A New Utopia: Oceana for the 21st Century

Frontispiece to James Harrington,  The Commonwealth of Oceana  in  The Oceana and Other Works of James Harrington , ed. John Toland (London, 1737). Private copy.

Frontispiece to James Harrington, The Commonwealth of Oceana in The Oceana and Other Works of James Harrington, ed. John Toland (London, 1737). Private copy.

George Monbiot's book Out of the Wreckage: A New Politics for an Age of Crisis calls for the creation of a "politics of belonging". He is not the only person to suggest, in recent months, that a new way of thinking about politics is required. These calls have prompted me to think again about the utopian character of James Harrington's The Commonwealth of Oceana

Historians have long debated whether Oceana should be labelled as a utopia at all, partly because it was very clearly intended as a practical model for a specific place and time. Yet Colin Davis, author of Utopia and the Ideal Society, sees this as precisely one of the key features of a utopia. Davis argues that what distinguishes utopias from other conceptions of the ideal society is their acceptance that limited resources are exposed to unlimited desires: 'The utopian's method is not to wish away the disharmony implicit within the collective problem, as the other ideal-society types do, but to organise society and its institutions in such a way as to contain the problem's effects.' (Colin Davis, Utopia and the Ideal Society: A Study of English Utopian Writing 1516-1700, Cambridge, 1981, pp. 37-8). This kind of model, one that takes human society as it is and offers practical solutions to human problems - and yet pushes beyond the framework of the current system - is precisely what we need just now. So what would an Oceana for the twenty-first century look like?

It will come as no surprise to readers of this blog that, in the first place, my twenty-first century Oceana would seek to challenge the idea that politics is the preserve of a distinct political class. Harrington, following Aristotle, believed every citizen should rule and be ruled in turn. He also insisted that human nature dictated that individuals who held power for long periods of time (however good and virtuous they were in the first place) would inevitably become corrupt. Harrington's solution was the rotation of office, with representatives being in post for three years before standing down and being ineligible for re-election for a similar term. Something like this system could be introduced in the UK Parliament. Of course there are problems that would need to be addressed. Being effectively made redundant after three years may deter certain individuals (perhaps particularly the poorest) from standing at all, so jobs would need to be held open and provision made to support those retiring from office. But the potential advantages of politics being an activity in which most citizens engage at some point, rather than the preserve of a political élite, are significant.

Thirteenth order of Harrington's  Oceana  on the agrarian law.

Thirteenth order of Harrington's Oceana on the agrarian law.

Another central tenet of Harrington's political programme was the preservation of an equitable division of land within the nation. This was necessary to maintain a balance of property, and hence of power, suitable for commonwealth government. Harrington sought to achieve this through his agrarian law, which required those owning large tracts of land to divide their estate more equally among their children. While land is still a crucial source of the wealth of the super-rich, it has largely been replaced by money as the basis of power. My concern here is not with the redistribution of property in either its landed or monetary form, but rather with the means by which the majority of us earn our money. Work is currently divided in ways that are uneven, creating unhappiness both among those who have too much and those who have too little. Earlier this year the New Zealand trustee company Perpetual Guardian initiated a six-week trial in which its employees were to work four days a week while being paid for five, and in this country the Autonomy Institute has called for the implementation of a four-day week. I am one of a growing number of parents who have made the  switch to working four days a week. While there is a danger (for those of us doing four days' work for four days' pay) of succumbing to the tendency to do five days' work in four, my experience is that a four-day week makes for a better work-life balance, for those able to take it. There are also potential benefits for others since, in my own and many other professions, a large number of highly talented young people are struggling to get their feet on the career ladder. If more people worked fewer days a week then more positions would open up for junior staff. Of course, employers may well complain that it would create a less efficient system. But we could off-set the inefficiencies of having to employ more staff against the efficiencies gained from workers being less tired, more motivated, and less susceptible to stress and its associated health problems. Nor should this change in work patterns be available only to professionals. A wholesale reconsideration of what constitutes a working week ought to address changes and benefits that can be brought to all workers.

Finally, Harrington's commitment to healing and settling a divided nation could be developed for the twenty-first century. As I demonstrated in a previous blogpost, he insisted that peace could only be established in post-civil war England if those on both sides of the royalist-parliamentarian divide were allowed to engage equally as citizens. He was also a strong advocate of religious toleration, insisting that no-one's right to citizenship or to hold office should be rescinded on the basis of religious belief. The Brexit Referendum, along with the debates at home and negotiations in Europe that have followed, have created deep divisions in our society. As a result, we too are in need of healing and settling. I suggest, though, that the solution for us lies less in extending citizenship to those who are currently excluded than in making political citizenship more substantial.

