Virtue and a mixed government: Laurentius Goslicius’ republican theory in context
Added: 2017-10-30
Added: 2017-10-30


The aim of this article is to analyse the relationship between virtue and a mixed constitution which became very prominent in the Polish republican theories of the sixteenth century. One of such theories was presented by Laurentius Grimaldius Goslicius in his treatise De optimo senator libri duo which was first published in Venice in 1568. An interesting context for Goslicius’ work is provided by the Renaissance humanism, the institutional development of Rzeczpospolita as a mixed polity (monarchia mixta), and a comparison of the normative foundations of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth with the aristocratic republic of Venice as depicted at the time by Gasparo Contarini. This last context is particularly interesting for my analysis as it allows for a comparison of two different sources of a good political order called civitas libera: virtue and institutions.


By the end of the sixteenth century a number of political treatises advocating aristocratic republicanism were translated into English including Francesco Patrizi’s A Morale Methode (1576), Valerius’ The Casket of Iewels (1571), Laurentius Grimalius Goslicius’ The Covnsellor (1598) and Gasparo Contarini’s The Commonwealth and Gouernment of Venice (1599), in order to strengthen the reception of republican ideas in England. These works shared certain political concepts that gained prominence in Florence, Venice and Poland in the fifteenth and the sixteenth centuries and found advocates among English authors by the end of the sixteenth century. Neither Polish nor English authors, however, argued against monarchy, they were in favour of a mixed monarchy, or, to use the term which gained currency in today’s scholarship, a monarchical republic[1]. As a mixed commonwealth, a monarchical republic was to be based on the supremacy of the law – the guiding principle of the polity which had a very strong normative justification strengthen by the renaissance humanism, which influenced intellectual life in Poland in the fifteenth century. Acknowledging the natural genesis of the state, Cracovian commentators of Aristotle’s Politics noted that politics was “the domain of the people who are free, equal by nature, enjoying the same rights and the same equality” (Politica est principatus libero- rum naturaliter equalium, eodem iure et eadem equalitate)[2]. Wawrzyniec of Raciborz stressed the usefulness of political knowledge claiming that “if we knew the good and the bad method of ruling of a polity we would govern it, as well-organised as it can be, in the best possible way”[3]. He was a supporter of the principle princeps legibus alligatus arguing that the law was the best check on power and must be placed higher than the guarantee originating from the moral virtue of the ruler. The role of the law was essential because the goal of the political organisation of a community was the good of this community and the function of law – the God-given natural law as well as the established one - was to secure the attainment of the public good[4]. Stanisław of Skarbimierz presented a similar conception of respublica echoing st. Augustine of Hippo: “Justice being taken away, then, what are kingdoms but great robberies?”[5] He argued that political authority could not function without justice, the most perfect foundation of the political order, and there was nothing more harmful for a political community than injustice[6]. Interestingly, Stnisław found the second most important foundation of a good political order in harmony and unanimity of the polity which could be best attained by good manners, as indicated by Sallust, and not by military advantage[7]. Polish fifteenth century humanism was thus providing a good foundation for ethical and political considerations concerning  the rule of law and civic virtue that matured in the republican treatises of the sixteenth century.


         Virtue is necessary for the preservation of liberty and the government of law is always superior to the government of men. – these were the central themes in Goslicius and to some extent in Gasparo Contarini and other republican authors at the time. High offices like those of senators or magistracies were supposed to be setting an example of virtue. But what exactly is the role of virtue and institutions in the preservation of a res publica? Does the achievement of virtue make the institutional order of secondary importance, or is it, like in the Venetian constitution, that only well-designed institutions can protect from corruption because we cannot always rely on virtue? These are the crucial questions addressed by Gosclicius and Contarini whose positions differ significantly; Goslicius emphasized the role of virtues while Contarini favoured institutional arrangements. Whereas modern constitutionalism, first in James Harrington and later in the Founding Fathers would follow Contarini, it was Goslicius’ position that was, arguably, closer to the classical republican tradition.

