James Harrington: Republican Thinker from 17th Century England

(A summary discussion of James Harrington, author of the English republican classic OceanaNo time to write anything new for the blog right now. This seems to  be notes I was working up into publishable, I hope, form. I’m quite pleased with them as a summary bringing out the features of Harrington’s thought I’m most interest in and putting it in historical context. I seem to have put in the wrong place though, a file on Foucault and early modern liberty when it belongs with another project I have on libertarian republicanism. Foucault does not get much into Harrington.)

Harrington frequently refers to Machiavelli, particularly the Discourses.  He also refers Aristotle and Cicero.   Harrington’s republicanism refers to Machiavelli and to the Plato, Aristotle, and Cicero.  The most significant example of a modern republic for him was Venice, a major trading and naval power in the eastern Mediterranean at that time.  As a long lasting power, it was particularly important as an example of a republic dominated by the aristocracy.  Harrington discussed the political models of the Israelites together with Ancient Roman and Greek history, treating them all as historical examples of different kinds of state.
Harrington wrote partly in reaction to Hobbes’ Leviathan.  He rejected Hobbes view that political freedom is an illusion because in all forms of government we are bound to follow the law.  Harrington argues that there is a difference between laws which establish political freedom and those which do not.  Harrington followed Aristotle and Livy in distinguishing between an empire of laws and an empire of persons.  In the Empire of Law, all individuals are equally under law.  In an empire of persons the government  is above the law.  This could be the monarch who is above the law and becomes a despot; an aristocracy which places itself above the law and becomes an oligarchy; or the people when they ignore law and become anarchic.  However, he disagreed with Machiavelli about the benefits of conflict between Patricians and Plebians in the Roman Republic.  Harrington thought this was a consequence of the wrong distribution of land between the two groups.  Harrington thought the best government is a mixed constitution in which there is a senate/aristocracy which discussed possible laws, a people which votes on laws, and a body of magistrates who administer law, and which replaces the monarch.
Harrington efers  to the ancient republican models of Rome and Israel, described in terms of liberty and prudence.  In the modern world, it is only Venice that he regards as a republic worth mentioning (despite other republics in northern Italy and the confederated republics of Switzerland and the Netherlands).
The government of laws in a republic is a civil society of men on the foundation of common rights and interests.  A government of men is one where a state is ruled by one, or a few men, according to private interests.  He refers to Machiavelli as the politician who has tried to revive the government of laws.
Harrington follows his positive reference to Machiavelli with a negative reference to Hobbes’ Leviathan which is in favour of the government of men. Harrington criticises Hobbes for saying that government rests on most people fearing some people in government.  The possibility of such fear is not a basis for government.
Harrington says that he is following Machiavelli and the ancients in listing 3 forms of government: monarchy, aristocracy, democracy.  These are forms of government based on reason.  They all tend to degenerate into three equivalent forms of government based on passion: tyranny, oligarchy, anarchy.
This is not quite the same as Plato, Aristotle and Cicero.  They all referred to democracy as a bad form of government, and put the emphasis on following the limits of law/virtue rather than the difference between reason and passion.  It is also true that for the ancient thinkers reason is linked with law/virtue and passion, or desire, is linked with lawlessness/vice.
Hobbes recognises the three forms of government mentioned by Machiavelli and the ancients, but refuses to recognise the possibility of the mixed form of government they all favoured.  According to Harrington, these mixed forms of government have existed, particularly in Rome.
Harrington says Hobbes is also wrong in confusing the internal goods of a state, particularly prudence, with the external goods of a state, particularly power.  Power does not follow from prudence (wisdom, practical reason), they are distinct kinds of thing according to Harrington.
Harrington refers to kinds of empire.  By empire, he means forms of sovereignty rather than states based on conquests of other states.  He distinguishes between domestic and national empire.  Domestic empire refers to ownership/dominion of property; national empire refers to the political system.
National empire rests on domestic empire, on the kinds of property in the state.  If one man is owner of all property (his example is the Ottoman Sultan referred to as grand signor of the Turks), there is absolute monarchy.
If a few people have a high proportion of the land (the main form of property that Harrington is concerned with), there is a mixed monarchy (power of a monarch plus aristocracy).  Where land is divided between many people, there is a commonwealth.  Like Aristotle and Cicero, Harrington suggests that only the best form of political state/polity/republic should be called political state/polity/republic or common wealth.
These are forms of empire resting on law, not force.  Where dominion rests on force, there is tyranny, oligarchy or anarchy.  The stability of the state rests on the division of land, which can only be stable where it rests on law.  Harrington’s examples of such law based stability include the Ottoman state/Turkey, ancient Sparta and ancient Israel.
Harrington criticises Hobbes for thinking that a covenant of the state could be upheld by armed force.  A state resting on force will require an army to control the population.  Such an army will need to eat and will make demands on the population for support undermining the property relations of the state.
