Republican Inspirations; A Matter For the Heart And the Head

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Who knows not that there is a mutual bond of amity and brother-hood between man and man over all the World, neither is it the English Sea that can sever us from that duty and relation…

John Milton; The Tenure of Kings and Magistrates (1650)

Inspiration. One of my favourite words implying a positive  relationship with a person, event or entity. Among the various definitions of inspiration, this one from from the Merriam-Webster dictionary I find particularly useful:

…the action or power of moving the intellect or emotions

It sums up the dual nature of my enthusiasm for the Good Old Cause of republicanism in its broadest sense, an idea much richer than just anti-monarchism. Let me explain by starting with the emotions.

From Milton to Shelley….

Some  writers metaphorically light up my life. One of these is Richard Overton the seventeenth century radical whose pamphlet An Arrow Against All Tyrants changed my life and the way I think about freedom. He was a Leveller and the enduring influence of him and his fellow Levellers can be seen even in the title of my blog. For example, I find this passage very powerful:

I may be but an individual, enjoy my self and my self-propriety and may right myself no more than my self, or presume any further; if I do, I am an encroacher and an invader upon another man’s right — to which I have no right. For by natural birth all men are equally and alike born to like propriety, liberty and freedom…..

Richard Overton ‘An Arrow Against All Tyrants (1646)

Now, there is much in Arrow to feed the intellect, but more about that later.  Likewise with the wonderful prose and poetry of Overton’s near contemporary John Milton, an example of which I started this post.  Speaking of poets, one has come to embody a sense of defiance and optimism for a better world like no other – Percy Bysshe Shelley (OK, him again for any regular readers of my blog!!). But where did I encounter him? Some time ago I read a post by Cliff James (he can be found on twitter as @cliffjamester), Cliff’s post was centred on Shelley’s radical poetry; of which I confess I was then largely ignorant.  II started with England in 1819 a mightily powerful piece of radical writing.

I particularly enjoyed Cliff’s turn of phrase ‘a love that topples tyrants and an imagination that overcomes hierarchy’. He correctly pointed out that radicalism is as much a grand tradition as monarchy.  Rather, a grander tradition which speaks of liberty for individuals and groups from domination, enshrined in institutions which encourage us to treat each other as equals as opposed to the squalid and archaic monarchist institution demanding deference and adoration. Faced with an entrenched and manipulative establishment, art remains a powerful way of reaching people. Ultimately, Cliff’s question stands as a challenge ‘Which tradition are you in?’ My knowldge and understanding of Shelley has grown slowly and inexorably since and my spirit is lifted by such passages as the hugely famous:

Rise like Lions after slumber
In unvanquishable number,
Shake your chains to earth like dew
Which in sleep had fallen on you,
Ye are many, they are few.

But equally the wonderful stanza (which also inspired the great Gandhi by the way):

Stand ye calm and resolute,
Like a forest close and mute,
With folded arms and looks which are
Weapons of unvanquished war,

And  the profound advice of:

Then it is to feel revenge
Fiercely thirsting to exchange
Blood for blood,and wrong for wrong,
Do not thus when ye are strong.

All these tracts are from Mask of Anarchy written in 1819. They quicken the pulse, give me strength and belief to continue campaigning. Again, there is intellectual rigour, Shelley was s most perceptive social and political thinker.

The incomparable Thomas Paine…and more.

Finally, amongst the many others I must mention Thomas Paine.  His works are a continuing inspiration and many of his comments are so forward thinking that I can post them on social media with little or no modification! For example this from The American Crisis

Those who expect to reap the blessings of freedom must, like men, undergo the fatigue of supporting it.

or this

I believe in the equality of man; and I believe that religious duties consist in doing justice, loving mercy, and endeavouring to make our fellow-creatures happy.

Of course there are many more too numerous to mention.  Finally, one thing (only one!!) about the Windsor family intrigues me. Have any of them read Shelley or Tom Paine.? What do they feel?  Are they as repelled by the ideas as powerfully as I am attracted? Or do they simply pretend that these greats don’t exist – probably quite tricky when they meet people such the US President, though).  Maybe it is a background issue, that a boy from a small town in a valley of South-East Wales will have a different reaction to someone spending all their time amongst privileged peers. If the great egalitarian literature leaves them cold then I genuinely pity the joy they are denied.  Their lives are shrunken and dull.  I have sometimes wondered that perhaps I am a Republican by upbringing, that my father encouraged debate and independent thought.  I hold it as one of his most important gifts to me  and I still consider contestability the greatest defence  against fascism and other forms of authoritarianism. So maybe I am compelled to question everything and to expect it throughout society!

Not forgetting the all-important faculty of reason

Proper debate means using reason to draw conclusions from premises. So a brief mention about the head rather than the heart. It is brief since most of the posts in my blog actually deal in some way with the rational application of republicanism which I consider to be crucially concerned with the accountability of political power.  I became a Republican, in the sense of being an anti-monarchist, decades ago when an early teenager (even before the Sex Pistols sang about it!!).  At about the time of the first EU (or then Common Market) referendum I looked at the other countries in Europe and found that the largest were Republics; France, Italy, West Germany.  The reasons seemed logical, rational and sensible. Later, much much later, I questioned why I found monarchism so unacceptable.

This coincided with a quest to find a reasonable definition of freedom and led me on a search through the work of philosopher Isaiah Berlin (Two Concepts of Liberty), back to the aforementioned Richard Overton and the Roman statesman and theorist Cicero.  I discovered the work of modern day authors Quentin Skinner (Liberty before Liberalism) and Philip Pettit (Republicanism) amongst other thinkers and theorists.  Their ideas, termed Civic Republicanism, are actually part of an ongoing dialogue to work out how people can live without being subject to the control of other individuals and groups.  This great project started with the ancient Greeks such as Aristotle and Polybius, through Cicero and Machiavelli (yes ‘Old Nick’) and, right up to the present day. In fact I have a suspicion that the working out of Republicanism will never end, which is one of the attractions for me. More than a system I consider it a process which is adaptable as we progress as human beings.

You will find more information and references to the people mentioned in this post in the Resources area of my blog. Thank you for reading this more indulgent of posts!

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