Reference > Cambridge History > Cavalier and Puritan > Hobbes and Contemporary Philosophy > Imaginary commonwealths: More’s Utopia and Harrington’s Oceana
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The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume VII. Cavalier and Puritan.

XII. Hobbes and Contemporary Philosophy.

§ 12. Imaginary commonwealths: More’s Utopia and Harrington’s Oceana.

The most powerful criticism of Hobbes’s political theory which appeared in his lifetime was contained in the Oceana of James Harrington, published in 1656; and the criticism gained in effectiveness from the author’s own constructive doctrine. This he set forth under the thin disguise of a picture of an imaginary commonwealth. The device was familiar enough at the time. More and Bacon in England, and Campanella in Italy, had already followed the ancient model by describing an ideal state, which both More and Bacon placed in some unknown island of the west. The Utopia of Sir Thomas More was published in 1516 and Englished by Ralph Robynson in 1551. The work is a political romance. The spirit of the renascence was still fresh when the author wrote, and it made him imagine a new world to which the old order might conform, and, by conforming, escape the evils of its present condition. There is not any attempt at a philosophical analysis of the nature of the state, but only an account of a government and people devoted to the cause of social welfare. Supreme power is in the hands of a prince, but he and all other magistrates are elected by the people; and it is in its account of the life of the people that the interest of the work lies. They detest war “as a thing very beastly” and “count nothing so much against glory as glory gotten in war.” Their life is one of peace and freedom, of justice and equality. There is not any oppression, industrial or religious; but work and enjoyment are shared alike by all:
In other places, they speak still of the commonwealth, but every man procureth his own private gain. Here where nothing is private, the common affairs be earnestly looked upon…. Nothing is distributed after a niggish sort, neither there is any poor man or beggar. And though no man have any thing, yet every man is rich.
  Bacon’s fable New Atlantis (1627) is only a fragment, and has little of the charm that distinguishes More’s romance. Its interest lies in the description of Solomon’s house, which may be taken as Bacon’s ideal of the public endowment of science. We are told that “his lordship thought also in this present fable to have composed a frame of laws, or of the best state or mould of a commonwealth”; but, unfortunately, he preferred to work at his natural history, so that we learn nothing about the government of his ideal community, and little about the social characteristics of the people, though he descants on the dignity of their manners and on the magnificence of their costumes.   35
  Harrington’s Oceana is a work of a different kind. It has none of the imaginative quality of Utopia or even of New Atlantis. Much of it reads like a state paper or the schedules of a budget. The reference to present affairs is too thinly disguised for any artistic purpose. “Oceana” is, of course, England, and the lord Archon pervades the book as his prototype, Oliver, pervaded the English government. In all the councils of Oceana, he has always the last word, and his speeches are long, convincing and wearisome; he will even digress into sketching the history of the world. The author was probably ill-advised when he threw his work into the romantic form. He has a real insight into politics, and can see some things which were concealed from Hobbes’s vision. He never loses sight of the important fact that government is only one factor in social life. The form of government will follow the distribution of property: “where there is inequality of estates there must be inequality of power; and where there is inequality of power there can be no commonwealth.” The commonwealth should exhibit equality both in its foundation and in the superstructure. The former is to be secured by an agrarian law limiting the amount of property which can be held by one man, so that “no one man or number of men, within the compass of the few or aristocracy, can come to overpower the whole people by their possessions in land”; and Harrington explained the recent change in the government of the country by the gradual shifting of the balance of property from king and lords to the commons. Equality in the superstructure will be attained by means of a rotation or succession to the magistracy secured by “the suffrage of the people given by the ballot.” In this way will be constituted the three orders: “the senate debating and proposing, the people resolving, and the magistracy executing.” The need for distinguishing the orders is emphasised in Harrington’s Political A phorisms, where he says that “a popular assembly without a senate cannot be wise,” and that a “senate without a popular assembly will not be honest.” A commonwealth thus rightly instituted, so he thinks, can never swerve from its principles, and has in it no “principle of mortality.” Yet the constitution which he proposed comes short of consistent democracy, and falls in with the spirit of the time. The function of the one great man is recognised: “a parliament of physicians would never have found out the circulation of the blood, nor would a parliament of poets have written Virgil’s Aeneis.” Thus, the great man is right to aim at the sovereignty when the times are out of joint, so that he may set them right and establish the reign of law; and the book ends with his proclamation as lord Archon for life. The nobility or gentry have, also, their place:
there is something first in the making of a commonwealth, then in the governing of it, and last of all in the leading of its armies, which … seems to be peculiar only to the genius of a gentleman.
  Like Milton, Harrington argues for liberty of conscience in matters of religion—though he would disallow “popish, Jewish, or idolatrous” worship. Unlike Milton, however, he does not exclude the state from the sphere of religion:
a commonwealth is nothing else but the national conscience. And if the conviction of a man’s private conscience produces his private religion, the conviction of the national conscience must produce a national religion.

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