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 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:

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.

Representation and Misrepresentation


Last month I wrote about the 'Translating Cultures' workshop that I attended at the Herzog August Bibliothek in Wolfenbüttel, Germany in late June 2018. The same week I also spoke at the Graduate Conference in the History of Political Thought held at UCL in London. The theme this year was 'Representation and Misrepresentation' and I was honoured to be invited to deliver the keynote address. Unfortunately, I was only able to attend the first five panels, but I heard some fascinating, inspirational papers that led me to reflect on several key themes.

One of these was the sheer complexity of the concepts 'representation' and 'misrepresentation'. This complexity has a long history. While representative government is often associated with modern democracy - with representation presented as a means of making democratic government workable in large modern nation states - Ludmilla Lorrain reminded us that representation was originally developed in opposition to democracy. Late eighteenth-century advocates of representative government - for instance, the American founding fathers, Emmanuel-Joseph Sieyès and Edmund Burke - believed democracy ought to be avoided, and instead celebrated representative government as superior. In this context, Lorrain argued, William Godwin's commitment to 'representative democracy' is worthy of investigation.

Benjamin Constant, as Arthur Ghins demonstrated, sided with Sieyès and Burke rather than Godwin. The advantage of representation for Constant was not that it made democracy possible, but rather that it would result in good political decisions. Ghins also argued that Constant was more concerned with representing interests than individuals, further complicating what we understand by political representation. 

John Stuart Mill, replica by George Frederick Watts, 1873. National Portrait Gallery NPG 1090. Reproduced under a Creative Commons License.

John Stuart Mill, replica by George Frederick Watts, 1873. National Portrait Gallery NPG 1090. Reproduced under a Creative Commons License.

The question of who or what was to be represented was always contentious, and from the French Revolution onwards some claimed that representation ought to extend to women as well as men. John Stuart Mill was a particularly strong advocate of this claim. In her paper, Stephanie Conway argued for the centrality of this commitment within Mill's thought. Mill, she suggested, believed that the enfranchisement of women would solve the pressing problem of overpopulation.

Alongside who should be represented, the tools used to exercise representation have also proved contentious. The timely issue of the uses of referenda in representative governments was explored by Gareth Stedman Jones, in his introductory address, and by Ariane Fichtl. Opening her paper with a reference to Jacques Louis David's painting 'The Oath of the Horatii', Fichtl noted that the Horatii were eventually acquitted after an appeal to the Roman popular assembly. Yet in 1792 it was the Girondins, rather than David's allies the Jacobins, who advanced the idea of referring the decision about what should be done with the former French king to the people. Stedman Jones noted that under both Napoleon III and Hitler referenda were used as a means of providing apparent democratic accountability in systems that were some way from being democratic.

Jacques-Louis David, 'Oath of the Horatii', 1784. Reproduced from Wikimedia Commons -

Jacques-Louis David, 'Oath of the Horatii', 1784. Reproduced from Wikimedia Commons -

Sir William Temple, Bt., after Sir Peter Lely. Based on a work of c.1660. National Portrait Gallery NPG 152. Reproduced under a Creative Commons License.

Sir William Temple, Bt., after Sir Peter Lely. Based on a work of c.1660. National Portrait Gallery NPG 152. Reproduced under a Creative Commons License.

As well as causing me to reflect on the complexities of representation, the papers also encouraged me to think about the nature of the history of political thought as a field. In the first place it is clear that the importance of examining works in their historical and intellectual context - as pioneered by the Cambridge School - remains a useful and revealing methodology. Interestingly, it was, perhaps, the speakers from the European University Institute in Florence who displayed the richness of that approach most eloquently. Bert Drejer explored the revisions that Johannes Althusius made to the 1610 and 1614 editions of his Politica, methodice digest in response to changing circumstances. Moreover, in answering questions he noted that part of the reason for Althusius's greater emphasis on cities in the later editions was probably that he had become a syndic himself in the intervening period. Juha Haavisto is writing an intellectual history of William Temple and very much seeking to set Temple's thought in its context. He described Temple as a practical and pragmatic writer whose lack of consistency can be explained by the fact that he often adapted his thought to the circumstances. Elias Buchetmann is working on a contextual reading of Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel's philosophy. He argued that Hegel's observation of events in Württemberg, particularly the constitutional crisis of 1815-19, had a significant impact on the development of his thought. Morgan Golf-French also touched on this approach in his question to Ghins regarding the relationship between Constant's liberalism and his knowledge of, and engagement with, the German context.

