Skip to main content Accessibility help

Ideology Hunting: The Case of James Harrington

  • Judith N. Shklar (a1)


It is well known that each age writes history anew to serve its own purposes and that the history of political ideas is no exception to this rule. The precise nature of these changes in perspective, however, bears investigation. For not only can their study help us to understand the past; it may also lead us to a better understanding of our own intellectual situation. In this quest the political theories of the 17th century and particularly of the English Civil War are especially rewarding. It was in those memorable years that all the major issues of modern political theory were first stated, and with the most perfect clarity. As we have come to reject the optimism of the eighteenth century, and the crude positivism of the nineteenth, we tend more and more to return to our origins in search of a new start. This involves a good deal of reinterpretation, as the intensity with which the writings of Hobbes and Locke, for instance, are being reexamined in England and America testify. These philosophical giants have, however, by the force of their ideas been able to limit the scope of interpretive license. A provocative minor writer, such as Harrington, may for this reason be more revealing. The present study is therefore not only an effort to explain more soundly Harrington's own ideas, but also to treat him as an illustration of the mutations that the art of interpreting political ideas has undergone, and, perhaps to make some suggestions about the problems of writing intellectual history in general.



Hide All

* I should like to acknowledge my debt to Charles Blitzer's unpublished Harvard Ph.D. thesis, “The Political Philosophy of James Harrington,” which is to be published in the near future.

1 For this source of Harrington's troubles see Polin, R., “Economique et Politique au XVIIe Siècle: L'Oceana de James Harrington,” Revue Français de Science Polilique, Vol. 2 (1952), pp. 2441.

2 Maitland, F. W., Collected Papers (Cambridge, 1911), p. 21.

3 The most Americanized view of Harrington is that presented in the only book-length study as yet published on him, Smith, H. F. Russell, James Harrington and his Oceana (Cambridge, 1914). On the strength of this portrait he has been dismissed as inconsequential by both Gough, J. W., “Harrington and Contemporary Thought,” Political Science Quarterly, Vol. 45 (1930), pp. 395404, and by Levett, A. E., “James Harrington,” Social and Political Ideas of the Sixteenth and Seventeenth Centuries, ed. Hearnshaw, F. J. C. (New York, 1949), pp. 174203.

4 Smith, op. cit., pp. 113–121.

5 The Spirit of the Laws, Vol. II, Bk. XXIX, s. 19 and Vol. I, Bk. XI, s. 6.

6 “Idea of a Perfect Commonwealth” and “Of the First Principles of Government,” Hume: Theory of Politics, ed. Watkins, F. W. (Edinburgh, 1951), pp. 227230 and 149–152.

7 Gooch, G. P. in English Democratic Ideas in the Seventeenth Century (Cambridge, 1954), pp. 250251, lists the rare notices given Harrington. None shows any real interest in him. Thus Coleridge named him among others as a great political writer, but no substitute for the Scriptures. Stateman's Manual, Works, Vol. I (New York, 1884), p. 129.

8 Works, Vol. II (Boston, 1884), p. 154.

9 Ibid., Vol. V, pp. 216–217.

10 Oceana, ed. Liljegren, S. B. (Lund, 1924), pp. 135 and 185186. There is some controversy about the actual importance of Harrington's influence on revolutionary France. That Commonwealth ideas in general were known has been shown, but beyond specific similarities In constitutional devices, which often were not original with Harrington, there is little evidence of a deep or direct intellectual influence. This is well brought out by Koebner, R., “Oceana,” Englische Studien, 68, 19331934, pp. 377396. See, however, Gooch, op. cit., pp. 312–313; Liljegren, S. B. ed. and introd., A French Draft, Constitution of 1792 Modelled on James Harrington's ‘Oceana’ (Lund, 1932), pp. 379; Trevor, D., “Some Sources of the Constitutional Theory of the Abbé Sieyès,” Politica, Vol. 1 (19341935), pp. 325–342 and 443469.

