In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Republicanism

  • Introduction
  • General Overview
  • Republican Self-Government

Political Science Republicanism
Frank Lovett
  • LAST REVIEWED: 29 September 2015
  • LAST MODIFIED: 29 September 2015
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199756223-0136


The term “republicanism” has many meanings, but in contemporary political theory and philosophy it is most often used in two related senses. On the one hand, it refers to a distinct tradition or family of writers in the history of political thought, the main line of which runs from Machiavelli through Harrington to Madison, incorporating a great many other fellow travelers along the way. The writers in this tradition held numerous common ideas and concerns, such as the importance of civic virtue and an active citizenry, the benefits of a mixed constitution and the rule of law, and above all a passionate commitment to political liberty. These writers are sometimes called the “classical republicans,” in part because of their fondness for using classical examples most often drawn from Cicero and the Latin historians. On the other hand, the term “republicanism” also refers to the contemporary heirs of that tradition—and especially to the “civic republicans” such as Philip Pettit and Quentin Skinner—who aim to develop insights from the classical republican tradition into an attractive political doctrine suitable for modern pluralistic societies. Central to their efforts have been an interpretation of political liberty as freedom from arbitrary power or domination, together with an instrumental rather than perfectionist argument for civic virtue. The contemporary civic republicans regard their doctrine as an inclusive and progressive alternative to mainstream liberalism, one that avoids familiar problems and pitfalls associated with communitarian or populist approaches.

General Overview

The most important contemporary republican text is Pettit 1997: this work was decisive in presenting the republican tradition as a unified and rigorous public philosophy that could address a wide range of contemporary issues and concerns in a compelling manner. Published around the same time, Skinner 1998 has cemented a complementary historical interpretation of the classical republican tradition. Together, these are far and away the most frequently cited sources on contemporary republican political theory. Both have built on earlier efforts at revitalizing the republican tradition, such as Skinner 1984, Sunstein 1988, and Pettit 1989. Broad overviews of republicanism can be found in Viroli 2002, Laborde 2013, or Lovett 2014. Important critical responses include Patten 1996 and Larmore 2001.

  • Laborde, Cécile. “Republicanism.” In The Oxford Handbook of Political Ideologies, Edited by Michael Freeden, Lyman Tower Sargent, and Marc Stears, 513–535. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013.

    DOI: 10.1093/oxfordhb/9780199585977.001.0001

    An article-length overview of contemporary republicanism, with a focus on its development as an alternative to mainstream liberal political doctrine. Suitable mainly for graduate students and interested scholars.

  • Larmore, Charles. “A Critique of Philip Pettit’s Republicanism.” Philosophical Issues 11 (2001): 229–243.

    DOI: 10.1111/j.1758-2237.2001.tb00045.x

    A sympathetic critical response to Pettit 1997, arguing that republican insights can be incorporated into liberalism without abandoning the latter. Clearly written and accessible to advanced undergraduates, as well as graduate students and scholars.

  • Lovett, Frank. “Republicanism.” In The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Edited by Edward N. Zalta. 2014.

    An article-length overview of both contemporary republicanism and historical debates regarding the classical republican tradition, directed mainly at graduate students and scholars.

  • Patten, Alan. “The Republican Critique of Liberalism.” British Journal of Political Science 26 (1996): 25–44.

    DOI: 10.1017/S0007123400007407

    The most-cited critical response to civic republicanism, this article argues that those republican ideas which are not flawed are indistinguishable from ideas already present in the liberal tradition. Somewhat technical.

  • Pettit, Philip. “The Freedom of the City: A Republican Ideal.” In The Good Polity. Edited by Alan Hamlin and Philip Pettit, 141–168. Oxford: Blackwell, 1989.

    One of the earlier attempts to present republicanism as an attractive public philosophy suitable to modern conditions.

  • Pettit, Philip. Republicanism: A Theory of Freedom and Government. Oxford: Clarendon, 1997.

    The most important and influential statement of contemporary civic republican doctrine. After presenting a detailed account of the republican conception of freedom as non-domination, Pettit outlines a public philosophy in which promoting freedom so understood is regarded as the central value. Clearly written and engaging, this work is suitable for advanced undergraduates as well as graduate students and scholars.

  • Skinner, Quentin. “The Idea of Negative Liberty: Philosophical and Historical Perspectives.” In Philosophy of History: Essays on the Historiography of Philosophy. Edited by Richard Rorty, J. B. Schneewind, and Quentin Skinner, 193–221. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1984.

    DOI: 10.1017/CBO9780511625534

    An earlier attempt to reinterpret the classical republicanism, this article has been influential in explaining the instrumental connection between civic virtue and liberty in Machiavelli’s writings.

  • Skinner, Quentin. Liberty before Liberalism. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1998.

    Published around the same time as Pettit 1997, this short book reinterprets the English republican writers such as Harrington, Milton, and Sidney as centrally committed to a conception of liberty as non-domination. Though clearly written, it relies on sophisticated historical techniques and often cites primary texts familiar only to specialists.

  • Sunstein, Cass R. “Beyond the Republican Revival.” Yale Law Journal 97 (1988): 1539–1590.

    DOI: 10.2307/796540

    Law review article arguing that the classical republicans, as exemplified by Madison, among others, regarded the importance of civic virtue as instrumental. Influential in suggesting that republicanism might be compatible with modern pluralistic political conditions.

  • Viroli, Maurizio. Republicanism. Translated by Antony Shugaar. New York: Hill and Wang, 2002.

    A relatively short book that reviews both the historical and the contemporary republican tradition, written in an accessible and nontechnical style so as to appeal to a broad audience.

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