The Inspiration Behind Oceana: 5. Petrus Cunaeus

In previous blogposts I have explored the ways in which James Harrington drew on the ideas of earlier thinkers. So far my focus has been on figures who remain well known today: Niccolò Machiavelli, Thomas Hobbes and Francis Bacon. But Harrington was also inspired by thinkers whose names have not survived so well in popular memory. 

Petrus Cunaeus, reproduced from Wikimedia Commons.

Petrus Cunaeus, reproduced from Wikimedia Commons.

One of these is the Dutch author Peter Cunaeus whose book De Republica Hebraeorum appeared in 1617 as part of a series of works produced by the Dutch printer Elsevier on past and present republics. It was translated into English by Clement Barksdale in 1653, not long after the English had established their own 'Commonwealth or Free State'. 

Harrington was particularly interested in two aspects of Cunaeus's account of the Hebrew Commonwealth. The first of these was the law of jubilee. This stated that every fifty years land that had been bought or alienated in the intervening period would be returned to its original owner. Cunaeus referred to this practice as the 'lex Agrarian Hebraeorum', which was translated by Barksdale as the 'Agrarian Law' (Petrus Cunaeus, Of the Common-Wealth of the Hebrews, translated by C. B., London, 1653, p. 13). Cunaeus did this in order to encourage comparison with other ancient practices, and especially the Roman agrarian law. Since Harrington explicitly advocated the establishment of an agrarian law for Oceana, this terminology - and Cunaeus's endorsement of the practice - was useful to him. The terms of Harrington's agrarian law were not identical to the Jewish idea of jubilee; he did not call for land to be returned to its original owner after a set period, but rather restricted the amount of land that could be passed on to one heir, effectively undermining the principle of primogeniture. Yet, both systems were designed to limit inequality without threatening social stability. 

The idea of an agrarian law was not popular at the time, even most seventeenth-century republicans followed Machiavelli in rejecting the practice. It is, therefore, all the more striking that Harrington followed Cunaeus in explicitly challenging Machiavelli's account of the fall of the Roman republic. Against Machiavelli, Cunaeus and Harrington insisted that it was the mismatch between the distribution of land and the holding of political power - essentially the failure to properly implement an agrarian law - that had caused the Roman republic to fall. Given the controversy surrounding agrarian laws, even among those who favoured republican government, Cunaeus's account was also useful to Harrington in its insistence that the law of jubilee was instituted by Moses at God's behest. Here, as elsewhere in his use of the Hebrew Commonwealth, Harrington was able to claim divine support for a controversial idea.

Image of Moses as taken from the frontispiece to  The Oceana and other works of James Harrington,  ed. John Toland (London, 1737). Private copy. Image by Rachel Hammersley.

Image of Moses as taken from the frontispiece to The Oceana and other works of James Harrington, ed. John Toland (London, 1737). Private copy. Image by Rachel Hammersley.

Religion also lay at the heart of the second aspect of Cunaeus's De Republica Hebraeorum that was important to Harrington. According to Cunaeus, God had given authority in both civil and religious matters to the civil magistrate. Instead of being viewed as separate jurisdictions, civil and religious affairs were both under the authority of the Jewish Sanhedrin. Once again this prefigured Harrington's own insistence in The Commonwealth of Oceana that a national church be preserved; and that it, and its clergy, were to remain under the authority of the state, although he also insisted that liberty of conscience should be granted to members of other Protestant sects. On this point, too, Harrington's use of Cunaeus set him apart from other English republicans at the time, most of whom advocated the complete separation of church and state.

Paying attention to Harrington's use of Cunaeus serves to correct the understanding of English republicanism that has tended, at least until the early twenty-first century, to ignore its religious dimension. Being able to draw a parallel with the Hebrew Republic provided a religious justification for some of the more innovative elements of Harrington's programme. At the same time, we can see that the question of how to organise religion was itself central to his concerns. Thanks to Cunaeus, Harrington was able to view the Hebrew Commonwealth as an ancient example that could usefully be deployed in early-modern constitution building.

These observations also have resonance today. Separating church and state has not always worked as an effective means of ensuring toleration for religious groups, not least because it tends to set up a contrast between religious organisations and the secularism of the state. Harrington certainly believed that toleration could be better secured under a system in which the civil magistrate oversaw the state religion, but also allowed freedom of conscience to separatist groups. The question of what the relationship should be between politics and religion remains a live issue today and one on which the sometimes simplistic solutions of the present might be complicated and enriched by attention to past discussions.