         Fifteenth century brings to the fore the conviction that the authority of the monarch does not come from God, but from the people which can be found in Paweł Włodkowic (Paulus Vladimiri) and later on in Stanisław Zaborowski. Preabsolutist positions like those presented by Łukasz of Wielki Koźmin and Stanisław of Kluczbork were rare; the main current of political thinking was to follow Włodkowic and more broadly the conciliarist movement that laid a theoretical foundation for the idea of representation. The expectation that the king must obey the law and is only an administrator of Rzeczpospolita, powerfully expressed by Stanislaw Zaborowski at the turn of the 16th century[8] went hand in hand with the growing role of the Sejm secured by the constitution Nihil Novi of 1505. The citizens of Rzeczpospolita secured their privileged position first described by Artistotle as those who rule and are ruled in turn. Being ruled in the context of the Jagiellonian Commonwealth meant, above all, being subject to the law and not to someone elses’s will. Thus the law was supposed to be formulated by consent. The three estates in the Sejm were engaged in consensual political discourse that preceded decision – making. Active political participation of the nobility in the workings of the Sejm (Senate and Izba Poselska) and in the local assemblies (sejmiki) had a formative role for the Jagiellonian political culture which fully matured in the 16th century.

Mixed government and mixed (virtuous) character

         One of the key categories of the political culture of Rzeczpospolita and its political discourse were the category of civitas libera understood as a free, mixed polity and the category of virtue or a virtuous character of the citizen. A mixed government as presented first by Aristotle combined two types of mixture. The first was a mixture of two or three types of political constitutions (eg. monarchy and aristocracy in Plato or democracy and  oligarchy in Aristotle  and subsequently monarchy, aristocracy and democracy in Polybius and Cicero) and the second was a proper mixture of human character which produced virtuous character of citizens and especially those who were of the middle class. Some of the Renaissance authors, for example Contarini and Francesco Guiciardini were skeptical about human nature and did not expect that virtuous character would predominate in any political community. They advocated instead either a balanced, mixed constitution like the one of Venice (Contarini) or a stronger role of the monarch combined with the normative basis of the republican political order (Guiciardini)[9].

         The mixed government was traditionally considered to be better balanced and more stable than pure governments as it relied on the rule of law and citizens’ participation (political liberty). Polish-Lithuanian nobility supported the mixed government of Rzeczpospolita in which the role of the Sejm was at least as important as that of the monarch. The Commonwealth was supposed to be “the kind of government which has regard not only for the power of a king, but also for the liberty of citizens.”[10] On the empirical level, the mixed constitution of Rzeczpospolita was the best possible ways to secure the balance between the ruling estates and preventing absolutum dominium.

          In what follows I would like to consider one of the key preoccupations of the Polish republican authors of the sixteenth and early seventeenth century which was the second type of mixture as required for a res publica to flourish: a virtuous character. I will consider the context for this concern and how it differed from the position taken by other republican humanists, especially Contarini.

         Late fifteenth and sixteenth century in Poland-Lithuania marks the height of the Renaissance humanism and republicanism which were deeply influenced by the classical heritage of the ancient Greek and Roman philosophy. Political thought of the Polish Renaissance was largely influenced by classical works of Plato, Aristotle and Cicero, but also by Italian scholars, such as Bruni, Contarini, Machiavelli and Guicciardini. They shared not only the idea of the best political order as embodied in a well-ordered res publica, but also the idea of vita activa civilis, active citizenship that required virtuous preoccupation with the common good. Polish fifteenth and especially sixteenth century political writers and philosophers saw in these ideas combined with the republican understanding of liberty the foundations of the Polish and later on Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth. They were also guiding principles for education and customs. During that period that the three terms “law”, “liberty” and “res publica” became intertwined in a broader conception of a well-ordered political community, civitas libera, which was seen as the only guarantee of liberty and the public good. For the authors who belong to this political tradition, one of the central questions concerned the nature of the conditions that needed to be fulfilled in order to meet the requirements of civil liberty and political obligation. Unlike modern political philosophers who introduced the language of rights, they understood civil freedom as being one of the benefits derived from living under a well-ordered, virtuous government – res publica.

         It can be argued that sixteenth century brought about an exceptional political development of Rzeczpospolita, which Polish noble intellectuals would compare to that of the Roman and Venetian republics. They were not, however, interested in either imitating some of their institutional devices or in learning from their experience. Success of Rzeczpospolita was supposed to be as unique as that of Rome or Venice and resulted from the wisdom of its ancestors[11] who designed the foundations for its final shape of a res publica, a free political community concerned with the public good. Goslicius who shared this ideal, similarly to other sixteenth century republican authors, tried to find answers to several fundamental questions. The first was the attempt to address the question what is a res publica. The second was the question concerning the best form of a res publica, its constitution. The third question was that of how to preserve a good political order that facilitates the accomplishment of such goals of the commonwealth as happy and quiet life, political stability and liberty. His search had both a theoretical and a practical dimension. Drawing from ancient philosophers and historians, notably Plato, Aristotle, Cicero and Polybius, as well as from a particular political experience of Rzeczpospolita he tried to envisage what was the best political order that was attainable and that could be preserved for many generations. Goslicius’ De optimo senatore was written as a speculum principium or the mirror for princes which, similarly to Erasmus’ Institutio principis Christiani (1515) and numerous other mirrors for princes, was to provide instructions for the rulers, in this case for senators, but went far beyond that developing a republican political theory deeply influenced by the classical authors.

