Classical republicanism

Classical republicanism

Classical republicanism is a form of republicanism developed in the Renaissance inspired by the governmental forms and writings of classical antiquity. The earliest examples of the school were classical writers such as Aristotle, Polybius, and Cicero. Classical republicanism is built around concepts such as civil society, civic virtue and mixed government.



In the classical period itself the term republicanism did not exist, however the term res publica, which translates literally as "things public," was in usage. There were a number of theorists who wrote on political philosophy during this period such as Aristotle, Polybius, and Cicero,[1] and their ideas became the essential core of classical republicanism. The ideology of republicanism blossomed during the Italian Renaissance, most notably in Florence, when a number of authors looked back to the classical period and used its examples to formulate ideas about ideal governance. One of the first reintroducing classical republicanism was Niccolò Machiavelli (1469–1527) in his later reflections.[2] It has been argued that Machiavelli was not a classical republican, since he described mostly medieval political relations.[3] Indeed, Machiavelli's innovation, addition, or transformation of classical republicanism more likely marks a turning point, and the dawn of modern republicanism; Machiavelli's particular brand of republicanism has been dubbed "rapacious republicanism" by a collection of scholars.[4] At any rate, that classical republicanism actually refers to a philosophy developed primarily in the early modern period is acknowledged by many scholars to be confusing; therefore, some now use the term early modern republicanism to cover this branch of political thought. To be sure, the conceptual, historical, and philosophical debate continues.

Variant of classical republicanism is known as civic humanism, a term first employed by the German scholar of late medieval and early modern Italian history, Hans Baron.[5] And although in certain cases and with certain scholars there is a subtle distinction between the two, they are for all intents and purposes interchangeable. Civic humanism is slightly wider in scope and stresses the central role of civic virtue in the preservation of the classically Roman/Florentine ideal of political liberty. Leading exponents of this dual concept are Hannah Arendt, J. G. A. Pocock, Quentin Skinner, and Philip Pettit.[6] However, Thomas Pangle has critiqued the inaccuracy of the "civic humanist" reconstruction and thus its distortion of classical republicanism on the one hand and of Machiavelli's political science on the other hand. Pangle writes, "both Pocock and Arendt (the latter more self-consciously) obscure the imperialism, the ruthlessness, the warring hierarchy, and the glacial rationalism that truly characterize Machiavelli; over these elements they throw a veil of softened, egalitarian, "civic humanism.""[7]

According to Baron, for many years the foremost expert on the development of classical republicanism, the ideology was a product of the long conflict between Florence and Milan.[8] Florence was ruled by its commercial elites while Milan was a monarchy controlled by its landed aristocracy. The Florentines asserted that their form of government was superior on the basis that it was more similar to that of the Greeks and the Roman Republic. Moreover, Leonardo Bruni (1370-1444) asserted, based on Tacitus's pronouncements in the introduction to the Histories, that republican government made better men, whereas monarchy was inimical to human virtue (see Tacitean studies). The Florentine ideal developed into the ideology of civic humanism, as per Baron.[9]

Since Thomas Hobbes, at the core of republicanism is the concept of the social contract. Although modern republicanism rejected monarchy (whether hereditary or otherwise autocratic) in favour of rule by the people, classical republicanism treated monarchy as one form of government among others. Classical republicanism was rather aimed against any form of tyranny, whether monarchic, aristocratic, or democratic (tyranny of the majority). The notions of what constituted an ideal republic to classical republicans themselves depended on personal view. However, the most ideal republic featured form of mixed government and was based on the pursuit of civility.

Most controversial is the classical republican view of liberty and how, or if, this view differed from that later developed by liberalism. Previously, many scholars accepted the stance of Isaiah Berlin that republicanism was tilted more toward positive liberty rather than the negative liberty characterizing liberalism.[10] In recent years this thesis has been challenged, and Philip Pettit argues that republican liberty is based upon "non-domination" while liberal freedom is based upon "non-interference." Another view is that liberalism views liberty as pre-social while classical republicans saw true liberty as a product of society. Because liberty was an important part of republican thought, many republican thinkers were appropriated by theory of classical liberalism.

