Tribute to J.G.A. Pocock

On the occasion of the death of J.G.A. Pocock, one of the most important voices in the intellectual history of the 20th century, on 12 December 2022, and the 100th anniversary of his birth, the European Hobbes Society wanted to pay tribute to his memory. To this end, the contributions of three prominent historians will be published, freely reflecting on his legacy, highlighting aspects of his influence and applying, in essay form, the categories developed by Pocock to contemporary political analysis. Each has freely chosen the form in which they wish to express their tribute. We are grateful to Professors Patricia Springborg, Frank Ankersmit and Jorge Myers for agreeing to participate.

Patricia Springborg. Honorary Professor, University of Sydney.


Obituaries for JGA Pocock from the NY Times to the Washington Post and the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung all speak of him as a giant figure in the history of historiography, as he surely is.  A tall man with a warm smile and a twinkling eye, he was also a kind mentor and very much aware of his position on the fringes of empire at an extraordinary point of social change. It was not the first time he had appeared on their pages. Patrick Bahners, an editor of the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung who is a great admirer of Pocock and has an Oxford degree, published an essay in the Feuilleton of the FAZ on January 6, 2021, entitled: ‘Er bleibt außen vor, Pocock liest Tolkien’ (‘He remains outside: Pocock reads Tolkien’). Bahners addressed an early unpublished essay by Pocock on Tolkien posted on Richard Whatmore’s St. Andrews Intellectual History website, to argue that Tom Bombadil’s very Englishness was to stand apart, enlisting him in the Brexit debate to argue that England’s incapacity to integrate its own nations, Ireland, Scotland and Wales was symptomatic of its later incapacity to integrate in the EU. This prompted me to respond to Bahner’s piece, which he posted in a later Feuilleton of the FAZ on January 20, 2021 with the title ‘Die Tyrannei des Abstands, Neuseeland und der Brexit’ (‘The Tyranny of Distance, New Zealand and Brexit’) to argue that enlisting Tom Bombadil in the Brexit debate is a step too far; imperial nations have a congenital inability to integrate, but Pocock’s case is a different one.  The British Empire, modelled on the Roman, followed much of its own logic, he set out to show. Just as in the Roman Empire ruler cults flourished on the fringes of the empire where the international relations function of the Emperor was most important, so in its most far-flung colonies the British Empire had greatest salience. Extraordinarily then, at the onset of WWII the world’s two most influential professors of Roman Studies were both NZers. Ronald Syme (1903-1989), a Taranaki boy educated at Auckland University,  who made his career at Oxford; and Ernst Badian (1925-2011), an Austrian Jewish refugee who had migrated to NZ with his family and been a student of LG Pocock, Professor of Classics at Canterbury and JGAP’s father, who made his career at Harvard. ‘The Tyranny of Distance’ did not count in this case.

Among the accolades his obituaries pay are to speak of Pocock as a master of the English language, who even in seminars could speak in carefully constructed paragraphs. Here again the frontiers of the British Empire are seen to supply one of its greatest models; but let me emphasize the lucidity and simplicity of Pocock’s prose and the extraordinary coherence of his life’s project. At the University of Canterbury, where I encountered him in my first year in 1961, JGAP was the director of a Political Science Department newly founded in 1959, spun out of the History Department in order to address precisely the causes of social change and their impacts for global intellectual history, burning issues of the day. For, by 1960 the History Department had taken a strongly empirical turn reflected across many disciplines, where behaviouralism and elite studies employing prosopographical techniques challenged grand narratives. In this case it was ‘Namierism’ named after Sir Lewis Namier (1888-1960), a Polish-Jewish born British historian who introduced behaviouralism and elite studies as an important empirical corrective to the standard British grand narrative. Namier had published his The Structure of Politics at the Accession of George III in 1929, detailing the social background characteristics of MPs, their psychological drives, personal and local interests, to reveal a politics in 1760 driven by Tories and Whigs jockeying for position within the political elite, and not by big ideas. Important though Namier’s empiricism and behaviouralism proved to be in subsequent historiography, as revealing the nitty-gritty of modern politics, it left big ideas out in the cold. The fortuitous decision of the Canterbury History Department to create a Political Science Department that addressed the causes of social change, gave Pocock his scope. Not only did he set up a thoroughly creditable curriculum addressing social change in the light of current political science giants, sociologists and anthropologists; but by examining the foundations for major shifts in global intellectual history, it served to provide the systematic groundwork for a history of historiography . And it is in historiography that Pocock is remembered as a giant, there being personal and positional reasons for this that have to do with the state of the British Empire and the role of NZ as a frontier colony.