John Milton by William Faithorne, line engraving, 1670. National Portrait Gallery NPG D22856. Reproduced under a Creative Commons License.

John Milton by William Faithorne, line engraving, 1670. National Portrait Gallery NPG D22856. Reproduced under a Creative Commons License.

One way of doing this would be to encourage open debate about key issues. This might be seen as going against Harrington's ideas, in that his popular assembly was not allowed to discuss legislative proposals - he worried that popular political debate would lead to anarchy. Yet he saw debate by the Senate as crucial to the political process, and he did not want to prevent popular debate from taking place outside the popular assembly. Moreover, in several of his writings he expressed the idea that greater knowledge would arise from the debating of issues, even suggesting that his model constitution would be improved by others examining and criticising it. There is an echo here of Milton's notion from Areopagitica that good ideas will inevitably win out if free debate is allowed to flourish. If we could create opportunities at all levels of society for free, open and constructive political debate involving those of different political views, perhaps we could construct a society that is more open, tolerant, and better informed.

Sir Thomas More, after Hans Holbein the Younger, early C17 based on a work of 1527. National Portrait Gallery, NPG 4358. Reproduced under a Creative Commons License.

Sir Thomas More, after Hans Holbein the Younger, early C17 based on a work of 1527. National Portrait Gallery, NPG 4358. Reproduced under a Creative Commons License.

Of course, what I have offered here is not a utopia but just three proposals inspired by Oceana. A further distinguishing feature of utopias, noted by Davis, is that they are conceived as total schemes. In the early modern era this was often achieved by setting the utopia on a distant island, as Thomas More did in the work that gave its name to the genre. This reflected a fascination with the, as yet not fully charted nature of the globe at that time. While, like More, Harrington was writing a utopia for England, he indicated the intended location more overtly, the fictional guise he employed simply signalled a concern with England as it ought to be rather than as it actually was. Today, the obvious place to situate a utopia would be in the virtual realm. Moreover, with the right software one might even be able to play out the consequences of such a system, as is done in disaster scenario planning (and as Harrington attempted to do in a more basic form in the corollary to Oceana). Perhaps my next step, after my Harrington book has been delivered to the publisher, should be to construct a Harringtonian 'digitopia'.

 

Early Modern Political Thought and C21 Century Politics: A Workshop

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As part of my British Academy Fellowship I organised a workshop at Newcastle's Literary and Philosophical Society on Wednesday 16 May 2018, on the relationship between early-modern political thought and twenty-first-century politics. The Lit and Phil is an ideal place to host such a discussion, having been a vibrant centre for thought and learning in the heart of Newcastle for more than 200 years. Although its founders eschewed discussion of religion and politics, its forerunner - the Philosophical Society - debated such issues as 'Whether a National Religion, or a variety of Sects, is of greater advantage to the State?', 'Whether the Civil War in the reign of Charles I and the present conflict with America be similar?' and 'Which is the better form of government, a limited monarchy as in Great Britain, or a republic?' 

I invited four distinguished speakers to the workshop each to speak on a different theme. 

Image of Thomas Rainsborough from a mural in the Ouseburn Valley, Newcastle. Image by Rachel Hammersley.

Image of Thomas Rainsborough from a mural in the Ouseburn Valley, Newcastle. Image by Rachel Hammersley.

John Rees, author of The Leveller Revolution, talked about political organisation and mobilisation during the Civil War. He focused on the Putney Debates arguing that it was in that forum that some of the arguments deployed ever since for and against democratic change were laid down. Thomas Rainsborough set out his famous plea for the right to representative government and democratic accountability. He argued that: 'the poorest he that is in England hath a life to live, as the greatest he' and therefore that 'every man that is to live under a government ought first by his own consent to put himself under that government' (The Clarke Papers, ed. C. H. Firth, London: Royal Historical Society, 1992, p. 301). Against him General Henry Ireton asserted that only those with property should have the vote. Moreover, as Rees noted, the organisation of those debates themselves hinted towards a more direct notion of democracy, with ordinary soldiers acting as the voices of their regiments. Drawing on his own experiences in opposing the regime of Hosni Mubarak in Egypt, Rees showed that these arguments retain relevance and resonance today.

Professor Ann Hughes speaking at the workshop. Taken by Rachel Hammersley.

Professor Ann Hughes speaking at the workshop. Taken by Rachel Hammersley.

