Harrington's Empire of Law



Nearly every reader of James Harrington has taken his theory that property is the foundation of government to be his central and most enduring contribution to political thought. Operating within this standard reading, most of the extensive literature on Harrington has focused on derivative issues, such as the accuracy and depth of his economic reading of English history, or the extent to which his mechanistic account of political institutions displaced more traditional republican accounts of civic virtue. But the standard reading is incomplete. For example, it is puzzling on this reading why Harrington should single out Thomas Hobbes as his chief opponent. To demonstrate the incompleteness of the standard reading, this article will examine a relatively neglected aspect of Oceana: namely, the sharp contrast drawn throughout the work between those communities organized as an ‘empire of laws’ and those organized as an ‘empire of men’. As it turns out, Harrington strikes upon a deep problem, not noticed by previous authors in the classical republican tradition, but nevertheless lying at the very conceptual core of republican theory. Examining this problem in detail is both interesting in its own right, in so far as it sheds light on some central issues in republican theory, and in the renewed historical appreciation it brings to our reading of Harrington as well.