11 Works, ed. Toland, John (London, 1771), pp. 362, 465, 482, 483, 488. All future references are to this edition, except for Oceana.

12 Works, Vol. V, pp. 376–377 and 381.

13 Usher, R. G., The Historical Method of S. R. Gardiner (St. Louis, 1915), pp. 41–54, 76–94 and 123143.

14 Amenities of Literature (New York, 1864), Vol. I, pp. 370389.

15 Lectures on Modern History (London, 1912), pp. 204205.

16 Historical Essays and Studies (London, 1907), p. 492.

17 Ibid., p. 380.

18 Lecky, W. E. H., History of the Rise and Influence of Rationalism in Europe (New York, 1866), Vol. II, p. 80.

19 Ibid., vol. II, pp. 145–146.

20 Maitland, op. cit., p. 22.

21 See especially Trevelyan, G. M., England under the Stuarts (London, 1922), pp. 195196, for the clearest statement about the unique character of the English Revolution.

22 Hill, C., “The English Civil War Interpreted by Marx and Engels,” Science and Society, Vol. 12 (1948), pp. 130156; Krieger, L., “Marx and Engels as Historians,” Journal of the History of Ideas, Vol. 14 (1953), pp. 381403.

23 Bonar, J., Philosophy and Political Economy (London, 1922), p. 895; Smith, op. cit., pp. 23–24 and 28.

24 Bernstein, E., Sozialismus und Demokratie in der grossen englischen Revolution (Stuttgart, 1919), pp. 259267.

25 James, M., Social Problems and Policy During the Puritan Revolution (London, 1930), p. 304, and “Contemporary Materialist Interpretations of Society in the English Revolution,” in The English Revolution, ed. Hill, C. (London, 1949), pp. 83 and 86.

26 Petegorsky, D. W., Left-Wing Democracy in the English Civil War (London, 1940), p. 234; Zagorin, P., A History of Political Thought in the English Revolution (London, 1954), pp. 133 and 144145.

27 The Rise of the Gentry,” Economic History Review, Vol. 11 (1941), pp. 6 and 18.

28 Ibid., pp. 36–37; Harrington's Interpretation of His Age,” Proceedings of the British Academy, Vol. 27 (1941), pp. 221, 200, 204.

29 E.g., Blitzer, C., “Introduction” to Selections from the Writings of James Harrington (New York, 1955), pp. xi–xxxix; Friedrich, C. J., The Age of the Baroque (New York, 1952), pp. 3334; Hill, C., “Recent Interpretations of the Civil War,” History (N.S.) Vol. 41 (1946), pp. 7071; Sabine, G. H., A History of Political Theory (New York, 1951), pp. 498 and 507.

30 Oceana, pp. 124–125, 48–50 and 53; Works, pp. 365–367.

31 Oceana, pp. 38–39; Works, pp. 367, 408 and 465.

32 Oceana, pp. 36, 39, 85–99; Works, p. 368.

33 I am very much indebted to the analysis of Pocock, J. G. A., The Ancient Constitution and the Feudal Law (Cambridge, 1957), pp. 128130, and to his letter to Encounter, July, 1958.

34 Oceana, p. 14.

35 Ibid., p. 16.

36 Works, p. 466.

37 Works, p. 363. The fundamental law in a state is the law that settles what is a man's “own.” Oceana, p. 185.

38 Koebner, “Oceana,” loc. cit., p. 367.

39 suspect that Harrington's description of the Gothic-balance of pre-Norman England was directed at the Levellers' myth of an Anglo-Saxon paradise. Oceana, pp. 43–45. I shall not here discuss either the adequacy of Harrington's historical scholarship by the standards of his own time, nor even his basic historical concepts, since these subjects have already been treated exceptionally well in Pocock's, Ancient Constitution, pp. 124147.

