Classical republicanism

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Classical republicanism, also known as civic republicanism [1] or civic humanism, [2] is a form of republicanism developed in the Renaissance inspired by the governmental forms and writings of classical antiquity, especially such classical writers as Aristotle, Polybius, and Cicero. Classical republicanism is built around concepts such as civil society, civic virtue and mixed government.

Republicanism is a representative form of government organization. It is a political ideology centered on citizenship in a state organized as a republic. Historically, it ranges from the rule of a representative minority or oligarchy to popular sovereignty. It has had different definitions and interpretations which vary significantly based on historical context and methodological approach.

Renaissance European cultural period, 14th to 17th century

The Renaissance is a period in European history, covering the span between the 14th and 17th centuries and marking the transition from the Middle Ages to modernity. The traditional view focuses more on the early modern aspects of the Renaissance and argues that it was a break from the past, but many historians today focus more on its medieval aspects and argue that it was an extension of the middle ages.

Classical antiquity Age of the ancient Greeks and Romans

Classical antiquity is the period of cultural history between the 8th century BC and the 6th century AD centered on the Mediterranean Sea, comprising the interlocking civilizations of ancient Greece and ancient Rome known as the Greco-Roman world. It is the period in which Greek and Roman society flourished and wielded great influence throughout Europe, North Africa and Western Asia.



In the classical period itself the term republicanism did not exist, but the term res publica , which translates literally as "the public thing" or "the public affair," was in usage. There were a number of theorists who wrote on political philosophy during this period such as Aristotle, Polybius, and Cicero, [3] 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 to reintroduce classical republicanism was said to have been Niccolò Machiavelli (1469–1527) in his later reflections. [4]

Res publica is a Latin phrase, loosely meaning 'public affair'. It is the root of the word 'republic', and the word 'commonwealth' has traditionally been used as a synonym for it; however translations vary widely according to the context. 'Res' is a nominative singular Latin noun for a substantive or concrete thing – as opposed to 'spes', which means something unreal or ethereal – and 'publica' is an attributive adjective meaning 'of and/or pertaining to the state or the public'. Hence a literal translation is, 'the public thing/affair'.

Aristotle philosopher in ancient Greece

Aristotle was a Greek philosopher during the Classical period in Ancient Greece, the founder of the Lyceum and the Peripatetic school of philosophy and Aristotelian tradition. Along with his teacher Plato, he has been called the "Father of Western Philosophy". His writings cover many subjects – including physics, biology, zoology, metaphysics, logic, ethics, aesthetics, poetry, theatre, music, rhetoric, psychology, linguistics, economics, politics and government. Aristotle provided a complex synthesis of the various philosophies existing prior to him, and it was above all from his teachings that the West inherited its intellectual lexicon, as well as problems and methods of inquiry. As a result, his philosophy has exerted a unique influence on almost every form of knowledge in the West and it continues to be a subject of contemporary philosophical discussion.

Polybius Ancient Greek historian

Polybius was a Greek historian of the Hellenistic period noted for his work The Histories, which covered the period of 264–146 BC in detail. The work describes the rise of the Roman Republic to the status of dominance in the ancient Mediterranean world and includes his eyewitness account of the Sack of Carthage and Corinth in 146 BC, and the Roman annexation of the mainland Greece after the Achaean War.

It has been argued that Machiavelli was not a classical republican, since he described mostly medieval political relations. [5] 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. [6] 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.

One 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. [7] 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. [8]

Hans Baron was a German-American historian of political thought and literature. His main contribution to the historiography of the period was to introduce in 1928 the term civic humanism.

Hannah Arendt German-American Jewish philosopher and political theorist

Johanna "Hannah" Cohn Arendt was a German-American philosopher and political theorist. Her many books and articles on topics ranging from totalitarianism to epistemology have had a lasting influence on political theory. Arendt is widely considered one of the most important political philosophers of the twentieth century.

John Greville Agard Pocock is a historian of political thought from New Zealand. He is especially known for his studies of republicanism in the early modern period, his work on the history of English common law, his treatment of Edward Gibbon and other Enlightenment historians, and, in historical method, for his contributions to the history of political discourse.

However, Thomas Pangle (a student of Leo Strauss) has critiqued the inaccuracy of the "civic humanist" reconstruction, regarding it as a 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'." [9]

Thomas Pangle American political scientist

Thomas Lee Pangle, is an American political scientist. He holds the Joe R. Long Chair in Democratic Studies in the Department of Government and is Co-Director of the Thomas Jefferson Center for Core Texts and Ideas at the University of Texas at Austin. He has also taught at the University of Toronto and Yale University. He is a student of Leo Strauss.

Leo Strauss Classical philosophy specialist and father of neoconservativism

Leo Strauss was a German-American political philosopher and classicist who specialized in classical political philosophy. He was born in Germany to Jewish parents and later emigrated from Germany to the United States. He spent much of his career as a professor of political science at the University of Chicago, where he taught several generations of students and published fifteen books.

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. [10] 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. [11]

Florence Comune in Tuscany, Italy

Florence is the capital city of the Italian region of Tuscany. It is the most populous city in Tuscany, with 383,084 inhabitants in 2013, and over 1,520,000 in its metropolitan area.

Milan Italian city

Milan is a city in northern Italy, capital of Lombardy, and the second-most populous city in Italy after Rome, with the city proper having a population of 1,395,274 while its metropolitan city has a population of 3,245,308. Its continuously built-up urban area has a population estimated to be about 5,270,000 over 1,891 square kilometres. The wider Milan metropolitan area, known as Greater Milan, is a polycentric metropolitan region that extends over central Lombardy and eastern Piedmont and which counts an estimated total population of 7.5 million, making it by far the largest metropolitan area in Italy and the 54th largest in the world. Milan served as capital of the Western Roman Empire from 286 to 402 and the Duchy of Milan during the medieval period and early modern age.

Landed nobility or landed aristocracy is a category of nobility in various countries over the history, for which landownership was part of their noble privileges. Their character depends on the country.

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. [12] 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 the theory of classical liberalism.

Classical republicanism became extremely popular in Classicism and during the 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. [13]

See also



  1. civic republicanism (social and political science) –
  2. Moulakis, Athanasios, "Civic Humanism", The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Winter 2011 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.).
  3. 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, no. 2 (April 1995), 309–332, at 330.
  4. 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 Machiavellian Moment: Florentine Political Thought and the Atlantic Republican Tradition (Princeton: 1975); and Gisela Bock, Quentin Skinner, Maurizio Viroli, eds. Machiavelli and Republicanism (Cambridge: 1990).
  5. 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.
  6. See the collection of essays in Ed. Paul Rahe, Machiavelli's Liberal Republican Legacy (Cambridge University Press, 2006).
  7. 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.
  8. 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.
  9. 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.
  10. 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).
  11. Leonardo Bruni Arentino; also Hankins, "'Baron Thesis,'" 318–330; Pocock, Machiavellian Moment, 86-91.
  12. For this distinction definitively expounded, see Sir Isaiah Berlin, "Two Concepts of Liberty," in Four Essays on Liberty (New York: Oxford Univ. Press, 1970).
  13. 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.

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