Book #64: Quentin Skinner, Liberty Before Liberalism

Quentin Skinner’s slim volume, “Liberty before Liberalism” contains an expanded version of his Inaugural Lecture as Regius Professor of Modern History at Cambridge, and is well worth reading if, like me, you’re studying the history of “classical republican” political theory. The lectures are an excellent historical background into the “neo-roman theory of free states” as understood by English republicans of the seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries. Neo-roman republicanism is the notion that freedom is best served by, and indeed can be understood as being constituted by, citizens who live within a society whose rules are determined by common assent and which foster non-domination among the citizenry. This language is more Phillip Pettit’s way of describing it than Skinner’s, but the two are in fairly close agreement on the components of neo-roman republicanism.

This is important because the neo-roman theory stands in stark contrast to the classical liberal tradition, in which freedom is constituted by any situation in which the preferences and actions of individuals are free of interference. Skinner, Pettit, and to some extent Michael Sandel call into question whether the strict liberal tradition is, in fact, the best constitutive theory of freedom available to us; all believe that what we call “liberal” goals in the United States today are best achieved not through a society founded on classical liberal (or “libertarian”) non-interference, but rather through a revival of the “republicanism” of the Founding era, the Commonwealthmen in England, both ultimately deriving from “neo-roman” principles.

I have to admit a considerable sympathy for this viewpoint, which I hope to elaborate on at length here or at Progressive Commons. I want to finish Pettit’s book first, and connect some threads between Pettit, Skinner, Sandel, Charles Taylor (about which more in my next post), and Richard Rorty. Right now, as the year ends, I merely want to record my impressions reading Skinner, and say that I will be back for more, including Skinner’s two-volume work “The Foundations of Modern Political Thought”.


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