Ann Hughes, Emeritus Professor of History at Keele University, engaged with the question of religious liberty and toleration. The period of the mid seventeenth-century witnessed the articulation of arguments both for and against toleration. The Presbyterian Thomas Edwards rejected toleration, citing the dangers that full religious liberty would bring. By contrast, in Areopagitica, John Milton celebrated the acceptance and even encouragement of (moderate) division and variety. Hughes highlighted the fact that Edwards and Milton essentially had different conceptions of the truth. Edwards believed that he knew what the truth was and that the task was to enforce it. By contrast, Milton emphasised the need for openness in order to discover the truth. Once again, we can see how these two views remain in conflict among us today with figures on both sides of the secular-religious divide in danger of being closer to Edwards than to Milton.

Image from Dr Ariel Hessayon's talk at the workshop. Taken by Rachel Hammersley.

Image from Dr Ariel Hessayon's talk at the workshop. Taken by Rachel Hammersley.

Ariel Hessayon, of Goldsmiths College, discussed environmental issues, noting that while we worry today about global warming and its implications for competition over scarce resources, people in the seventeenth century were anxious about the impact of a cooling climate in what has become known as the 'little ice age'. Building on Geoffrey Parker's important work on this topic, Hessayon considered the sources that seventeenth-century men and women used to make sense of what was going on, and their responses to environmental change and challenge.

Dr Gaby Mahlberg speaking at the workshop. Taken by Rachel Hammersley

Dr Gaby Mahlberg speaking at the workshop. Taken by Rachel Hammersley

Finally, the historian and journalist Gaby Mahlberg opened with Berthold Brecht poem Thoughts on the Duration of Exile in order to address the issue of refugees and exile. She reminded us that exile is generally a matter of necessity rather than choice, and explored the ways in which seventeenth-century English republican exiles were affected by the people and ideas with which they came into contact in the nations that gave them shelter. She also spoke of the difficulties they faced in attempting to maintain and pursue their political activities abroad.

The four papers were linked in my mind by the fact that fear seems to have been a pervasive and constant presence in mid-seventeenth-century England. Ireton was afraid of the social anarchy he thought would inevitably arise from giving the poor and propertyless the vote (while those poor and propertyless were of course endlessly fearful of what the authorities would do to them). Edwards was fearful that tolerating certain religious positions would be a slippery slope that would again result in anarchy. The idea of the religious sects of the time as a canker eating away at society is a powerful image of the intensity of this fear. At the same time, members of those religious sects must have been constantly fearful of repression. Extreme weather events and other natural phenomena then, as now, bred fear as human beings grappled with the question of how to deal with what is beyond their control. Finally, exiles and refugees today, as in the past experience great fear for their lives and prospects, and at the same time have the potential to provoke a fearful reaction in others: their 'otherness' makes them suspect and a threat.

Frontispiece from the pamphlet  The World Turned Upside Down  (1645) taken from https://open.conted.ox.ac.uk/resources/images/early-media-role-woodcuts and shared on the basis of a creative commons license.

Frontispiece from the pamphlet The World Turned Upside Down (1645) taken from https://open.conted.ox.ac.uk/resources/images/early-media-role-woodcuts and shared on the basis of a creative commons license.

It is perhaps not surprising that a period of great change and revolution was marked by fear. Thomas Hobbes commented that he and fear were twins (it was said that his mother went into labour on hearing news of the Spanish Armada) and fear certainly played a central role within his political thought. Similarly the title and frontispiece to the pamphlet The world turned upside down of 1645 reflects the sense of fear and strangeness that seems to have been palpable at the time. Historians typically focus on the changes that were introduced, the debates that were played out, and the ideas that emerged, but perhaps refocusing on the fear would prove fruitful. 

Image said to be of Gerard Winstanley from a mural in the Ouseburn Valley, Newcastle. Image by Rachel Hammersley.

Image said to be of Gerard Winstanley from a mural in the Ouseburn Valley, Newcastle. Image by Rachel Hammersley.

It is also important to remind ourselves that fear need not always provoke a violent, destructive or exclusive response. On this point I was struck by Ariel Hessayon's comment that Gerrard Winstanley's answer to the climactic problems of the seventeenth-century (and indeed to those of poverty and division too) was in essence peaceful, communal and constructive. He set about planting beans and turnips on St George's Hill in Surrey in a bid by himself and the members of his community to feed themselves.

Speaking of Winstanley brings me back to the poster I produced for the event and the image on it depicting a slightly quirky quartet of figures. Winstanley and Rainsborough are there joined by the nineteenth-century Chartist William Cuffay and the "King of the Hippies" Sid Rawle, under a banner stating 'This Land is your Land' 'Take it'. This mural can be found painted on to an artists' studio at the top end of the Ouseburn Valley in Newcastle. It would seem that I, and those attending the workshop, are not the only current residents of Newcastle who can see the relevance of seventeenth-century political ideas.