He argues against Hobbes that in ancient Rome, the people were sovereign and had formed assemblies and councils by covenant and so could not undermine those bodies lawfully, as Cicero noted.  Hobbes does not think that the Roman people could have formed a covenant with itself, while Harrington argues that it did through forming these bodies.  The disagreement with Hobbes seems to be at essence whether sovereignty can divide itself between different levels, which Hobbes denies is possible.
Harrington gives a more positive role to the gentry/aristocracy in a commonwealth than Machiavelli does.  Machiavelli argues that the aristocracy should be very weak to prevent collapse of the state in conflict between them.  Harrington argues the aristocracy can have a larger role in a commonwealth without destroying it.
Harrington refers to foreign or provincial empire, which is empire as we now understand it, that is the governing of outside nations by a state which leads to the state dividing itself into provinces.  This is dangerous to the state if it leads to sending colonies of citizens a long way from the original nation, as they are likely to rebel.  Spreading a state through sending colonies to neighbouring nations, as the Romans did strengthens the state.
A republic can be a people which conquers a foreign nation and becomes its ruling class, as with the Mamelukes in Egypt (Turkic soldier-slaves who took over the state); or it can be a conquering group as happened in Venice.  What Harrington refers to is the Venetian republic which used to include all citizens, becoming aristocratic as it becomes an empire with provinces.  It is difficult for such a state to give political rights to all citizens since some parts of it were taken by force.
Harrington approves of Plato’s ideal of rule by philosophers to promote a state based on virtue/law, and also refers to the ancient King of Israel, Solomon, on this issue. However, Harrington’s understanding of this is not that there should be a ruling class of philosophers, but that an internal good of the commonwealth is reason, and that reason/virtue should be cultivated.
Harrington rejects Hobbes’ claim that the citizen of the city republic of Lucca is no more free than a resident of Constantinople under the absolute monarchy of the Sultan.  Hobbes is confusing two things: firstly in both states citizens are restrained by laws; secondly in one state the laws promote freedom more than in the other state.
Harrington argues that the idea of rule by laws starts with private interests, from which the idea of state interest emerges.  Finally the idea of common good emerges.  He quotes Grotius on how animals have a common good, and argues that humans become less than animals when they fail to recognise such a common good.
In human society, it is clear that some people are more intelligent and able to govern than others.  This is a natural aristocracy, but that reality should not lead us to support the rule of an unelected group of the wealthy.  There should be a senate for the best people in the state, but they should be elected and not appointed by inheritance or wealth.
The senate will inevitably divide between separate groups.  The best solution to this instability is to have a democratic counter balance to this aristocratic group.  This is the whole people assembled, or where the nation is too large for this, an assembly of elected representatives.
The equivalent to monarchy in this ideal commonwealth is the ‘magistrates’ (the early modern term for government members).  The magistrates execute laws and are the part of the constitution which fills the Hobbesian role of using force to enforce laws.  However, the difference from Hobbes is that the magistrates are under laws, not above them.
This is the ideal commonwealth as described by Machiavelli in the ancient world. He was right to describe this as the best commonwealth.  There is no other possible form for a good commonwealth.  Harrington also supports this idea of the best commonwealth with reference to ancient Israel.
The example of Israel contains differences of detail from Harrington’s model of commonwealth.  The same is true of the other examples he gives: Ancient Athens, Ancient Lacedaemon (Sparta), Ancient Carthage, modern Venice, modern Holland, modern Switzerland.  Under all the variations, all have the basic features of a good commonwealth.
Harrington criticises Hobbes by arguing that Hobbes’ favoured kind of government fails even by his own standard of what government should be, a government that stays in power to prevent violent collapse of society.  Absolute monarchy favoured by Hobbes rests on the use of an army and that army is always a danger to the monarch because it might rebel.  Harrington gives the example of the Ottoman Janissaries.
States based popular government last longer than monarchies.  If they are conquered by monarchies, it is after they have destroyed their own system as when the Macedonian kings conquered the ancient Greek city states.  Such commonwealths do not suffer from sedition and rebellion because no one has a reason to do such a thing.  A commonwealth will always select leaders according to virtue, and will be stronger than any other system because of this.
Where commonwealths have problems of internal conflict it is because land is unequally distributed as in Ancient Rome; or because leaders are selected in the wrong way as in Ancient Athens where they were selected by lot (at random) so that the most virtuous people could not become leaders.  Harrington is very insistent that Machiavelli is wrong to think that the gentry will divide a state, and seems to miss Machiavelli’s point that division and conflict will strengthen a state, where it does not go too far.
Laws in a commonwealth should be few and should not change much.  Change in laws means adding to laws and having many laws makes abuse of power easier.  Referring to Cicero, Harrington argues that where there are many laws it is less easy to say what is legally correct and therefore easier for government to escape the limits of law.


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