2006 Balzan Prize for Political Thought: History and Theory
Acceptance Speech – Rome, 24.11.2006
Members of the Balzan Foundation,
Ladies and Gentlemen,
I shall speak in English, but I first want to thank you most gratefully for allowing me to do so. To arrive here, where the language of Dante and Petrarch is spoken, and be permitted to address you in my own tongue is an extraordinary privilege, and one that Anglophones in particular must never take for granted.
I feel immensely honoured to be the recipient of a Balzan Prize, and I should like to begin by conveying my warmest thanks to the Chairman and Prize Committee as a whole. I feel especially honoured that such an exceptionally eminent body of judges should have thought my scholarship worthy of being recognised in this munificent and indeed magnificent way.
I am even more pleased to be receiving this award in Rome. One of the themes I have recurrently tried to examine in my historical work has been the impact of ancient Rome on modern Europe. My book on Renaissance political painting tries to show how the values of Roman moral philosophy were revived and adapted by the spokesmen for the Italian city-states. My book on Machiavelli argues that Il principe is best understood as a critical commentary, and above all a satire, on the same classical values. My book on Thomas Hobbes contends that his philosophy was at least as much influenced by ancient Roman rhetorical theory as it was by the scientific revolution of his own time. For me, a visit to Rome is not merely a pleasure and a privilege; it is also a reminder of something that I, in common with so many other historians of modern Europe, have constantly discussed: the unique role played by this particular city in shaping our world.
I want to express a special word of gratitude to the Foundation for recognising the specific area of scholarship in which I work. When I first joined the profession in the early 1960s, few historians paid much attention to the history of moral and political thought. Such ideas were widely taken to amount to little more than rationalisations of interests, and were consequently held to have little intrinsic and still less explanatory value. Nowadays, I am happy to report, historians are much less prone to impose current theoretical frameworks on the past, and much more inclined to listen to the words of our forebears as they describe their own beliefs and experiences. It is true, however, that many sceptics remain to be convinced of the value of the kind of intellectual history I try to write. This being so, the Foundation’s willingness to lend its immense prestige to acknowledging the subject is a matter for thanks in itself.
More generally, all of us who work in the humanities owe a profound debt to the Foundation for its continued promotion of our kind of work. But in saying this I do not mean to praise the Foundation for encouraging activities that lack obvious usefulness. I firmly believe that the study of philosophy and its history are subjects with a practical use. When philosophers successfully challenge us to reconsider how we employ some particular concept, they also succeed in changing how we view the world. When the concept at issue is a normative one — as in the case of liberty or equality or social justice — the effect is also to change our sense of how we ought to behave. I have been much concerned myself with the concept of political liberty, and have tried to show in my book Liberty Before Liberalism how in current western democracies we are often much less free than our governments like to assure us. This is at one level a philosophical claim, but at another level it is a call for us to reconsider some of our existing institutions and practices. When I thank the Foundation for supporting this kind of research, I am saluting its willingness to encourage the kind of humanistic studies that seek not merely to understand but if possible to change the world.
To award someone an academic prize is to draw attention to the individual contribution they have allegedly made to their discipline. But when I reflect on the preconditions that need to be met before I can start to engage in my own scholarship, I begin to wonder if my contribution can be counted as an individual one at all. I feel immensely fortunate in the first place to live in a society in which scholarly activities are valued, in which the society itself is rich enough to sustain them, and in which there is a sufficient degree of peace and security to enable them to be pursued. I feel no less fortunate to be employed in a University with well-stocked libraries and other such facilities, and with a generous policy about sabbatical leave. I likewise feel heavily dependent on my predecessors in my discipline, who originally raised the questions I now attempt either to answer or to question in turn. Nor do I even work individually, but always as a member of an intellectual community. I study and profit from the publications of colleagues across the world, and my own work is read in advance of publication by experts whose advice sometimes enables me to improve it out of recognition.
How much, then, of what I publish is genuinely the outcome of my own individual effort? Not nearly as much, it seems to me, as the individualistic assumptions prevalent in our time tend to suggest. If this means, however, that I am not certain that I deserve this prize, it also means that I count myself even more fortunate to have been awarded it. This in turn means that I feel an even deeper sense of gratitude to the Committee, and I wish to end by reiterating my most heartfelt thanks.