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Tune in to a special conversation on the governance podcast between Professor Jeremy Jennings of King’s College London and Professor Quentin Skinner of Queen Mary University. Professor Skinner discusses the meaning of intellectual history, key insights about republicanism and political representation, and the perennial lessons we stand to learn from the humanities about our political present.

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The Guest

Professor Quentin Skinner is the Barber Beaumont Professor of the Humanities and Co-Director of the Centre for the Study of the History of Political Thought at Queen Mary University of London. Previously the Regius Professor of History at the University of Cambridge, he is known as one of the founders of the Cambridge School of the history of political thought. His most recent book is From Humanism to Hobbes: Studies in Rhetoric and Politics.

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Skip Ahead

1:05: What do intellectual historians do, and what are the defining features of the Cambridge school?

6:34: Is there a reason intellectual historians are so drawn to the early modern period?

8:08: What is Hobbes’ legacy? Why is he important?

10:38: What was so original about the Hobbesian conception of the state?

16:00: Why did Britain fail to adopt the Hobbesian view of the state?

19:41: What is republicanism, and why is it important?

25:00: What does the Irish case teach us about republicanism?

28:00: Your new book is about teaching the humanities. Why is that so important?

33:10: What is the meaning of laughter?

37:15: What is Hobbes’ theory of political representation?

40:45: How do classical debates about representation bear upon the present?

43:50: How much can we learn from the past?

49:02: How do you see yourself entering public debate as a moralist?

Full Transcript

Jeremy Jennings: Welcome back to The Governance Podcast of the Centre for the Study of Governance and Society of King’s College London.

My name is Jeremy Jennings. I’m a professor here and Head of the School of Politics and Economics and I’m your host today.

I’m very pleased to welcome Quentin Skinner, who is Barber Beaumont Professor of the Humanities at the School of History at Queen Mary University of London and who was formerly Regius Professor of History at the University of Cambridge.

Professor Skinner is well known as a leading intellectual historian and political theorist. His most recent book, From Humanism to Hobbes: Studies in Rhetoric and Politics, was recently published with Cambridge University Press.

Quentin, thanks so much for joining us at The Governance Podcast.

We’ve actually been looking forward to discussing your new book. However, before we do that, I want to ask you a few general questions about your research interests and what you study.

You’re an intellectual historian often associated with what if referred to as The Cambridge School of Intellectual History.

Can you explain first, what do intellectual historians do, and, second, what are the defining features of the Cambridge School’s approach to intellectual history?

Quentin Skinner: Well, thank you, Jeremy, and thank you very much for agreeing to talk to me. It’s a great pleasure to be back in touch with you.

Jeremy: Pleasure for me too. Thank you.

Quentin: Well, being an intellectual historian, I think I would have to concede that it’s not a wonderful label, is it? I mean, you can see how it came to replace the traditional label of historian of ideas because that seemed to reify the ideas and get rid of agency in the course and that was polemical from the outset.

But intellectual historians, I suppose, would think of themselves as people who study not just the philosophies but, more generally, the beliefs and attitudes that we encounter in the past.

But then, what’s meant to be the distinction with cultural history and, then again, what about the history of science? Are they examples of intellectual historians?

I think they would all want to say probably not.

So there are porous boundaries here.

But I think what it’s trying to capture is the idea that we are studying the activity of thinking in the past rather in the same manner as you would study any other activity in the past, you know. Making things, or growing things, or whatever historians have traditionally studied.

Now, as to the Cambridge School, Jeremy, a vexed question really.

As you kindly said in your introduction, as many years since I taught at the university of Cambridge, so I’m not sure if there’s still a Cambridge School.

But I could certainly tell you what my approach looks like and maybe there’s something distinctive about that. Certainly, there has been supposed to be over time or else I wouldn’t have had so many critics.

So I think I could encapsulate my approach to the sort of intellectual history I study by saying something very general about the phenomenon of natural languages.

It seems to me we do have to think in rather Wittgensteinian terms of languages as having you might say two dimensions, and there’s the one that’s traditionally thought of as meanings  – meanings of words, meanings of propositions, meanings of entire texts – and that’s been the traditional topic of hermeneutics, the interpretation of texts, has been an attempt to recover their meaning.

Of course deconstruction came along, but didn’t alter the traditional questions of hermeneutics. It simply told us that there were no stable meanings. So I have wanted to focus on something other than meanings and their assumed stability or instability.

I’ve wanted to focus on what I’m calling this other dimension, which one might think of as language as a species of social action. So that the question when I’m saying something is not what it means exclusively, but what am I doing? I’m an agent issuing an utterance, what is going on here?

Let me give you an example that will, I hope, really clarify how this significantly alters intellectual history. Take the case (it’s a writer I’ve written a lot about) of Machiavelli. In The Prince, Machiavelli says a successful prince must learn to imitate the lion and the fox. Well, interpreters have said here what we have to do obviously is unpack the metaphor.

