person over to his opinion, he ought to shew, that the necks of mankind have been gradually elongating; that the lips have grown harder and more prominent; that the legs and feet are daily altering their shape; and that the hair is beginning to change into stubs of feathers. And till the probability of so wonderful a conversion can be shewn, it is surely lost time and lost eloquence to expatiate on the happiness of man in such a state; to describe his powers, both of running and flying; to paint him in a condition where all narrow luxuries would be contemned; where he would be employed only in collecting the necessaries of life; and where, consequently, each man’s share of labour would be light, and his portion of leisure ample.
(T. R. “Bob” Malthus, An Essay on the Principle of Population, 1st ed. , pp. 11-12)
The poor man’s son, whom heaven in its anger has visited with ambition, when he begins to look around him, admires the condition of the rich. He finds the cottage of his father too small for his accommodation, and fancies he should be lodged more at his ease in a palace. He is displeased with being obliged to walk a-foot, or to endure the fatigue of riding on horseback. He sees his superiors carried about in machines, and imagines that in one of these he could travel with less inconveniency. He feels himself naturally indolent, and willing to serve himself with his own hands as little as possible; and judges, that a numerous retinue of servants would save him from a great deal of trouble. He thinks if he had attained all these, he would sit still contentedly, and be quiet, enjoying himself in the thought of the happiness and tranquillity of his situation. He is enchanted with the distant idea of this felicity. It appears in his fancy like the life of some superior rank of beings, and, in order to arrive at it, he devotes himself for ever to the pursuit of wealth and greatness.
You promise, in your letter of Octob 23. 1787. to give me in your next, at large, the conjectures of your Philosopher on the descent of the Creek Indians from the Carthaginians, supposed to have been separated from Hanno’s fleet during his periplus. I shall be very glad to receive them, & see nothing impossible in his conjecture. I am glad he means to appeal to the similarity of language, which I consider as the strongest kind of proof it is possible to adduce. I have somewhere read that the language of the ancient Carthaginians is still spoken by their descendants inhabiting the mountainous interior parts of Barbary to which they were obliged to retire by the conquering Arabs. If so, a vocabulary of their tongue can still be got, and if your friend will get one of the Creek languages, the comparison will decide. He probably may have made progress in this business: but if he wishes any enquiries to be made on this side the Atlantic, I offer him my services cheerfully, my wish being, like his, to ascertain the history of the American aborigines.
[Letter of 18 July 1788 to Edward Rutledge, full text over here]
On the occasion of the awarding of this year’s Nobel Peace Prize, I’m reproducing over the fold a chunk of an old lecture I gave in January 2010 on the eighteenth-century debate about perpetual peace and European Union…
[it’s quite long, for which, apologies, but I have made it a bit more bearable with some hyperlinks and a picture of a cat]
On Friday and Saturday, 30 November and 1 December 2012, the Philosophy Department of the University of Fribourg (Switzerland) will host a workshop entitled “Meet the Author: Christopher Brooke’s Philosophic Pride“.
This interdisciplinary workshop is of interest for philosophers and historians working on the 17th and 18th centuries. It is coorganised by the Universities of Berne (Department of General and Historical Educational Science), Lausanne (Department of Philosophy), and Fribourg (Department of Philosophy).
The workshop centers on themes from Christopher Brooke’s Philosophic Pride: Stoicism and Political Thought from Lipsius to Rousseau (Princeton 2012), with quite some interest in Rousseau.
The workshop language is English. Participation is free, but please register by 23 November.
For registration, further information and a detailed program please contact the coordinator in Fribourg: christian.maurer(at)unifr.ch; or visit the conference website.
Two new small things just published.
One is a review of Jan-Werner Müller’s recent book, Contesting Democracy for Renewal (which has a splendid new editor, Ben Jackson) and which you can get as a pdf here.
The other is a few pages of Self-Evident Truths?, edited by (the equally splendid) Kate E. Tunstall, which presents the published versions of the 2010 Amnesty Lectures. (I wasn’t an Amnesty Lecturer, obvs, but they asked me to write a short response to James Tully.)