40 Mcllwain, C. H., The Development of Political Thought in the West (New York, 1932), p. 394.

41 Oceana, 15, 30–32, 47–48 and 187; Works, 226–228, 248–262, 270, 363–364, 653.

42 Pocock, , Ancient Constitution, pp. 128–130 and 143; Oceana, 51–52; Works, pp. 364–365.

43 Polin, loc. cit., pp. 27 and 30–31; Wormuth, F. D., The Origins of Modern Constitutionalism (New York, 1949), p. 135.

44 Koebner, , “Die Geschichtslehre James Harringtons,” Geist und Gesellschaft (Breslau, 1927), pp. 1718.

45 In fact, Harrington defended Hobbes against the attacks of the divines, Works, p. 354.

46 Oceana, pp. 12–13, 50; Works, 553, 558–561. Other writers have been only too ready to take his word for it, e.g., Maitland, op. cit., p. 21; Sabine, op. cit., p. 499.

47 Leviathan, ed. Oakeshott, (Oxford, 1947), pp. 435436.

48 Ibid., pp. 50–64.

49 Oceana, p. 30.

50 Ibid., pp. 14, 20–21 and 24.

51 Ibid., pp. 16–17; Works, pp. 362, 457 and 477.

52 Oceana, pp. 30–34 and 207.

53 Behemoth, English Works (London, 1840), Vol. VI, pp. 167–218, 362; Leviathan, pp. 140–141 and 214.

54 Behemoth, pp. 166–169.

55 Oceana, p. 60. It was not, thus, that his friend Charles I had been bad, just helpless. Works, p. 367.

56 Oceana, pp. 49–50; Works, pp. 364–367, 408 and 467.

57 Oceana, pp. 53–54, 185–186; Works, p. 456.

58 Oceana, p. 56; Machiavelli's Discourses, Bk. I, chs. 1, 2, 18, 37 and 39; Bk. II, “Introduction”; Bk. III, ch. 1; Pocock, , Ancient Constitution, pp. 145147; Koebner, “Geschichtslehre,” loc. cit., pp. 13–14 and 19.

59 Hexter, J. H., “Storm over the Gentry,” Encounter, May, 1958, pp. 2234.

60 Trevor-Roper, H. R., “The Gentry, 1540–1640,” Economic History Review Supplement (1954); “The Country-House Radicals, 1590–1660” and “The Outbreak of the Great Rebellion,” Men and Events (New York, 1957), pp. 179–188 and 195205.

61 See Aron, R., The Opium of the Intellectuals, tr. by Kilmartin, T. (New York, 1957), passim, for a discussion both of the obsolescence of these ideas, and the passions which they can stir among café-politicians.

62 I am happy to see that I am not alone in this suspicion, see Beloff, M., “Another Fallen Idol?”, Encounter, January, 1959, p. 74.

63 Oceana, p. 10.

64 Smith, op. cit., pp. 75–112. For the friendship between Neville and Harrington see Aubrey's Lives, ed. Dick, O. L. (Ann Arbor, 1957), pp. 124127.

65 Oceana, pp. 410–411. I am particularly indebted to Blitzer's thesis for drawing my attention to this.

66 Ibid., pp. 10 and 169; Works, pp. 279–280.

67 E.g., Oceana, pp. 38–39, 118 and 173–174.

68 Froude, J. A., Oceana (London, 1886), pp. 14.

69 Oceana, pp. 11, 33, 133, 185–187 and 194–198; Fink, Z., The Classical Republicans (Evanston, 1945), pp. 8385; Firth, C., Cromwell and the Rule of the Puritans in England (Oxford, 1953), pp. 382 and 386; Koebner, “Oceana,” loc. cit., pp. 372 and 374.

70 Oceana, pp. 148–149; Works, pp. 456, 562–563, 577. Tawney, “Harrington,” p. 212.

71 Oceana, pp. 34–35.

72 Ibid., pp. 17–18, 118–125 and 142; Machiavelli, Discourses, Bk. I, ch. 55.

73 Oceana, pp. 176–177; Works, pp. 409 and 465.

74 Weishofen, C., James Harrington und sein Wunschbild vom Germanischen Staate (Bonn, 1935), pp. 37, 45 and 7071.

75 Oceana, pp. 18, 34, 118 and 122.

76 Hexter, loc. cit.

77 In the words of an older commentator, he was “to the right of the left and to the left of the right,” Dwight, T. W., “James Harrington,” Political Science Quarterly, Vol. 2 (1887), p. 6.

