Covenants without Swords: Idealist Liberalism and the Spirit of Empire

Covenants without Swords: Idealist Liberalism and the Spirit of Empire

by Jeanne Morefield


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Covenants without Swords: Idealist Liberalism and the Spirit of Empire by Jeanne Morefield

Covenants without Swords examines an enduring tension within liberal theory: that between many liberals' professed commitment to universal equality on the one hand, and their historic support for the politics of hierarchy and empire on the other. It does so by examining the work of two extremely influential British liberals and internationalists, Gilbert Murray and Alfred Zimmern. Jeanne Morefield mounts a forceful challenge to disciplinary boundaries by arguing that this tension, on both the domestic and international levels, is best understood as frequently arising from the same, liberal reformist political aim—namely, the aim of fashioning a socially conscious liberalism that ultimately reifies putatively natural, preliberal notions of paternalistic order.

Morefield also questions conventional analyses of interwar thought by resurrecting the work of Murray and Zimmern, and by linking their approaches to liberal internationalism with the ossified notion of sovereignty that continues to trouble international politics to this day. Ultimately, Morefield argues, these two thinkers' drift toward conservative and imperialist understandings of international order was the result of a more general difficulty still faced by liberals today: how to adequately define community in liberal terms without sacrificing these terms themselves. Moreover, Covenants without Swords suggests that Murray and Zimmern's work offers a cautionary historical example for the cadre of post-September 11th "new imperialists" who believe it possible to combine a liberal commitment to equality with an American Empire.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780691171401
Publisher: Princeton University Press
Publication date: 06/28/2016
Edition description: Reprint
Pages: 280
Product dimensions: 6.10(w) x 9.10(h) x 0.70(d)

About the Author

Jeanne Morefield is an Assistant Professor of Politics at Whitman College.

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Covenants without Swords

Idealist Liberalism and the Spirit of Empire

Chapter One


IN 1938, GILBERT MURRAY ARGUED IN Liberality and Civilization that liberalism was "not a doctrine; it is a spirit or attitude of mind ... an effort to get rid of prejudice so as to see the truth, to get rid of selfish passions so as to do the right." Murray had suggested something similar fifty years earlier, while a young fellow at Oxford in 1888. In an unpublished speech to the Russell Club, he suggested that the foundational logic of what he described as the "new liberalism" was an emerging consensus that something other than self-interest-something other than what Murray then called "that negative way the old Liberals got their enthusiasm"-must motivate liberal social theory. Murray's consistency on this matter demonstrates the profundity of his belief that liberalism ought to be understood as an essentially spiritual and deeply selfless approach to politics and to life, an antidote, in fact, to almost all the problems of modernity. In the final analysis, it was this faith in liberalism as essentially transformative (a faith shared by Zimmern) that would map out the contours of Murray's political theory and shape his approach tointernationalism. It would also lead to future charges of utopianism.

And yet Murray's particular formulation of liberalism was hardly particular. It was, rather, conditioned by a reformist tradition within British liberalism, associated most directly with T. H. Green and his students and colleagues at Oxford, a tradition that arose out of what these earlier thinkers perceived as a deep crisis within liberal theory. For scholars such as Green, Bernard Bosanquet, Edward Caird, David Ritchie, John Muirhead, and Henry Jones, the kind of economic and political liberalism long associated with the Locke, Smith, Ricardo, and Bright had, by the mid-nineteenth century, brought about positive political change only at the cost of generating massive economic disparities, widespread poverty, and appalling working conditions for millions. These disparities had themselves led not only to class conflict but also to the rise of socialism and its "absolute negation" of the individual. For Green and his colleagues, liberalism could weather this crisis only if it were rearticulated in "constructive" terms. Such a constructive, new liberalism would seek to combine an appreciation for individualism and laissez-faire economics with a theory of moral responsibility. It would stretch liberal political theory to encompass both a notion of freedom and a commitment to the common good. Ultimately, it would explain why individuals in a liberal society should care about one another and about their community.

