Sunday, September 6, 2009

James Livesey's "Civil Society and Empire"

James Livesey has taught at Trinity College Dublin and Harvard University and is Reader at the University of Sussex.

He applied the “Page 99 Test” to his new book, Civil Society and Empire: Ireland and Scotland in the Eighteenth-Century Atlantic World, and reported the following:
On page 99 of Civil Society and Empire I am in the middle of describing a debate between Cornelius Nary and Edward Synge. The page speaks to the heart of the book. The two, Catholic and Anglican clerics writing in Dublin in 1725, were arguing about toleration. Synge wanted to extend toleration to Catholics on the grounds of individual conscience and Nary wouldn’t accept its extension on those terms. Nary demanded that Catholics be allowed re-enter public life in Ireland still adhering to their commitment to a continuous interpretation of tradition as the valid norm justifying individual and collective action. He would not accept the primacy of individual conscience as the price for repeal of the Penal Laws.

On this page I pay a lot of attention to the detail of their disagreement. I passionately believe that this kind of detailed reconstruction is one of the most important things that historians do. When we succeed at this work we reveal the geology that underpins the landscape of contemporary political and moral debate. We recover the process that defined the intellectual territory on which we move and work. In this case Catholics and Protestants who could not agree on the most fundamental conditions for living together, the very conditions under which they could discuss objects of public concern, were driven to invent a new context that allowed them to shelve their profound differences in order to respond to pressing problems of politics and economics. They named that new space civil society.

In the book I explain what made that move possible and compelling. I argue that in the eighteenth century elites in the provinces of the emerging British Empire had to explain how they continued to enjoy liberty without citizenship. As political control came to be centred on London, provincials, particularly Irish and Scots, replaced the political community with civil society as the context for liberty. Civil society idealised associations as a counter-weight to the power of the state. Sharp thinkers, and especially David Hume, recognised that when you redefined the context of liberty you redefined its nature. He asserted that the old categories of moral excellence, such as courage, loyalty and justice, were in fact simply habits generated by enlightened self-interest. Much contemporary discussion of civil society confuses all these categories and attempts to integrate civil society with ideas of political independence. Empire and Civil Society remain paired terms.
Read more about Civil Society and Empire at the Yale University Press website.

Learn more about James Livesey's scholarship at his University of Sussex faculty webpage.

--Marshal Zeringue