The lion is the symbol of force, the fox is the symbol of guile and so the meaning of the passage is that successful rulers have to reckon to include both force and fraud in being successful in politics. I have nothing to say against that that’s obviously all correct.

But now consider the following.

The most important work of moral and political philosophy to anyone of Machiavelli’s generation in Renaissance Italy would have been Cicero’s De Officiis, his book concerning duties. Now in the opening book he talks about the virtues and especially, because he’s talking about morals and politics, the virtue of justice. He says there are two ways in which injustice can be done: either by force or by fraud. But force reduces you to the level of the lion and fraud to the level of the fox. This is beastly. This is not manly. This is unworthy of humankind.

All right, so now let’s go back to Machiavelli.

It turns out that, in addition to everything we’ve said about unpacking the metaphor, he is quoting Cicero. He is also commenting on a particular formulation of Cicero’s about injustice, he is repudiating it and you might say in addition he’s satirising Cicero’s moral earnestness.

This is what he’s doing, so a whole new dimension enters and if you were to ask why that matters the answer is that now when we think about the texts that intellectual historians characteristically study, we are thinking about interventions in discursive contexts and that is very much the approach I always tried to adopt.

What’s going on? To put it more pejoratively what is this writer up to?

Jeremy: Is there any particular reason why most of those over the past 50 years of publishing, probably longer, it’s a long long time,  were focused on the early modern period? Is there a particular reason why you’ve been especially drawn to that in terms of what you’ve just said? I noticed one of the phrases you use in many of your books is the epoch-making, that sense that what approach you’re looking at something really big is going on there.

Quentin: That’s very interesting. I don’t expect to have been very self-conscious about that but I wanted to go sufficiently far back in time for there to be, as you say, epochs.

So that we’re able to show moral systems shifting, religious systems shifting, whole conceptual schemes being abandoned and maybe we’ll even talk about that subsequently and I think that my attraction to these much earlier periods, and I suppose I’ve written on the 14th century and 15th, 16th, 17th, never later than the early 18th century, is this wish to come upon strong contrasts and especially moments when contrasts are very strongly drawn.

Jeremy: You mentioned your interest in Machiavelli about whom you’ve written a lot, but one thing’s probably primarily of you writing about Hobbes of late. When you’re not alone in being fascinated by Hobbes, Michael Oakeshott was and others, what’s the particular attraction of Hobbes? Why is Hobbes so important in all of this, because he manifestly is as your new books shows?

Quentin: Well, traditionally, of course, Hobbes has been thought important as the most systematic exponent of a theory of absolutism in modern political philosophy. And again, that’s not wrong, he clearly is.

But I have been interested in Hobbes for two quite separate reasons, which are not strongly connected with that way of thinking about Hobbes.

One is in Hobbes as a theorist of freedom and there we have a revolution. Hobbes is the person who introduces into Anglophone political philosophy a particular way of thinking about freedom, namely that the antonym of freedom is coercion, which seems to us obvious but was a revolution at the time.

I was very interested in what exactly he was up to in wanting to produce that formulation and the short answer to that is an engagement with republican political theory.

But for me what’s most important about Hobbes, and here I’d been much in discussion with David Ransom and his wonderful work (early work) on Hobbes and personality of the state, is Hobbes as a theorist of the state. And that’s where he is as it were in our present as well as in his own past.

Leviathan is the state and Hobbes is the exponent of a particular way of thinking about the state, namely that it’s the name of a distinct person. A fictional person but nevertheless the seat of sovereignty, which I think is in contemporary political theory neglected to the detriment of our ways of thinking about public power.

And so it’s really in relation to those two themes, freedom and the state, that Hobbes seems to me a person we really need to engage with.

In one case we might want to question an account, his account of freedom, which we would in general now tend to endorse. But in the other case I would think, there’s a case for reviving thinking about the state as a kind of moral person, actually I would also say personne morale.

Jeremy: This project is very, very much concerned with governance in general as well as obviously the state. Say a little bit more about what was so original about the Hobbesian conception of the state.

Quentin: Yes certainly. Well, the state as a piece of political terminology was not very well established at the time when Hobbes was writing.

Of course I would want to say that any attempt to isolate any strongly normative term which is also foundation for our politics and give a definition which we could at least in principle agree on is a lost cause.

I mean these concepts are always weapons they’re always part of wars and debates and we’re never going to get a neutral account of these sorts of normative concepts. But what’s important about Hobbes is the way in which he enters existing discussions about the state.

So here, there would be a very strong contrast with contemporary political theory. Seems to me we’ve largely evacuated traditional ways of thinking about the state. If you open any newspaper it talks about the state, but by the state it just means the government. So should the state renationalise the railways? That’s a question about the present governments. Should it now do that.

If you’re feeling in a very fancy mood you would pick up Max Weber’s view, which was has been incredibly influential, that when we talk about the state we’re talking indeed simply about a coercive apparatus, the apparatus of government, but it is apparatus over a particular territory. Alright, that adds something else.