78 Gerth, H. and Mills, C. W., Character and Social Structure (New York, 1953), pp. 14 and 26.

79 This might as well be called post-Marxism, in contrast to Mr. Pocock's neo-Marxism which limits itself to strictly social experiences and situations. Letter to Encounter, October, 1958.

80 Unlike Karl Popper I do not regard the personification of historical categories as analogous to medieval realism. His own medieval nominalism would make the writing of any sort of history impossible. How little he has understood the real problems of historical explanation and especially those created by generalizations on different levels of abstractness can be seen in his claim that the First World War is an “individual thing” just like Alexander the Great. The Poverty of Historicism (Boston, 1957), pp. 17–34, 76–83, 143152.

81 Krieger, “Marx and Engels,” loc. cit.; Mannheim, K., Ideology and Utopia (Harvest Books, New York, n.d.), passim and pp. 56 and 9397.

82 Hill, “Recent Interpretations,” loc. cit., p. 74.

83 Bernstein, op. cit., pp. 1–7; Hill, “Marx and Engels,” loc. cit., pp. 132 and 154; The English Revolution, pp. 13 and 17; Petegorsky, op. cit., pp. 22 and 25.

84 Hexter, loc. cit.; see also Firth, op. cit., p. 71, or G. M. Trevelyan, op. cit., pp. 195–196 and 228–231, where it is said, “in motive it was a war not like the French or American of classes or of districts, but of ideas,” p. 229.

85 I am aware that there are plenty of philosophical problems in describing individual behavior in this way too, but I do not think this is relevant to the everyday discourse of historical writing. I am much indebted to Gardiner's, P.The Nature of Historical Explanation (Oxford, 1952), especially pp. 60–61, 99–112 and 114127, for these considerations. However, I think that while Gardiner rightly emphasizes the abstractness of words like “revolution” or “class”, he treats these as “events” capable of being explained causally. I think that as pure “cover-words” they cannot be treated in this way, especially when one is analyzing social factors. This, however, does not apply to more purely narrative history where the antecedent event simply serves as the cause of subsequent ones, and more limited entities are involved. Of such writing Wedgwood's, C. V.The King's Peace (London, 1955) is clearly a fine example, even if it tends to be the history only of conspicuous persons and highly articulate speakers.

86 Letter to Encounter, October, 1958.

87 He makes no complaint against these writers, “Gentry,” loc. cit., p. 44.

88 Aubrey, op. cit., p. 125.

89 Burnet, G., History of My Own Time, ed. Airy, O. (Oxford, 1897), Vol. I, p. 120; Cromwell treated Oceana as too unimportant and fanciful to matter, then took care to condemn its paganism, Smith, op. cit., pp. 75–76, 113–117; Toland, pp. xvi–xvii. See also Friedrich, C. J., Constitutional Reason of State (Providence, 1957), pp. 35 and 110.

90 If it was Hobbes's mistake to forget that “no society can survive without its myth,” it was also Harrington's. Presumably that is why John Bowie does not even mention him among Hobbes's critics. Hobbes and his Critics (London, 1951), p. 45.

91 M. James, “Contemporary Materialist Interpretations,” loc. cit., p. 86; Tawney, , “Harrington,” p. 203; The Rise of the Gentry: A Postscript,” Economic History Review, Vol. 7 (19541955), p. 96; Blitzer, “Introduction,” loc. cit., p. xv; Trevor-Roper, , “The Gentry,” p. 22.

92 Smith, op. cit., pp. 2–3.

93 Aubrey, op. cit., p. 125; Blitzer, “Introduction,” loc. cit., pp. xxiii–xxiv; Smith, op. cit., pp. 101–108; Tawney, , “Harrington,” p. 205; Toland, loc. cit., pp. xxv–xxvi.

