Gordon S. Wood on Republicanism and Monarchy in the Eighteenth-Century

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Politics, Quotes & Letters

The value of our idea is presented much better by Gordon S. Wood. Republicanism, we learn, was not an underground ideology, merely confined to European culture. It was an important current, that blended and mingled with the monarchical mainstream. To be a liberal in the eighteenth-century, or to be enlightened, was to be a lover of the ancients and of antiquity.

As Confucius is made to say also in his Analects:

“I believe in and love the ancients” (Analects 7.1)

“The English thought they lived in a republicanized monarchy, and they were right. (…) Republicanism did not belong only to the margins, to the extreme right or left, of English political life. Monarchical and republican values existed side-by-side in the culture, and many good monarchists and many good English tories adopted what were in substance, if not in name, republican ideals and principles without realizing the long-run political implications of what they were doing. Although they seldom mentioned the term, educated people of varying political persuasions celebrated republicanism for its spirit, its morality, its freedom, its sense of friendship and duty, and its vision of society. Republicanism as a set of values and a form of life was much too pervasive, comprehensive, and involved with being liberal and enlightened to be seen as subversive or as antimonarchical. (…)

Republicanism was never a besieged underground ideology, confined to cellar meetings and marginal intellectuals. On the contrary: there were no more enthusiastic promoters of republicanism than many members of the English and French nobility. (…)

In essence, republicanism was the ideology of the Enlightenment. If the Enlightenment was, as Peter Gay has called it, “the rise of modern paganism,” then classical republicanism was its creed†.

In the eighteenth century to be enlightened was to be interested in antiquity, and to be interested in antiquity was to be interested in republicanism.

Certainly classical antiquity could offer meaningful messages for monarchy too, but there is no doubt that the thrust of what the ancient world had to say to the eighteenth century was latently and at times manifestly republican.

All the ancient republics—Athens, Sparta, Thebes-were familiar to educated people in the eighteenth century—their names had “grown trite by repetition,” said one American-but none was more familiar than Rome. People could not hear enough about it. “It is impossible,” said Montesquieu, “to be tired of so agreeable a subject as ancient Rome.” The eighteenth century was particularly fascinated by the writings of the golden age of Roman literature—“the First Enlightenment,” as Peter Gay has called it—the two centuries from the breakdown of the republic in the middle of the first century B.C. to the reign of Marcus Aurelius in the middle of the second century A.D.

These Roman writers—Cicero, Virgil, Sallust, Tacitus, among others-set forth republican ideals and values about politics and society that have had a powerful and lasting effect on Western culture. These classical ideals and values were revived and refurbished by the Italian Renaissance-becoming what has been variously called “civic humanism” or “classical republicanism”—and were carried into early modern Europe and made available to wider and deeper strata of the population.”

[Gordon S. Wood, Classical Republicanism and the American Revolution, 66 Chi.-Kent L. Rev. 13, 1990, pp. 17-19.]


Mario Palmieri, The Philosophy of Fascism (The Dante Alighieri Society, Chicago, 1st Ed., 1936): “The Renaissance is commonly held to have been, and undoubtedly it was in a way, all that the name implies of re-birth of classical studies and pagan lore. Still, had it been only that and nothing else, had it meant for the world simply an artificial reproduction of old idea, feelings, ways of living, etc., the Renaissance would have failed to represent a milestone in the road of human development. The spirit of the age had not true organic connection with the spirit of ancient times, and the classic-pagan-edonistic attitude of mankind throughout that age was at best a poor reproduction of something which represented a moment of human history forming part of the past, a past as dead as the men who of this moment were the brightest lights.”

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