But notice that we’ve just said we’re talking about an apparatus of government.

Now in the way in which the concept was first introduced into Western political theory, the whole point of talking about the state was to oppose it to existing systems of government as a way of inquiring into their legitimacy.

And the first way in which this was done was through the very traditional image of the body politic and the very natural way of thinking about the body is having a head, as we still say a head of state.

And so, that’s the way Kantorowicz thinks about the king’s two bodies, which is that there’s the personal body of the king but there’s the body of the king as head of state, and that’s a natural metaphor: a head and body.

But of course it was intensely contested in the revolutions of the early modern period by the people who wanted to say this is a false metaphor. Political bodies are not like natural ones, a political body is its own head. If we’re asking about the seat of sovereignty, it is not the king, it is the people.

Now it’s into that huge debate in the English Revolution, which is way of articulating the English Revolution in the 1640s, with after all the abolition of the monarchy and the execution of the head of state, that Hobbes enters to say, look the seat of sovereignty is not the king of it as head of state but it’s also not the people. It is a completely separate entity and that’s a revolutionary moment. That’s Leviathan.

And that comes about by Hobbes saying well what exists in nature? The state doesn’t exist in nature. A multitude exists in nature but it would come to seem that it can’t live as an altitude because they have conflicting desires and the state of nature is going to be one of peril to life.

So it’s rational to recognise that and it’s therefore rational to have a political covenant in which you will away your rights to an authorised representative who acts in your name.

And of course any theory of representative democracy agrees with that.

So Hobbes says notice however – and this is his really crucial conceptual rule – that if a multitude authorises its representation it ceases to be a multitude, because it now has a single will and a single voice and it can act because it can act through a representative.

So there’s a new question in political theory which is what is the name of the multitude which makes itself a person by having a representative? Or to put the question as Hobbes does: who does the sovereign represent? And the answer is the state.

Now the state is simply a fiction but Hobbes says we need these legal fictions and of course he’s right there, we need the idea that the corporation is more than its members and the state is more than a government.

If we’re going to talk about for example the idea of responsibility, we can’t hold an organisation responsible unless we can treat it as a person and identify the natural persons who represent the fictional person.

So there is Hobbes’ theory of the state and at the time of course it’s absolutely epoch-making.

It’s not very influential in England but I hardly need to tell you this. It’s extraordinary influential in the natural theory of law, theory of the state in continental Europe.

I mean, this is what Pufendorf takes up. He says it’s wrong to think of it as a fictional person, it’s a moral person, persona moralis, that’s of course what Rousseau takes from Pufendorf – the personne morale, that’s what Kant takes from Rousseau, that’s what Hegel takes from Kant.

So it’s an extraordinary story of the evolution of a particular way of thinking about the state, one which we have completely abandoned.

So one of the questions that the historian of ideas should always be asking is ‘Well we’ve abandoned it but is that loss or is that a gain’?

And in this case I think it’s a clear loss because the motivation was to find the standing means to ask about the decency of government granted that what renders governments legitimate is that they act for the benefit of the people as a whole, ie for the benefit of the state.

Jeremy: I would think, in fact, that it is England or Britain that seem to have the most difficulty talking about the state. [Quentin: It’s very true] Whereas in continental Europe, you walk up to the average French citizen and say ‘what is the state’, well that actually feels like a pretty reasonable question. If you do that in Britain people just look at you as if …

Quentin: I couldn’t agree more. it’s a very interesting fact about English liberalism that it couldn’t adopt this view and if you ask why I connected strongly to the rise of classical utilitarianism, because if there’s one thing that Bentham in his early youth hates, and of course it’s the grounds of his attack on Blackstone, is the idea of legal fictions.

But THE legal fiction, as Maitland was later to say trying to revive the idea, is the state, it is the most important legal fiction.

It’s only a fictional person, although it’s the person who declares war puts you in jail and understanding politics is understanding how a fiction can put you in jail. And of course the miracle notion is representation. That does everything.

But we’ve never thought in those terms because utilitarianism has told us well we have to talk about facts and the fact is that there’s a gunman.

Jeremy: That is absolutely fascinating. Just back to the first question about what does the intellectual historian do. I mean we’ve all, people like myself and generations of intellectual historians have learned so much from you, and I think the first thing we learned from you, from those brilliant first essays you wrote, was this was a really important thing to do.

I was in the political science department when it almost reached the stage where every department would have its tamed political theorist or historical political thought, which they would occasionally bring out the cupboard and that was it.

And you managing to bring it back at center stage is a really important part of what we’ve done and that’s had an impact, an extraordinary impact.

Looking at this question of what does an intellectual historian do, one of the ways in which you’ve expressed, I think, many many times is in a sense obviously I want to and use in the latest book you start with Hobbes, what Hobbes says and that beautiful phrase you’ve got, you say “my aim is simply to supply enough history to understand the meanings and tensions of the right as I discuss by recovering the circumstances in which they wrote”, which is your paraphrase of Hobbes which is absolutely wonderful, some wonderful beginning to the book.