The relationship between property and political power has also proved to be a hot political topic in recent months. Research by Guy Shrubsole suggests that 1% of the people now own half of the land in England ( Moreover, without government intervention even greater disparity is likely in the future, since landowners can use the income they gain from rent and capital appreciation to buy yet more property. This was why Harrington argued for government intervention to reduce future inequality. In the light of Shrubsole's research Peter Hetherington has pointed in a similar direction, suggesting that the solution is to end 'the inheritance and capital gains tax breaks which make trading land so attractive to the few at the expense of the many' ( Yet many of those in positions of power remain unwilling to address the issue. At a time when the frontrunner in the Tory leadership campaign, Boris Johnson, has pledged to raise the higher-rate income tax threshold from £50,000 to £80,000, thereby cutting the tax bills of 3 million higher-income earners by approximately £3,000 (, we might wish to reconsider the mechanisms for redistributing wealth in the modern world and whether they are fit for purpose.

An Interlude: Thinkers as Readers

Programme for the workshop ‘David Hume as Reader: The Authors who Provoked Hume’, 03.05.19.

Programme for the workshop ‘David Hume as Reader: The Authors who Provoked Hume’, 03.05.19.

In my last few blogposts I have been examining some of the thinkers whose works influenced James Harrington's The Commonwealth of Oceana. There are more figures I want to explore in future posts, but this month I want briefly to digress, by looking at someone who was influenced by him: David Hume. This is prompted by the fact that on 3rd May I attended a stimulating workshop at the Institute of Advanced Studies in Edinburgh entitled 'David Hume as a Reader: The Authors who Provoked Hume'. The workshop was organised by Max Skjönesberg and Robin Mills and included excellent papers by various scholars each of whom examined the ways in which the works of a particular thinker or genre influenced - or, in the words of the workshop’s subtitle, provoked - Hume. Working on my own paper for this workshop, at the same time as thinking about the various authors who inspired Harrington, led me to reflect more generally on this approach to the history of political thought, what it reveals, and how it could be used to enhance and enrich more conventional studies.

Of course, focusing on authors as readers of other authors immediately brings to the fore various problems. Several speakers at the workshop raised the question of what might constitute reliable evidence of one author having read another. The catalogue of a thinker's personal library, or one to which we know that thinker had access (as in the case of Hume and the Advocates Library), can be useful in this regard. The presence in such a catalogue of a particular book makes it possible, in some cases even probable, that the thinker had read that work, but on its own it cannot prove that (s)he did so. Even when it can be established that a thinker did read a particular work - for example where annotations in their own hand are found in a copy of the work, or where references are made in a commonplace book, diary or correspondence - it does not necessarily follow that that reading then influenced their own thought or writings. 

A more fruitful indication is evidence of one author borrowing (whether explicitly or implicitly) from another. In future, further advances may be made in this area as a result of improvements in digital technology, such as the development of sophisticated machine reading software. Yet it is also important to remember that a lack of critical engagement with a work does not necessarily constitute proof that the author has not been influenced or provoked by it. Furthermore, awareness of the ideas of a particular thinker may develop by reading abridgements or reviews rather than the work itself, or via discussions in settings such as debating societies or political clubs.

Statue of David Hume on the Royal Mile in Edinburgh.

Statue of David Hume on the Royal Mile in Edinburgh.

A second observation to be made is that influence itself does not always take a simple form. This is something that I was particularly aware of in exploring Hume's reading of Harrington. Occasionally it is possible to identify an example of one thinker directly appropriating an idea from another. Hume, for example, adopts Harrington's preference for the rule of laws rather than men, though we might query whether he derived this directly from Harrington's works or via an intermediary and, indeed, whether Oceana was the true origin of that idea. Elsewhere we can find examples of thinkers embarking from a similar starting point, but moving in different directions, or of them using different methods to achieve similar ends. Alexandra Chadwick offered an example of the former in her paper on Hobbes and Hume, where she showed that they started from similar foundations in terms of their views of human nature and psychology, but diverged with regard to the vision of mankind and society that they sought to paint. Working the other way around, I noted that Hume shared Harrington's concern with accountability, but rejected his mechanism of rotation of office, and instead sought alternative measures to achieve that end. 