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Ouseburn Valley mural with our four speakers: Gaby Mahlberg, Ann Hughes, John Rees and Ariel Hessayon.

You can find another blogpost on this event by Liam Temple, complete with audio recordings of the papers at:http://theosophicaltransactions.com/conference-report-early-modern-political-thought-and-twenty-first-century-politics-16th-may-2018/

Holding Representatives to Account

Concerns about the accountability of members of the UK Parliament have been common in recent years. These have centred, for instance, on the expenses scandal - with claims being made that had little or nothing to do with parliamentary work. This originally broke in 2009, but continues to rumble on. Thus, in October 2017 it was revealed that sixteen peers who had not spoken at all in 2016-17 had nonetheless claimed a total of more than £400,000 in tax-free expenses over that period. Members of Parliament have also been accused of being unaccountable in appearing to challenge, or ignore, the will of the people - for example over Brexit. The reluctant response of some MPs to the referendum - reflected most recently in the voting of an amendment on 13 December 2017 which will give Parliament a legal guarantee of a vote on the final Brexit deal - has led some to accuse MPs of inhibiting the popular will. However, the accountability of those in power is by no means a new issue.

Engraving of George Wither by John Payne from  A Collection of Emblemes  (1635). Taken from Wikimedia Commons. https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:George_Wither_Engraving.jpg

Engraving of George Wither by John Payne from A Collection of Emblemes (1635). Taken from Wikimedia Commons. https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:George_Wither_Engraving.jpg

Having been prompted into rebellion by the actions of an unaccountable monarch, who had ruled for an unprecedented eleven years without calling Parliament, the English revolutionaries of the mid-seventeenth century were particularly concerned with the issue of accountability. Some, such as the parliamentary propagandist Henry Parker, insisted that a parliament would, by its very nature, embody the wisdom of the nation and so could not betray the interests of the people, (Henry Parker, Observations upon some of his Majesties late Answers and Expresses, London, 1642, especially p. 22). But, by the mid-1640s, a number of commentators were becoming concerned about the accountability of Parliament itself. The Puritan poet George Wither addressed this issue directly in his Letters of Advice: Touching The Choice of Knights and Burgesses of November 1644. According to Wither, the Houses of Parliament had resolved to call 'false and apostate' members to just account and to disable them from returning to parliamentary trust, so fresh elections were expected. Wither's aim in the work was to advise the knights and burgesses on the kinds of men to choose. In doing so he expressed specific concerns about MPs being unaccountable and therefore becoming distanced from their constituents:

by heedlesnesse in this dutie, they shall make Tyrants and Fooles, Lords over them, who will fawne and court them, till they are elected, and then, scorne and trample them under feet, putting such an immeasurable distance, betwixt themselves and others, of that Body whom they represent, and out of which they were chosen, as if they had forgotten what they were (George Wither, Letters of Advice: Touching the Choice of Knights and Burgesses, 1644, p. 4).

Not surprisingly, fears about lack of accountability only seem to have increased after the regicide enacted by a purged 'Rump' Parliament.

   Those concerned with accountability had various ideas as to how the problem could best be addressed. A common solution was to call for regular elections, as the Levellers did in The Agreement of the People. They insisted that 'to prevent the many inconveniences apparently arising from the long continuance of the same persons in authority' the Parliament that was then sitting should be dissolved on 30 September 1648 and a new Parliament elected every two years. (The Agreement of the People, clauses II and III). Others worried that the mere threat of not being re-elected would not be sufficient to ensure the good behaviour of those in power and so called for those stepping down from office to be required to give a public account of their actions on the basis of which they could then be judged, and if necessary punished. Wither advocated precisely this measure in the postscript to Letters of Advice. He described MPs as: 'servants and inferiours to their respective Counties and Burroughts; and that, by them, they may be called to account, for every omission or commission worthie questioning: either before the present Parliament whereof they are members, or before the next that shall be summoned.' (Wither, Letters of Advice, p. 13). He even toyed with the idea of dismissing those who proved to be 'unfaithful in trust' mid-term. (p. 14). De-selection no less.

John Milton, by unknown artist, National Portrait Gallery, NPG4222. Reproduced under a creative commons license.

John Milton, by unknown artist, National Portrait Gallery, NPG4222. Reproduced under a creative commons license.

