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  https://www.nationalgalleries.org/art-and-artists/34757/niccolo-machiavelli-1469-1527-statesman-and-historiographer

Galgano Cipriani, Niccolo Machiavelli, 1469-1527 Statesman and historiographer, National Galleries Scotland, Accession Number FP I 81.1 https://www.nationalgalleries.org/art-and-artists/34757/niccolo-machiavelli-1469-1527-statesman-and-historiographer

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.

Manuscripts and Reception: The Manuscript Versions of Oceana

‘A Discourse of the Ballance or Foundation of Government’. Reprinted with permission @British Library Board, Harleian MS 5063 f.17.

‘A Discourse of the Ballance or Foundation of Government’. Reprinted with permission @British Library Board, Harleian MS 5063 f.17.

Manuscripts not only have the potential to reveal hidden facts about their authors and the purpose behind, or gestation of, their works - as explored in my previous blogposts - but they can also sometimes reveal crucial information regarding the reception of ideas. In the 1960s a manuscript text entitled 'A Discourse of the Ballance or Foundation of Government' was discovered, which was at first believed to have been an early draft by James Harrington of part of The Commonwealth of Oceana. In initial analyses, the fact that the phrase 'the late monarchy' was rendered 'this monarchy' was taken as evidence that the draft dated from before the regicide, so that Harrington was, therefore, already voicing republican ideas during the 1640s.

These assumptions were convincingly disproved by Andrew Sharp in 1973. (A. Sharp, 'The Manuscript Versions of Harrington's Oceana', The Historical Journal, 16:2 (1973), pp. 227-39). He provided compelling evidence that 'A Discourse' actually postdated Oceana, and constituted a handwritten copy of passages from the printed text rather than an early draft of it. Yet he rightly insisted that this did not diminish the significance of the document, since it shed light on the domestication of Harrington's ideas, revealing how 'Harrington, a supporter of revolution, was made a conservative'. (Sharp, p. 227). 'A Discourse' used Harrington's theory of the balance of property - and his account of changes in that balance in England over the previous century - not, as Harrington himself had done, to advocate the replacement of traditional monarchy with popular government, but rather to call for a redressing of the balance among the institutions of England's mixed monarchy and in particular to defend the place of the nobility within that system.

‘A Discourse of the Ballance or Foundation of Government’. Reprinted with permission @British Library Board, Sloane MS 3828 f.75.

‘A Discourse of the Ballance or Foundation of Government’. Reprinted with permission @British Library Board, Sloane MS 3828 f.75.

Since the initial discovery, two further versions of 'A Discourse' have been found. All three appear in manuscript volumes comprised of slightly different compilations of extracts from various seventeenth-century texts (Bodleian MS Eng. Misc. C. 144, ff. 110-23; British Library Sloane MS. 3828, ff. 75-80v and Harleian MS 5063, ff. 17v-11 pagination reversed). While the texts included in the volumes are quite diverse, Harrington's theory of property does appear to have been a common theme since also included in the Bodleian and Sloane volumes is A Letter to Monsieur Van B de M at Amsterdam, by the Presbyterian MP Denzil Holles, which includes the statement: 'the Ballance of Lands is the Ballance of the Government' and draws similar conclusions to 'A Discourse' from this theory for English society.

Sir Robert Southwell by John Smith, after Sir Godfrey Kneller, Bt, mezzotint, 1704. Reproduced under a creative commons license from the National Portrait Gallery, NPG D31190.

Sir Robert Southwell by John Smith, after Sir Godfrey Kneller, Bt, mezzotint, 1704. Reproduced under a creative commons license from the National Portrait Gallery, NPG D31190.

What, then, were the contexts in which these volumes were produced? We can start with their owners. The Bodleian volume was owned by Robert Southwell (1635-1702), an Irish-born MP, statesman and diplomat in the Restoration regime. One of the British Library volumes was owned by Sir Hans Sloane, an Irish physician, naturalist and collector who was important in the establishment of the British Museum. The other British Library version is part of the Harleian collection, bequeathed by Robert Harley (1661-1724). 

Henry Oldenburg’s notes on Harrington’s  The Commonwealth of Oceana . Royal Society MS 1 f.90. I am grateful to Katherine Marshall for copying this manuscript and for permission to reproduce the image here.

Henry Oldenburg’s notes on Harrington’s The Commonwealth of Oceana. Royal Society MS 1 f.90. I am grateful to Katherine Marshall for copying this manuscript and for permission to reproduce the image here.

