Escapism in English Theories of Utopia

The following article is one of many published  in a series on “escape.” You can find out more about the project and articles similar to this one here.

By Wen Li Teng

Thomas More’s Utopia (1516) marked the beginning of escapist political literature in the Western world. Although such classical authors as Plato had imagined polities as early as the fourth century BC, the early sixteenth century saw the emergence of a whole genre dedicated to the construction of idealized societies. Inspired by the ancient Greeks and Romans, as well as the Cromwellian Protectorate, the classical republicans of seventeenth century England produced treatises and pamphlets on the ideal commonwealth. The work of the political theorist James Harrington (1611 – 1677) exemplifies the idea of an escape from real-life society to a fictionalized one. With vivid descriptions of an agrarian republic and scathing critiques of English political figures, Harrington’s oeuvre invites us to re-imagine contemporary politics.

To escape into the future, Harrington first escapes into the past. As was common in the political writing of his time, Harrington refers heavily to the theorists of classical antiquity and the early modern period, as well as to the Bible. In The Commonwealth of Oceana (1656), Harrington refers to Aristotle, Livy, Machiavelli, and Giannotti to support his argument on the functions that a government should hold. To argue, as he does in A Discourse Upon This Saying (1659), about the importance of popular government, Harrington turns to the rule of David as described in the First Chronicles. In so doing, Harrington imbues his theories not only with the gravitas of the ancients or the import of religion, but also with a sense of historicity that invites his reader to consider the evolution of republican thinking. In examining the United States or any other society, we might wish to consider returning to that polity’s ideological origins. The French author Alexis de Tocqueville (1805 – 1859), writing nearly two centuries after Harrington, offers Democracy in America (1835 – 1840) as an example of such an analysis. It is heartening that many American authors still turn to the ideas of the Founding Fathers in interpreting the politics of our day. However, the ideologies that developed after the republic’s early years influence contemporary politics in innumerable ways. Just as one might question what George Washington would think about the partisan polarization today, one could also ask how ideas from the Progressive Era and the Cold War remain with us. We might ask similar questions of other republics around the world.

Harrington’s fanciful escape is not only temporal, but also spatial. Harrington’s assessment relies significantly on the contrasts he makes between the Commonwealth in England and foreign regimes. Illustrations from the Occident and the Orient abound. Holland and Genoa serve as examples of how power can be dependent on commerce elsewhere, even as it is dependent on land in England. Harrington also contemplates the absolute monarchy of the Ottoman Empire, so far distant from England, and even makes the novel case that the Mamluk Sultanate of Egypt was a commonwealth. Harrington’s turn to other polities grounds the premises of his imagined commonwealth in reality. In the same way, in dreaming about the possibilities for present-day republics, we can turn to case studies from around the world for inspiration. Despite the decline of Pax America, it remains tempting to view the United States as the template for republics around the world, especially as the United States has attempted to export its brand of democracy to many states in the historic Third World. Yet, if one were to reverse the logic, it might be possible to imagine how the modern United States might benefit from learning from younger republics. The Republics of China and Korea (or Taiwan and South Korea), for one, may prove to be instructive case studies on the relationship between foreign policy and party politics within a republic. As such, comparative forays into political philosophy are likely to be helpful in redefining our understanding of republicanism.

Thus far, we have considered the content of Harrington’s writings. Yet, a key aspect of Harrington’s theoretical work lies in its form of expression. Harrington’s greatest escapism is in his rhetoric. Harrington invents a whole vocabulary to refer to the politics of his day. Scotland and Ireland are respectively “Marpesia” and “Panopea”, two provinces of “Oceana” (or England) that are integral to Harrington’s discussion of expanding the commonwealth through conquest or incorporating other societies. Harrington’s panegyric of Oceana’s leader “Olphaus Megaletor” is an encomium of Oliver Cromwell. Harrington’s decision to cloak his critique through language was likely both a practical and a linguistic decision. Harrington might have predicted that his work would cause controversy – the government confiscated the first edition of Oceana and the tome subsequently invited numerous critics. Harrington’s name-changes may have afforded him some license to criticize real political figures, events, and policies. Harrington’s use of terminology, adapted from Greek and Latin, also enriches his discourse with additional meaning. Consider “Dicotome”, Harrington’s name for Richard II. Dicotome is the feminine plural of the Italian word for dichotomous, derived from the Latin dichotomos and ultimately from the Greek dikhotomia. As Harrington’s description of Richard II’s deposition suggests, this botanic word is appropriate to a member of the House of York, which fought against the House of Lancaster in the War of the Roses. Though one historian has criticized Harrington for his “baroque and periodic style”, Harrington’s linguistic flights of fancy create variety in an otherwise dry work dedicated to the technicalities of voting and legislature. Satire and parody comprise much of political culture today, particularly in Western media. Entertainment platforms such as Saturday Night Live and The Onion regularly lampoon political figures such as President Donald Trump or Prime Minister Theresa May. The same spirit of levity and creativity might benefit political theorizing today.

Although the work of James Harrington is not well-known in the United States now, it is worth noting that his thought influenced such Founding Fathers as John Adams and Thomas Jefferson. The escapist themes of his work can still inspire us to innovate with our political thinking and writing.

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