The First Counter-revolutionary | The Nation


The First Counter-revolutionary

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Like the divine right of kings, the constitutional argument had been rendered anachronistic by recent developments, most notably the fact that no English monarch in the first half of the seventeenth century still believed it. Intent on turning England into a modern state, James and Charles were compelled to advance far more absolutist claims about the nature of their power than the constitutional argument allowed.

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Corey Robin
Corey Robin, who teaches at Brooklyn College, is the author of Fear: The History of a Political Idea, and The...

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More troubling for the regime, however, was how easily the constitutional argument could be turned into a republican one and used against the king. Which it was, in the muted pleas of common lawyers and parliamentary supplicants, who argued that by flouting the common law and Parliament, Charles was threatening to turn England into a tyranny; and in the utopian demands of radicals, who insisted that anything short of a republic or democracy, where men lived under laws they had consented to, constituted a tyranny. All monarchy, in their eyes, was despotism.

Hobbes thought that the latter argument derived from the "Histories, and Philosophy of the Antient Greeks, and Romans," which were so influential among educated opponents of the king. Skinner agrees, and a considerable portion of this book (as well as several of his other books and essays) is devoted to tracing the classical lineage of what he calls the "neo-Roman" or republican argument. That ancient heritage was given new life by Machiavelli's Discorsi, translated into English in 1636, which Skinner suggests may have been Hobbes's ultimate target in his admonition against popular government.

But Skinner also points out that the underlying premise of the republican argument--what distinguishes a free man from a slave is that the former is subject to his own will while the latter is subject to the will of another--could be found, in a "word-for-word" reproduction of "the Digest of Roman law," in English common law as early as the thirteenth century. Likewise, the distinction between will and appetite, liberty and license, was "deeply embedded" in both the scholastic traditions of the Middle Ages and the humanist culture of the Renaissance. It thus found expression not only in the royalist positions of Bramhall and his ilk but also among the radicals and regicides who overthrew the king. A fascinating subtext of Skinner's argument, then, is that beneath the chasm separating royalist and republican lay a deep and volatile bedrock of shared assumption about the nature of liberty. It was Hobbes's genius to recognize that assumption and his ambition to crush it.

While the notion that freedom entails living under laws lent support to the constitutional royalists, who made much of the distinction between lawful monarchs and despotic tyrants, it did not necessarily lead to the conclusion that a free regime had to be a republic or a democracy. To advance that argument, the radicals had to make two additional claims: first, to equate arbitrariness or lawlessness with a will that is not one's own, a will that is external or alien; and second, to equate the decisions of a popular government with a will that is one's own. To be subject to a will that is mine--the laws of a republic or democracy--is to be free; to be subject to a will that is not mine--the edicts of a king or foreign country--is to be a slave.

It's not always clear from Skinner's text how the republicans made these claims; his Liberty Before Liberalism, published in 1998, provides a better map of their maneuvers. But what is clear is that they were aided in these efforts by a peculiar, though popular, understanding of slavery. What made someone a slave, in the eyes of many, was not that he was in chains or that his owner impeded or compelled his movements. It was that he lived and moved under a net--the ever changing, arbitrary will of his master--that might fall upon him at any moment. Even if it never fell--the master never told him what to do or never punished him for not doing it, or he never desired to do something different from what the master told him--the slave was still enslaved. The fact that he "lived in total dependence" on the will of another--that he was under the master's jurisdiction--"was sufficient in itself to guarantee the servility" that the master "expected and despised."

The mere presence of relations of domination and dependence...is held to reduce us from the status of..."free-men" to that of slaves. It is not sufficient, in other words, to enjoy our civic rights and liberties as a matter of fact; if we are to count as free-men, it is necessary to enjoy them in a particular way. We must never hold them merely by the grace or goodwill of anyone else; we must always hold them independently of anyone's arbitrary power to take them away from us.

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