Joseph Collyer, portrait of David Hume, Scottish National Portrait Gallery SP IV 7711.

Joseph Collyer, portrait of David Hume, Scottish National Portrait Gallery SP IV 7711.

This idea shades into another way of thinking about influence, which was explicitly articulated by Tim Stuart-Buttle, whereby one thinker generates problems or questions that are then addressed by later generations. This astute observation raises further questions and complexities. It might equally be the case that two contemporary thinkers engage with similar problems or adopt similar approaches not because one has influenced the other, but simply because they are operating within a common political and cultural context. Tim Hochstrasser suggested that this perhaps explains at least some of the affinities between Voltaire and Hume. Richard Whatmore complicated the idea in a different way, suggesting that it sometimes appears as though an author is only influential when (s)he is totally misunderstood by the next generation. Among the papers at the workshop there were certainly several examples of reading against the grain. For instance, Danielle Charette suggested that Hume did not read Machiavelli in the traditional way, but instead sought to move beyond the moralism of many eighteenth-century accounts, modelling instead how Machiavelli might be read fruitfully in the modern world.

While undoubtedly complex, there can be no doubt that juxtaposing authors in this way and examining in detail the connections - and the divergences - between their ideas, can enrich our understanding of the thought of both thinkers. On the basis of this, I was led to wonder whether focusing on reading might provide us with a new dimension to the exploration of intellectual history. Reading offers a middle way between the traditional 'great thinkers' approach to the history of political thought and the contextual methodology pioneered by members of the Cambridge School. Cambridge School historians quite rightly challenged the assumption that the great thinkers of the past were simply conversing with each other and were unaffected by the historical events and more trivial and quotidian intellectual debates going on around them. They have shown, for example, that Hobbes was deeply affected by the experience of living through the English Civil War and was responding to contemporary debates, such as that surrounding the swearing of the Engagement Oath - an oath of loyalty to the new regime in the aftermath of the regicide. Yet this emphasis on historical and intellectual context can sometimes lead us to forget that these people also read and responded to the writings of prominent thinkers who had gone before them. By adding some consideration of who and what thinkers of the past were reading, alongside what they were experiencing and which intellectual debates they were engaging with, we can perhaps produce a richer and more nuanced understanding of the genesis of their ideas.

The Inspiration Behind Oceana: 1. Machiavelli: History, Democracy & Human Nature

In January I submitted the final version of my intellectual biography of James Harrington to Oxford University Press. With any luck it will appear before the end of 2019. Consequently, at the start of this new year I have been reflecting on my pursuit of this project and what I have learned from it. One of the particular pleasures of the research has been re-reading not just Harrington's own writings, but also the works of those thinkers who influenced him. This is, then, the first of a series of posts on some of the thinkers who inspired Oceana. Where better to begin than with the great, though controversial, Italian Renaissance political theorist, Niccolò Machiavelli.

Galgano Cipriani, Niccolo Machiavelli, 1469-1527 Statesman and historiographer, National Galleries Scotland, Accession Number FP I 81.1

Galgano Cipriani, Niccolo Machiavelli, 1469-1527 Statesman and historiographer, National Galleries Scotland, Accession Number FP I 81.1

Various things struck me as I re-read The Discourses after an interval of more than a decade. One of the first was how beautifully Machiavelli wrote. From the dedication I was immediately drawn into the text and looked forward to reading it. Part of the beauty lies in the fact that he is clear about his arguments, stating them openly even when they are controversial. But there is much in the substance, as well as the style, of Machiavelli's works that I found appealing. I want to highlight three aspects of his work here that certainly influenced Harrington and which, I believe, still have relevance today.

In the first place, Machiavelli - like Harrington - is explicit about the benefits of reading history to better understand present politics and make proposals for the future. Machiavelli laments the fact that in his own time people take pleasure in reading about historical events, but do not seem to learn from or imitate them (Niccolò Machiavelli, The Discourses, ed. Bernard Crick, Harmondsworth, Penguin, 1970, p. 98). One purpose of his book is to encourage a new attitude to history, he aims to compare ancient and modern events so as to better understand them 'so that those who read what I have to say may the more easily draw those practical lessons which one should seek to obtain from the study of history' (Machiavelli, The Discourses, p. 99). Machiavelli's historical methodology is vulnerable to criticism on account of his sense that the past and the present are fundamentally the same. It is obviously not appropriate to maintain this view today, and Harrington already went some way beyond Machiavelli in appreciating the nature and importance of change over time. But it would, I think, be wrong to dismiss too quickly Machiavelli's assertion that human nature remains much the same in all times and places: 