   Not all seventeenth-century political commentators, however, believed that such accountability measures were an unalloyed good. Some acknowledged that there was a tension between making rulers accountable (especially by means of frequent elections) and the need for them to develop experience and expertise. John Milton in The Readie and Easie Way, a last-ditch attempt in 1660 to avoid the restoration of the monarchy, questioned the idea of limited terms of office: 'For it appeers not how this can be don, without danger and mischance of putting out a great number of the best and ablest: in whose stead new elections may bring in as many raw, unexperienc'd and otherwise affected, to the weakning and much alterning for the wors of public transactions.' (John Milton, Selected Prose, Harmondsworth, 1974, p. 341). Similarly, the Calvinist minister Richard Baxter argued that: 'To have the ignorant and unexercised introduced, and then turned out before they can grow wise' was not a sensible means of operating. (Richard Baxter, A Holy Commonwealth, ed. William Lamont, Cambridge, 1994, p. 140 )

Richard Baxter, after Robert White, oil on canvas based on a work of 1670. National Portrait Gallery, NPG 521. Reproduced under a creative commons license.

Richard Baxter, after Robert White, oil on canvas based on a work of 1670. National Portrait Gallery, NPG 521. Reproduced under a creative commons license.

 Both Milton and Baxter were responding directly to Harrington's concern with accountability and his distinctive proposals for how this might be secured. Harrington insisted that members of both legislative houses, along with most office holders within the commonwealth, should hold their positions for a period of three years after which they would be required to spend an equivalent period out of office. Elections, though, would occur annually, with one third of the members of each assembly being replaced each year. This system had some advantages. Not only did it mean that there would be no hiatus between the ending of one parliament and the opening of the next, but it also meant that at any time the assemblies would be composed of one third of members with two years' experience who could speak as experts, one third who were in the process of developing their expertise, and one third who would bring new ideas and approaches to national government.

Harrington, and many of his contemporaries, would have identified severe problems with our modern parliamentary system as regards accountability. Holding elections just once every five years would have seemed foolish and dangerous to many of them. Moreover, the idea that at the end of a given parliament the same MPs could immediately be re-elected, without any official scrutiny of their conduct, would certainly have been condemned by Wither and Harrington. They would have derided the fact that it is possible for an MP to sit for more than 40 years without any time out of office - as the 'father of the house' Tam Dalyell did. While it is necessary to balance accountability against the benefits derived from experience, a major problem with our system, as Harrington would have recognised, is that because they are not forced to spend time out of office, members of Parliament can quickly become separated from the interests and concerns of the general public. Moreover, their ability to make laws means that they can prescribe different rules for themselves than for the rest of the population. They do not, as Harrington would have put it, have to live under the laws that they make. Perhaps a move to a system in which there are more frequent elections (perhaps on a rotational basis), with the requirement of regular terms out of office, would increase their accountability?

 

Republics v Monarchies

The Scottish National Party recently brought the question of the Monarchy back onto the political agenda by voting at their 2017 party conference in favour of cutting public funding for the Royal Family. Delegates supported overwhelmingly a motion calling for the repeal of the Sovereign Grant Act of 2011. While the vote will not bring immediate political change, since Westminster retains control of the Sovereign Grant, the vote has drawn attention once again to the alleged republicanism at the heart of the SNP and the idea that an independent Scotland might choose to replace the Queen as head of state. Such suggestions always produce strong views on both sides, usually labelled 'republican' and 'monarchist'.

On the surface, at least, the distinction between republics and monarchies is a crucial feature of our modern political landscape. Yet the history of these two constitutional forms is far more complex than this simple dichotomy would suggest. Indeed, according to one historical definition, Britain is and has long been a republic, whereas on the basis of another neither France nor the United States of America is worthy of that term. Monarchists and republicans alike might, therefore, benefit from a deeper understanding of the history of these political concepts.

Bust of Cicero. I am grateful to Katie East for providing the image.

Bust of Cicero. I am grateful to Katie East for providing the image.

The concept of republican government, in both theory and practice, dates back at least to ancient Rome. It was explored in a number of Roman texts, not least those of Marcus Tullius Cicero who was both a politician and a political thinker. In his De re publica Cicero did not define a republic or commonwealth in opposition to kingship, but instead argued 'that a commonwealth (that is the concern of the people) then truly exists when its affairs are conducted well and justly, whether by a single king, or by a few aristocrats, or by the people as a whole'. (Cicero, On the Commonwealth, ed. James. E. G. Zetzel Cambridge, 1999,  p. 59). The key distinction here, then, is between rule that serves the public interest and that which serves private interests. So, on Cicero's account, a monarchy, if properly organised and directed towards the public good, could be a kind of republic. That same idea was still being voiced as late as the mid-eighteenth century, when the Genevan-born political theorist Jean-Jacques Rousseau wrote in his Social Contract:

I therefore call Republic any State ruled by laws, whatever be the form of administration: for then the public interest alone governs, and the public thing counts for something. Every legitimate government is republican.