Elsewhere you know you said one of the things about history is you stay in fact history for its own sake but it tells you about the courses which we do not take, it tell us about what we’ve done but what we’ve not taken and therefore the possibilities that were available – again that’s something, I think, we’ve all been greatly, well, learnt a lot from that.

One of the courses not taken, arguably, has been republicanism and that’s one of the other very, very important strands of your work over many years. Could you say something more about that and because one of your books is Hobbes and republicanism. Could you say something more about that because here’s an alternative tradition and one of your views which has been largely forgotten, buried away and one of the things you’ve been doing is excavating around and bringing it to the surface again.

Would you say something more about what you understand by republicanism, why you think this is so important?

Quentin: Thank you Jeremy that’s a beautiful account of one of the things I’ve been trying to do.

As you say, I’ve wanted to historicise the subject of political theory and to make it about discursive contexts in which sometimes similar, but sometimes different, concepts are at issue, sometimes if they look familiar, sometimes they look deeply unfamiliar.

And I suppose going back to what I said at the beginning, one reason I’ve wanted a long duree is to see the paths not taken and of course one path not taken we’ve talked about which is the state. We just have given up on that idea in Anglophone philosophy.

If you talk especially in United States to people about the state they have no notion of what they are talking about although it’s called the United States.

So the other concept that I have subjected to the same kind of scrutiny, you rightly point out, is the theory of freedom.

It’s not I who called it republican freedom. The classic work on this has been done by Philip Pettit in his book of 1997, Republicanism, and I published a book about a month later, in 1998, which was called Liberty Before Liberalism, and so we announced our views about this issue at very much the same time but we’ve been talking together for many years and I’ve been greatly influenced by Phillip’s work.

So what he calls a republican theory of freedom and what I’ve preferred to call neo-Roman is a view which challenges what I’ve already set out as the Hobbesian view or the view that would nowadays seem very natural to adopt, which is that if you are free and have choice what that means is no one is stopping you from doing what you want.

You’re free. You’re free because no one is impeding you and so the antonym of freedom is taken to be coercion.

Coercion might be physical, you might be stopped from doing it, it might be moral in as much as a threat might cause you not to do it but that’s the way, the fundamental way, in which freedom is affected by acts of interference with your will.

Now, the republican view it says, well that is of course all true but that absolutely misses what’s critical, what’s crucial to the theory of freedom, which is that the fundamental antonym for freedom is not interference or coercion. It is dependence.

So the large conceptual gulf that opens up there is that on this account you could be unfree, even in the absence of any act of interference or even in the absence of any threatened active interference, because what it is to be unfree is for you to be dependent upon the world of somebody else.

The reason I wanted to call this neo-Roman is that the text for freedom seen as the antonym of dependence is the Roman law.

The Roman law of course has been the law code starts by asking who is subject to the law and since it’s a slave society, it has to say well citizens are subjects of the law but slaves are not and that’s because citizens are free and slaves, by definition, are not free.

But of course that leaves the Roman law with the question well what is it that makes a citizen free? It must be the same as makes a slave unfree. And the answer is: having a master. The slave has a master and the citizen does not.

So the citizen might be poorer than the slave, or might be in very exigent circumstances or might have all sorts of difficulties, which a slave with a benign master does not have, but the fact remains that the slave has a master.

Benignness is neither here nor there because it to be subject to the will of somebody else means that you’re at their mercy.

It may be all right but the horror of slavery is that you never know if it’s going to be alright, whereas the status of the free person is that he or she has an independent will.

So there’s the republican view and of course it has enormous implications for thinking about our contemporary world because this is the view that we gave up and if you asked me in this case where we wise to give it up I would say that it was a one of the great ideological missteps that we took. It’s very easy to understand why we took it but we did.

Jeremy: I’d recently went back to read a book by Gustave de Beaumont who wrote a book on Ireland and has a marvelous passage, I should send it to you, where he precisely articulates that position in the context of the Irish and the British. It doesn’t matter how free they look, they are not free, they cannot be free precisely because of their dependence upon the English and the fact that the English, at any time at their choosing, could intervene at least. The case of Ireland, I think, is a very good example of that way of thinking.

Quentin: Very good and I think that’s a very profound case because it’s the one that comes up  from a very early stage in this debate, in fact, Molyneux’s book called The Case of Ireland in the 1720s argues exactly this.

And it was at a point where there was some pressure being brought to bear on the idea that freedom should be understood as absence of dependence and of course the Irish case is one of pure dependence, so they want to say we’re in a slave condition.

All colonies are in a slave condition and of course that became the rallying cry for the enemies of the colonies in the United States.

This is the theory of freedom which is presented to the British and there’s very little that the British can do within the parameters of the neo-Roman view of freedom to answer that, because the famous allegation of course is that we’re being taxed without representation and so the level of taxation is wholly arbitrary and discretionary.

