Consequential Ideas

"Consequential Ideas: Exploring the Subtle Dangers of 'Soft Despotism' in Democracies," review of Soft Despotism, Democracy's Drift: Montesquieu, Rousseau, Tocqueville and the Modern Prospect, by Paul A. Rahe, Weekly Standard, 22 June 2009.


Paul Rahe is a distinguished and prolific historian in the field of intellectual history who ventures with deliberate intent into political philosophy, judging what he sees. His territory is republicanism, ancient and modern, and he shares it with two other historians, also distinguished and prolific, also in political philosophy as well as history, Quentin Skinner and J. G. A. Pocock. These two professors at Cambridge and Johns Hopkins are somewhat better placed, as academics say, than Rahe, a follower of Leo Strauss and a professor at Hillsdale College.

Rahe’s work can be said to be an extended critique of the work of Skinner and Pocock, which has never resulted in a debate among the principals because Skinner and Pocock have never deigned to answer him. The issue between him and them is whether and how ideas influence history. Rahe believes that “ideas have consequences,” that they have the power to guide and even make events, and therefore that they are not mainly caused by the conditions of their time or context but are, on the contrary, mainly the cause of these conditions.

In a previous book, Republics Ancient and Modern (1992), an impressive work of three volumes loaded with historical fact, philosophical analysis, and bibliography, he argued that republics are fundamentally divided between ancient and modern on the basis of a new, modern idea. This was that a republic can become so perfected through remedies for its weaknesses as to be no longer subject to misfortune, thus perpetual–an idea first propounded by Machiavelli.

Skinner and Pocock, however, in seminal works of theirs (Skinner’s The Foundations of Modern Political Thought and Pocock’s Machiavellian Moment), maintain that there is no such distinction between ancient and modern republics, and that republicanism is a theme or set of ideas found useful in various times and contexts, and neither an essential truth nor a project for the future. In their view, often called “historicism,” ideas can be traced to prior conditions that are not ideas, such as economic forces or, more particularly for them, political interests. Ideas are essentially defensive; they justify, defend, and protect the established interests of various regimes and of their opponents, for example the defense of the American colonists in the Declaration of Independence.

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