The accompanying footnote might appear self-contradictory, if Cicero's position is not borne in mind:

Statue of Jean-Jacques Rousseau outside the Pantheon in Paris. Image by Rachel Hammersley.

Statue of Jean-Jacques Rousseau outside the Pantheon in Paris. Image by Rachel Hammersley.

By this word I understand not only an Aristocracy or a Democracy, but in general any government guided by the general will, which is the law. To be legitimate, the Government must be not confused with the Sovereign, but be its minister. Then monarchy itself is a republic. (Jean-Jacques Rousseau, The Social Contract, ed. Victor Gourevitch, Cambridge, 1997, p. 67)

   But while the Ciceronian understanding of a republic survived well into the eighteenth century, from the late fifteenth century onwards a second understanding was developing. This saw monarchy not as one form of republican government, but as its direct opposite. Several historians have recently traced the development of this tradition of republican thought, emphasising its debt to the writings of Italian Renaissance thinkers as well as to a tradition of Jewish Biblical scholarship that offered a distinctive take on the Israelites' plea to God in I Samuel 8 that they be given a king like other nations.

By the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries there were certainly those who saw republican government as requiring the destruction of monarchy. The English Civil War of the 1640s prompted some parliamentarians to attack not simply Charles I, or even just tyrants, but all kings. Marchamont Nedham was one of several figures who challenged the very distinction between kings and tyrants: 'Had they [the English] but once tasted the sweets of peace and liberty both together, they would soon be of the opinion of Herodotus and Demosthenes that there is no difference between king and tyrant and become as zealous as the ancient Romans were in defence of their freedom.' (Marchamont Nedham, The Case of the Commonwealth of England Stated, ed. Philip A. Knachel, Charlottesville, 1969, pp. 127-8). This view had practical import too. The 'Act Abolishing the Office of King', which was passed on 17 March 1649, declared the office of king to be 'unnecessary, burdensome, and dangerous to the liberty, safety, and public interest of the people' and the ensuing 'Act Declaring England to be a Commonwealth and Free State', which was passed in May 1649, insisted that this government was to be 'without any King or House of Lords'.

John Milton, by unknown artist, National Portrait Gallery, NPG4222. Reproduced under a creative commons license.

John Milton, by unknown artist, National Portrait Gallery, NPG4222. Reproduced under a creative commons license.

Yet even this does not present the full complexity of the concept, since those who agreed that republicanism was, by definition, anti-monarchical, could nevertheless disagree over precisely what institutional form should replace the office of king. Most significant was the distinction between those who insisted merely on the absence of a monarch, and those who outlawed any form of single-person rule. Thus a third definition of republic required that the government was not headed by a single figure, but by a group or council. As John Milton asserted in The Readie and Easy Way to Establish a Free Commonwealth: 'I doubt not but all ingenuous and knowing men will easily agree with me, that a free Commonwealth without single person or house of lords, is by far the best government, if it can be had.' (John Milton, The Readie and Easy Way, in Selected Prose, ed. C. A. Parties, Harmondsworth, p. 338). Milton's formulation ruled out both monarchy (as in the reign of Charles I) and a Protectorate (as under Oliver Cromwell).

Moreover, the English revolutionaries had attempted to institute such a form a decade earlier. When Charles I was executed on 30 January 1649 he was replaced not by another single person, but rather by the Rump Parliament, which ruled together with its Council of State, until April 1653. Yet as its short life - and the rise of Oliver Cromwell - would suggest, experiments involving a purely conciliar government have often proved unsuccessful in practice. The experiments in France in the 1790s with the Committee of Public Safety, and later the Directory, further confirmed this conclusion.

Evidently, it is the second definition of a republic outlined above that is most common today, so that a republican wishes to abolish the Monarchy. According to the first definition, that of Cicero, modern Britain could, despite having a Queen as head of state, be counted as a republic so long as government decisions were made in the public interest. Indeed, there were those in the eighteenth century who made precisely that argument. In 1700, the controversial political thinker and activist John Toland declared that 'if a Commonwealth be a Government of Laws enacted for the Common good of all the People' and if they had some means to consent to those laws 'Then it is undeniably manifest that the English Government is already a Commonwealth, the most free and best constituted in all the world.' (John Toland, The Oceana and Other Works of James Harrington, London, 1737, p. vii-viii). According to the third definition, by contrast, which requires that a single person must not be given considerable power, neither France nor the United States of America (both of which have a President), would be deemed worthy of that label.

