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

Oceana is a long piece of ‘utopian’ political fiction writing, which does not really work as an exercise in literary fiction as far as I can see and barely keeps up the pretence. Oceana refers to a thinly disguised version of Britain and a lightly fictionalised account of its history, as a means for expounding Harrington’s thoughts about the best political system. A System of Politics is a more concise and economical account of Harrington’s thought than Oceana though its list form tells you something about Harrington’s limits as a writer.

Harrington is in a friendly dialogue with a major sixteenth century writer, the Florentine republican Niccoló Machiavelli and sometimes in the  earlier part of Oceana in a critical dialogue with a major English writer, Thomas Hobbes, from his own time. The idea that sometimes still circulates of a liberal England/Britain versus an absolutist continental Europe is rather challenged by this. One of the most influential advocates of liberty in British history was inspired by an Italian against an English writer. Though Harrington does refer favourably to Hobbes’ own mentor, Francis Bacon, philosopher, chief minister to the monarchy, jurist, and writer of utopian political fiction. Harrington does not mention the Hobbes-Bacon relation, and his his use of Bacon’s thought suggests a fascination with the kind of monarchism advocated by Bacon which mixes legalism with the application of scientific method to the prudential art of government. Harrington, it appears, wanted republicanism to incorporate such aspects, creating some distance from ancient republicanism in which law comes from tradition and wise individuals rather than the kind of centralised accumulation of new laws and a judicial apparatus to apply them which is what Bacon was dealing with and which also influenced Hobbes. Harrington’s interest in what well run monarchies with some respect for law can teach republics also expresses itself in remarks on the Ottoman Empire and on the famous chief minister of the French monarchy, Cardinal Richelieu, one of the key figures in the development of the modern state and modern statecraft. Harrington regrets lack of knowledge of the principles underlying Richelieu’s formidable achievements in promoting peace within France and taking France above Spain as the leading European power of the time.

When Harrington is focused on republics strictly speaking, he has two main concerns: land distribution, formation of the right kind of aristocracy. These concerns overlap as questions of concentration of land are also questions of what kind of aristocracy might exist. Harrington resists what he regards as the too extreme devotion of the Ancient Athenians to democracy, which did not allow an effective aristocracy to form. As with early modern attitudes to Plato, his preference for Sparta is rather against modern sensibility. However, that preference ran up to the American Revolution and the Constitution of the United States which was deliberately designed to prevent the ‘excesses’ of Athenian democracy and promote a ‘balanced’ republic like those of Rome or Sparta which had a long life based on reserving some powers for the aristocratic parts of the political system.

Harrington’s thoughts about aristocracy are directed towards forming a changing open class of people who provide political leadership and resist the wilder extremes and instability of popular opinion. This is more or less a project for the formation of an effective version of what is now generally referred to as a political class or a political elite. Harrington’s belief that the aristocracy should change in composition and exist in balance with the preferences of the common people lead him to oppose land distribution of a kind which created a rigid permanent oligarchy aristocracy of the richest landowners. Laws to prevent this are referred to by Harrington as ‘the agrarian’, with consideration of examples from antiquity and from his own time. He argues against primogeniture (land going to the eldest son) and in favour of equal division of land between the children of landowners which he suggests as well as having political benefits will reduce loveless marriages designed to get propertyless daughters of the aristocracy married to a major landowner. In a rather more general way, he seems sympathetic to schemes to prevent concentrations of landed property. Such apparent interference with property rights may look at odds with how ideas of liberty develop in the classical liberal and libertarian tradition, but Harrington was living at a time when it was very difficult to disassociate land ownership and political power, and more generally difficult to disassociate economic status and political rights.

It takes the continuous  greater development of commercial society which Locke reacts to at the end of the seventeenth century to see that property ownership should be seen in terms of transferable rights and the public benefits of land owned by whoever being part of a commercial system in which its products are traded to everyone’s benefit. The other side of Harrington’s assumption, highly normal for the time, that political power comes from land ownership, is that servants and the economically dependent cannot have full political rights and are not part of the democratic political system. The democratic system that elects an open changing aristocracy in some form of senate along with a a very complex series of other elections of public officials advocated by Harrington. This was enough to make Harrington seem like a fanatic for extreme democracy until democracy did begin to appear in the British political system, with the extension of the franchise in the late nineteenth century following on (but not immediately at all) from earlier agitation on the part of the new industrial working class. His writing is bit frustrating and can seem a bit remote from current ideas of liberty, but in historical context he made a major contribution to the growth of law and liberty in Britain. He deserves to be read by anyone who wishes for a really deep understanding of the development of ideas of government constrained by law and liberty.

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

  1. I can’t comment in any great length as I haven’t read Harrington, but I just want to thank you for taking the time to write these reviews. I’ll be sure to try to find a copy during my next library expedition.

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