94 Ibid., p. xiii; Smith, op. cit., pp. 1–11; Koebner, “Oceana,” loc. cit., pp. 370–371; “Geschichtslehre,” loc. cit., p. 19.

95 Toland, pp. xi–xiii and xxx; Works, pp. 219 and 367.

96 Ibid., p. xxx.

97 Oceana, p. 177.

98 Works, pp. 470 and 578.

99 For Machiavelli's own historical unrealism, see Chabod, F., Machiavelli and the Renaissance (London, 1958), tr. Moore, D. (London, 1958), pp. 20–21, 85–104, 119–120, 137 and 143147.

100 Fink, op. cit., pp. 53–55 and 62–67.

101 Hill, “Recent Interpretations,” loc. cit., p. 73.

102 Firth, op. cit., p. 72.

103 Oceana, pp. 55–56; Works, pp. 156, 457–458, 469 and 574.

104 Oceana, pp. 158 and 220–221.

105 Patriarcha and Other Political Writings, ed. Laslett, P. (Oxford, 1949), pp. 207–208 and 221222.

106 Oceana, p. 173. Gough, I think, is quite mistaken in treating Harrington as no more “irreligious” than the radical Puritans. The use of religious arguments signifies a no greater degree of religion in him than in Hobbes. The radical Puritan arguments based on rights were secularized religious conceptions, whereas Harrington returned to the pagan notions of social order and civic liberty. I should therefore agree that Harrington was not a secular thinker in that sense, but insist on his utter indifference to religious faith. Gough, loc. cit., pp. 395–404. In contrast, see Woodhouse, A. S. P., Puritanism and Liberty (Chicago, 1951), “Introduction,” pp. 38 and 82, where this distinction is very clearly drawn.

107 Discourses, Bk. I, chs. 11–12, and Bk. II, ch. 2.

108 Oceana, pp. 38, 55, 69–70, 109–110 and 169–173; Works, pp. 420–423, 474–476, 484–485 and 594–596.

109 Spirit of the Laws, Vol. II, Bk. xxvi, s. 2.

110 Oceana, pp. 10–11.

111 E.g., Oceana, pp. 32, 135–137 and 185–186; Works, 218 and 370.

112 Blitzer in his thesis gives a very convincing point-by-point comparison of the institutions of the Laws and Oceana.

113 Fink, op. cit., pp. 3–27 and 54–57.

114 Oceana, p. 17.

115 I borrow this term from Friedrich, C. J., Constitutional Reason of State, pp. 3454, though I give it a broader meaning than he intended.

116 On the strength of his remark that it was impossible to keep colonies—that is, to feed soldiers—when the native population owned the balance, everyone from Otis on treated him as a prophet of American liberty, forgetting that Oceana was to be a second Roman Empire. See Smith, op. cit., pp. 185–200. See Levett, loc. cit., pp. 189–191, for a criticism of this Americanized Harrington.

117 The Selected Writings of John and John Quincy Adams, ed. Koch, A. and Peden, W. (New York, 1946), pp. 4445.

118 Ibid., p. 52; Works, ed. C. F. Adams (Boston, 1850–1856), Vol. IV, pp. 395–360, 521, 551; Parrington, V. L., Main Currents in American Thought (New York, 1954), Vol. I, p. 274.

119 Parrington, op. cit., Vol. II, p. 5; Smith, op. cit., pp. 160–185.

120 For a contemporary restatement, see Wormuth, op. cit., pp. 3–9, 211–215.

121 Adams, , Selected Writings, pp. 23, 36 and 208.

122 Adams, , Works, Vol. IV, pp. 413414; Dwight, loc. cit., p. 19; Haraszti, Z., John Adams and the Prophets of Progress (Cambridge, Mass., 1052), p. 35; Parrington, op. cit., Vol. I, pp. 324–325; Smith, op. cit., pp. 191–199.

