Utopian Society Thinkers James Harrington Part 1

About the famous utopian thinker James Harrington and history of his planned utopia Oceana.



It was said that when James Harrington met the pope, he refused to kiss his toe as requested. If true, it was typical of him. Harrington was an aristocrat who could trace his ancestry back to the 12th century and hobnobbed with King Charles I, but who nonetheless passionately believed in the sovereignty of the people. In spite of his heritage, he was an egalitarian.

In 1629 he entered Oxford, where he prepared himself for travel abroad by studying languages. When his father died, he had to leave the university without a degree.

He went to Europe anyway, and it affected him for the rest of his life. In Holland he was manager of English affairs for the Prince of Orange, and he traveled to Flanders, France, and Italy. In Venice, he was impressed with the Venetian constitution, which influenced his ideas of a commonwealth.

Back in England, Harrington joined the royal household of King Charles I. By this time he was a believer in land reform and said that political freedom was tied to "possession of the earth"-opinions which the king did not share. A contemporary reported, "The king loved his [Harrington's] company; only he would not endure to heare of a Commonwealth; and Mr. Harrington dearly loved his Majestie." In 1649, with Cromwell in power, Harrington was chosen to escort the king to the scaffold; the death of the king literally made him sick.

In 1656 Harrington wrote Oceana. H. F. Russell said of it: "It was meant neither for the skies nor for some spot of earth that did not exit, but for England... The book, stripped of its allegorical trappings, is little more than a magnified constitution."

Oceana was dedicated to Cromwell; in fact, it was a message to Cromwell, telling him how to set up the government. Cromwell did not appreciate it, and the book was confiscated while it was still being printed. Harrington went to Cromwell's daughter for help. When he compared his book to her three-year-old daughter, saying it was his child that had been stolen from him, she was charmed and interceded for him. Late in 1656, the book was published.

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