And in this quest, the Oxford liberals were not alone. Many of their contemporary liberal brethren (including John Stuart Mill and the American Progressives) also sought to move liberalism in a more social direction. What distinguished the first generation of Oxford liberals (those who had worked and studied with Green) both from a slightly later cohort of "new liberals" and from other socially oriented liberals in Britain (particularly those associated with Cambridge at the turn of the century) was their explicit decision to look for philosophical remedies to a perceived liberal crisis within Hegelian idealism.

While the extent to which nineteenth-century liberals embraced Hegel has been disputed, historians have long acknowledged the presence of what Charles Taylor has termed an "oddly transposed variety" of Hegelianism in the social theory of thinkers like Green, Bosanquet, and Ritchie. Many contemporary scholars of this particular form of idealist liberalism argue that these thinkers drew upon Hegelian logic specifically to theorize a more proactive role for the state in a liberal society. Likewise, these scholars see the turn of many idealist liberals toward organicism in the later half of the nineteenth century as a means through which idealistically inclined liberal theorists could naturalize the moral state, and, in essence, smuggle Hegel into liberal political thought.

This chapter takes a slightly different approach to the relationship between Hegelian state theory and the social philosophy of the idealist liberals, and, in so doing, casts a different light on some of the more fundamental discrepancies at work in the Murray's and Zimmern's liberalisms. I maintain that what motivated the Oxford liberals' move toward the organic was not merely a philosophical need to justify Hegel's state theory but, more importantly, a liberal desire to avoid excessive state authority. Organicism, in this context, provided a terminology for imagining an alternative social organism beyond the state, one animated by a Hegelian inspired notion of Spirit. The language of the organic thus allowed these scholars to theorize a moral community and yet avoid the totalizing implications of state as the "ultimate expression of Spirit in the world." But through the process of embracing Hegel, rejecting his state theory, and evoking the organic, many of these scholars were caught in an ironic philosophical cycle that ultimately brought them to a vision of society that looked both pre-liberal and pre-idealist, a place where family relations-rather than a liberal equality of citizenship-governed the political order.

The bulk of this chapter critically examines the tensions between liberalism, Hegelianism, and organicism in the work of some key nineteenth-century idealist liberals to set the stage for a closer analysis of a similar disquiet that haunted the social theories of their intellectual legatees, Murray and Zimmern. In its historical capacity, this chapter highlights the particularities of the liberal social theory that still dominated Oxford (and specifically the Literae Humaniores) while Murray and Zimmern attended New College in the 1880s and '90s. It is most concerned, however, with developing the unique theoretical argument that thinkers like Bosanquet both accepted key ideas from Hegel and then rejected his state theory in favor of a more organic approach to community, and that this philosophical turn helps explain many of the idealist liberals' support for a paternalistic-indeed, almost pre-liberal-looking-politics. Establishing the historical and philosophical foundations of this liberal turn toward the organic and the paternal ultimately provides us with the critical perspective necessary to trouble Murray's and Zimmern's own unarticulated linkage between liberalism, spirit, and the hierarchical social whole.

But this chapter should not be read simply as a template for understanding Murray's and Zimmern's internationalisms; both liberal reformism and the Oxford movement would go through a variety of changes toward the end of the century, ultimately resulting in an overall purging of Hegelian thought from liberal social theory more generally. And yet as chapter 2 demonstrates, despite these changes the liberalism of their youth still influenced Murray and Zimmern, an influence that compelled them to articulate their own visions of the liberal polity in terms remarkably similar to those of an earlier generation. Specifically, Zimmern's emphasis on nationality as primarily spiritual and familial reflects the tendency of some idealist liberals to read state and national communities through the lenses of the Darwinian family. Likewise, Murray's belief in a fixed, paternalistic world order mirrors a similar philosophical move made by the earlier idealist liberals, one that ultimately jettisoned liberal equality and replaced it with hierarchical holism.

Thus, in asking similar questions about the relationship of liberalism to the global community that an earlier generation had asked about the relationship of liberalism to the social whole, Murray's and Zimmern's internationalisms evoked many of the same ideological stresses endemic to nineteenth-century Oxford liberalism, stresses that clustered around the disconnect between liberal universalism and patriarchy. In many ways, Murray's and Zimmerns' internationalisms widened this political fissure by projecting it outward, toward the world.


