The evolution of political language

On the origin of ‘states’: A commentary on From the state of princes to the person of the state by Quentin Skinner

Quentin Skinner, leading historian of political language.

Rome, as Runciman (1983) argues, was a market society developed enough to be economically dynamic and politically disturbed but not so developed that it assumed a capitalist class structure. It did, however, give rise to a certain legal lexicon which was revived in the early-modern period, in the construal of political power as founded on a certain kind of property; specifically, the private property of princes and citizens, which sum to produce the public property of the state. While property is often seen as a physical possession, early-modern thinkers proposed the idea of property as an abstraction, where sovereignty could be construed as the ‘property’ of an ‘impersonal agency’: the state (Skinner 2002, 369). While Skinner’s conclusion is that the state arises from a pivot from Machiavellian princes to Hobbesian sovereigns, the mechanism for this change is left open to interpretation, aside from the importance signalled to the revival of the Roman Digeste in the late-medieval period, running into the quattrocento in which Machiavelli inherited the pivotal lexis of lo stato. Missing is the Harringtonian idea of property as the basis for politics — especially, perhaps, the modern politics which Harrington disavows and Skinner hails as a ‘strictly political’ suppression of the socioeconomic forces which were conditioning the rise of a new form of politics after the fall of Christendom and its ancient ancestors, much to the chagrin of its nostalgic modern inheritors, except those who celebrate loss as a form of victory (Skinner, Liberty before Liberalism, 17). Most appealing about Skinner’s account is the concessions given to each side of the coin: premodern liberty, modern liberty, and whatever comes next in the cycle of history.

Edmund Wilson

Selwyn College, Cambridge

Sunday, 27 March, 2022

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