… [T]he principles of government are twofold: internal, or the goods of the mind; and external, or the goods of fortune. The goods of the mind are natural or acquired virtues, as wisdom, prudence, and courage, etc. The goods of fortune are riches.
When James Harrington made this note in Oceana, he intended it to be a riposte to Hobbes, whose Leviathan had been published three years earlier. Hobbes had boiled all kinds of goods down to one – power. This unitary analysis exemplified the sharpness of his argument; he has plunged deep with this knife. Deep, but not precise.
In the quote above, Harrington is giving the premises on which a government is founded. Hobbes had declared that even personal influence was basically power – and therefore all government was based on power. Harrington stands up in this passage, and fights for the concept of authority. “A learned man may have authority though he has no power; and a foolish magistrate may have power, though he has otherwise no esteem or power.” Harrington reasserts a sound distinction against the single-minded thrust of Hobbes’s modern empiricism.
James Harrington did not really understand Hobbes, though, because Hobbes was giving a truly original idea here. For Hobbes, the will is what you choose to do. In fact, thought and action are a string this process, where you may have various things going on in your head, but the will is the step you take to create action. Thus, you can never act against your will, because all acting is willing. And it is rational. If you obey someone because you are afraid of the consequences of rebellion, that is a rational choice for your own good, and you have not acted against your will (which is impossible).
In Hobbes’s piercing analysis, then, that would mean that if anyone really has influence, it would only be influence when it has caused someone to act on its behalf. And when someone is acting on your behalf, you have more power. So all influence is power.
I do not believe Harrington really understood Hobbes’s logic here, but he is able to do effective combat anyway. Hobbes had appealed to a very simple idea (cause and effect) and used that to gallop all over philosophy. Harrington senses the whole operation is wrong, but only because it violates the clear sense of Harrington’s Aristotelian-Machiavellian idea of the world, in which virtue and authority are crucial. Oceana is dedicated to a polity of mutually active citizens, each with the polis inside himself, and the government accurately reflecting the makeup of the people.
Hobbes is unmistakably modern – taking a single tool of analysis, and carving out an image of the world, whatever may come. Harrington has that old Platonic feel to him – he has a vision for the whole, and a logic driven by ontology.
The dichotomy may be false, but the battle is not.
Bryan Wandel works in government finance and has studied history, accounting, and religion. He is a member of the editorial board at Humane Pursuits. Bryan’s writing has appeared at Comment Magazine, First Things, and elsewhere.