Well, as in Ireland, and and of course this is the answer that was always given, is well you can trust us we won’t do anything terrible. But the point is that’s slavery. Why should we trust you? Because we’re completely at your mercy.

And I connect the repudiation of this neo-Roman view of freedom, which was more or less universal before the 17th century, to the fact that they don’t have an answer to the colonies they don’t have an answer to an 18th century Empire.

But what they do begin to say is, as Bentham of course says, as a great an enemy of the Declaration of Independence they don’t understand freedom, freedom is completely de-facto. So only the question am I being coerced? Of course I’m not being coerced?

Jeremy: The English did do terrible things as well but [Quention: Oh sure, yes.] but thank you. I came across this and I should have realized that there have been broader debates about the Irish case. It’s such an obvious…

Quentin: Yes, well, as an instance of the general case of colonies, if you look at the renaissance revival of the neo-Roman understanding of freedom in great republican thinkers, like Machiavelli – and this is why I’m so interested in Machiavelli, not as the author of the prince but the author of the discourses of Livy on how Rome gave up monarchy and became a free state, as he calls it a civitas libre in Livy the being stati in liberta, what is it to be stati in liberta? Well, it’s the same for your body as it is for a body polity. It is for your body to be under the control of your own will, but of course if you’re a colony or under the control of somebody else’s will, just as if you’re a slave, so body politics can be slipped and enslaved.

And that attack on Empire and that insistence on republicanism, in the strict sense of being anti-monarchical, is the whole Machiavellian legacy.

Jeremy: We might come back on to the roots not taken later on and what might be the broader implications of that neo-Roman theory of liberty. But now I would like to give you the opportunity to tell us something about your your new book, From Humanism to Hobbes, and what the book’s about. Why is it important? Because it’s essentially about teaching to humanities and its impact upon political thought and it’s a marvelous read and extraordinarily rich. [Quentin: Well, that’s very kind.]

Quentin: Well it’s called studies in rhetoric and politics and it is a series of linked studies stemming from work I’ve been doing on questions about rhetoric and politics now for quite a long time.

As you rightly say, it’s organized really around the idea of the history of a curriculum.

The humanities in the early modern period, and stemming again from classical antiquity and its revival in the Renaissance, was the name of a curriculum and it was a curriculum in five parts of which the first was so-called grammar to learn to school, hence the name grammar schools, of course, because what you learned was Latin, Latin grammar. And then you learned classical rhetoric and that was what you did for three years in the so called sixth form, which was sometimes called the rhetoric form, that’s what you learned.

And what you were being trained in, and this training would continue at university in the Renaissance universities, in this country of course only two, Oxford in Cambridge, they reformed their curricula in the 16th century to make them humanists, which meant that you went on to study rhetoric once again, treated not of course just as a way of embellishing our utterances, although it is that and that was important, but as a theory of persuasive argument.

Rhetoric told you the optimal way to present an argument to have persuasive force. And so what mattered to the rhetoricians was not so much what they called ornament, that’s to say the figure, the figures and tropes of speech, but what they called invention and disposition.

Invention meaning the finding out of the best arguments and disposition meaning organising me to the best effects. Now that’s what you learnt at university and you learn poetry and history because of course there were examples of this. And then finally moral philosophy, the fifth item, where you applied all of this.

And this is a very practical training because what we were going to do if you’ve been to university: one of three things, you’d either go into the law, or you’d go into politics or, above all, you’d go into the church.

But all of these avocations put public speaking, especially in the protestant country, of course absolutely at the top of the agenda, so it was meant to be a very practical training for an elite.

Now, my point is that the mighty figures whom I talk about, this is unashamed Western European elite culture that I’ve got in this book, there are four people whom I’ve always written about from this perspective and the first, chronologically, is Machiavelli, and  the second is Shakespeare who’s been occupying me always but I wrote my last book about him, published 2014, Forensic Shakespeare.

The third is Milton who’s never far from my thoughts and whom I’ve written a lot about and finally, as you’ve been rightly saying, Hobbes on whom I’ve written three books now. All of these people had in common that they went through this humanist education. Shakespeare is the one who doesn’t go to university but he goes to a very good grammar school and so he gets all of this.

Now my point is that there are many features of the writing of all of these major figures that you actually have no chance of understanding unless you see that the structure of their thinking is a rather unfamiliar structure to us, it’s the structure of rhetorical invention.

And so in a succession of essays I try to show that, first of all, in the case of Machiavelli and his theory of political virtue, and then in two of Shakespeare’s plays, where I try to show in The Merchant of Venice and also in Coriolanus that these are wholly rhetorically organised plays. And then of course Milton and Hobbes are humanists in politics.

And I really want to say about Hobbes that the step From Humanism to Hobbes, the title of my book, is a very short stem indeed.

Hobbes is often thought of as someone who replaces rhetoric with science in politics and that’s not wrong, he does aspire to that.

But he is deeply indebted to the humanist tradition and, above all, to humanist understandings of how to think about representation, especially in classical theories of representation and so that’s what I try to pick up in talking about Hobbes.