Scholars have historically most closely linked nineteenth-century idealist liberalism as a philosophical school with the works of T. H. Green. While Green's works and teachings were fundamental to the development of this philosophy in Britain, however, and while Green is perhaps the best known of these scholars, he was part of a much larger intellectual community that included (among others) Edward Caird, F. H. Bradley, Henry Jones, and Green's students, Bernard Bosanquet, John Henry Muirhead, and David George Ritchie. Most of these men were associated with Balliol and New Colleges at Oxford (hence the decision to sometimes refer to them as "Oxford liberals") and the Scottish universities. They shared a vision of themselves as emphatically public intellectuals and as strong supporters of nineteenth-century liberal causes. In fact, the connections between these scholars, their academic institutions, their voluntary and political organizations, and their relationships with various factions of the Liberal Party from the 1860s through the 1906 election, trace a spider web of complex intellectual, political, and personal linkages.

Liberalism at Oxford began its rise to prominence in the 1830s and '40s, perhaps most significantly because many of the colleges moved away from institutional preference and toward competition in entrance examinations. During this period, the number of liberal faculty gradually increased such that by 1865 Charles Roundell could claim that a generation of liberal fellows was now "in possession" of the colleges. At the same time, the influence of philosophical and political liberalism also increased at Cambridge. The unique characters of the two universities, however, ensured that the particular type of liberalism that flourished at Oxford differed significantly from its collegial counterpart. While Cambridge was historically associated with rationalism and scientific inquiry, Oxford was known for its commitment to philosophy and classical studies, to the "sovereignty of Aristotle and the Authority of Antiquity." The Oxford honors course of study, the Literae Humaniores (also known as the Greats curriculum) helped institutionalize this belief in the eternal lessons of antiquity. In turn, the emphasis of the Literae Humaniores on ancient and classical philosophy combined with the university's longstanding interest in theology led many of its most powerful liberal-minded scholars to stress the importance of moral philosophy in their curriculum and in their politics. And it was this concern with moral philosophy that initially propelled a number of these same thinkers toward the work of G.W.F. Hegel.

Classics scholar Benjamin Jowett is largely responsible for bringing Hegelianism to Oxford. Jowett's interest in Hegel centered on his interpretation of Plato's "unity of difference," a concept he read as a direct precursor to Hegel's own notion of unity through Spirit. Jowett drew upon this Platonic-Hegelian conception of Spirit to criticize radical liberal individualism and utilitarianism, a critique that came to have considerable influence over his students, T. H. Green and Edward Caird. After Caird left Oxford for Glasgow University in 1866, Green rose to prominence as the leading moral philosopher on campus and, eventually, more greatly inspired a generation of Oxford students than did Jowett. Indeed, throughout the 1870s until his death in 1882, Green exercised at Oxford what Richard Bellamy has described as an "influence of almost Parisian dimensions" over his students. In contrast, while Jowett sympathized with liberal causes, his politics tended to be more reserved and his focus on institutional (rather than societal) reform. And yet in many ways the institutional reforms begun by Jowett-primarily, his insistence that the Literae Humaniores be pushed to engage modern writers and contemporary issues-set the stage for Green's own transformation of both the Greats curriculum and liberalism on campus.

Through Green's efforts, the Literae Humaniores introduced an essay on Kant in 1875. During that same year, it required a paper on logic that, for the first time, asked candidates to comment on Hegel's notion of the "real" and the "rational." By the mid-1870s, a knowledge of German philosophy, as interpreted through the Classics, had become an established feature of the Greats curriculum, precisely at a time when a young generation of thinkers like Bosanquet, Ritchie, and Muirhead were beginning their studies with Green. For these thinkers (and for others who were to come up at Oxford's more progressive colleges in the following decades), the study of ancient philosophy, contemporary liberal ethics, and German idealism were deeply intertwined even after the specifically "German" character of this idealism had etiolated significantly.