         De optimo senatore was dedicated to king Sigismund Augustus and in many ways it referred to the Polish institutional and social context. The first half of the sixteenth in Poland was marked by a decisive victory of parliamentarism built into a mixed government which combined three elements: the monarch, the Diet - Izba Poselska (democratic component) and the Senate (aristocratic component) and unlike in England it was the popular element in the constitution – the representation of the Polish nobility consisting of at least ten percent of the entire population that was gaining more influence in the decision-making process than the other two. The 1605 Constitution Nihil Novi stated that nothing new could be decided without consent of nobility expressed by Izba Poselska in the Sejm (paraliament). It strengthened political liberties of citizens and successfully limited any attempts of the king to strive towards absolutism.

         In both the Polish and the Italian contexts, re spublica was understood as a free, independent and self-governing political community, a civitas libera, a free political community that enjoyed both external and internal independence. Citizens of res publica could exercise both personal freedom and political rights and the only binding power came from the law. In other words, they had no master except the law, but they were also supposed to share commitment to the preservation of the commonwealth and the obligation to act for the common good. Consequently, instead of a theory of liberty a conception of political obligation predominated similar to that of Francisco Suarez who stressed that political obligation has twofold character, it binds the ruler and the ruled, the king and the citizens for it bestows obligations on both sides[12]. The ruler needed to fulfill obligations towards the subjects without oppression whereas from the subjects loyalty and obedience were expected.

         Goslicius shared the conviction, common in the sixteenth century Renaissance humanism, that philosophy which did not serve the commonwealth was of little use. His goal was to establish the principles of a scientia civilis which, like in Aristotle, was teleological for it was concerned primarily with the goal of a res publica and that goal was defined as the good of the commonwealth that is the happiness of the people. One had to determine what was ‘the best life for men’ and after that ‘the best form of government can be found’[13]. Goslicius uses Plato’s allegory of different types of men made either by gold or silver or brass. This conviction that the best form of government can be found results in his praise of the mixed constitution in which harmony and political concord were the greatest and in which the middle element, the Senate plays a very significant role as the vehicle of wisdom and virtue.[14] A mixed government was seen as a source of unity following Cicero’s argument that res publica does not exclude anyone. This unity could not be achieved without some supreme authority and the question to address was who should hold this supreme authority. The central theme of De optiomo Senatore, especially of its second part, is the examination of the role and character of senators presented in the manner of a speculum. Goslicius seems to believe that the aristocratic element of the mixed constitution embodied in those who possess both wisdom and virtue is the best guardian of the unity of the whole. He also supports elective monarchy arguing that the king should be endowed with the right to rule thanks to his royal virtues and the appropriate qualifications and only such a king can be regarded as the divinely appointed accomplisher of God’s will. Giving the example of Romulus – an elected king – Goslicius presents an outright denunciation of a hereditary monarchy as tyranny arguing that the election of the king is typical for freest peoples and those who hate tyranny.[15] In Poland, the concept of election of a monarch was evolving ever since the death of Casimir the Great, the last king of the Piast dynasty, in 1370. In 1568 the approaching extinction of the House of Jagiellon implied that election would follow political bargaining between the nobles and equestrian estate with prospective candidate to the Polish throne. By the end of the sixteenth century elective monarchy was to become one of the major institutional safeguards of liberty of the nobility and one of the major obstacles to absolutism. Goslicius argued that the king should be limited by the law, keeping to what is morally virtuous, honest in his actions and abiding by the consensus of the senate. The monarch was to be the supreme guarantor of the law in Rzeczpospolita while the senators its guardians and preservers – legume custodies, libertatum moderators.