Frontispiece to Thomas Hobbes,  Leviathan  with its image depicting the state literally representing or embodying the population. Reproduced with permission from Robinson Library, Newcastle University. Special Collections, Bainbrigg (Bai 1651 HOB).

Frontispiece to Thomas Hobbes, Leviathan with its image depicting the state literally representing or embodying the population. Reproduced with permission from Robinson Library, Newcastle University. Special Collections, Bainbrigg (Bai 1651 HOB).

While suggesting much continuity, these papers also showed signs of new developments and trajectories in the history of political thought. In particular, it is clear that there is a growing tendency towards branching out from politics, narrowly defined, to explore the interrelationship between politics and other fields of knowledge. The 2009 book Seeing Things Their Way put forward a two-pronged argument: that advocates of the Cambridge School have often ignored or downplayed the religious dimension of earlier thought; and yet that their methodology is particularly conducive to understanding and making sense of religious beliefs and convictions in their own terms (Seeing Things Their Way: Intellectual History and the Return of Religion, ed. Alister Chapman, John Coffey and Brad S. Gregory. Notre Dame, Indiana: University of Notre Dame Press, 2009). Building on this idea, Connor Robinson reminded us that debates about the polity took place within the church as well as the state in seventeenth-century England. He suggested that ideas of representation in that period might usefully be read against the background of Protestantism, showing that the ideas and practices of the early church were central to the responses that James Harrington and Henry Vane made to Thomas Hobbes. Barret Reiter also linked political and religious thought, presenting Hobbes's interest in the problem of idolatry as part of a much wider concern with the fancy or imagination. The root of Hobbes's concern with idolatry, Reiter argued, lay in the individual following his own imagination rather than obeying the sovereign.

Other papers touched on other relationships. Alex Mortimore examined the way in which political ideas could be expressed in literary form, specifically in Johann Wolfgang von Goethe's work Die Aufgeregten (The Agitation), which was written in 1792 at the height of the French Revolution. I was particularly struck by the subtitle of this work 'A Political Drama' and wondered whether this was a common genre at the time or whether it was prompted by Goethe's reaction to this highly charged political moment. The paper served to remind us that literary sources can be just as valuable as political texts in reflecting the political views being expressed and debated at particular points in time.

Economics is another discipline that is closely related to politics and that was often not fully distinguished from it in earlier periods. Both Ghins's paper and that by Henri-Pierre Mottironi explored the interrelationship between politics and economics in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. Mottironi demonstrated that the French Physiocrats modelled their ideas of citizenship, taxation, and representation on practices that were well established in corporate institutions, including joint stock companies such as the French East India Company. Sieyès then derived his understanding of these same concepts from the Physiocratic model and embodied them in his constitutional proposals many of which were reflected in the French constitution of 1791. While convinced of this borrowing, I was also struck by the tension that this brings to light between what revolutionaries like Sieyès were claiming and what they were doing. Sieyès set out to replace the unjust and unequal organisation of French society around corporate bodies such as the Estates with a more equal and rational system centred on individuals. Yet Mottironi's work suggests that in the very conception of this new rational model Sieyès was himself drawing on practices that operated in corporations like the joint stock companies.

Perhaps it is precisely because political concepts are so complex that the history of political thought is in such rude health?

Translating Cultures

Exterior of the Herzog August Bibliothek, Wolfenbüttel. Photograph by Rachel Hammersley.

Exterior of the Herzog August Bibliothek, Wolfenbüttel. Photograph by Rachel Hammersley.

