pilate intro

Years ago, I played around with writing a series of essays – a small book, in fact, about the evolution of modern liberalism and conservatism from classical liberalism. My angle was this: the traditional model of the formation of political ideologies in the 19th and 20th century emphasizes the role of the conflict between labor and capital, with imperialism being derived from that central conflict. My idea was that this didn’t really capture the imperial effect. I thought that these essays could employ Pilate as a legend around which these issues gathered. In the enlightenment, Pilate had become a practical skeptic, a cousin of the enlightened ruler, dealing with religious enthusiasm by asking ‘what is the truth?” But in the 19th century, in Britain, there was a shift in the meaning of this legend. Just as the British empire became the new Rome, Pilate became a quietly heroic colonial officer, much like the officers in India, controlling the native inclination to superstition and riot. There was an exemplary controversy over the meaning of Pilate between John Stuart Mill and James Fitzjames Stephen: Stephen provided a certain template for the Right’s modern, uneasy compound of coercive moralism and libertarian economics against an earlier version of liberalism represented by Mill, for whom empire represented an incoherence in the system – a political entity that liberalism both relied on and could not justify.

In my opinion, the Enlightenment and the late nineteenth century uses of Pilate overlapped. So it rather delighted me that Tony Blair, famously, wrote an encomium of Pilate as a representative of the modern politician. Since the Iraq war has politicized the question, what is the truth, rather than the usual question, what are we to do, it struck me that following Pilate’s image was a way of tracing the ruse of reason in history.

Anyway, all of this is an intro to republishing those Pilate posts this weekend. I want to see what they look like, for one thing. Also, I don’t know if LI’s readers read them, or remember them – and hell, I don’t know if LI’s readers will care one way or the other, but I hope you'all do.