Harrington, James

Céline Spector


1“Harrington, in his Oceana, also inquired into the utmost degree of freedom to which the constitution of a state may be taken. But of him it may be said that he sought such freedom only after underestimating it, and that he built Chalcedon while the shores of Byzantium stood before his eyes.” This conclusion of the most famous chapter of The Spirit of Law devoted to the “English constitution” (XI, 6), this ironic, harsh judgment, remains enigmatic. Some, intrigued by Montesquieu’s “witticism”, have perceived in it the idea that Harrington (1611-1677), the famous English republican whose Oceana, dedicated to Oliver Cromwell, outlines a theory of ideal institutions, failed to appreciate the interest of the new regime. Harrington, it is said, defended an outdated version of republicanism (Manent), failing to understand that the modern republic could no longer take its inspiration from an obsolete model of mixed government which drew its premises drawn from Polybius. In keeping with a certain tradition developed from the moment of Oceana’s publication, Harrington thus seems relegated to the company of political utopians – those who, like Francis Bacon or Thomas More, preferred to reconstruct a republican ideal ex nihilo, ungrounded in history. Preferring to “seek” the best regime rather than describe the Constitution already “found” in history, Harrington misunderstood the true nature of freedom, defined not as the power of the people but as “the opinion one has of one’s own security”.

2Nevertheless, exegesis of the quotation remains a delicate matter. The implicit reference to Herodotus (IV, 144) or even to Polybius (IV, 24), seems to indicate that Chalcedon is neither a distant land nor an utopia, but merely the other side of the Bosphorus, opposite Byzantium. According to Herodotus, the error of the Hellespontians lay in not giving precedence to the optimal site, though it was before their eyes, and would be chosen a few years later by those who were to found Byzantium. The question is then what exactly Harrington had before his eyes before the Glorious Revolution and the instauration of constitutional monarchy. Was it a certain form of the old English Constitution, more or less modified in the wake of the Norman conquest? Or, beyond institutions, fertile ground for freedom, in other words the totality of material and moral conditions of which the author of Oceana ought to have taken account before he conceived the institutions of the free regime he meant to describe?

The figure of the legislator

3The history of Harrington’s reception in France remains in part to be written. His work became known largely thanks to Toland, his publisher, as well as to the review of Toland’s edition of 1700 by Jacques Bernard in September of the same year in the Nouvelles de la République des Lettres, of which Montesquieu owned a copy (Catalogue, no. 2568). According to Bernard, Harrington, a “great English republican”, evoked a “lovely model of a republic which cannot possibly be realized, even less in England than elsewhere, where experience has shown that the character of the nation was such that it could not do without a monarchy regulated by laws”. Bernard describes Oceana’s institutions by invoking a government composed of a senate that proposes, a people who “deliberates” (decides), and magistrates who administer. This schema is not without importance: Montesquieu, like many of his contemporaries, may have first had access to Harrington through this widely circulated critique of Oceana, even though he possessed The Common-Wealth of Oceana in the original folio edition of 1656 (Catalogue, no. 2376), among other works by English “republicans” (Milton, Fletcher).

4In The Spirit of Law, judgments of Harrington appear in two strategic places: the first, as we have said, constitutes the conclusion of the chapter on the English Constitution – as tricky a chapter as any, in that it can give French readers the impression that Montesquieu is denigrating the French monarchy (judged despotic) and proposing English institutions as the true “model” of political freedom. But the second occurrence also serves as a conclusion, in the chapter that was originally intended to end the work, before the author decided to add two chapters on the history of feudal laws: Aristotle wanted by turns to satisfy his jealousy of Plato and his passion for Alexander. Plato was angry at the tyranny of the Athenian people. Machiavelli was full of his idol, the Duc de Valentinois. Thomas More, who talked more about what he had read than what he had thought, wanted to govern all states with the simplicity of a Greek polis. Harrington could see only the republic of England, while a host of writers found disorder everywhere they saw no crown. The laws always encounter the passions and prejudices of the legislator. Sometimes they pass through them, taking on some of their hue; sometimes they go no further and are incorporated into them. (XXIX, 19)

5The last-mentioned member of a most select club made up entirely of great political philosophers, Harrington incarnates the philosopher who accordingly is not without his prejudices and partiality: he only “sees” the republic, whereas everyone else (a “host”) finds disorder everywhere the crown has disappeared. Could it be that the republic and its egalitarian ideal, to borrow the formula Althusser used to paraphrase Hegel, is purely and simply for Montesquieu a thing of the past – in which case Harrington’s utopia, like More’s, is only a figure of political nostalgia projecting an obsolete political model into an imaginary future?

