The Inspiration Behind Oceana 3: Hobbes Again

Last month's blogpost focused on the relevance of the title and frontispiece of Hobbes's Leviathan for Harrington's work. In this month's post I want to develop these observations by examining Harrington's engagement with the language and argument of Hobbes's Introduction to that book, and the contrasting approaches to 'political science' of these two seventeenth-century thinkers.

The opening passage of Leviathan not only provided Harrington with his title, as I showed last month, but is also referenced repeatedly in his works. It is, therefore, worth quoting in full:

Postcard depicting an artistic reinterpretation of Hobbes’s  Leviathan  by Matt Kish.

Postcard depicting an artistic reinterpretation of Hobbes’s Leviathan by Matt Kish.


NATURE (the Art whereby God hath made and governes the World) is by the Art of man, as in many other things, so in this also imitated, that it can make an Artificial Animal. For seeing life is but a motion of Limbs, the beginning whereof is in some principall part within; why may we not say, that all Automata (Engines that move themselves by springs and wheeles as doth a watch) have an artificiall life? For what is the Heart, but a Spring, and the Nerves, but so many Strings; and the Joynts, but so many Wheeles, giving motion to the whole Body, such as was intended by the Artificer? Art goes yet further, imitating that Rationall and most excellent worke of Nature, Man. For by Art is created that great LEVIATHAN called a COMMON-WEALTH, or STATE (in latine CIVITAS) which is but an Artificiall Man; though of greater stature and strength than the Naturall, for whose protection and defence it was intended; and in which, the Soveraignty is an Artificiall Soul, as giving life and motion to the whole body (Thomas Hobbes, Leviathan, ed. Richard Tuck, Cambridge, 1991, p. 9).

Harrington even gave the title  The Art of Lawgiving  to one of his books. Taken from:  The Oceana and other works of James Harrington , ed. John Toland (London, 1737). Private copy. Image by Rachel Hammersley.

Harrington even gave the title The Art of Lawgiving to one of his books. Taken from: The Oceana and other works of James Harrington, ed. John Toland (London, 1737). Private copy. Image by Rachel Hammersley.


In The Mechanics of Nature Harrington echoed Hobbes in describing 'Nature' explicitly as 'the Art of God' (James Harrington, The Mechanics of Nature in The Oceana and Other Works of James Harrington, ed. John Toland, London, 1737, p. xlii). Elsewhere he too presented constitution-building or 'lawgiving' as an art, suggesting that by practising it humans could imitate God's creativity. And like Hobbes, Harrington also drew on the analogy of the body politic:


AS the Form of a Man is the Image of God, so the Form of a Government is the Image of Man.

...

FORMATION of Government is the creation of a Political Creature after the Image of a Philosophical Creature; or it is an infusion of the Soul or Facultys of a Man into the body of a Multitude (James Harrington, A System of Politics in The Oceana and Other Works, p. 499).


Of course, the body-politic analogy had a long history and was, by the mid-seventeenth-century, a rather outdated metaphor. Yet neither Hobbes nor Harrington was using it in a purely conventional way. Both men sought to revolutionise the idea of the body politic and, with it, politics more generally.

Hobbes saw the body politic as an artificial rather than a natural body - more like a machine than a human being. Against this, Harrington was keen to emphasise that while government is a human creation, legislators are still bound to follow the dictates of nature as laid down by God:


Policy is an Art, Art is the Observation or Imitation of Nature, Nature is the Providence of God in the Government of the world, whence he that proceeds according unto Principles acknowledgeth Government unto God, and he that proceeds in defiance of Principles, attributes Government unto Chance, which denying the true God, or introducing a false One, is the highest point of Atheisme or Superstition (James Harrington, The Prerogative of Popular Government, London, 1658, 'The Epistle Dedicatory').


It is in this context that we can understand Harrington's choice of title as a response to Hobbes. While the Leviathan cannot be constrained by any human form (as the quotation from the book of Job that appears on Hobbes's frontispiece declared), it is nonetheless constrained in only being able to survive in the ocean and not on land.

William Harvey,  Exercitatio Anatomica Motu Cordis et Sanguinis in Animalibus  (Florence, 1928). Reproduced from a copy held in the Special Collections department of the Robinson Library, University of Newcastle. Pybus C.v.09. With thanks to Sam Petty.

