Emptying Republicanism: Hegelianism in Pettit and Skinner

There is a very well known body of work about republicanism in political theory and in the history of political thought.  It is Philip Pettit who is associate with the former, particularly through his 1997 book, Republicanism; it is Quentin Skinner who is particularly associated with the latter through a variety of works on Machiavelli, Hobbes, Liberty and Liberalism.  They converge in ways which ca be best expressed through the idea of Neo-Roman liberty.  This is what they take to be the view that liberty includes the idea of not being a slave, of not being dependent on anyone else’s will.  This they take to be in contrast both with liberal emphasis on individualism, and an Athenian republicanism of the flourishing off humanity through political participation.  The former distinction is particularly directed at Hobbes and Utilitarianism.  Or is it?  The complications around this will appear in another post.  

  The latter distinction is apparently directed at Aristotle, Rousseau and Arendt and more implicitly seems concerned to establish barriers against both Marxism and the most radical forms of communitarianism (individual rights depend on, and even subordinate to the ethical-socia bond which makes a community).  It seems to me that ‘Neo-Romans’ have established less strong barriers than they think, but again that’s something for another post.  

The Neo-Roman account is highly dependent on Hegel, though not in a way that is acknowledged and perhaps not  in a way that is conscious.  It is Hegel strongly emphasised the idea of a strong difference, between Athenian republicanism and Roman republicanism.  This comes into the discussion of tragedy, particularly Antigone, which has been referred to in recent posts. For Hegel, Antigone refers to a conflict between divine and state law which reflects the very undeveloped nature of law in ancient Greece, particularly in the Athenian democracy, which Hegel sees as prone to the instability of the popular mood, the unconstrained manipulation of mass feeling, and the corruption of the law (all complaints made by contemporary critics of Athenian democracy).  

In Hegel’s understanding of the history and theory of law and politics, the Roman Republic was based on law, and a form of law which recognised the individual, in the legal concept of ‘persona’, in a way that was absent from Greek law.  He sees Roman republicanism as based on this impersonal law, rather than the Athenian extremes of unconstrained popular will and self-seeking individualism.  This is not exactly what Pettit and Skinner discuss, but it is one way of giving a foundation to their view of Neo-Roman liberty as based on enforceable rights rather than democratic participation, of the superiority of institutions to political activity.  The awkwardness for Skinner and Pettit is that Hegel is a source of both Marxism and of the current communitarianism, which they are trying to hold off from their understanding of liberty.  The other awkwardness is that the emptying out of republican political culture through the extreme exaltation of forms over political life is too extreme in Hegel’s belief that Roman law can replace the Antigone type of political tension, which to many looks like the stuff of political struggle down the ages.  

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