If the present be compared with the remote past, it is easily seen that in all cities and in all peoples there are the same desires and the same passions as there always were. So that, if one examines with diligence the past, it is easy to foresee the future of any commonwealth, and to apply those remedies which were used of old; or if one does not find that remedies were used, to devise new ones owing to the similarity between events. (Machiavelli, The Discourses, pp. 207-8). 

It is, Machiavelli concludes, because people do not properly know or understand history that the same problems keep arising.

The author’s copy of the penguin edition of Machiavelli’s  Discourses .

The author’s copy of the penguin edition of Machiavelli’s Discourses.

One aspect of Machiavelli's understanding of his own past and present which might be of particular interest to us today is what he has to say about popular or democratic politics. As I have pointed out elsewhere, modern democracy is often assumed to be a twentieth-century phenomenon, or at least one that had its origins no earlier than the revolutions of the late eighteenth century. Yet, important discussions on the nature and limitations of democracy took place in seventeenth-century England. Reading Machiavelli reminded me that even seventeenth-century thinkers were by no means the first after the fall of Rome to be interested in the advantages and disadvantages of democratic government. While Machiavelli makes little use of the term 'democracy' he is a strong advocate not just of republican, but of popular, government. As well as claiming that 'it is only in republics that the common good is looked to properly in that all that promotes it is carried out' (Machiavelli, The Discourses, p. 275) he also goes so far as to suggest that 'government by the populace is better than government by princes' (Machiavelli, The Discourses, p. 256). Of course, one has to be careful in interpreting this. The suggestion, put forward by John P. McCormick, that Machiavelli is better described as a democrat than a republican has been challenged on the grounds that he was pessimistic about the capacity of ordinary citizens to govern themselves and consequently insisted on the need for continuous elite intervention in politics (John P. McCormick, 'Machiavelli Against Republicanism On the Cambridge School's "Guicciardinian Moments", Political Theory, 31:5, 2003, pp. 615-43 and Ryan Balot and Stephen Trochimchuk, 'The Many and the Few: On Machiavelli's "Democratic Moment"', The Review of Politics, 74 (2012), pp. 559-88). But, I would argue, what is of most importance is that he engaged with the issues surrounding popular government. Indeed, part of the reason for Machiavelli's preference for popular government was his insistence that the populace can more easily be constrained by laws than a prince, and at the same time if they depart from the law they are less dangerous. Moreover, Machiavelli goes so far as to defend what he admits is an unpopular position. Where most writers at the time dismissed the masses as futile and inconstant, Machiavelli was more cautious: 'The nature of the masses, then, is not more reprehensible than is the nature of princes, for all do wrong and to the same extent when there is nothing to prevent them doing wrong.' (Machiavelli, The Discourses, p. 254).

As this quotation suggests, while Machiavelli was less dismissive of the masses than some of his contemporaries this was based less on an elevated sense of their virtue than on his belief that all human beings are susceptible to corruption and that this must be recognised. He suggested that men cannot restrain their passions for very long and insisted that when constituting a commonwealth it is essential to assume that all men are wicked (Machiavelli, The Discourses, pp. 429 and 111). On this issue Harrington was in agreement with Machiavelli and his political model was grounded in Machiavelli's observation that: 'All legislators, whether in a republic or a kingdom' must be 'ready to restrain human appetites and to deprive them of all hope of doing wrong with impunity' (Machiavelli, The Discourses, p. 217). For both thinkers this included rulers and politicians as much as ordinary citizens. Indeed, Machiavelli had some particularly useful suggestions as to how to treat politicians, and others in positions of authority, emphasising the need to assess them on account of their actions rather than simply their positions: 'For, to judge aright, one should esteem men because they are generous, not because they have the power to be generous; and, in like manner, should admire those who know how to govern a kingdom, not those who, without knowing how, actually govern one.' (Machiavelli, The Discourses, p. 94). Reading statements like this in the midst of the current political chaos over Brexit one cannot help thinking that both understanding historical events and learning from past thinkers could still teach us much about politics that would be of practical value today.