William Harvey, Exercitatio Anatomica Motu Cordis et Sanguinis in Animalibus (Florence, 1928). Reproduced from a copy held in the Special Collections department of the Robinson Library, University of Newcastle. Pybus C.v.09. With thanks to Sam Petty.


While rejecting the idea of government as machine, Harrington nevertheless did not revert to the traditional notion of the body politic. Where these supported monarchy (with the king generally associated with either the head or the heart) Harrington offered a more democratic interpretation. He also drew an analogy between this interpretation and the ideas of one of the leading scientists of his day - who was also, significantly, a friend of Hobbes - William Harvey.


Harrington justified his bicameral legislature, and the rotation of office that operated in both houses, by reference to Harvey's theory of the circulation of the blood:

So the parliament is the heart which, consisting of two ventricles, the one greater and replenished with a grosser store, the other less and full of a purer, sucketh in and gusheth forth the life blood of Oceana by a perpetual circulation (James Harrington, Oceana, London, 1656, p. 190).


Through adopting Harvey's notion of the heart as a pump composed of ventricles with distinctive functions, and of the blood as the life-force of the body - here equivalent to the people - Harrington implies that his theory is in tune with current scientific development. Yet the heart, on this account, represents not the king (as Harvey himself had suggested) but the legislature, thereby turning Harvey's (and by association Hobbes's) monarchism against them by showing that the body politic metaphor is capable of a democratic reading.


Harrington's desire to demonstrate his credibility as a scientific thinker has tended to be obscured by the recent emphasis on his status as a classical republican. Yet, like Hobbes, he was keen to put politics on a scientific footing.

Harvey,  Exertatio Anatomica , pp. 56-7 from the Robinson Library edition.

Harvey, Exertatio Anatomica, pp. 56-7 from the Robinson Library edition.


Hobbes set out his vision of a science of politics in The Elements of Law and in De Cive. The approach he took was hinted at in the title of the former, which echoed that of the English translation of Euclid's famous work: The Elements of Geometry. For Hobbes, true scientific knowledge was not 'prudence' but 'sapience' and could only be arrived at via deductive reasoning. Hobbes dismissed prudence as mere experience of fact which was used 'to conjecture by the present, of what is past, and to come' (Thomas Hobbes, The Elements of Law Natural and Politic, ed. Ferdinand Tönnies, Cambridge, 1928, p. 139). Harrington, by contrast, adopted this inductive approach as the foundation of his scientific knowledge, expressing the basic principle of his own political reasoning as follows: 'what was always so and no otherwise, and still is so and no otherwise, the same shall be so and no otherwise' and he insisted that we can be as certain of this as we are of other scientific principles. Responding to the criticism Hobbes had made of Aristotle and Cicero - that they had derived their politics not from the principles of nature, but from the practices of their own commonwealths, just as grammarians produce the rules of language from the writings of poets - Harrington suggested that this was equivalent to saying that Harvey had discovered the circulation of the blood not on the basis of the principles of nature, but through studying the anatomy of a particular body (James Harrington, Politicaster, pp. 47-8). Harrington, thereby, likened his political methodology to the scientific methodology of anatomy:


Certain it is that the delivery of a model of government (which either must be of none effect, or embrace all those muscles, nerves, arteries and bones, which are necessary to any function of a well-ordered commonwealth) is no less than political anatomy (James Harrington, The Art of Law-giving, London, 1659, III, p. 4).


In Politicaster he repeated this point in language that deliberately echoed Hobbes: 'Anatomy is an Art; but he that demonstrates by this Art, demonstrates by Nature, and is not to be contradicted by phansie, but by demonstration out of Nature. It is no otherwise in the Politicks' (Harrington, Politicaster, p. 44). What this indicates is that Harrington was intent on basing his analysis not, as Hobbes did, on deductive logic, but, as Harvey did, on the analysis of specific models, both living and dead. In drawing on Harvey, and in coining the phrase 'political anatomy', Harrington further underlined the modern and scientific character of his thinking, pursuing Hobbes's aim to set politics on a scientific footing, while showing that Hobbes at best offered too narrow an account of what this would involve and at worst had misrepresented scientific methodology.


Harrington was playing a cunning game with Hobbes, opposing his politics 'to shew him what he taught me'. However, it was not successful. While Harrington frequently refers to Hobbes in his work, both explicitly and implicitly, the interest was not mutual. Hobbes never responds directly to Harrington's provocations, and does not appear to have engaged with his ideas. It would seem he had little interest in what he had taught Harrington - or in what Harrington might have been able to teach him.

