Machiavelli, Hobbes, & the Formation of a Liberal Republicanism in England
Vickie B. Sullivan
Vickie B. Sullivan. Machiavelli, Hobbes, & the Formation of a Liberal Republicanism in England. Cambridge University Press, 2004. $75.00 (cloth)
In Machiavelli, Hobbes, & the Formation of a Liberal Republicanism in England, Vickie B. Sullivan identifies a distinct, normative theory of political life-liberal republicanism-that hardened into a doctrine in early eighteenth-century England in the editorial writings of Cato. As the title indicates, the facts that furnish the foundation for this theory lie in Machiavelli's participatory-democratic convictions and select elements of Hobbes's non-liberal thought that are nonetheless pregnant with liberal potential. Marchamont Nedham, James Harrington, Henry Neville, Algernon Sidney, John Trenchard and Thomas Gordon (the last two are known as the co-authors of Cato's Letters), defend a liberal republicanism, which "eventuates in an understanding of politics that makes the private primary-that is, the rights of individuals-but relies heavily on a public means to effect that end" (p. 9, cf. 110). Sullivan depicts these men as forming a synthesis that responds to the demands of both republicans and liberals by offering a politically engaged citizenry as well as the protection of individual rights. Sullivan attempts, then, to show us a vision of society that is a distinct mixture of republicanism and liberalism as we have understood them.
In Sullivan's account, contemporary scholars view republicanism as a wholly ancient phenomenon, which elevated the interests of the state before those of the individual. In the view of modern liberalism, with its idea of negative liberty, this seems to enslave the individual to the state. Hence the "intense political involvement of the citizenry," which is de rigeur to ancient republicanism and its theory of positive liberty, is "so contrary to a liberal society" as to be against "the very purposes of liberalism" (pp. 2-3, 5). "Participation," writes Sullivan, "calls liberalism to account" (p. 5).
In articulating the synthesis of these seemingly opposed views in Part II, Sullivan passes her book off as "intended to be disruptive of the current thinking on the relation between republicanism and liberalism." However, the book fails to give an adequate and just account of the careful, rich thinking on this topic by the contemporary commentators and schools of thought that Sullivan otherwise competently and consistently reckons with (p. 1). Though J.G.A. Pocock and other Cambridge School historians serve as a foil throughout the book, the more realistic challenges posed by their republican critique of liberalism are muted. Most recently, in his little book titled Republicanism, a title absent in Sullivan's bibliography, Maurizio Viroli argues that, "When the advocates of republican patriotism encourage citizens to consider common liberty the highest good, they are indicating the safest means to protect individual liberty, not a way to enslave the individual to the state." (p.17) In this view, there is no strict antimony between liberalism and republicanism. Moreover, Quentin Skinner in particular argues not so much that public demands need to be elevated above private ones, but that the very distinction between "public" and "private" must be reconsidered in the light of Florentine political thought.
Though Machiavelli and Hobbes are said to be crucial to understand the origins of liberal republicanism, the actual synthesis is indebted so little to each thinker's unique purposes (depicted at length in Part I), that one wonders if the idea of a synthesis between liberalism and republicanism is the best framework in which one should consider Cato's Letters. Though I shall not deny that the Englishmen under examination are more or less impressed by Machiavelli, I suspect nonetheless that Sullivan's reduction to constituents strips out some emergent phenomena in lieu of the already determined, so much is it reverse engineering of seventeenth-century tracts into Machiavellian and Hobbesian forms.
I shall use only one example to illustrate the derivative way in which the republican component of the synthesis relates to Machiavelli. Since her reading of the Discourses endeavors to establish the impossibility of peace and the necessity of expansion through warfare, Sullivan elides the passages where Machiavelli praises David, Mahomet and Romulus for ordering a way of life to allow a successor to preserve it for many years with the arts of peace alone. Moreover, she attributes Machiavelli's unavoidable populist sympathies to the decidedly patrician end of continually (not to say constantly) nurturing war. That is, Sullivan's Machiavelli teaches how to arrive at an awesome, acquisitive, aggressive, predatory, martial empire, which "consistently trump[s] the people's" concern to live in peace and ultimately not be "fodder for war" (pp. 10,133). To this end, Machiavelli finds the best means in the ancient Roman republic. Rome extinguished the liberty of its partners and subjects by channeling the inborn and acquired passions of men, for either property or honor, toward the pursuit of empire (p. 11). From Machiavelli's analysis of the perfection and decline of Rome, Sullivan concludes that to restrain the excessive ambition of the great and hold corruption permanently in abeyance, republics must model themselves on Rome's tumultuous orders, but resort with more alacrity to awesome, stern punishment of rulers and ruled alike.
In the synthesis, however, the martial virtues and the necessity of a martial republic disappear completely. Instead, liberal republicanism channels human avarice to acquire along commercial paths rather than by conquest, which is now considered shameful. All that remains of Machiavelli's specifically republican bequest consists merely of the necessity for "political space" in which the many can participate in their regime and defend against the oppression of the few. "By putting the people's security before their role as soldiers in the acquisition of an empire," Nedham and Cato thus plainly depart from "Machiavellian orthodoxy" so much, that one wonders what the use is in locating the republican roots of liberal republicanism in Machiavelli, or even in his "spirit" of political jealousy and revenge on the part of the plebs (cf., e.g., pp. 128, 256, 267). In crediting Machiavelli in this manner and in attempting an Einfluss study in the history of ideas-literally the history of sentences-by judiciously examining textual subtleties and similarities, Sullivan reveals the extent to which Nedham, Harrington et al. diverge profoundly from Machiavelli and Hobbes, and arrive at Lockean liberalism, albeit infused with a "Machiavellian spirit" (257). Liberal republicanism is so much historical bricolage that this book, despite its copious and impressive research, is apt to fossilize the phenomena Sullivan attempts to describe.
Ilya Winham, The University of Chicago