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FAPESP Week France


Back to news   |   23/11/2019 17:22

New interpretations of republican thought

Alberto Ribeiro Gonçalves de Barros (FFLCH-USP) highlights the importance that English republicanism has assumed in the revival of republican thought in recent years, presenting itself as an alternative to the different forms of liberalism.

By Heitor Shimizu, from Lyon  |  Agência FAPESP  – Studies on English republicanism and its concept of liberty have returned to the spotlight in the field of political theory in the last few decades. The theme was addressed by the professor of the School of Philosophy, Arts, and Human Sciences of the University of São Paulo (FFLCH-USP) Alberto Ribeiro Gonçalves de Barros (photo) last Friday (11/22), at FAPESP Week France.

“The definition of liberty as non-domination does not correspond to the meaning given by the republican tradition. It derives from a partial and problematic historical interpretation of republican thought,” said Gonçalves de Barros.

According to the researcher, neo-republicanism merely expresses the perspective of English republicanism, distancing itself from important sources of modern republicanism, such as the political thoughts of Niccolò Machiavelli (1469-1527) and Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712-1778).

“This revival in political theory aims to present republicanism as a valuable alternative to the different forms of liberalism. Studies on English republicanism and its concept of liberty have assumed an important place in the republican thought of the last few decades. Since the publication of The Machiavellian Moment: Florentine Political Thought and the Atlantic Republican Tradition [1975], by John Pocock, English republicanism has often been interpreted as a manifestation of Machiavelli’s republicanism, which was later transmitted to the American colonies and played an important role in the American Revolution and in the formation of American values,” he said.

Republican (or neo-republican) theoretical thinking emerged at the end of the 1980s, its exponents being the Irishman Phillip Pettit, from a Political Philosophy point of view, and the Englishman Quentin Skinner, from a History point of view.

Pettit and, in particular, Skinner, postulated the idea of liberty as “non-domination” or as “non-arbitrariness” as an alternative to the “two liberties” defined by Isaiah Berlin (1909-1997) – negative and positive liberty. The former consists of the direct participation of citizens in political life, in Rousseau’s ideal in which everyone participates in public life and there is no private life. All citizens are free because they submit to the laws that they themselves have made.

Negative liberty consists of the uninhibited action of citizens in their lives and of a limited State. Citizens take part in political life by choosing representatives. This is the liberal ideal described by John Locke (1632-1704).

Liberty and civic participation

Gonçalves de Barros explains that Skinner and Pettit took English republicanism as a main reference to address contemporary political problems.

“Arguing that English republicanism was merely a very particular expression of republican thought draws attention to the limits of neo-republicanism itself. Skinner and Pettit presented the republican conception of liberty as an option to overcome the dichotomy between negative and positive liberty,” he said.

According to Gonçalves de Barros, while classical republicanism (since Rome) asserted that, in order to enjoy civil liberty, it was necessary to establish harmony and unity in the political body, Machiavelli emphasized the need to learn to preserve liberty within conflict.

“The 17th century British republicans – John Milton [1608-1674], Marchamont Nedham [1620-1678], James Harrington [1611-1677], and Algernon Sidney [1623-1683] – did not take up this fundamental idea. They completely rejected Machiavelli’s positive view of the outcomes of civil conflicts,” he said.

“While these British authors used Machiavelli’s arguments to praise the Commonwealth, they didn’t embrace fundamental principles of his republicanism. There was only a partial and selective adoption of Machiavellian ideas. English republicanism was more a synthesis of classical republicanism with common law principles in a modern political language of interests than the expression of Machiavelli’s republicanism,” he said.

The FAPESP Week France symposium is taking place between November 21st and 27th, thanks to a partnership between FAPESP and the Universities of Lyon and Paris, both in France. Read other news about the event at

Photo credit: Heitor Shimizu / Agência FAPESP