Viewed historically, 'monarchy', is no easier to define than 'republic'. We can see this if we consider precisely what features make a monarch. Hereditary rule might be thought of as one key element, but this does not hold in the case of the early-modern Polish monarchy, which was elective. We might, then, say that a monarch generally holds his or her position for life. This would work for the Polish system, but it was also true of the Doge of Venice during the same period, and yet most people would argue that the Doge was the head of a republic rather than being a monarch.  Instead of thinking about the nature of the position, then, we might consider the extent of the power wielded. But this seems no more satisfactory as a basis for distinguishing monarchies from republics, since from the late eighteenth century to the present the President of the United States of America has tended to wield far greater powers than the English monarch. While part of the problem here is that the modern British Monarchy is in some ways a misnomer, since our Queen is a hereditary figurehead rather than a power-wielding head of government, even in the late eighteenth century George Washington already enjoyed greater powers in certain respects than George III. (For an interesting exploration of the royal tendencies in the American system see Eric Nelson, The Royalist Revolution, Cambridge Massachusetts, 2014).

John Lilburne,  England's New Chains Discovered,  London, 1649. http://oll.libertyfund.org/pages/leveller-tracts-6. 18.10.17. Taken from the Online Library of Liberty [http://oll.liberty.org] hosted by Liberty Fund, Inc.

John Lilburne, England's New Chains Discovered, London, 1649. http://oll.libertyfund.org/pages/leveller-tracts-6. 18.10.17. Taken from the Online Library of Liberty [http://oll.liberty.org] hosted by Liberty Fund, Inc.

This is not to say that important differences between what are conventionally labelled as monarchies and republics do not exist. The expenditure of public money on the Royal Family and the upkeep of royal palaces has always been one of the stronger arguments in the British republican arsenal (though of course presidential systems and legislative assemblies also incur costs). But we must also be careful not to assume that all our political problems can be solved by establishing a republic. It did not take long even for those seventeenth-century English revolutionaries who had called for an end to the monarchy to realise that many problems remained in its wake. Perhaps the best illustration of this is the fact that, less than a month after the regicide, the Leveller leader John Lilburne published a pamphlet which he entitled England's New Chains Discovered.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Intellectual Biographies Workshop, Newcastle University 04.07.17

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 Intellectual biography is in vogue at present. Edmund Burke, David Hume and Karl Marx have all been the subject of recent studies and these have been widely reviewed in academic journals and the popular press. There is also biographical interest in a number of seventeenth-century figures, as a workshop held at Newcastle University on 4 July testified. The aim was to explore intellectual biography as a genre or approach, and to consider the particular challenges it presents as well as the opportunities it offers. The discussion was stimulating and wide-ranging and has set me thinking about many issues.

One is the very nature of intellectual biography itself. A common approach to this, discussed at the workshop, involves a distinction between the work and the life, or perhaps even between the 'external life' and the internal 'life of the mind'. In these terms, intellectual biography can be contrasted, on the one hand, with critical commentary that focuses on published texts alone, and, on the other, with biographies focused exclusively on the private or public life of a subject who did not produce a corpus of published writings, or who is not examined in these terms. Despite this broad consensus, however, several participants at the workshop preferred to avoid the label. So Nick McDowell's study of John Milton will be an 'intellectual life' rather than an intellectual biography and Mike Braddick's biography of John Lilburne is to be titled a 'political life'.

Another issue concerns whether certain subjects are better fitted for intellectual biography than others. At the workshop it was noted that intellectual biographies are more common for the post-1800 period. One reason for this may be that in the early-modern period, generally speaking, the sources are more fragmentary, making it more difficult to recreate the inner life (and sometimes even the external life) from the source material. Sarah Hutton pointed out that this problem is frequently exacerbated where the subject is a woman, since they had fewer opportunities to express their ideas publicly and their private papers are less likely to have been preserved. This can encourage speculation in order to fill in the gaps, but another approach is to focus more on reconstructing the intellectual context around the subject from other sources, not just directly through the subject's own writings, public and private.

Also, in the case of early-modern studies the biographer is more remote from the mental world of the subject, making its reconstruction more difficult, but perhaps also requiring the biographer to build up the mental world from evidence rather than assuming that (s)he understands it. The particular character of the subject may further complicate this.