JGA Pocock was the son of LG Pocock, from a South African family, appointed Professor of Classics at Canterbury, and his historian wife from the Chanel Islands, both of whom influenced JGA Pocock’s education as an accomplished Latinist and a path-breaking historian. As noted, at the onset of WWII the world’s two most influential professors of Roman Studies were both NZers. Ronald Syme at Oxford, author of the famous The Roman Revolution (1939) written against the background of the rise of Fascism in Europe, employed prosopographical techniques to show how family, clan and tribe had colonized imperial Rome, whose constitution was inadequate to the task, and whose ideals were deemed a sham. Ernst Badian at Harvard is famous for work on Alexander the Great that was also deflationary in the new empirical tradition, while his study of patron-client relations, Foreign Clientelae 264-70BC (1958), published from his Oxford dissertation, also a study of Roman elite politics, is said to be based on a transcription of the Cicero graffiti on the walls of LG Pocock’s study. 

But JGA Pocock, surrounded by the new empiricism taking the form of behaviouralism and prosopographical studies of the social background characteristics of elites, took another message from Roman Studies and its relation to the empire. It has been JGA Pocock’s life work to show how the British Empire was shaped  by the Roman, but also how its colonies have shaped it. This includes Great Britain, which constitutes an ‘Atlantic Archipelago’, in Pocock’s terms,  along with its former American colonies (The Machiavellian Moment, Princeton, 1975); but also its frontier colonies, of which NZ seems to have been one of the most important (The Discovery of Islands, Cambridge, 2005). In my farewell letter to John which I sent to his son Hugh, who had alerted me that his Dad was failing and would likely not make his 100th, I compared John to Ernest Rutherford (1871-1937), NZ born and raised, the 4th of 12 children from Brightwater, my NZ village, who attended Nelson College and, in this case took all of his degrees from the University of Canterbury. Rutherford won the Nobel prize in Chemistry in 1908, and is considered the father of nuclear physics, performing the first nuclear reaction, developing the atomic numbering system, as well as anticipating the controlled nuclear chain reaction, while making important contributions to Xray, sonar and other fields. He like Pocock was a great mentor, and at the Cavendish Laboratories in Cambridge under his tutelage, 4 more researchers won Nobels. He is buried in Westminster Abbey alongside Newton and Darwin, and is claimed to be the greatest and most original of all British scientists – note that like Pocock he is considered British! 

Pocock, whom in my valedictory letter I compare as the ‘Rutherford of the humanities’, has also been influential across many fronts. His most enduring legacy is as an historian of historiography, a much more dynamic field than it sounds. For, as John has demonstrated in his study of Gibbon’s Decline and FallBarbarism and Religion (1999 to 2015) — at 6 volumes already longer than Gibbon’s original and even then not complete — historiography was a species of political theory. What better choice than Gibbon whose very subject is the Roman Empire as the model for the British, and who documented the growing self-awareness of its strengths and of its frailties? Pocock’s interest is in global intellectual history and its path-breaking transitions, which it was the business of historiographers to chart. His first famous book, The Ancient Constitution and the Feudal Law (Cambridge 1957), already set the scene by analysing the 17th century battle between the Common Lawyers, as supporters of an Ancient Constitution based on immemorial custom, against the legions of the Holy Roman Empire based on feudal law. Once again it is the historiographers and antiquarians to whom the discovery of feudal law is credited, and not the lawyers. It is of course hardly credible that in the 17th century, Britain, which had lived alongside the Holy Roman Empire for 1000 years, where the Norman Kingdom of England together with the Norman Kingdom of Sicily were the most well-integrated off-shore islands of Europe, should have had to ‘discover’ feudalism. It is even more significant that antiquarians, like the Scottish Sir Henry Spelman, should have been responsible. And extraordinarily Pocock folds the great Thomas Hobbes into this story of the discovery of feudalism and its consequences.

