James Harrington, The Common-Wealth of Oceana: A rare variant of the first edition

James Harrington, The Common-Wealth of Oceana: A rare variant of the first edition

HARRINGTON, James (1611-1677). The Common-Wealth of Oceana. London : Printed for D. Pakeman, and are to be sold at his shop at the Rainbow in Fleet-street, 1656. First edition. [12], 239, [1], 255-286, 189-210, [2] pp. 27 cm. Original covers laid down on a full leather binding. Discreet repairs to initial pages, foxing, early ink stains, new endpapers. Presents very handsomely.

First edition of Harrington's influential treatise on political theory, the rare “Pakeman” variant.

Like Thomas More and Francis Bacon before him, Harrington employed the devices of fiction to depict the ideal state. But unlike Utopia and the New Atlantis, Oceana did not represent an imaginary no-place or lost island: Oceana was recognizably England, one representing an imminent future extending from the circumstances of a familiar history. Following the collapse of monarchy and the welling of political disorder in the 1640s, Harrington drew upon Machiavelli and other humanists to limn a commonwealth characterized by the principles of equality and popular democracy.

 As J. G. A. Pocock has argued, in addition to structuring the foundations for a particularly English model of Republican governance, the book served also to reconcile readers to the turmoils of their recent past by presenting revolution as a sign not of political chaos but of growth. “The central significance of The Commonwealth of Oceana, and the central reason for regarding its author as a creative genius,” writes Pocock, “is not that it is utopian or republican, but that it confronts the problem of de facto authority by offering, for the first time in intellectual history, an explanation of the English Civil Wars as a revolution, produced by the erosion of one political structure and the substitution of another through processes of long-term social change.”[1] 

Oceana was published simultaneously in two editions, one by Livewell Chapman, the other by Daniel Pakeman. Each was irregularly paginated and vermiculated with error, and Harrington was unhappy with both, as he makes clear in the Epistle to the Reader that opens the text. There are numerous small variants between the two editions as well as a few major ones – Chapman and Pakeman used different types, for example. These differences are significant: because virtually no personal papers by Harrington have survived, it is only in the interstices of textual variation that we can discern the nuances of the author’s intentions. Editors have generally preferred the Pakeman text – this was the basis for the editions prepared by Liljegren (1924) and Pocock (1977), though Pocock’s later edition (1992) combined material from both Chapman and Pakeman.

Though it is the preferred text, Pakeman is also much rarer. There are four copies of the first edition of Oceana on the market as of this writing, all the Chapman variant. Though OCLC is all but useless here (most of the copies identified as firsts are eBooks or reprints), it is clear that the vast majority of those libraries that do own an actual 1656 edition have only the Chapman.


[1] J. G. A. Pocock, “Introduction” in James Harrington, The Commonwealth of Oceana and A System of Politics (Cambridge UP, 1992), p. xix.


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