Finally, in India he had, as he thought, found his ideal realised. There, with whatever shortcomings, there was at least a strong Government; rulers who ruled; capable of doing business; of acting systematically upon their convictions; strenuously employed in working out an effective system; and not trammelled by trimming their sails to catch every temporary gust of sentiment in a half-educated community. His book, he often said, was thus virtually a consideration of the commonplaces of British politics in the light of his Indian experience. He wished, he says in one of his letters, to write about India; but as soon as he began he felt that he would be challenged to give his views upon these preliminary problems: What do you think of liberty, of toleration, of ruling by military force, and so forth?
At the beginning of our last series of wars, in 2001, I became interested in the interconnected problems of empire and central planning. At the time, I thought of war in the normal way – as derivative of the state. I am now not so sure that war isn’t, as Heraclitus thought, primary, and the state secondary, something dragged behind the one human organization that will always be with us.
At the time, there was a spate of essays in the thumbsucking journals assuring us that America was an empire and it was time to get with the white man’s burden. It was spring time for Niall Ferguson, in other words.
I noticed that one emblematic figure from history was sometimes mentioned in these Imperialist pep rallies – Pilate. Tony Blair, perhaps the most unctuous figure in recent history, had mentioned Pilate with some sympathy in a speech lauding “humanitarian intervention” – a beautiful phrase that was as meaningless as, say, loving rape, or charitable robbery. A conman’s phrase, in other words. Conman’s phrases go through the thumbsucking journals like berries through the belly of a goose – they come in all sweet and gooey, and they come out shit.
I found, I thought, the definitive topos on the Pilate as tragic colonial governor – or tragic humanitarian intervenor – in an obscure Victorian book, Liberty Equality Fraternity, by Virginia Woolf’s uncle, Fitzjames Stephen. The more I learned about Stephen, who is mentioned by a lot of late nineteenth century worthies – for instance, William James – the more I thought he was the kind of marginal figure through which major currents of history flowed in an exemplary fashion.
Well, my essay on Pilate, and on the imperialist effect on politics in the twentieth century, fell by the wayside. But I remembered it recently when I saw an allusion in the TLS to Leslie Stephen’s biography of his brother, and looked up the chapter on the book. I was impressed – the chapter is a minor classic in sorting out various currents in the philosophy of law and politics which we have all but forgotten, having decided, by warrant of the 101 class, that utilitarianism runs straight through John Stuart Mill and then gets taken up by various analytic ethicists in the 1950s and 60s, thus missing its whole historical effect.
To which I have to return…