6A first line of interpretation could suggest that Montesquieu appropriates here a topos known to be in circulation from the time Oceana was published. Yet the interpretation remains open. If the proximity of Plato or More who “wanted to govern all states with the simplicity of a Greek polis” risks contaminating the appreciation of Harrington, the reference to Machiavelli or Aristotle does not incline in the same direction. Harrington is placed between Machiavelli and More; nothing labels him as utopian or naïvely optimistic rather than realistic. Moreover, Montesquieu doubtless has in mind less the utopian than the partial dimension of his system: Harrington’s choice of popular government testifies to as idolatrous a passion as Aristotle’s attachment to Alexander or Machiavelli’s to the Duc de Valentinois.

Ancient prudence, modern prudence

7But there is another possible interpretation of the criticism: “ancient prudence” is henceforth archaic. Harrington shares in the error of the man who wanted to re-found the republic (Cromwell) at a time when monarchy was more suited to the spirit of the English people (III, 3). What Montesquieu could be denouncing could therefore be the illusion that seduced Cromwell as well as certain republicans who diverged from him: believing that popular government could be restored although it presupposes political virtue. If Harrington built Chalcedon while the shores of Byzantium stood before his eyes, that is because the antagonism between virtue and trade henceforth operates to the disadvantage of virtue. The Spirit of Law thus paints an entirely different picture of contemporary England: a “republic hidden behind the form of monarchy” (V, 19), the “trading nation” incarnates a new path for republicanism – a modern republicanism that assumes, in the absence of virtue, the rise of passions and interests (XIX, 27; Spector 2004).

8Yet Montesquieu is not content to object to the author of Oceana on the basis of modifications introduced by the rise of economy and finance or the subordination of real property to de-territorialized liquid property. The Spirit of Law cannot simply oppose the “modern” prudence associated with the rise of political economy to the old, archaic and virtuous prudence championed by Harrington. For in Oceana the old prudence, identified with the rule of law that prevailed until the fall of the Roman republic, is opposed to modern prudence defined as the empire of men that characterizes Europe since the barbarian migrations and the emergence of feudalism. In this sense, Harrington’s old prudence refers back primarily to Machiavelli, over against the Hobbesian vision of the political; the author of Oceana has in mind a return to the Polybian-type model of mixed government over against the Hobbesian vision of sovereignty. Contrariwise, Montesquieu refuses with remarkable consistency to invoke the constitution or “mixed” government – at most he evokes in his Pensées (no. 1744) a “combined” (mêlé) government, an expression that disappears from The Spirit of Law (Keller 2008/2013). Above all, he defends for England what Harrington and his successors meant to reject, namely a House of Lords endowed with decision-making powers, which protects the nobility from attacks by the people and threats made by the House of Commons (XI, 6).

9The divergence thus bears on the very definition of a free regime: according to Harrington, the question of the balance of powers comes down to the necessity of limiting legislative sovereignty to decision-making, knowing that this legislative sovereignty must be popular when the freeholders (having redeemed the rights to their feudal tenure) are in the majority. Whatever the form of the well-ordered republic, one constant prevails: the balance does not assume that each partial organ of legislation, identified with a social power, will necessarily promote its own specific interests. A product of reason, the legislative act is not the fruit of a compromise nor a negotiation between social orders and political forces. That is exactly what The Spirit of Law rejects: if the power to legislate can be exercised by the monarch and the intermediary bodies (notably in France), or in England by the Commons and the Lords, the monarch participating only through his right of veto (his “ability to prevent”), the “balance” assumes a meaning only if the legislative power is not confined to a single locus. The “counterweights” can operate only on condition that at least two loci compete within the legislative process; bicameralism, indispensable, must be associated with a participation of the executive organ in the legislative function (Troper).

10And so too must Harrington’s historical error be confronted: the author of Oceana, who “also inquired into the utmost degree of freedom to which the constitution of a state may be taken”, misunderstood the nature of a free regime by dint of misunderstanding its history. Representative government, in England, is a modality of a government more widespread in Europe, which derives from the consequences of the barbarian invasions after the fall of the Roman empire. Modern monarchies responded to the necessity of feudal representation of the nation when the barbarian conquerors had to disperse over the European territory (XI, 8). In quest of the optimal regime, Harrington was thus doubtless wrong to take gothic government, which in his eyes yields too much to feudal nobility and too little to the people, as his target (Oceana, 1992, p. 144).


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Œuvres politiques, trans. P. F. Henry, Paris: Leclerc, Quatremère, an III.

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