         One of the major aspects of the Polish republican theory, shared by Goslicius, was the conviction that the condition, the character of res publica depends entirely on the character of citizens, their manners, customs and above all virtues. Political virtue was to serve the public good and the maintenance of public liberty whereas opinion and numbers which govern in democracy were above any true and unwavering standard of political action. If good government were to be restrained by good laws these would have to be established in accordance with the strict rules of justice and good policy that required recta ratio, the right judgment. Thus Goslicius’ starting point is always the normative foundations and even when they are mixed with a description of the real, for example the Polish or Venetian constitution, it is the ideal that serves the purpose of providing foundations to his scientia civile, a public philosophy. This mode of thinking is evident in Goslicius’ conclusion that the best government is the one in which the people are most happy and since virtue is the cause and foundation of all happiness, it must necessarily follow that the best government is the one in which the highest place is reserved for the most virtuous[16] Virtue needs to be proved in the public life and De optimo senatore can be read as a treatise on that topic. True wisdom was to be attained by experience and virtue referred to the right type of action. On this reading, what binds the individual and the community are, among other things, shared moral values – virtues supported by customs and the law. Like Peripathetics, Goslicius argued that the best way of living was that which was directed at the attainment of virtue and external goods. Similarly to Seneca, he believed that the best life was a combination of vita activa and vita contemplativa both guided by virtue.[17]

Virtues or institutions?

Goslicius and Contarini provide two very influential accounts of a well-ordered commonwealth each stressing the importance of a different aspect. Whereas the former pays much attention to virtues and wisdom of those who are responsible for the common good the latter does not expect that virtues will prevail, but instead trusts the institutional order of the Venetian republic. A comparison of these two visions should shed much light on the later development of republicanism in Europe which to a large extent followed Contarini and not Goslicius. Can we find in Contarini good reasons for explaining why only ‘a mechanization of virtue’[18] may successfully maintain a good political order in the long term?

         Contarini’s work De Magistratibus et Republica Ventorum Libri Quinque (1551) addresses the most important problem in the classical republican theory: how it may be possible to construct and maintain constitutional arrangements of a well-functioning republican order and promote a credible commitment to them, when the body politic itself is constituted by imperfect and self-interested human beings.[19]) Contarini learnt from the Venetian constitution and Venetian history that the real source of res publica was found in the law, in those sacred laws established by Venice’s fathers seen as the only source (except for God) – higher than man himself – of a lasting political order. Man’s fallibility could not be overcome, but it could be neutralized or constrained by a higher order of rules translated into an institutional framework that shapes political action. Goslicius who was educated at Venice must have been aware of both Contarini’s approach and the way the Venetian constitution functioned.[20] However, his philosophical perspective (like that of other Polish republican writers of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries) was different and more radical.

Contarini’s De magistratibus et republica Venetorum libri duo presents a complex institutional structure of the Venetian republic and situates Venetian experience in a historical and philosophical context, but above all it reveals how institutional and legal arrangements can sustain a thriving republic allowing for true citizenship in the Aristotelian sense of ruling and being ruled in. This is the most important aspect of Contarini’s work for our analysis.  The government of law is always superior to the rule of man, this statement is perhaps the best justification of a mixed polity, whether it is a mixed monarchy or a mixed aristocracy. Both Contarini and Goslicius praised the law as a unifying principle of res publica, but they also understood that unity required some supreme authority, a monarch or a Doge. Contarini emphasized that the duty of the Doge was to give special care to the common good, to conserve the common good and the perfection of civil agreement, to “direct everything with moderation”[21]. In Goslicius it was political virtue that served the public good and the maintenance of public liberty. The king as well as the senator had to practice political virtue.

         Although Venice was taken by many Polish authors, including Gosclicius, as the best contemporary example of a free, well-ordered rzeczpospolita (res publica), none of them was much preoccupied with the institutional arrangements of the Venetian constitution. Contarini’s discussion of this peculiar institutional context provides something that was missing in the Polish discourse and engages in a different scientia civilis.

