Front Page Titles (by Subject) Harrington's Aristotelian Republicanism - Literature of Liberty, Spring 1980, vol. 3, No. 1
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Harrington’s Aristotelian Republicanism - Leonard P. Liggio, Literature of Liberty, Spring 1980, vol. 3, No. 1 
Literature of Liberty: A Review of Contemporary Liberal Thought was published first by the Cato Institute (1978-1979) and later by the Institute for Humane Studies (1980-1982) under the editorial direction of Leonard P. Liggio.
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Harrington’s Aristotelian Republicanism
“James Harrington as Aristotelian.” Political Theory 7(August 1979):371–389.
James Harrington (1611–1677), the English political theorist so influential among constitutional framers in the eighteenth century, derived much of his political thought directly from Aristotle. In his Constitutional blueprint, The Commonwealth of Oceana (1656), Harrington’s Aristotelian borrowings extend from matters of constitutional detail (rotation of offices, agrarian laws limiting the extent of farm holdings, etc.) to Harrington’s principle of political “balance” and his emphasis on property distribution to achieve a polity’s balance and stability. Oceana, consistent with Aristotle’s ideas on the nature of the good state, is not, as Leo Strauss maintains, an example of a “modern” utopia and republic.
In Oceana and The Prerogative of Popular Government, Harrington follows Aristotle in the notion of “the Balance,” the idea that inequalities of wealth which make for political instability should not be allowed to “overbalance” the equilibrium of harmonious social classes. No economic or social class should exercise a disproportionate political pull and thus provoke envy and subversion. Going beyond Aristotle, Harrington endorsed agrarian laws that reallocated land when property inequalities threatened social unrest. Aristotle never countenanced a simplistic leveling of property to achieve constitutional harmony.
Harrington more closely derives from Aristotle (and Livy) the anti-Hobbesian notion of a “government of laws” as opposed to a government of men. One Aristotelian device in Oceana intended to counteract a government by men is rotation of citizens in office to allow a variety of talents and resist corruption. In Harrington’s bicameral legislature, he limits the role of the popular legislative house (“Prerogative Tribe” or the “foot”) to “resolve” on issues that are formulated and debated by the Senate (the “horse”). This distinction is based on property differences in the ability of citizens to equip themselves for the militia as either foot soldiers or cavalry. Men of property were presumed to be men of virtue. The bicameral legislature would thus balance oligarchic and democratic elements.
Oceana is Aristotelian also in defining what is the good life for the state. The Olphaus Megaletor, the state lawgiver and general, would reallocate property to secure a stable social balance of goods of the mind and of fortune. Oceana imitates not Aristotle’s “best” state but rather “polity” or the mixed regime whose stable middle class outweighs the influence of either masses or notables. Although only those who possess arms enjoy constitutional rights, it seems that this class includes all in the independent middle class or above.
Leo Strauss claimed that Harrington’s republicanism and utopia were “modern” rather than ancient. Strauss viewed the “classical republicans” of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries as excessively democratic in contrast to the ancients. Yet Harrington is not a partisan of modern democracy since his property qualifications restricts and tempers “popular” consent and participation in politics. Harrington, in ancient fashion, expected superior virtue from the gentleman class. Finally, Harrington’s utopia is intended as realizable as Plato’s ancient “second best” utopia in the Laws.