Jeremy: And there’s a marvellous section on laughter [Quention: Ah, there is.] Tell me something about that. I mean, there’s so much in this book, but one of the most fascinating is a section on laughter, but you do say the thing at one point that Hobbes gives up on this bit, he tires of this with time and he does as you say, he abandons laughter, for example.

Quentin: Yes, well the psychology of laughter has always interested me and there’s a brilliant book by Mary Beard that’s recently come out called Laughter in Ancient Rome, which puts me right about various things but also goes over some terrain that I’ve been deeply interested in, which is what emotion is being expressed by laughter?

And what I incautiously call the classical view, although Mary Beard shows this is just one classical view, is the view that although you may not like the sound of this the truth is that when you laugh you’re expressing contempt.

And this is picked up in the Roman rhetorical tradition and in Quintilian he says look this is even written into our language: ridere, a latin verb for to laugh is the same as the latin verb deridere, to do right.

So when you laugh you’re always expressing derision, an uncomfortable thought but one that is extremely intellectual in Renaissance and early modern culture in two ways, one of which has been much written about and one hardly written about at all.

The one that’s been much written about sees laughter as Saturnalian, a way of keeping the elite in order, it’s a way of mocking elite and Bakhtin’s celebrated study of Rabelais is an important source here, and it’s given rise to a large literature on Saturnalian ridicule, the world turned upside down, the sort of thing that Natalie Davis so interestingly and picked out.

I’m interested in something quite different which has been very little written about ,which is that the elite also uses laughter understood as an expression of contempt to police the elite.

And a lot of the conduct books beginning with Castiglione, which of course is enormously indebted to classical sources especially Cicero, you have the view that you’re trying to produce a courtly elite with values which are not barbaric they’re not militaristic, they are civilized, they’re meant to be tolerant and they are going to be great enemies of what is seen as the potential worst vices of the elite, namely pride and arrogance and vanity and avarice.

So, I was interested in the use of laughter to police the elite by the elite. And Hobbes picks this up in his early writings and he says yes, laughter expresses contempt, we never laugh with people, we’re always laughing at them, and he takes this classical view.

What’s interesting in Leviathan is, rightly as you say, he eventually comes to view that this is not only a partial view of laughter, but it’s a very cruel one.

It’s a kind of warning to the elite in the Leviathan that laughing at people is very dangerous, because he’s dealing with a dueling society in which he says you knew you laugh at someone you might be dead.

But it’s all part of what I take to be Hobbes’ fundamental watchword in the Leviathan which is: calm down. This is the society which is very, very uncalm and the aristocratic ethos with the code of dueling refusing even the law has somehow got to be tamed.

And so much of what Hobbes is saying is look these laws of nature I’m telling you about which are precepts of reason. They are all precepts like, you know, don’t mock people, don’t be prideful, be cooperative.

These are the laws of nature because these are the ways to live in peace and so laughter is seen there is an enemy of peace.

Jeremy: The next question is really the sense, it’s the theme of the book, so forgive me for having to summarise this, but the point you’ve already made, when you actually do look at this the distance from humanism to Hobbes is by no means as great as one would be inclined to think at the outset.

Quentin: No, that’s true and that the most important instance in which I try to show that is in Hobbes’ theory of representation.

Shall I say a word about that because that’s what most interests me in the Hobbes?

Hobbes enters into a political arena in which, in the course of the English revolution in the 1640s, a very substantial theory of political representation had been evolved, which was called virtual representation, which I suppose is roughly the view that we still have today, where the fundamental metaphor for vertical representation is taken from the visual arts.

Offering a good representation of someone in traditional aesthetics is offering, as people used to say, a speaking likeness. So political representation, the representation of the people should be the creation of the likeness of the people.

Now of course Hobbes can’t tolerate that thought because that means that any valid representation of the people must itself be a body of people, so that seems to cancel monarchy and of course it was intended to – it’s a very radical view.

Now Hobbes comes along to say, and it’s one of the most creative moments in his political theory, but it comes straight out of classical humanism: you’ve got the wrong metaphor for representation.

Representation is not a matter for the…, owes anything to the visual arts, it owes everything to the theatre and that’s how he introduces it and it’s from a quotation from Cicero saying that what representation is, is speaking someone else’s lines.

So representation on the stage is not necessarily when I resemble you, we’ve never really worked out on the stage whether we think people should resemble other people, but that’s not the point, it’s not impersonation, it’s personation.

I take upon you, I take upon myself your role, I act your part, I speak your lines, all the world’s a stage.

So Hobbes profoundly believes that all the world’s a stage, you’re either representing yourself or you’re representing somebody else, and that means you’re either speaking your own lines or you’re speaking somebody else’s lines. So notice, he’s dis-joined political representation from any act of authorising a body that has to resemble you. He’s saying ‘think of it more like a theater or a court of law’.

When you go into a court of law and the judge says who represents you, you can point to an advocate who is a woman and you could say she represents me. The judge won’t say ‘well she doesn’t look anything like you’, you say ‘that’s absolutely fine’.