In June 2018 I attended two excellent conferences at which I was able to present some of the findings of the research I have completed during my British Academy fellowship. It seems appropriate, then, to reflect on those conferences and my thoughts about them. I cannot, in two blogposts, do justice to the rich nature of all the papers. Rather I will draw out certain themes that struck me as pertinent to my work and demanding further reflection. This blogpost will deal with the first conference of the week, which took place in Wolfenbüttel, Germany on 26-27 June. In September's blogpost I will deal with the Graduate Conference on the History of Political Thought, which was held in London on 28-29 June.


'Translating Cultures: Translation, Transmission and Dissemination of Printed Texts in Europe, 1640-1795' was held at the Herzog August Bibliothek in Wolfenbüttel and organised by Thomas Munck from the University of Glasgow and Gaby Mahlberg, an independent historian who now also works as a journalist in Berlin. Fittingly, the idea for a workshop on translation arose when these two academics met at the Herzog August Bibliothek when they were both carrying out research there, thanks to the institution's generous research fellowship programme. This setting was the perfect place in which to hold such a workshop since it is Germany's national library for the seventeenth century. It owes this distinction to the fact that it houses one of the few intact seventeenth-century libraries still in existence, much of which was collected by Duke August (1579-1666) after whom the library is named.

Interior of the Herzog August Bibliothek, Wolfenbüttel. Photograph by Rachel Hammersley

Interior of the Herzog August Bibliothek, Wolfenbüttel. Photograph by Rachel Hammersley

During the course of the workshop, we took time out to be given a tour of the library. We were shown the books, many still bound in their original white coverings, which are organised according to eight themes and placed on the shelves by theme and in height order. We were also shown the catalogue that Duke August produced himself and the wonderful seventeenth-century book wheel which was made to hold it. We learnt that, in its original location, the library was housed immediately above the stables. It struck me that Harrington would have appreciated this arrangement, given his notion that the foundation of power is grounded in land (and in the military force - including horses - needed to protect it), but that at the level of the superstructure, power also comprises authority and that this requires reason - including the knowledge found in books.

Duke August's catalogue. Photograph by Rachel Hammersley.

Duke August's catalogue. Photograph by Rachel Hammersley.

In his opening paper, Thomas Munck introduced several important themes. One of these was the idea of tracing when key works in the history of political thought were translated into particular European languages, in order to uncover the motivations behind those translations. I was already aware that a number of English republican works were translated into French during the French Revolution. I included a list of the seventeenth and eighteenth-century French translations of English republican writings in an appendix to my last monograph, which shows that at least ten such works were published  between 1789 and 1801. Munck's research identifies at least another five English political works that also appeared during that period. More precise research is also revealing. As noted in the papers that Miriam-Isabelle Ducroq and I gave at the workshop, the two French translations of Harrington's works that were published during 1795 were directly relevant to the very particular circumstances of that year - and especially the debates over the introduction of a bicameral legislature and the form it ought to take.

As well as translations being inspired by particular circumstances, works also sometimes had to be adapted to fit new contexts. In the case of scientific translations this could involve having to make careful choices regarding vocabulary, or even updating the original text to reflect advances in scientific knowledge since the original work had appeared. Sietske Fransen described examples of the former in German translations of the works of Jan Baptist van Helmont, where the lack of an established German vocabulary for the new science forced translators to give new meanings to words. Similarly, Lázló Kontler found that German translations of Bernard Le Bovier de Fontenelle's Entretiens sur la pluralité des mondes were adapted in order to reflect subsequent advances in the discipline.

Books from Duke August's library. Photograph by Rachel Hammersley

Books from Duke August's library. Photograph by Rachel Hammersley

In a parallel way, translations of political works sometimes distorted the meaning of the original text in order to better fit new circumstances or the concerns of the author.  Munck addressed this in relation to André Morellet's translation of Cesare Beccaria's work on crime and punishment, raising the question of at what point translations become completely distinct works. Gaby Mahlberg demonstrated that the German translations of Algernon Sidney's Discourses produced in 1793 and 1795 were quite different from the seventeenth-century original. Those texts were edited, cut and moderated, so as to turn Sidney from a defender of rebellion into a proponent of good citizenship. The text became a defence of moderate constitutional monarchy against the radical forces of the French Revolution (ironically at exactly the time when the French were using him and his associates to endorse their revolution). In a similar way, Wyger Velema showed how Dutch translations of the classics were employed on both sides of the patriot debate in The Netherlands in the late eighteenth century. 