It is here, in the powerful first chapter of  The Ancient Constitution and the Feudal Law, that Pocock inserts the role of humanism under the influence of Lorenzo Valla (1407-1457) and other great unveilers beloved of the Cambridge School. For, as Pocock emphasizes, it is a singular characteristic of medieval and early modern consciousness to treat Graeco-Roman civilization as an immovable object to be confronted; something which Graeco-Roman thought itself was not forced to confront. It rather treated itself as sui generis, simply ignoring its debts to previous civilizations like the ancient Egyptian and Babylonian. Symptomatically, 16th century humanism, predominantly in French universities, already enlisted antiquarianism against the civil lawyers, insisting on stripping the original Justinian texts of the glosses and commentaries with which they had been transmitted by the Bartolist school, trying to adapt Roman law to new circumstances. During the French wars of religion, diagnosed as a consequence of the failure of this project, Francois Baudouin in De institutione historiae universae et ejus cum jurisprudentia conjunctione (1561), Jean Bodin in his Methodus ad facilem historium cognitionem (1566) and Francois Hotman in Anti-Tribonian (1567) faced a radical confrontation between history and jurisprudence. Hotman declared Roman law irrelevant, paving the way for his laterFrancogallia (1573) and its assertion of the primacy of French customary law, which Pocock sees anticipating the overblown case for Common Law based on ‘immemorial custom’ of Lord Chief Justice, Sir Edward Coke (1552-1634), and the Parliamentarians in the English Civil War. So consequential then, was this confrontation between Roman civil law and indigenous customary law, fought out in terms of jurisprudence and antiquarianism, that in both the cases of France and England it produced religious wars.

Not surprisingly, perhaps, German thinkers in the tradition of Geistesgeschichte, or Intellectual Historyhave been best able to diagnose the special genius of Pocock’s thought. So Martin Mulsow, Professor of Intellectual History at the University of Erfurt, and Andreas Mahler, Professor of Geistesgeschichte  at the Freie Universität Berlin, in their Die Cambridge School der Politischen Ideengeschichte (Suhrkamp, 2010), see the specificity of Pocock’s contribution. Mulsow in Prekär Wissen (Suhrkamp, 2012), Precarious Knowledge, translated as Knowledge Lost (Princeton 2022), emphasizes the work of antiquarians and other unveilers working in the margins, the producers of ‘precarious knowledge’. Their efforts have contributed to what the Germans call Nichtwissen, systematic obstacles to the distribution of knowledge. So we should not be surprised that Pocock, after his masterful work on ‘the Enlightenments’ of Edward Gibbon, should have turned in his last days to Ibn Khaldun (1332-1406), the Tunisian historian and sociologist, considered to be the father of historiography, and best known for his Al-Muqaddima, the introduction to his universal history of empires. Pocock sees Ibn Khaldun anticipating Gibbon’s ‘enlightenments’ (see Pocock, 2019: ‘Two Cities: 1. The desert and the city: reading the history of civilization in Ibn Khaldun after Edward Gibbon. II. Rational Enthusiasm and angelicality: the concept of prophecy in Ibn Khaldun and Edward Gibbon’). Or perhaps we could say, Pocock saw Ibn Khaldun as the producer of ‘precarious knowledge’ or ‘knowledge lost’. But then the same could be said, I have argued elsewhere, for the great Thomas Hobbes, apparently a most conservative figure, who can however be read quite differently, as Pocock already suggests. 

Patricia Springborg
Honorary Professor, University of Sydney;