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Redefining Ourselves (Quentin Skinner)

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Sometimes it’s good to take a little distance.

As we begin the week that formally ushers in an era in American politics that few saw coming and many regard as little short of catastrophic, we turn to the eminent intellectual historian Quentin Skinner, Barber Beaumont Professor of Humanities at Queen Mary University of London for some much-needed perspective.

Not, as it happens, to try to understand how we got here, for Quentin will be the first to tell you that he is not that sort of historian.

“I’m very interested in the history of moral and political philosophy, but I’m not interested in the history because it’s what we talk about now.

“I believe that the sensibility of the historian is to try to study the past on its own terms, insofar as we can manage.  If we do that, then what we find is that in our modern culture there are many paths not taken.

“We tend to write history as the history of the winners. We write the history of wars as the history of the winners, but we also write the history of our culture as the history of the winners. But did the winners always deserve to win?”

For many of us, contemplating how we might improve upon our present situation is a vastly more compelling prospect than merely trying to interpret our past trajectory. But what, specifically, is Quentin referring to here? What kind of “buried treasure” could we conceivably dust off and somehow apply to our present situation?

A key issue for him is the notion of political liberty. Nowadays, he maintains, we primarily look at freedom as simply the absence of external interference: being free just means that nobody is preventing us from engaging in our desired activity.

But, Quentin argues, that misses a vital point. To both Ancient Roman and Renaissance thinkers, being free went well beyond the ability to act unimpeded. It was a sign of status, a guarantee of being beyond the reach of arbitrary power. Or, as the ancient Roman epigram tersely put it: Slaves are slavish.

Well, you might think, so what? After all, whatever your views might be about the current state of American politics, it hardly seems a slave society.

Not literally, perhaps. But take a closer look at the notion of “arbitrary power” and the relevance of Quentin’s argument comes into sharper focus.

“How can you minimize arbitrary power? Well, only by making, in some way, the law be a reflection of your will, or at least of your represented will. If you can see in the law either your will or a representation of it, then in obeying the law you are obeying your will. Thus there is a sense in which you are free in obeying the law: namely, it’s the law that you think it should be.

“The term ‘autonomous’ says it all: it comes from the Greek for ‘giving the law to yourself’. That’s what it is to be autonomous. Well, within what political framework can you give the law to yourself? Only a framework in which you are actively able to participate, or to participate by representation, in a deliberative and representative series of assemblies that are the sole source of law. That alone does it.”

So what, I wonder, does this mean for the millions of people (Democrats and Republicans alike) in this unique election season who find themselves nothing short of unequivocally repelled by the President-Elect whom they are convinced is hardly a true representative of their underlying values and basic beliefs? Are they truly free in the political sense of the word? Are they “giving the law to themselves”?

The standard response is that tolerating opposing views is simply the price we must pay for living in a representational democracy: you can’t always get what you want, and sometimes our wishes and desires are out of step with those of the majority.

But majority of what, exactly? Being forced into compromising one’s position by bending to the collective will of like-minded fellow creatures is reasonable enough (and often healthy), but only on condition that some genuine commonality exists to justify such “like-mindedness” in the first place. After all, few would find it reasonable for a resident of New York City to politically defer to the collective will of a snooker club in Shropshire, say, notwithstanding the fact that everyone concerned speaks the same language (more or less).

If that seems like an unhelpfully inappropriate analogy, consider this: the clearest demographic distinctions associated with most contemporary populist movements lie between those who live in major urban centers and those who do not. A quick glance at voting preferences for November’s presidential election, June’s Brexit vote, or France’s 2015 regional elections, say, reveal very similar patterns.

As if to further prove the point, it so happens that the mayor of New York City has an interracial family, the mayor of Paris was born in Spain, and the mayor of London is a Muslim. It’s fairly clear that, by and large, nobody in New York, Paris or London cares much about any of that. But it’s also pretty hard to realistically imagine that any of those three would have achieved significant success in seeking political office in Kentucky, Provence, or Shropshire. Which makes it tempting to conclude that these days there might well be more in common between a New Yorker and a Parisian than someone from, say, rural New York State, let alone rural Oklahoma.

Political theorists have long reflected upon the question of what is the natural limit for a group of independent-minded citizens to act together to collectively advance their shared values. Both Aristotle and Plato, living in the age of Greek city-states, naturally felt that the city, or polis, was the natural sort of scale, with Plato even going to the trouble of further specifying that the ideal population should, in fact, be 5040 (1 x 2 x 3 x 4 x 5 x 6 x 7, as it happens, and evenly divided by every number from 1-12 other than 11).

While that all seems quaintly anachronistic, the idea of rethinking how we might develop a coherent way to forge genuine political consensus in the modern age is anything but.

Or as Quentin might put it, the central issue is to try to determine how might we truly give the law to ourselves. Otherwise, many of us all over the world – particularly inhabitants of major cities – will likely start feeling decidedly slavish.


Our public landing page is dedicated this week to Quentin Skinner and features two free videos called Freedom as Status and Recovering Buried Treasure.

For a complete list of Ideas Roadshow videos with Quentin Skinner, click here. The eBook called Quest for Freedom contains the unabridged Ideas Roadshow conversation with Quentin Skinner and a range of additional resources and is available on Amazon,  while the podcast of our one-hour video is freely available on iTunes.

All Ideas Roadshow videos are available for individual purchase or by subscription ($10/month, $100/year), while all eBooks are available for purchase on Amazon.  Institutional subscriptions are offered through our Academic, School and Public Library portals (for more information please contact


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