9 - Repacifying the polity: the responses of Hobbes and Harrington to the ‘crisis of the common law’  pp. 202-228

Repacifying the polity: the responses of Hobbes and Harrington to the ‘crisis of the common law’

By Glenn Burgess

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the ‘crisis of the common law' and consequent problems

Political thinkers, especially the most creative of them, tend to develop their ideas within a great variety of intellectual contexts. Few of them can satisfactorily be studied in relation to only one or two of those contexts. It is often true, as well, that the ways in which thinkers respond to their contexts can interact with one another to produce unexpected results. The following essay is an examination of some of the less-explored dimensions of the political writings produced after 1650 by Thomas Hobbes and James Harrington; and it suggests that it is possible to consider them as having responded to a ‘crisis of the common law' that engulfed English political life in the years 1640 to 1642, and beyond. I do not suppose that this context can lead us to an exhaustive analysis of either of these thinkers; and I therefore wish to deny neither that there are other, better-known and perhaps contradictory, aspects of their thinking that can only be explained in other contexts, nor that these other aspects may predominate over the dimensions explored below.

Before 1640 many in English public life believed that they lived in a ‘pacified polity’, a view underpinned by the assumptions and attitudes that made up what we know as the idea of the ‘ancient constitution’. Hobbes and Harrington were often severe critics of the ‘ancient constitution'; but they shared its ideal of the ‘pacified polity’.