123 Oceana, pp. 59, 61 and 142–149; Works, pp. 214, 472 and 490.

124 I am much indebted to Hartz, L., The Liberal Tradition in America (New York, 1955), pp. 4647, for this and most of the ideas presented here.

125 For a good criticism of current practices in this field, see Minogue, K. R., “The Language of Comparative Politics,” Political Studies, Vol. VI (1958), pp. 267270.

126 The quarrel here was not between those who wanted to treat constitutions as if they were “pudding to be made by a receipt” and those who did not want to make them at all, but between different kinds of cooks, receipts and diners. See McIlwain, C. H., Constitutionalism Ancient and Modern (Ithaca, 1958), pp. 122 and passim.

127 Haraszti, op. cit., pp. 34, 45–46 and 258; Parrington, op. cit., Vol. I, pp. 273, 284, 323, 328.

128 Works, Vol. VI, p. 218.

129 Parrington, op. cit., Vol. I, pp. 25–26; Vol. II, pp. 296–297; Beard, O., The Economic Basis of Politics, ed. Beard, W. (New York, 1957), pp. 37–40 and 53, for quotations from Webster in praise of Harrington.

130 Oakeshott, M., “Rationalism in Politics,” Cambridge Journal, Vol. I (1947), pp. 83–84, 88–91 and 145157. See Harrington's, Oceana, pp. 62 and 207; Works, pp. 214–215, 367, 463, 470, 472, 477, 480–482 and 488, for his addiction to the politics of technical invention and “reason of state.”

131 Blitzer, “Introduction,” loc. cit., pp. xxvi–xxvii.

132 E.g., Oceana, p. 107.

133 Blitzer, p. xxvii.

134 Ibid., pp. xxvi–xxviii and xxix.

135 Oceana, pp. 13 and 62; Works, pp. 214, 232, 402–403, 463, 470 and 560.

136 This failure to distinguish between the logic of discovery and technology lies behind most of the current concern for “measurement,” “certainty,” and “methodology” in the social sciences. Moreover, I agree with those who see in this development the ideological expression of a pervasive concern for security—political, social and intellectual. See e.g., Moore, B. Jr., Political Power and Social Theory (Cambridge, Mass., 1958), pp. 9294. I have in mind exactly what C. W. Mills calls “abstracted empiricism.” The Sociological Imagination (New York, 1959), pp. 5075.

137 Beard, op. cit., pp. 16, 36 and 40.

138 Ibid., pp. 93 and 103–104.

139 Ibid., pp. 83, 93, 98–99, 103–104, 122–123

140 Ibid., pp. 99–100.

141 E.g., R. Aron, “Social Structure and the Ruling Class,” and Bendix, R., “Social Stratification and Political Power” in Bendix, R. and Lipset, S. M., eds., Class, Status and Power (Glencoe, 1953), pp. 567–577 and 596609; Meisel, J. E., The Myth of the Ruling Class (Ann Arbor, 1957), pp. 345381; Mills, C. W., The Power Elite (New York, 1956), pp. 269324; Neumann, F., The Democratic and the Authoritarian State (Glencoe, 1957), pp. 3–21 and 233269. Note particularly the latter's appreciative analysis of Montesquieu, pp. 96–148.

142 See, e.g., Crosland, C. A. R., The Future of Socialism (New York, 1957), both for the recognition of power, status and ideology as social factors, and for the values of an “Americanized” social atmosphere and constitutional government, by a not untypical socialist, pp. 29, 38–41, 71, 97–116 and 169–217, 220–221, 232–237, 245–248.

Ideology Hunting: The Case of James Harrington

  • Judith N. Shklar (a1)


Full text views

Total number of HTML views: 0
Total number of PDF views: 0 *
Loading metrics...

Abstract views

Total abstract views: 0 *
Loading metrics...

* Views captured on Cambridge Core between <date>. This data will be updated every 24 hours.

Usage data cannot currently be displayed