31 JANUARY 1998, Page 38

A three-faced historian

Maurice Cowling

LIBERTY BEFORE LIBERALISM by Quentin Skinner CUP, £6.95, pp. 156

Of the 12 Regius Professors of Modern History at Cambridge since Kings- ley's appointment in 1860, all but three have disclosed considered views of politics, literature and religion. Kingsley was a nov- elist, a muscular Christian and a Christian socialist. Seeley wrote Ecce Homo and Natural Religion before writing The Expan- sion of England, and in doing so registered a crucial transition from Christianity to the religion of culture and civilisation. Acton's early life was dedicated to the demonisa- tion of Protestantism, the reconciliation of Catholicism to historical scholarship and the articulation of a New Liberalism. Even J. B. Bury, the archetype of the dry-as-dust narrative historian, wrote The Idea of Progress and A History of Freedom of Thought, while the breadth and explicitness of Butterfield's, Knowles's and Chadwick's Christian engagements and of Trevelyan's secular, literary and political engagements were manifest contributions (even when they were perverse or subversive) to the development of the nation's mind.

The three exceptions are the retiring Regius Professor, Patrick Collinson, who is the historian of a sect, Sir James Butler, who sank back after good beginnings into official history, and Sir Geoffrey Elton, who has recently been the subject of reassessment by the new Regius Professor, Quentin Skinner.

As Professor Skinner points out with needless ingenuity, Sir Geoffrey's theoreti- cal works about history were crude and inadequate. What he does not point out is that Sir Geoffrey's writings about the 16th and 17th centuries were the outpouring of an exuberant, bloody- minded Tory positivism which hated preciosity and pretentiousness, had a rude sense of the location of power, and reminded his audience for the Ford Lec- tures at Oxford in 1972 of a 'commercial traveller who had detained them too long - in the saloon bar'.

About Professor Skinner there is no smell of the saloon bar, let alone of the public bar. On the contrary, he is elevated and pure, is much concerned with ideas and has felt it necessary (ineffectually) to attack Namier, who was subtle and cynical about ideas.

Professor Skinner's career began with discussions of Hobbes about whom he reached a dead-end from which Reason and Rhetoric in the Philosophy of Hobbes has not really rescued him since he missed both Hobbes's religious architectonic and Leviathan's ambiguity about Christianity. Later he registered a distaste for Hobbes and a regard for Machiavelli — a second- rate political thinker by any standard — as an exponent of republican virtue. In The Foundations of Modem Political Thought he chronicled the theoretical relief achieved by states from 'upholding any particular faith' between 1250 and 1500 but did not notice that the practice of states — Protestant and Catholic between the 17th and 19th centuries, Nazi, Communist and secular-liberal since — suggests that this did not happen on the ground, so to speak, and in any case that a secular religion, no less than Christianity, can provide a basis for the intrusive exercise of state power.

The other complicating factor in Profes- sor Skinner's career has been the demand, now restated in his Inaugural lecture, to confine the history of political thought to what political-thought texts were 'intended to mean' not as timeless statements about perennial problems but as 'acts of commu- nication' in the contexts in which they were written. This worked well in The Founda- tions of Modem Political Thought where a vigorous and learned prose located innumerable texts in exactly this way.

As a theory, however, it bypassed the question whether even contextualisation can prevent historians finding whatever they want to find in the historical material. It did nothing for the `exciting possibility' — to which Newman, F. H. Bradley, Collingwood and many biblical critics had contributed but which Professor Skinner's subsequent performance was to disappoint — of 'dialogue between philosophical dis- cussion and historical evidence'. And it has not only inhibited Professor Skinner from justifying his political preferences, it also makes it impossible to tell whether or not his expositions of republican thinkers, and his chairmanship of the 'European Science Foundation network' on Republicanism: A Shared European Heritage, hide an agenda for destabilising monarchy in general or the monarchy in 20th-century England in par- ticular. Most significant of all, it has pre- 'Just as I thought, this case has got a false bottom in it.' vented scrutiny by others of assumptions at which Professor Skinner has merely hinted — in the thin prescriptions of his Tanner Lectures on Human Values at Harvard and in the letter he wrote to the Times (along with Dawkins, the Darwinian atheist among others) in which academic courtiers gave banal reasons for wishing to see an end of the Conservative government three days before the last general election.

In fact there are three Professor Skinners. There is the Skinner who uses ideas he picked up in the Cambridge History Faculty in order to contribute brilliantly and energetically to his subject. There is the Skinner who wishes to put himself right with fashionable virtue and an era of good feelings but hides behind historical exposition as, for example, his Inaugural lecture hides behind historical exposition of `neo-Roman' theorists of the 17th century who anticipated the trite emptiness of Berlin's Two Concepts of Liberty and proposed a libertarianism which has since been drowned out by 'classical liberalism'. And there is the Skinner who began by being tone-deaf to religion, then, for reasons which are obscure, became positively hostile, and now believes that theism is 'dangerously irrational', that 'the death of God' will help us affirm 'the value of our humanity', and that nothing which has been said or written since Hume has rescued theism (or Chris- tianity) from being a mere 'whistling in the dark'.

To credit Professor Skinner with a secular religion would be to dignify a space which is mainly an emptiness. On the one hand, the attempt to impose a 'theistic perspective' on mediaeval Europe was a 'catastrophe in human terms'; `readoption' of theism would be a 'cure for our ills potentially worse than the disease'; and the 'ethic of family life and work' which had been engineered when powerful ruling groups 'hoodwinked' previous generations into abandoning their 'traditional pictures of spirituality' has made feminism desirable and 'the Citizen and the Monk' (the latter hardly a Skinnerian pin-up) into 'casualties on History's roadside'.

Religion is a central feature of modern thought and its transformation one of the central problems of the modern world. The skill, subterfuge and self-deception with which Christianity has resisted extinction is a subject of inexhaustible interest and requires for historical understanding the highest qualities of sympathy, negativity and imagination. The modern mind will not be understood where a panelled façade of professional detachment obscures these realities. Once they are exposed, once Professor Skinner speaks his mind, even Lord Dacre — one of our leading ecclesiastical historians who is an Erasrnian rationalist as well as a defender of the Established Church — will begin slowly but surely to hear the distant rumble of a megaphone atheism.