The Inspiration Behind Oceana: 2. Hobbes

Thomas Hobbes, after John Michael Wright, oil on canvas, based on a work of c.1669-70. National Portrait Gallery, NPG 106. Reproduced under a creative commons license.

Thomas Hobbes, after John Michael Wright, oil on canvas, based on a work of c.1669-70. National Portrait Gallery, NPG 106. Reproduced under a creative commons license.

Machiavelli was not the only controversial political thinker to have left his mark on The Commonwealth of Oceana. Harrington was also much influenced by Thomas Hobbes. This blogpost will briefly explore Hobbes's influence on the title and structure of Harrington's works. Next month's post will examine Harrington's debt to Hobbes as regards the substance of his argument and his methodological approach.

The precise relationship between Hobbes and Harrington was the subject of speculation in their own time. At first glance they would appear to be on opposite sides of the political divide: the defender of monarchy versus the proponent of commonwealth government. Yet observers saw connections between their ideas. Harrington's critic, Matthew Wren, commented: 'I will not conceal the pleasure I have taken in observing that though Mr. Harrington professes a great Enmity to Mr. Hobs his politiques ... notwithstanding he holds a correspondence with him, and does silently swallow down such Notion as Mr. Hobs hath chewed for him.' ([Matthew Wren], Considerations on Mr Harrington's Common-wealth of Oceana, p. 41). Harrington replied by acknowledging his debt, at least on certain matters:

It is true, I have opposed the Politicks of Mr. Hobbs, to shew him what he taught me, with as much disdain as he opposed those of the greatest Authors, in whose wholesome Fame and Doctrine the good of Mankind being concern'd; my Conscience bears me witnesse, that I have done my duty: Nevertheless in most other things I firmly believe that Mr. Hobbs is, and will in future Ages be accounted, the best Writer, at this day, in the World. (James Harrington, The Prerogative of Popular Government, I, p. 36).

In general, commentary has focused on the second part of this quotation, and in particular on the idea that while Harrington disagreed with Hobbes on political matters, their views on religion were remarkably similar with both insisting that the church should be firmly under state control and treating the political usefulness of religion as more important than its truth. Yet the first part of the quotation - Harrington's claim that he has 'opposed the Politicks of Mr. Hobbs, to shew him what he taught me' - also suggests agreement on certain fundamentals in their political ideas. Harrington often seems to be writing in response to Hobbes, using his ideas as a springboard, so that even where Harrington departs from Hobbes he often uses Hobbesian language and concepts, applying them to different ends.

Thomas Hobbes,  Leviathan  (London, 1651). Reproduced with permission from the Robinson Library, University of Newcastle. Special Collections, Bainbrigg (BAI 1651 HOB). With thanks to Sam Petty.

Thomas Hobbes, Leviathan (London, 1651). Reproduced with permission from the Robinson Library, University of Newcastle. Special Collections, Bainbrigg (BAI 1651 HOB). With thanks to Sam Petty.

This connection is hinted at in the titles of their works. Hobbes called his major work of 1651, Leviathan, alluding to the sea monster described in the Book of Job, the chief characteristic of which was that it could not be constrained by any human power. For Hobbes this was a useful metaphor for his conception of the state. Though it was constituted by the population and designed to secure peace and security, it could not be overthrown by any individual or group among them. Harrington's decision to call his work The Commonwealth of Oceana can be read as a response to Hobbes. Most commentators have seen Harrington's adoption of the term 'commonwealth' as a reflection of his republicanism. Yet he may also have been alluding to Hobbes's own use of that term. On his opening page, Hobbes described the Leviathan as a 'COMMON-WEALTH, or  STATE, (in latine CIVITAS)' (Thomas Hobbes, Leviathan, ed. Richard Tuck, Cambridge, 1991, p. 9). Similarly, 'Oceana' may not only have referred to England being an island nation. The ocean was the medium in which the Leviathan lives and which, to some extent, restricts and determines its movements and actions. While it may not be constrained by human power, there are other limits on it. It cannot, for example, suddenly start living on land, but must conform to the laws of nature. This fits with aspects of Harrington's argument that will be explored in next month's blogpost.