John Milton by an unknown artist c.1629, NPG4222. Reproduced under the creative commons licence from the National Portrait Gallery.

John Milton by an unknown artist c.1629, NPG4222. Reproduced under the creative commons licence from the National Portrait Gallery.

 Nick McDowell raised the common objection to intellectual biographies of poets that this approach tends to turn poems into vehicles for ideas and downplays the timeless, creative, literary spark of such works. There was also some discussion at the workshop of the idea that a woman's intellectual life might be of a different character or quality from that of most men. This is certainly true in the case of Anne Conway, who, as Hutton explained, did not philosophise in a familiar way. In part this was down to the fact that she had not had the traditional classical education enjoyed by most of her fellow philosophers. The same could, of course, be said of a man like John Lilburne who, though he attended the Royal Grammar School in Newcastle, did not go on to university or attend an inn of court. Lilburne, like Conway, had acquired his knowledge in more unconventional and autodidactic ways. Partly because of this, but also partly because of his role as an activist rather than a thinker, his thought is frequently inconsistent and his arguments are not always accurate, even when they were influential. It would be incorrect to suggest that such people as Conway and Lilburne did not have a mental life worthy of investigation, but it may be that different approaches and modes of expression are required in order to do justice to the lives and thought of such individuals.

John Locke from the 1824 edition of his works. Courtesy of the Special Collections Department at the Robinson Library, Newcastle University.

John Locke from the 1824 edition of his works. Courtesy of the Special Collections Department at the Robinson Library, Newcastle University.

 Even in the case of those who might seem eminently suitable subjects for an intellectual biography, such as philosophers, problems still arise. There is, for example, a potential conflict between the discipline of philosophy, which explores timeless ideas, and the format of biography which is concerned precisely with setting events and ideas within a fixed chronology. Mark Goldie alluded to this problem in slightly different terms when he noted that most of those interested in leading philosophers such as Thomas Hobbes and John Locke are concerned with their canonical texts rather than with their more minor works, or the minutiae of their daily lives.

A major problem with intellectual biographies that participants at the workshop kept returning to is the danger of imposing consistency or coherence where it does not exist. This can take various forms. It might be that the biographer ends up creating coherence out of fragmentary evidence and then imposing it back onto the subject. However, it could equally be that a biographer has to engage with the subject's own self-fashioning, which may have created a coherence that is not, in fact, borne out by the evidence. Gaby Mahlberg's current project adds a further dimension to this problem in that she is writing the biography not of a single individual but of three English republican thinkers. Here, as in the individual cases, it is perhaps as much about understanding or making sense of disruptions and discontinuities as seeking to find unity or coherence.

John Lilburne from  The trials of Lieut. Colonel John Lilburne  (London, 1649). Courtesy of the Special Collections Department at the Robinson Library, Newcastle University.

John Lilburne from The trials of Lieut. Colonel John Lilburne (London, 1649). Courtesy of the Special Collections Department at the Robinson Library, Newcastle University.

Despite the many problems facing the intellectual biographer, there was much agreement about the value of the approach. As I argued in my paper on James Harrington, this allows the relationship between the life and the works (the external and internal lives) to be explored and appreciated, and can result in revelations about the influence of an individual's life experiences on his/her thought or, conversely, the impact of their ideas on their political and social actions. Intellectual biography was also praised for encouraging the exploration not just of texts, but of the social context of their production, the networks (intellectual and practical) of their authors, as well as their audiences and reception. In this respect a contrast was drawn between those working on more well-known figures, who might want to merge the subject into the crowd, for a time, in order to be able to see and appreciate the context in which they were operating, and those working on more obscure figures, who need to be given the opportunity to stand out from the crowd. This is perhaps particularly important in the case of women, so long hidden within history. Sarah Hutton emphasised the importance of producing intellectual biographies of women in order to restore them to visibility and to demonstrate that women, even early-modern women, had mental lives worthy of exploration. It is equally important in the case of male figures too, though, and can be illuminating beyond the individual. MikeBraddick spoke of the value, to a self-confessed social historian with an interest in state formation and structures, of exploring a life such as Lilburne's within a changing sociological context and of using his life and ideas to elucidate the history of political engagement more generally. 

 Indeed if one thing was evident at our workshop it was that intellectual biography is an inherently interdisciplinary approach. Our speakers and panellists come from a range of disciplinary backgrounds (English Literature, Intellectual History, Philosophy, Social History, Modern Languages). The subjects they are working on are equally diverse (poets, political thinkers, philosophers, political activists). But, whatever the specific expertise of author and subject, it is almost impossible to produce an intellectual biography without drawing on more than one discipline.