Or you can say ‘I’m going to represent myself’, the judge will probably say ‘well I wouldn’t do that i I were you’, but that is your right. But Hobbes is saying that’s representation, it’s a sufficient condition of you being my representative that I have authorised you, it’s nothing to do with whether you look like me.

Because that is a dramatic moment because there of course monarchy is immediately placed on the same footing as any representative assembly and we can start that debate again.

Jeremy: Just moving on as we have about 45 minutes already and so again going back to this what it means to be an intellectual historian and the wrong paths we’ve taken, etc. You’ve described a series of wrong paths we’ve taken already today, how does that bear then upon the present and the sort of debates we might now have about representation, about the state, about the meaning of freedom. As an intellectual historian, how would you situate yourself in those sorts of debates?

Quentin: Yes, well, very very good question, thank you.

Well, I’m an historian and so my fundamental aspiration is to reconstruct the past of our thinking about these issues so far as possible on its own terms, of course that’s an ideal type and all sorts of contaminations from the present are likely to enter.

But the aspiration of the intellectual historian has to be to give an account of what the project was that one of these writers I’m interested in was himself interested in.

But then when I do that, when I study Machiavelli, I find this particular view of freedom. It blazes out from the first two chapters of the discourses, how do we think about freedom. That’s the fundamental question in the theory of the state.

Because in the absence of freedom there is no greatness of state, so there’s Machiavelli’s problematic.

When I read Hobbes on representation, I see him repudiating the view of representation that seems to us completely natural. When I think about Hobbes on the state, I see that we’ve completely abandoned thinking about state personality.

So, in each of these cases, once I’ve reconstituted the theory as best I may in its own terms, it becomes a candidate for belief. There it is. It’s not the way we think about these things anymore but is that good or is that bad? We can start to think again about that.

That reconnects us with our traditions but it in a way abolishes is the distinction between the past and the present because the past is in the present here and is asking us to think again about our past.

But of course my aspiration is to hold the past in the present completely free from one another because the more you import yourself into the past the more you contaminate it and so you just use it as a mirror and the more you use it as a mirror the more you admire yourself and so that means why are we bothering with the past?

The reason morally speaking for bothering with the past is that it has things to tell us.

Jeremy: That’s one of the great tensions, isn’t it, that this past and present and … I guess the aspiration is always, in as sense, to remove ourselves from the present. [Quentin: Yes.] But I think from what you’re saying that inevitably there are these implications from the present. Is it enough, in terms of what you do and how you just sketched it, in a sense to leave it there? It’s almost like I’ve recovered this, I’ve set this out for you and there you are. I mean there’s a marvelous one of your famous phrases across from many, many years ago is about doing your thinking for yourself [Quentin: Yes, of course.] And how does that bear upon that idea?

Quentin: Well, my aspiration is to set the past before the present and to set it before the present in its own terms and we’re not here to praise or blame the past but here to learn from it.

Now to learn from it in the very strict sense that we’re now talking about, Jeremy, would not be to act in propria persona as an historian it would be to act as a first-order moralist.

But I find that with increasing age and with having spent so much time trying to reconstitute what seemed to me important debates about freedom, about representation, about the state in their own terms, I’m very much more interested now in stepping forward as a moralist and saying for example in relation to the theory of freedom, we really have gone in a terrible direction and neoliberalism as a theory of the state and as the view that you’re free as long as no one is messing you around is doing terrible damage to our institution.

And I really want to come forward to say that the reason that damage is being done to our institutions is because we have the wrong view of freedom.

I really want to say that.

It’s not a fruitful view, it misses out extraordinarily important elements in anything that’s to do with the phenomenology of feeling free. I do not feel free if I know that all my actions are in fact permissions and that you could stop me from doing them if you wanted although as it happens you’re not, or you say I’m completely benign.

This leaves me in a condition of dependency.

So one of the things I become very upset about is the deunionising of labour forces where we now have contracts which allow of course dismissal at will by the employer.

They are of course said to be free contracts, because they’re not coercively entered into, but they’re not free contracts if you think the freedom is dependence because they leave you at the mercy of an employer. Moreover, as employers know perfectly well, and this is another insight from antiquity, slaves are always slavish. If you live in servitude you can’t fail to be served out, of course, because you don’t know what’s going to happen to you.

So that seems to me a tremendous loss. Another thing which I’ve become a profound enemy of is all institutions which tell us that they’re benign but harvest huge amounts of personal data which are available for sale.

Now to harvest personal data on colossal scale is, rightly of course, seen in contemporary political debate as an attack on privacy. It is, of course, but that again shows that we’re thinking wrong about freedom. It’s also an attack on freedom because this information is power.

Now, what is said by the huge engines that create and hold all this information is ‘we’re not going to do anything harmful with this of course’ and I want to say well but I’m being manipulated here and you could do something very harmful. You could, for example, you might be able to blackmail me but you say ‘well I would never dream of doing that’ but these are very servile relationships that we’re talking about.