Classical republicanism became extremely popular in the Classicism and Enlightenment, playing a central role in the thought of political philosophy since Hobbes, through John Locke, Giambattista Vico, Montesquieu, Rousseau, until Kant. Some historians have seen classical republican ideas influencing early American political thought.[11]

Other modern thinkers are studied for theirs reflexions about republicanism: Benjamin Constant or Alexis de Tocqueville introduced many republican, however modern not classical, arguments in their books.[12]


  1. ^ scholar James Hankins would oblige us to include Sallust, Livy, and Virgil, and adds "above all" for Cicero. see "The 'Baron Thesis' after Forty Years and some Recent Studies of Leonardo Bruni," Journal of the History of Ideas 56,2(April 1995), 309-332, at 330.
  2. ^ this would, of course, be the Machiavelli of the Discourses on Livy, not he of The Prince, but for some scholars, they are simply two sides of the same coin. see J.G.A. Pocock, The Machiavelian Moment: Florentine Political Thought and the Atlantic Republican Tradition (Princeton: 1975); and Gisela Bock, Quentin Skinner, Maurizio Viroli, eds. Machiavelli and Republicanism (Cambridge: 1990).
  3. ^ Paul A. Rahe, "In the Shadow of Lucretius: The Epicurean Foundations of Machiavelli's Political Thought", History of Political Thought, Vol. XXVIII, #1, Spring, 2007.
  4. ^ See the collection of essays in Ed. Paul Rahe, Machiavelli's Liberal Republican Legacy (Cambridge University Press, 2006).
  5. ^ in his native German, "Bürger Humanismus," the coinage occurred in his Leonardo Bruni Arentino. Humanistisch-philosophische (Leipzig;Berlin: B.G. Teubner, 1928). Baron believed Bruni to be "the embodiment of civic humanism." see Hankins, "'Baron Thesis,'" p. 312.
  6. ^ Hannah Arendt, The Human Condition (Chicago: 1958); J.G.A. Pocock, "Civic Humanism and its Role in Anglo-American Thought," in Politics, Language, and Time: Essays on Political Thought and History (Chicago: 1989;1971); Quentin Skinner, Liberty before Liberalism (Cambridge: 1998); Philip Pettit, Republicanism: A Theory of Freedom and Government (Oxford: 2000 ed.); Jean-Fabien Spitz, la liberte politique, Paris: Presses Universitaires de France, 1995.
  7. ^ Thomas L. Pangle, The Spirit of Modern Republicanism (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1990), 52. Pangle's discussion can be seen as consistent with Rahe's critique, as cited above.
  8. ^ The Crisis of the Early Italian Renaissance: Civic Humanism and Republican Liberty in an Age of Classicism and Tyranny (Princeton: 1966; 1955); In Search of Florentine Civic Humanism: Essays on the Transition from Medieval to Modern Thought, 2 vols. (Princeton: 1988).
  9. ^ Leonardo Bruni Arentino; also Hankins, "'Baron Thesis,'" 318-330; Pocock, Machiavellian Moment, 86-91.
  10. ^ for this distinction definitively expounded, see Sir Isaiah Berlin, "Two Concepts of Liberty," in Four Essays on Liberty (New York: Oxford Univ. Press, 1970).
  11. ^ John G.A. Pocock, The Machiavellian Moment: Florentine Political Thought and the Atlantic Republican Tradition (1975); Bernard Bailyn, The Ideological Origins of the American Revolution. Harvard University Press, 1967; Gordon S. Wood, The Radicalism of the American Revolution: How a Revolution Transformed a Monarchical Society into a Democratic One Unlike Any That Had Ever Existed, (1992); Gordon S. Wood, The Creation of the American Republic 1776-1787, (1969); Lance Banning, The Jeffersonian Persuasion: Evolution of a Party Ideology, (1978); Drew R. McCoy, The Elusive Republic: Political Economy in Jeffersonian America ,(1980); Joyce Appleby, Capitalism and a New Social Order: The Republican Vision of the 1790s, 1984; Joyce Appleby, ed., "Republicanism in the History and Historiography of the United States," special issue of American Quarterly, Vol. 37, No. 4, (1985); Joyce Appleby, Liberalism and Republicanism in the Historical Imagination, (1992); Isaac Kramnick, Republicanism and Bourgeois Radicalism: Political Ideology in Late Eighteenth-Century England and America, (1990); Robert E. Shalhope, "Toward a Republican Synthesis: The Emergence of an Understanding of Republicanism in American Historiography," William and Mary Quarterly, 29 (Jan. 1972), 49-80; Robert E. Shalhope, "Republicanism and Early American Historiography," William and Mary Quarterly, 39 (Apr. 1982), 334-356.
  12. ^ see Spitz J-F, la liberte politique, PUF, leviathan or Coutant Arnaud, une critique republicaine de la democratie liberale, Mare et Martin, 2007,

See also


  • Civic Humanism entry by Athanasios Moulakis in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy
  • Bill Brugger, Republican Theory in Political Thought: Virtuous or Virtual? (Basingstoke: St. Martin's Press, 1999).
  • Arnaud Coutant , Une Critique republicaine de la democratie liberale, Mare et Martin, 2007
  • Zera Fink, The Classical Republicans: an Essay in the Recovery of a Pattern of Thought in Seventeenth-Century England. (Evanston: Northwestern Univ. Press, 1962).
  • John Pocock, the Machiavelian Moment.
  • J-F Spitz , la liberte politique, Paris, PUF, leviathan

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