Not only is there a parallel between the titles adopted by these authors, but connections can also be drawn between the structure and form of their works. The frontispiece to Hobbes's text embodies its entire argument. The Leviathan appears at the top of the image rising up out of the sea. In his right hand he holds a sword - the symbol of civil power - and in his left he holds a crozier - the symbol of ecclesiastical power. This literally reflects Hobbes's argument that both powers should be held by the state. The bottom half of the frontispiece is divided into three columns. The left hand one, beneath the sword, depicts various aspects of the state's temporal power. That on the right, beneath the crozier, depicts aspects of ecclesiastical power. Two of Harrington's works refer in different ways to this frontispiece. 

The Prerogative of Popular Government appeared in 1658. It is the work from which Harrington's comment on his debt to Hobbes, quoted above, comes; and it is the work in which Harrington engages most directly with Hobbes's ideas. Given this, it is perhaps not surprising that the structure of the work can be read as echoing the frontispiece to Leviathan. The work is divided into two books. The first, like Hobbes's left hand column, deals with political or civil affairs. The second corresponds to his right hand column in focusing on religious or ecclesiastical matters. And, just like Hobbes's frontispiece, together they make a complete whole. However, while echoing Hobbes's structure, the thrust of Harrington's argument is at odds with that of Hobbes. Where Hobbes had insisted that civil and ecclesiastical powers should be held by a unified state, Harrington argues that both should be organised democratically. Moreover, Harrington cleverly uses Hobbes's arguments to make this point. The second book of The Prerogative defends Hobbes's account of the early church, which emphasised the importance of election by the people in the process of ordaining ministers, against the objections of the Anglican cleric Henry Hammond. What Harrington appears to be saying is that if Hobbes is right in his interpretation of the early church and on the need for civil and ecclesiastical powers to be held in the same hands, then the people should hold both. This, then, is the 'prerogative of popular government'.

‘The Manner and Use of the Ballot’, taken from  The Oceana and other works of James Harrington , ed. John Toland (London, 1737). Private copy. Image by Rachel Hammersley.

‘The Manner and Use of the Ballot’, taken from The Oceana and other works of James Harrington, ed. John Toland (London, 1737). Private copy. Image by Rachel Hammersley.

The second work that refers to the frontispiece of Leviathan is The Use and Manner of the Ballot, a broadsheet which appeared in 1658/9. Recent research has revealed Hobbes's interest in the use of the visual form to spark the imagination. It has shown how seriously Hobbes took the frontispiece to Leviathan; and has opened up various ways in which that image drew on novel visual techniques to convey the complex relationship between the people, the state, and its functions. Harrington was equally concerned with the problem of conveying complex political ideas in an accessible form and he too experimented with visual images to address this issue. From as early as 1656, Harrington had been concerned that the complex balloting procedure in Oceana was difficult for his readers to comprehend. By the beginning of 1659 this had become a major issue. This was because, as he explained in Brief Directions published just a few months earlier, the use of the ballot was difficult to convey in written form. It would, he believed, be much easier for an audience to understand if they were able to experience it in practice. While this was not immediately possible, presenting the ballot in visual form offered an intermediate solution. The Use and Manner of the Ballot consisted of a detailed annotated illustration of the ballot which was accompanied by a commentary describing the balloting process. As Harrington explained at the beginning of the commentary: 'I shall endeavour by this figure to demonstrate the manner of the Venetian ballot (a thing as difficult in discourse or writing, as facile in practice)'. Though the image remained static, Harrington clearly believed that it would allow his audience to envisage how the ballot would operate, thereby convincing them that what might seem on paper like a complex and cumbersome process could be performed quickly and efficiently. (For an animation of this image produced in conjunction with my colleagues at Animating Texts at Newcastle University see: https://research.ncl.ac.uk/atnu/projects/earlymodernballot/#d.en.870683)

Frontispiece from  The Oceana and other works of James Harrington . Image by Rachel Hammersley

Frontispiece from The Oceana and other works of James Harrington. Image by Rachel Hammersley

While this was the only image that Harrington produced, it was not the only one to be associated with his writings. When John Toland produced an edition of Harrington's works at the end of the seventeenth century, he prefaced it with an elaborate frontispiece, which cost him £30 of his own money. Just like the frontispiece to Leviathan, Toland's image embodied the argument of Harrington's works (as interpreted by Toland) in visual form. It could, therefore, be read as a final response to Hobbes.