So if we were thinking differently about freedom, we would certainly think differently about Facebook, we wouldn’t say ‘look this is a bit of a problem for privacy’, we would say ‘this is a fundamental attack on freedom’.

We would also be saying this, I think, about much that passes for liberal democracy now, I mean I’m very struck that the conditions that produce freedom in democracies, which of course are not simply electoral but include and must include other institutions, which mean that people have control over that democracy.

These are increasingly under threat and I was very shocked in the Brexit negotiations when the High Court judges, employing as we must I think if we’re going to value freedom a mixed constitution, came out with the judgment which made them enemies of the people.

This is very dangerous talk and I think that anyone who thinks about freedom as I do will want to say that you not only need to have a mixed constitution in the sense that there must be parties that are able to oppose one another and have proper and informed debates, but there must be some complex relationships between executive branch and the legislative branch and the judicial branch and that none of these must use up the others, because any such usurpation loses popular control and popular control is the name of democracy.

So I worry about democracy because I worry that we’ve got the wrong theory of freedom.

It’s not a democratic theory at all.

Jeremy: I’m aware that you have been associated with certain political interventions over Brexit for example, you’re cited as one of the people supporting remain. How do you see yourself? Can we expect the next book to be the Quentin Skinner moralist book? You articulate those things. How do you see yourself taking those things further, I guess, into broader public debate?

Quentin: Well, thank you. Yes, but I have been extremely exercised by the constitutional aspect of the Brexit negotiations, not just the “obliquery” heaped upon the judges for doing their job, which seemed to me an extremely sinister development, but also the very fact that it was thought an appropriate mechanism under our constitution to ask the multitude for its view.

The multitude doesn’t have one view, that’s Hobbes’ point, the multitude almost never has a single view, and indeed our multitude had 52% had one view and 48% had the other view.

Or if you take how many were eligible to vote then 37.5% of the multitude had the view that Great Britain should leave the European Union.

But our Constitution tells us that we don’t poll the multitude.

We have a representative system in which my understanding is that when we vote for members of parliament we vote for someone to use their discretion as a result of hearing debates in order to help to arrive at a judgement which they think to be for the public good.

That is our system, rightly or wrongly.

Now, if in the Brexit negotiations we do not come to a point in which the Houses of Parliament say ‘Look, Parliament is sovereign, thanks for doing the negotiations, it is now our constitutional duty to see whether we believe that to be in the public good’, they will be in dereliction of the fundamental constitutional duty as a representative assembly and I wait with great trepidation to see what will happen.

Are we going to be ruled by the vote of a minority of those eligible to vote in the multitude who were in a highly mendacious campaign told a pack of lies?

Or are we going to use our own constitution, are we really not going to use our own constitution? I feel very exercised about all of this but of course that’s to speak as a citizen and as a moralist and as someone interested in the theory of representation.

But to answer your more general question, well honesty Jeremy how long am I going to be able to do this? You said I’ve been doing it quite a long time and it’s true that my earliest [Jeremy: That’s because you started young.] Yeah okay, well the fact remains that my earliest published work on these issues was in 1962. That it’s a long time ago and I don’t take for granted that I’m going to be able to do this but my current research is about how we ever came to lose this theory of freedom and it’s going to be an attempt to show historically what the forces were that undermined the view of freedom which is a view of equal freedom and therefore a view of democratic freedom which it seems to me is alone the view of freedom that we should have in a democracy.

So that will be an historical work but the motivation will not be historical.

But I think if the truth be told my motivations have never been historical. They’ve always been moralistic and I’ve always wanted to study those aspects of historical record that enable me to try to say something of some moral relevance.

Jeremy: It’s very interesting and that’s a good point, I think, to end.

Thank you very, very much indeed. [Quentin: Thank you.] I’m looking forward greatly to the next book as I’m sure everyone who’s heard this podcast will be and we cannot wait to read that.

Quentin: Oh well, it’ll take me some time.

Jeremy: Thank you very much indeed. I think it’s been a marvelous overview of what you’ve done and why you do it and why it’s so important and I’m saying thank you very, very much indeed.

Quentin: Well, let me just end by thanking you Jeremy for excellent questions and for letting us pursue them in this winding and conversational way. I’ve really enjoyed it.

Jeremy: It’s been a pleasure thank very much indeed.

About CSGS

The Governance Podcast is a project of the Centre for the Study of Governance and Society (CSGS). Housed in the Department of Political Economy at King’s College London, CSGS examines how both formal and informal rules of governance operate and evolve, and how these rules facilitate or imperil peaceful, prosperous, and ecologically secure societies. The Centre supports research asking broad questions about social and political power and is especially interested in comparative research assessing the performance of alternative governance in ‘real world’ or ‘non-ideal’ conditions. The Centre convenes a regular research seminar, holds academic conferences and book events open to the public, and hosts seminars focused on questions relevant for policy-makers and a general audience.