The Inspiration Behind Oceana: 6. Sir John Fortescue

James Harrington is often seen as an aristocratic republican who like others in that tradition placed power in the hands of a narrow political élite. It is certainly true that he believed that within every society there was a natural aristocracy whose members were 'wiser, or at least less foolish, than all the rest' (James Harrington The Commonwealth of Oceana and A System of Politics, ed J. G. A. Pocock, Cambridge, p. 23). For this reason, in his constitutional system, he insisted that only the senate should debate legislation, the lower house being restricted to voting to accept or reject the senate's proposals. Yet his views were more complicated than this might suggest. As noted in last month's post, he was explicitly committed, via the mechanism of an agrarian law, to ensuring that landed property within the country did not become concentrated in the hands of a few, but would in future be relatively evenly spread among the population. Moreover, he was emphatic that his natural aristocracy was determined not by birth, but by wealth and election, embracing the role that social mobility could play within society. 

Harrington's relative political inclusivity is encapsulated in his manipulation of the traditional idea of the body politic. He was innovative in how he used that metaphor, subverting an idea conventionally used to shore up kingship so as to support democratic government. (The full case for Harrington's democratic credentials is made in my forthcoming book). Yet, novel as his conception was, it was indebted to the ideas of the fifteenth-century legal and political theorist Sir John Fortescue.

Sir John Fortescue by William Faithorne, line engraving, published 1663. Reproduced under a Creative Commons License from the National Portrait Gallery - NPG D22739.

Sir John Fortescue by William Faithorne, line engraving, published 1663. Reproduced under a Creative Commons License from the National Portrait Gallery - NPG D22739.

Fortescue, who lived c.1395-1477, was a key figure in the government and judiciary of fifteenth-century England, serving as MP eight times between 1421 and 1436 and being made Chief Justice of the King's Bench in January 1442. Exiled following the defeat of the Lancastrians under Henry VI at the Battle of Towton (1461), Fortescue ploughed his extensive knowledge and experience into works such as In Praise of the Laws of England. Having repudiated his former support for the Lancastrians following the Battle of Tewkesbury (1471), he was pardoned and presented his work The Governance of England to King Edward IV.

In his works Fortescue employed the metaphor of the body politic. Though the use of this idea dates back to Plato and Aristotle, the understanding of the concept in the early modern period owed much to medieval developments. An analogy was drawn between the human body and the state (and within it usually between the head and the king) and both were generally viewed as microcosms of a divinely inspired natural order

Fortescue was crucial in adapting the metaphor to fit the particularities of the English system. His major contribution to political thought was to contrast 'royal dominion', which he associated with continental nations, and especially France, with the 'political and royal dominion' of England. As he explained at the beginning of The Governance of England:

There are two kinds of kingdoms, one of which is a lordship called in Latin dominium regale, and the other is called dominium politicum et regale. And they differ in that the first king may rule his people by such laws as he makes himself and therefore he may set upon them taxes and other impositions, such as he wills himself, without their assent. The second king may not rule his people by other laws than such as they assent to and therefore he may set upon them no impositions without their own assent. (Sir John Fortescue, The Governance of England, in On the Laws and Governance of England, ed. Shelley Lockwood, Cambridge, 1997, p. 83).

This understanding required Fortescue to adapt the conventional notion of the body politic. He accepted that a people cannot constitute a body without a head, and therefore when a people 'wills to erect itself into a kingdom or any other body politic' it 'must always set up one man for the government of all that body' (Fortescue, In Praise of the Laws of England, p. 20). Nevertheless, he insisted that the body was prior to the head, drawing on Aristotle's theory about the heart being the first part of the body to be formed: 

And just as in the body natural, as the Philosopher said, the heart is the first living thing, having in itself the blood which it sends forth to all the members, whereby they are quickened and live, so in the body politic the intention of the people is the first living thing, having in it the blood, namely, political provision for the interest of the people, which it transmits to the head and all the members of the body, by which the body is nourished and quickened. (Fortescue, In Praise of the Laws of England, pp. 20-1).

The heart, representing the people, is then both prior to the head and crucial for giving life to the whole. Moreover, Fortescue likened the laws of a nation to the sinews of the physical body in their capacity to hold that organism together. And he argued that just as the head of a physical body cannot change its sinews 'or deny its members proper strength and due nourishment of the blood' so a king could not change the laws or deprive the people 'of their own substance uninvited or against their wills' (Fortescue, In Praise of the Laws of England, p. 21).

Harrington's articulation of the body politic analogy combined Fortescue's insights with observations based on William Harvey's theory regarding the circulation of the blood (which I discussed in more detail in an earlier post):

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 (Harrington, Oceana, p. 174).

The frontispiece to 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, Newcastle University. Pybus X.v.09.

The frontispiece to 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, Newcastle University. Pybus X.v.09.

Here the heart represents not simply the people, but specifically the legislature. In addition Harrington, like Fortescue, emphasises the role of the blood, though he uses this to justify his theory of rotation of office. Just as blood moves around the body being constantly replenished but never completely replaced, so rotation ensures that the popular element of the political system is continually in existence and yet regularly renewed. Harrington's account of the body politic, then, builds on that of Fortescue, but pushes it in a more democratic direction through the emphasis on rotation and the associated idea that all should rule and be ruled in turn. At the same time, using that metaphor and associating the legislature with the heart, implied that there would still be a single figurehead at the apex of the system. In Oceana that position was to be held by the Lord Archon, a role that Harrington appears to have designed for Oliver Cromwell. Yet, just like Fortescue, Harrington insisted that such a ruler had to be constrained by the laws.

Harrington's body politic metaphor thus encapsulates the complexity of his system. While he was clearly influenced by classical and Renaissance thinkers from the republican tradition, their ideas were combined with native legal perspectives such as that offered by Fortescue. Similarly, Harrington's republicanism was not simply aristocratic, but also incorporated important democratic and monarchical elements. While some republicans were intent on securing the rule of a narrow political élite, the recent tendency to see that as the republican position and, consequently, to dismiss the insights that republicanism could offer us today is a mistake. The republican tradition was not uniform. Competing views were expressed by its exponents and it was flexible and adaptable. It has the potential to offer a more open and democratic vision of government, one that could serve us in the twenty-first century.

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.