This fusion of contemporary ethics and philosophical inquiry prompted Green and his students to develop a profoundly public ideology, one that called on its adherents to actively live their philosophical commitments. As R. G. Collingwood later noted in his autobiography, "The school of Green sent out into public life a stream of ex-pupils who carried with them the conviction that philosophy, and in particular the philosophy they had learnt at Oxford, was an important thing and that their vocation was to put it into practice." In this spirit, Green founded the Cooperative Society at Oxford in 1872 to encourage students and fellows to establish greater links with the community by extending educational opportunities to the poor. Out of the cooperatist movement grew a number of influential liberal associations, including the University Extension Movement and the Workers Educational Association (WEA). In true Oxford liberal style, one of the key educational goals of the University Extension Movement and the WEA was to expose the working class to what these thinkers argued were the deeply unifying standards of moral citizenship.

Green and Jowett began a school of thought at Oxford that quickly transformed itself into a movement of scholars and activists who eventually-according to a growing number of contemporary historians-had a profound effect upon the development of the welfare state in Britain. These thinkers' social theories were by no means identical, and in fact differed considerably from one another in terms of their levels of commitment to liberal individualism, German idealism, organicism, nationalism, and Social Darwinism. On a philosophical level, however, despite these differences, a common goal united the idealist liberals at Oxford: each sought to theorize a more collectivist liberal society through the Hegelian notion of Spirit.


For Green and his students, orthodox liberalism clearly placed too great an emphasis on the individual, resulting in a kind of hyper-subjectivism, a general disregard for morality among both politicians and philosophers, and economic disparities. And yet as committed political liberals and firm believers in laissez-faire economics, these thinkers intended neither to call the entire legacy of liberalism into question nor to develop a theory that might provide ammunition for Tory politicians and their Burkean longing for tradition. At the same time, Green and his colleagues viewed socialism with dread as "the reduction of the individual under the control of society." In the end, they hoped to achieve the creation of a philosophical "middle way" between these alternatives.

To do so, these scholars argued that liberal theory needed an infusion of publicly oriented thinking, a new perspective that would simultaneously champion individual responsibility and transcend class politics. Green and his colleagues turned to German idealism, and in particular to the works of Hegel, to help them imagine this theory. In this context, the conceptual language of Hegel's Geist allowed these scholars to theorize the existence of an objective good found in both individuals and in the universal realm beyond. Green, for instance, argued for the existence of an explicitly Hegelianized "Spiritual Principle," and Bosanquet a "world consciousness."


Excerpted from Covenants without Swords by Jeanne Morefield Copyright © 2004 by Princeton University Press. Excerpted by permission.
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Table of Contents

Acknowledgments xi

Introduction 1

CHAPTER ONE: Oxford Liberalism and the Return of Patriarchy 24

CHAPTER TWO: An "Oddly Transposed" Liberalism 55

CHAPTER THREE: Mind, Spirit, and Liberalism in the World 96

CHAPTER FOUR: Nationhood, World Order, and the "One Great City of Men and Gods" 136

CHAPTER FIVE: Sovereignty and the Liberal Shadow 175

CHAPTER SIX: Liberal Community and the Lure of Empire 205

Bibliography 231

Index 249

What People are Saying About This


Covenants without Swords is a persuasive and elegant examination of the neglected current of liberalism as it relates to the possibilities of reform on the international scene. It will occasion a reassessment of what we thought we already knew about 'interwar idealists' and may inspire deeper thought about the resources modern liberalism can bring to bear on the possibility of order in the semi-anarchic milieu of the post-Cold War international system.
Michael J. Smith, University of Virginia, author of "Realist Thought from Weber to Kissinger"


"Covenants without Swords is a persuasive and elegant examination of the neglected current of liberalism as it relates to the possibilities of reform on the international scene. It will occasion a reassessment of what we thought we already knew about 'interwar idealists' and may inspire deeper thought about the resources modern liberalism can bring to bear on the possibility of order in the semi-anarchic milieu of the post-Cold War international system."—Michael J. Smith, University of Virginia, author of Realist Thought from Weber to Kissinger

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