Distortions could also arise and be perpetuated through the common practice of one translation being used, in place of the original, as the base text for later translations. Asaph Ben-Tov explored an extreme example of this in his discussion of early modern translations of the Koran into European languages - many of which were produced by scholars who knew little or no Arabic.

Distortion is also linked to another theme that loomed large in our discussions: audience. Both Alessia Castagnino, in her consideration of the theory and practice of translation in eighteenth-century Italy, and Luc Borot, in his comparison of two translations of Thomas Hobbes's De Cive, commented on this issue. Castagnino emphasised the fact that one common justification for producing a translation is to make a book that is deemed useful available to a wider public - including those whose linguistic skills may be limited. Borot noted that different translators may aim at different audiences such as those with greater technical knowledge and experience as compared with the general public; and that these decisions impact directly on the translation itself. 

Yet the relationship between translator and audience can be complex. Both Helmer Helmers and Rachel Foxley cited examples in their papers of works which might be read differently depending on the linguistic skills of the reader. In the case of the diplomatic translations examined by Helmers, some of the jokes presented in those works would only be fully understood by multilingual readers. Similarly, Foxley noted that readers of Marchamont Nedham's The Case of the Commonwealth would have a different experience of the text depending on whether or not they understood Latin. Nedham's translation of Juvenal's famous tag 'Panem & Circenses' as 'Bread and Quietnesse', rather than the more commonly used 'bread and circuses', will have produced a rather different understanding without knowledge of the original Latin.

Finally, several papers reminded us of the importance of paying attention not just to the words, but also to translation as a business and books as material objects. Ann Thomson's study of Pierre Desmaizeaux offered insight into some of the causes of translators distorting original texts, by reminding us that the extent of their freedom could be seriously limited by agents and publishers. Mark Somos's fascinating paper on census bibliographies, which trace and describe all extant copies of a particular work, revealed the insights that can be drawn from such research. This led me back to thinking about Harrington and to wonder what a census bibliography of his works might reveal.

Early Modern Political Thought and C21 Century Politics: A Workshop


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 and shared on the basis of a creative commons license.

Frontispiece from the pamphlet The World Turned Upside Down (1645) taken from 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.


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:

Intellectual Biography as Memorialisation


My last two posts have focused on methods of memorialisation,  specifically funeral monuments and commemorative events. In this post I want to explore what is in some ways a more lasting method of memorialisation - the biography. A relevant example is John Aubrey’s Brief Lives which comprised accounts of almost three hundred lives, and marked an important moment in the shift towards the modern biographical model. Aubrey writes particularly eloquently on the role of the biographer. He described his main aim in Brief Lives as being to avoid 'worthy men's Names and Notions' from being 'swallowed-up in oblivion'. As his recent biographer Ruth Scurr writes: 'He had an acute sense of how quickly living memory dies, and wanted to preserve what he could on paper'. (Ruth Scurr, 'Faithful innovator', Times Literary Supplement, 18 March 2016.) Ultimately, Aubrey likened the biographer's task to that of a magician:

'So that the retriving of these forgotten Things from Oblivion in some sort resembles the Art of a Conjuror, who makes those walke and appeare that have layen in their grave many hundreds of yeares: and to represent as it were to the eie, the places, Cuystomes and Fashions, that were of old Times'. (Aubrey's Brief Lives, ed. O. Lawson Dick, Harmondsworth, Penguin, 1949, p. 162)


Bringing the dead back to life might seem like a tall order for a potential biographer, but it can hardly be doubted that Aubrey succeeds in this aim. Excellent examples can be found in the life which sparked Brief Lives, that of Thomas Hobbes. In the first place, Aubrey had a wonderfully precise and idiosyncratic way of describing his subject's visual features:

'In his old age he was very bald (which claymed a veneration) yet within dore, he used to study, and sitt bare-headed, and sayd he never tooke cold in his head, but that the greatest trouble was to keepe-off the Flies from pitching on the baldnes... Face not very great; ample forehead; whiskers yellowish-redish, which naturally turned up - which is a signe of a brisque witt. Belowe he was shaved close, except a little tip under his lip...

