Harrington, Commonwealth of Oceana, and A System of Politics (Expanding the Liberty Canon): First of Two Parts

James Harrington (1611-1677) was synonymous with the idea of democracy in Britain for centuries, but is not much read now beyond the ranks of those with strong interest in seventeenth century British history or the history of republican thought. Republicanism was the word used for thought about a political system under law and in which power is shared, with some protection of individual liberty, until the word liberal started being used in the eighteen century, with more emphasis though on the idea of liberty of trade and commerce. The republican tradition certainly stretches back to Aristotle in ancient Greece and can be taken back to his teacher Plato, though that often troubles modern readers for whom Plato seems disturbingly indifferent to individual rights and hostile to change. That will be a topic for another post, but for now it is enough to say that Aristotle is likely to seem relevant to ideas of individual liberty for the contemporary reader in ways that Plato may not and Aristotle’s own criticisms of his teacher are likely to seem appropriate to such a reader.

Harrington’s texts are not an easy read in that their structure is not clear and he does not have much in the way of literary style. This explains to a large degree why he is not a familiar name now along perhaps with the appearance of more recent writers in English concerned with liberty and democracy who are both more readable and more concerned with liberal democracy as it has developed since the late eighteenth century, particularly John Stuart Mill. In comparison Harrington seems stuck in early modern idea of democracy and republicanism which are expressed through a knowledge of texts which though not forgotten now are less obviously known to the educated reader. That is the texts of the ancient Greeks and Romans and the Bible. The educated in Harrington’s time were likely to read Latin and often read Greek as well, with major classical texts forming a common frame of reference. The Bible was widely known in the seventeenth century because Christianity was a very dominant force, and Harrington was writing at a time when the Protestant Reformation which led to the translation of the Bible into modern languages and encouragement to the faithful to read the Bible carefully and frequent was still a very living force. Catholics of course read the Bible, but the Catholic authorities resisted translating the Bible into modern languages before the Reformation and gave comparatively less importance to the individual study of it than the Protestant churches. So in short, Harrington’s writing comes from a  time of intimate and shared knowledge of ancient and religious texts, and his way of writing is not too suited to expressing itself to those not acquainted with that culture.

In addition Harrington, assumes some familiarity with the British and European politics of his time, though much of it is of lasting interest with regard to understanding of the formation of modern European states and ideas about the most just form of politics for those states. Venice is a very important example of a republic for Harrington, reflecting its status as the longest lived and most powerful republic known to Europeans at that time. The formation of the Dutch Republic in the late sixteenth century promoted a possibly stronger republic, but Harrington regards it as a loose assembly of city and regional republics, so still leaving Venice as the most powerful republic with a  unified sovereignty. Italy was not united politically at that time and Venice had existed since the eight century as an aristocratic republic in which aristocratic government combined with merchant wealth to an extent that made Venice a leading trading and naval power in the eastern Mediterranean. The Ottoman Empire appears fleetingly as the model of monarchy, an image which dissipated in the eighteenth century when the Ottomans began to seem backward and despotic, and to be at the head of a declining power. The power and the sophistication of the Ottoman state applying a system of laws and justice across a large and diverse territory made a rather different impression in a seventeenth century Europe suffering from religious wars and internal conflict even within powerful states.

Harrington himself lived through the English Civil War (1642-1651), also known as the The English Civil Wars (because it was a series of wars), the Wars of the Three Kingdoms (because it comprised separate conflicts in England, Scotland, and Ireland), and the English Revolution (because it resulted in the execution of King Charles I along with a period of constitutional innovation in the commonwealth and lord protector systems), which included religious conflict between different forms of Protestantism and political conflict between crown and parliament. Harrington was himself part of the section of the gentry supporting parliament against the king, though he also appears to have had friendly relations with Charles I while he was detained by parliamentary forces.

Oceana was originally banned while being printed during the Lord Protector phase in which the head of the parliamentary armies, Oliver Cromwell had become something close to a king. The book was legally published after negotiations between the Lord Protector’s government and Harrington’s family, with a dedication to Cromwell. Harrington was however accused of treason after the restoration of the monarch and though he was released after a short period of punishment never recovered in mind or body. So Harrington’s life and publication history is itself marked with the historical traumas of the time and the failure to establish enduring republican institutions.

6 thoughts on “Harrington, Commonwealth of Oceana, and A System of Politics (Expanding the Liberty Canon): First of Two Parts

  1. Fascinating. I hadn’t thought about it, but it’s interesting that the Ottoman Empire went from model par excellence of governance in the 17th century to despotic state in the 18th to the sick man of Europe by the 19th.

    There is a lot to see in this painting.

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