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  • A Review of Paul A. Rahe's Against Throne and Altar
  • John Dunn (bio)
Paul A. Rahe, Against Throne and Altar: Machiavelli and Political Theory under the English Republic (Cambridge University Press, 2008).

Paul Rahe is no believer in concision. For someone of such remarkable energy and breadth of scholarship, it is very striking that Against Throne and Altar should be only his second real book. His debut volume, Republics Ancient and Modern, published by the University of North Carolina Press more than fifteen years ago, was a work of extraordinary scope and confidence. Written on the amplest of scales, Republics Ancient and Modern aimed to recapture the history of republicanism from the influence of J.G.A.Pocock's masterwork The Machiavellian Moment (Princeton University Press, 1975) and put it instead in the hands of Leo Strauss's intellectual progeny. Against Throne and Altar covers more of the same ground than its subtitle suggests and does not noticeably prescind from the viewpoint of its formidable predecessor. But it does have a sharper focus and handles a briefer passage of time over which much ink has recently been spilled. Much of the point of his book is to correct the plethora of errors and misapprehensions that Rahe discerns in this recent literature. But the tone of his discussions of others' views is often curt and dismissive. This not insubstantial element in the book is therefore likely to prove largely an exercise in preaching to the converted.

Against Throne and Altar presses a robust thesis of keen interest on a momentous and thrilling topic. It is written with animus and some intermittent wit. It conveys a great deal of compelling judgment, is evidently the work of a very clever person, and must clearly have required an unnerving amount of work. What remains a trifle elusive is its intended audience. The book has two levels, one narrowly scholastic and the other of pressing concern for anyone seriously interested either in modern politics or in modern history. The second of these levels is genuinely ecumenical, while the first tends to the parochial.

In mid-17th-century England politicians and soldiers who claimed to speak for the people of England put on trial and executed their monarch and for a few hectic years established an English republic. The political turmoil that swirled around these dramatic events unleashed a flood of thinking and writing unprecedented in any country in the world. In those few [End Page 27] years a range of idiosyncratic and adventurous thinkers reimagined the basis and terms of political community in ways that have marked the world's dispersed political intelligence ever since, and, as Rahe sees the sequence, promise to mark it ever more deeply in centuries to come, unless throne or altar somehowmusters the resources to strike back. In that stark perspective, the political thinking of England's republic lived on long after Charles II's Restoration. It is still unremittingly alive today, and in an even longer run, it may yet inherit the Earth.

In these years, as Rahe sees them, at least two very different temporalities intersect. A very lengthy and deeply ambiguous intellectual past enters a maelstrom of political energy and adventure and is permanently altered by the experience. What is left behind, as the storm subsides, is something durably different. If Rahe is right (and he is too painstaking a scholar and too pertinacious a thinker to be simply and decisively wrong), the story he has to tell is as dramatic as any in the history of human reflection.

The new vision whose birth Rahe seeks to chronicle is republican in that it desacralizes (and even desecrates) monarchy. But it is also liberal, and carefully parsimonious in the lessons that it selects from the political experience of Greece or Rome. It refuses to desacralize monarchy by sentimentalizing a republican alternative. It is liberal, too (unlike its antique republican predecessors), in its disabused vision and unfastidious acceptance of the purposes of most human beings as they actually are. It aspires to design institutions that take accurate account of these purposes and can reasonably be anticipated to operate effectively in the face of them. The modern republic, unlike...


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pp. 27-28
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