What appears to unite two, if not all three, of these figures is the Royal Society. Southwell was admitted as a fellow in 1662, and was an active participant for the rest of the century, even serving as president between 1690 and 1695. Sloane, who was much younger than Southwell, was not admitted until 1685, but he too was active and was secretary from 1693-1700. Robert Harley was proposed, though not elected as a member of the Royal Society, but relations of his, including his father Edward Harley (1624-1700), were fellows, though they appear to have been much less active than Southwell and Sloane (Michael Hunter, The Royal Society and its Fellows 1660-1700, The British Society for the History of Science, 1982). Another fellow Abraham Hill - who was treasurer between 1679 and 1699 - was also closely associated with the volumes. He was identified as the person who had extracted and copied 'Mr Hooker's Opinion of Government' in the Bodleian volume, and a letter written to him by another Royal Society fellow William Petty, was also included in that volume. Petty died in 1687, so he was no longer active in the Royal Society in the early 1690s when Southwell was president, Sloane secretary and Hill treasurer, but he had been a good friend of both Hill and Southwell, and the three of them had collaborated closely within the Society in the early 1670s, when they had all been council members. Yet another council member at that time also displayed an interest in Harrington. The natural philosopher Henry Oldenburg was a salaried secretary of the Society for a time. Among his papers is his transcript of part of the preliminaries of Oceana. 

Sir William Petty by Isaac Fuller, oil on canvas, c.1651. Reproduced under a creative commons license from the National Portrait Gallery, NPG 2924.

Sir William Petty by Isaac Fuller, oil on canvas, c.1651. Reproduced under a creative commons license from the National Portrait Gallery, NPG 2924.

It was Petty, though, who provided a direct connection back to Harrington having been a regular attendee at the Rota Club and, according to Aubrey, 'trouble[d] Mr Harrington with his arithmetical proportions and ability to reduce politics to numbers'. (John Aubrey, Brief Lives, ed. Kate Bennett, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2015, I, p. 232). Petty also picked up on the term 'political anatomy' which Harrington had coined, calling one of his works The Political Anatomy of Ireland. Further evidence of Petty's interest in key aspects of Harrington's theories is suggested by a manuscript, again in the British Library, in which Petty challenged Hobbes's defence of monarchy, and advocated a democratic system which adopted a similar division of the population to that proposed by Harrington in Oceana (Frank Amati and Tony Aspromourgos, 'Petty Contra Hobbes: A Previously Untranslated Manuscript', Journal of the History of Ideas, 46:1, 1985, pp. 127-32). Harrington and Petty evidently remained in contact with each other for the rest of Harrington's life, since there is a letter from Harrington to Petty dated 1676, again in the British Library. The letter follows up a request Harrington claimed to have made previously that the Royal Society provide a suitable place and instruments for the performance of an experiment which Harrington rather pompously claimed was 'more intimately concerning the good of man kind than any other hitherto contained in the writings or known experience of any of the Philosophers' (British Library: Petty Papers h.f.33).

In his 1973 article, Sharp suggested that an original version of 'A Discourse' was probably produced in the 1670s, and that the manuscript volumes were probably gathered together in the 1690s. The Royal Society link offers some explanation for this history. It seems likely that Petty inspired interest in Harrington among members of the Royal Society in the 1670s. This was a time when Petty and others were seeking to expand the appeal of the Society and reverse the decline in membership (Hunter, The Royal Society). Perhaps extending the Society's interests into economic and political matters, a field in which Petty was himself interested, formed part of that campaign. Moreover, the conclusions drawn from Harrington's theory were also timely, given the political situation - especially the worry among Whigs that the English constitution was being threatened by the encroaching absolutism of Charles II, and the fear of even greater future encroachment under his brother James. In the 1690s, when the question of the encroachment of royal power was again an issue, due to the controversy about William III's attempt to maintain a standing army in the aftermath of the Treaty of Ryswick, Harrington's theory would again have appeared relevant to present politics. It was perhaps this that prompted Southwell, Hill and Sloane to include 'A Discourse' in the manuscript volumes they were involved in putting together. There is a twist, however, since - with Petty now dead - the link back to Harrington appears to have been lost. Harrington's authorship of 'A Discourse' is not mentioned in the volumes, indeed in Southwell's copy a handwritten note attributes it to the English antiquary Sir Henry Spelman.