IR Folks from Times Past

IR Folks from Times Past

Saturday, August 17, 2013

Pocock: The Enlightened Narrative

J.G.A Pocock’s Barbarism and Religion, a study of the intellectual world of Edward Gibbon, is a prodigious feat in modern historiography and the history of political thought. In its scale and erudition, it is difficult to think of a serious rival. Pocock has produced five volumes and has promised a sixth to complete the series. This selection is from Volume II: Narratives of Civil Government, in which Pocock examines the eighteenth century authors who attempted “Enlightened histories on a grand narrative scale,” including “Pietro Giannone, François Arouet de Voltaire, David Hume, William Robertson and –somewhat removed from narrative proper – Adam Smith and Adam Ferguson.” Each of these seminal figures contributed to a version of history that Pocock terms “the Enlightened narrative.”  (1134 words)

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The historians here studied were all concerned to write, first, the history of what I term 'the Christian millennium', covering the eleven or so centuries from Constantine to Charles V in the case of Robertson, or the nine or so centuries from Charlemagne to Louis XIV in the case of Voltaire. This era was in a special sense that of 'barbarism and religion' — a phrase famously used by Gibbon and furnishing the overall title of this series — since it was that in which the Latin-using provinces of the former Roman empire were perceived as dominated by feudal lordships originating with the barbarian invasions of these provinces, and by the ecclesiastical and above all papal jurisdiction over secular affairs exercised by the Roman church in the absence of imperial civil sovereignty.

In what might be called its second chapter, 'the Enlightened narrative' proceeded to recount the emergence from the 'Christian millennium' of the political, social and cultural orders in which the Enlightened historians believed themselves to be living and to which they applied the term 'Europe'. Their narratives passed through — without always mastering — the period of the Wars of Religion in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, to recount the emergence of a system of strong sovereign states, both multiple monarchies and confederations, linked together by treaties and commerce to a point where 'Europe' could be considered (despite its wars) a republic or confederation, and practising a reason of state which was an index to their capacity to conduct civil government undisturbed by papal monarchy or confessional anarchy. This system of states was supported by, and might be thought the outward expression of, a cultural system of shared manners, possible only in a deeply commercial civilisation, which cemented the relations between both Enlightened Europeans and European states.

The 'Enlightened narrative' . . . took as its telos the ideally Enlightened system existing (roughly) between the wars of the Spanish succession and the American and French revolutions. The historians studied in this volume, however, were not under the illusion that this 'Europe' was either unproblematic or unthreatened. The majority of their works were published as or after the escalating war cycle of 1756 to 1763 began to push Europe and European America into what Franco Venturi termed 'the crisis of the ancien regime' . They reveal to us, nevertheless, the extent to which this regime believed itself to be modern.

The 'Enlightened narrative' thus delineated is intensely Latin or — a term I have sought to avoid — 'Western' in its focus and emphasis; it is concerned with the medieval and early modern histories of the successor states formed within the old Roman frontiers, before the expansion of Frankish, Norman, Flemish and Rhenish power east into Germany and Central Europe or west into Britain and the Atlantic islands. There are consequently limitations to its vision with which Scottish historians within our period, or German historians just after it, had to contend; Gibbon himself knew no German and had little sense of Germany as a zone in which history had happened or cultural change was going on.

There were two senses, however, in which this 'Eurocentric' history was aware of contacts between 'Europe' and worlds beyond it. The Russian state was believed to have been Europeanised, and to have set out on the conquest of Central Asia as far as the borders of China, leading to the final subjugation of the steppe nomad peoples who had so often invaded Roman and post-Roman Europe, enlarging the meaning of the term `barbarian' beyond its Gothic and Germanic associations.

Secondly, the peoples of the Atlantic coastlands — 'Europe' in its narrowly Latin sense — had embarked on a conquest of the global ocean, leading to commercial empires in Asia, the colonisation of the Americas and the massive forced diaspora of enslaved Africans. The great Enlightened histories of these processes in world history — Raynal's Histoire des Deux Indes, Robertson's histories of America and India — lie beyond the scope of the present volume; but the processes they describe were already transforming the history of Enlightened Europe, by enlarging the controlled rivalry of France and Britain into a contest for maritime empire, and their presence is to be felt even in Gibbon's Decline and Fall. (1-3)

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'The Enlightened narrative' [was] `modern' in the double sense that it was post-ancient and surpassed the `medieval'. With its point of departure at the end of the western empire, or at the renewal of empire by Charlemagne, this narrative proceeded to cover what we have termed 'the Christian millennium', defined as the centuries of 'barbarism and religion', feudal tenures and ecclesiastical supremacy, inaugurated by Constantine, confirmed in the Latin provinces by the popes, and enduring until the time of Charles V (with Robertson) or Louis XIV (with Voltaire).

The latter discrepancy added to 'the Christian millennium' proper a further period corresponding to our 'early modern' and consisting in essence of the 'Wars of Religion', in which the ecclesiastical challenge to civil society took the form of anarchy as well as monarchy. It was in dealing with this later period that Enlightenment developed as a critique of Calvinist Protestantism (and enthusiasm) as well as of Nicene Catholicism (and superstition).

There also appeared at this stage an implicit debate over the relative importance of the forces making for modernity about 1500 — navigation, printing, gunpowder and the revival of letters — and those operating about 1700: standing army and public credit, commerce and the new philosophy. It was the latter set of forces that constituted 'Enlightenment', and therefore the telos of the 'Enlightened narrative', though whether that narrative reached them as its endpoint was another matter.

The narrative culminated in civil government, in the establishment of a system of states capable of controlling religion and conducting their own affairs; and in civil society, meaning the formation of a culture of enlightened manners based upon commerce, in which Europeans could live without regard to theological dispute and ecclesiastical division, if not to religion itself. (369-70)
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J.G.A Pocock, Barbarism and Religion, Volume Two: Narratives of Civil Government (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999).