Republicanism, Freedom from Domination, and the Cambridge Contextual Historians

Publication Date01 December 2001
Date01 December 2001
AuthorPatricia Springborg
Republicanism, Freedom from
Domination, and the Cambridge
Contextual Historians
Patricia Springborg
University of Sydney
Philip Pettit, in Republicanism: a Theory of Freedom and Government (1997), draws on the
historiography of classical republicanism developed by the Cambridge Contextual Historians, John
Pocock and Quentin Skinner, to set up a programme for the recovery of the Roman Republican
notion of freedom, as freedom from domination. But it is my purpose to show that classical
republicanism, as a theory of institutional complexity and balanced government, could not, and
did not, lay exclusive claim to freedom from domination as a defining value. Positive freedom was
a concept ubiquitous in Roman Law and promulgated in Natural Law as a universal human right.
And it was just the ubiquitousness of this right to freedom, honoured more often in the breach
than the observance, which prompted the scorn of early modern proto-feminists like Mary Astell
and her contemporary, Judith Drake. The division of society into public and private spheres, which
liberalism entrenched, precisely allowed democrats in the public sphere full rein as tyrants in the
domestic sphere of the family, as these women were perspicacious enough to observe. When
republicanism is defined in exclusively normative terms the rich institutional contextualism drops
away, leaving no room for the issues it was designed to address: the problematic relation between
values and institutions that lies at the heart of individual freedoms.
If all Men are born free, how is it that all Women are born slaves? as they
must be if the being subjected to the inconstant, uncertain, unknown
arbitrary Will of Men, be the perfect Condition of Slavery? and if the Essence
of Freedom consists, as our Masters say it does, in having a standing Rule
to live by? (Mary Astell, Reflections upon Marriage, 1706 Preface, xi).1
Republicanism, Freedom from Domination, and
Early-modern Proto-feminist Critics
Writing the historiography of classical republican theory is one of the great
achievements of the Cambridge contextual historians, John Pocock and Quentin
Skinner (Pocock, 1954, 1975; Skinner, 1978, 1990, 1998). As a theory of consti-
tutional balance developed by Renaissance and early modern thinkers interested in
the complex relationship between ideas and institutions, this doctrine drew on the
theory and practice of the ancient world to make a bridge to the modern. From
Machiavelli to Harrington, and Madison to Jefferson, reformists tended not to be
democrats as such, but theorists of institutional complexity as the guarantee of
political stability and individual freedoms. If the American and French Republics
are testimony to the power of this idea, it is a far cry from the theory of the liberal
democratic state. But one recent theorist of classical republican theory, Philip
Pettit (1997), has taken a step away from institutional complexity to focus on
republicanism as a normative system, defined by freedom from subordination as a
POLITICAL STUDIES: 2001 VOL 49, 851–876
© Political Studies Association, 2001.
Published by Blackwell Publishers, 108 Cowley Road, Oxford OX4 1JF, UK and 350 Main Street, Malden, MA 02148, USA
constitutive value. Pettit alights on the famous question of the early modern proto-
feminist, Mary Astell, ‘If all Men are born free, how is it that all Women are born
slaves?’ to claim her as an advocate for freedom as non-domination and the
republican cause (Pettit, 1997, p. 139). However, such a claim flies in the face of
Astell’s avowed Royalism and High Church Toryism. It also raises the issue how to
distinguish republicanism, defined as freedom from subordination, from liberalism,
defined as freedom from interference.
One can certainly argue that in their accounts of classical republican theory, John
Pocock in The Machiavellian Moment (1975) and Quentin Skinner, in Liberty before
Liberalism (1998), address positive freedom as moral autonomy, or the absence of
domination, and not the negative freedom from interference of liberalism. But
Pocock focuses rather on the Aristotelian zoon politikon, a concept of citizenship
defined as the right to rule and be ruled; whereas Skinner focuses more directly on
the transmission of certain Roman notions of positive freedom, their reception in
the early modern period and extension in post-modernity. On Pocock’s more
Aristotelian reading, republicanism is characterized by rule of law, and not freedom
from domination, because only rule of law establishes the juridical equality
necessary for the citizen to both rule and be ruled.2
Philip Pettit’s Republicanism: A Theory of Freedom and Government (1997), by contrast,
is less concerned with the historiography of classical republican theory than with a
programme to recover the Roman notion of freedom as moral autonomy or the
absence of domination.3Whereas Pocock and Skinner give careful historiographical
accounts of republicanism as a set of institutional practices designed to create
constitutional balance, Pettit defines republicanism in terms of a set of values – and
this at some cost to republicanism as a set of institutions.4Pettit, by dispensing with
the historiography has also dispensed with the institutional richness of classical
republican theory, which at the hands of Machiavelli and his successors is a history
of contingency and incrementalism (Viroli, 1992, 1993, 1995, 1998). It turns out
that, on Pettit’s account, freedom from domination is neither the necessary nor the
sufficient condition to differentiate republicanism from liberalism, in fact. Nor is it
recognizably Roman. To highlight some of these anomalies, I take the case of Mary
Astell, certainly an advocate of freedom from domination, but a monarchist, and
then turn to Roman Republicanism as a complex set of values and institutional
Pettit, in a brief discussion of Astell, reproduces her famous statement on freedom
and slavery as testimony to ‘the appeal of non-domination as a feminist ideal’,
appearing to enlist her in the republican cause (Pettit, 1997, p. 139). But Astell,
despite the centrality of the freedom/slavery antithesis to her argument, was not
only not a republican, but was an out-and-out royalist and High Church Tory,
addressing her works to Princess, later Queen, Anne. The same was true of her
contemporary, Judith Drake.5As such they were typical of early modern proto-
feminists, who were too pragmatic to connect the freedom they so ardently desired
with a republicanism they could not imagine. Moreover, they immediately saw
how academic – and how hollow in its universal pretensions – the freedom/slavery
argument really was in seventeenth century England.

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