He had a good eie, and that of a hazell colour, which was full of Life and Spirit, even to the last. When he was earnest in discourse, there shone (as it were) a bright live-coale within it. He had two kinds of lookys: when he laugh't, was witty, and in a merry humour, one could scarce see his Eies; by and by, when he was serious and positive, he opene'd his eies round.' (Aubrey's Brief Lives, pp. 313-4.)

Yet, Aubrey was equally good at describing, the more private aspects of his subjects. As, for example, in this extract on Hobbes's manner of writing Leviathan

'He sayd that he sometimes would sett his thoughts upon researching and contemplating always with this Rule that he very much and deeply considered one thing at a time... He walked much and contemplated, and he had in the head of his Staffe a pen and inke-horne, carried always a Note-book in his pocket, and as soon as a notion darted, he presently entred it into his Booke, or els he should perhaps have lost it. He had drawne the Designe of the Booke into Chapters, etc, so he knew whereabouts it would come in. Thus that booke was made.' (Aubrey's Brief Lives, p. 311).


Aubrey is perhaps the most important contemporary source for Harrington's life, and the description of his appearance is equally vivid: 'He was of a middling stature well trussed man strong, and thick, well sett, sanguine. quick-hott-fiery hazell-Eie. thick curld moyst haire' (John Aubrey, Brief Lives, ed. Kate Bennett, I, p. 322.) Aubrey also offers enlightening information on Harrington's ideas and how he came to them:

'He made severall Essayes in Poetry; viz. love-verses etc. and translated ... booke of Virgills Aeneid but his Muse was rough: and Mr Henry Nevill, an ingeniose, and well-bred Gent, a member of the House of Commons, and an excellent (but concealed) Poet, was his great familiar and Confident friend: and disswaded him from tampering in Poetrie which he did in vitá Minervâ and to improve his proper Talent, viz Politicall Reflections. Whereupon he writ his Oceana, printed London...


Now this Modell upon Rotation, was that the third part of the Senate Howse, should rote out by Ballot every yeare, so that every ninth yeare the Howse would be wholly alterd. no Magistrate to continue above 3 yeares, and all to be chosen by Ballot. then which manner of Choice, nothing can be invented more faire, and impartiall.' (John Aubrey, Brief Lives, pp. 318 and 320.)

The nature of biography and its functions is currently on my mind since not only am I in the midst of writing a book entitled James Harrington: An Intellectual Biography for Oxford University Press, but I am also hosting a workshop on Early-Modern Intellectual Biographies at Newcastle University on Tuesday 4 July.


At this workshop five other scholars will join me in discussing their recent experience of writing about a leading seventeenth-century English figure or figures. Several Newcastle colleagues with experience of working on intellectual biographies about people of other places and times will also contribute. By listening to these papers and commentaries, and discussing the issues they raise, I hope we will be able to explore some of the opportunities and challenges that this genre offers. These might include exploring appropriate ways of integrating biographical detail with analysis of the subject's thought and writings; considering the ways in which an individual life might illuminate a period more generally; and addressing the issue of how to balance a concern with enhancing the memory of a person with documenting all of the relevant facts about their life and thought.

There is also a sense in which the life of the mind can potentially continue to play a role posthumously; whereas death, literally, places a final date on the life of action. This fact is in my thoughts at present since my husband John Gurney's final article 'Gerrard Winstanley and the Left', which he was working on when he died, has just been published in Past and Present. Despite two and a half years now having elapsed since his death, John's mind now has a fresh opportunity to influence others. 

All of this also makes me wonder about my own motives for turning to the genre of intellectual biography in the aftermath of John's death. I was conscious from the start of being driven into working on Harrington because of the research that John had already undertaken, and the notes he left to me. I have commented elsewhere on how this project operated as a bridge between my old life with him and my new one without. But now I wonder also whether there is not something especially appealing to me at this time about Aubrey's idea of biography as a conjuring trick.