         The phrase a ‘mechanization of virtue’ was used by Pocock when he referred to Contarini’s observation that the Venetians managed to construct laws that made citizens act in a virtuous manner and thus contributed to the endurance of the republican institutions and republican spirit. The mito de Venezia consists in the assertion that Venice possessed a set of regulations for decision-making which ensured the complete rationality of every decision and the complete virtue of every decision-maker. Venetians “are not inherently more virtuous than other men, but they possess institutions which make them so.”[22]). The mechanization of virtue was a process of subjecting human passions to some firm principles and rules that supported and at the same time demanded moral and ethical behaviour. The virtue of the founders of Venice was translated into the laws that became “sacred” and their role was to preserve virtue and protect from corruption of any kind. Not so much the moral character of the citizens as Goslicius assumed, but a legal mechanisms, the establishment of fundamental enduring laws became of key importance for the Venetian commonwealth in which sovereignty, the summa imperii, belonged not to men, but rather to the law.[23] Contarini’s goal was to “describe such a form of a commonwealth as is most just and perfect and most prevailing among men, in which the regal authority and power of the people are happily tempered and moderated by the Prudence and Wisdom of a Senate.[24] The Venetian republic was a balanced, “mixed” political order, which can also be described as an aristocratic republic that used complex structures of both monarchical (the doge) and aristocratic nature (Maggior Consiglio). It was assumed that for the success of the Venetian mixed polity to keep corruption at bay in the public life, some institutional mechanisms were better suited than a reliance on virtuous character of its citizens: “If one thought of virtù, as one might, as the taking of decisions directed at the public good, and if one thought of the sala del consiglio grande as an enormous physical device for eliminating extraneous pressures and ensuring—almost enforcing—rationality in choosing for the public good, then one thought of Venetian government in a way for which such a phrase as "the mechanization of virtù" though anachronistic, is not inappropriate. No less than the image of a Polybian perfection of equilibrium, the belief that the Venetians had achieved this was a potent element of the mito of Venezia.”[25] As Conti observed, the main source of virtue was to be found in the laws of Venice, “the sacred laws”[26], which had been designed to protect what was appropriate and prevent what was corruptible. The mechanization of virtue was a process of subjecting human passion to some firm principles and rules that support and at the same time demand moral and ethical behaviour. Among these rules a prominent role was played by electoral systems, in which drawing lots was mixed with the secret ballot. Each election had its own rules and the complexity of the system was supposed to produce the greatest impartiality.[27]

         In reality, the mechanization of virtue established by the Venetian constitution was a response to a pessimistic view of human nature which we also find in Florentine political writings of the time, especially in Machiavelli, Guicciardni and Giovanni Botero, the author of Della ragione di stato (1589). Was this view shared also by the most prominent Polish republican thinkers of the sixteenth century such as Goslicius and Frycz Modrzewski? This is perhaps the most important question for further examination. If philosophical reflection on politics is to some extent guided by historical or factual evidence then obviously it would be difficult to disagree with the skeptical view of human nature, but philosophical reflection usually goes beyond facts and is interested in the essence of things, in the very nature of what it investigates. For the Polish political culture of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries Goslicius’ position might not have been very practicable, but it certainly dominated the discourse and seemed to be in tune with what we would call today the national character.


[1] Patric Collison, ‘The Monarchical Republic of Queen Elizabeth I’, Bulletin of the John Rylands University Library of Manchester,1987; John F. McDiarmid (ed.), The Monarchical Republic of Early Modern England: Essays in Response to Patrick Collinson, London, Routledge, 2007.

[2] As cited in Paweł Czartoryski, Wczesna recepcja „Polityki” Arystotelesa na Uniwersytecie Krakowskim, Wrocław, 1963, p. 188.

[3] Ibid., p. 161.

[4] See. Konstanty Grzybowski, Rozwój myśli państwowej na Uniwersytecie Krakowskim w pierwszej połowie XV wieku, in Dzieje Uniwersytetu Jagiellońskiego w latach 1364-1764, ed. Kazimierz Lepszy, Kraków 1964, p. 149.

[5] Stanisław of Skarbimierz, Mowy wybrane o mądrości, Kraków 1997, p. 165 (cf. St. Augustine of Hippo, The City of God, various editions, book IV).

[6] Stanisław of Skarbimierz, Mowy wybrane o mądrości, p. 165.

[7] Ibid., p. 169. See Sallust, De coniuratione Catilinae, various editions, 52, 19-22.

[8] Stanisław Zaborowski, Tractatus de natura iurium et bonorum regis et reformatione regni ac eius rei publicae regimine incipit feliciter, in Rerum publicarum scientiae quae saeculo XV in Polonia viguit monumenta litteraria, ed. curavit M. Bobrzyński, Cracovia 1878, I.3.

[9] Francesco Guicciardini, Discorso di Logrogno, in A. Moulakis, Republican Realism in Renaissanc Florence: Francesco Guicciardini’s Discorso di Logrogno, Lanham, 1998, p. 148. In Poland this was the position of Krzysztof Warszewicki and Piotr Skarga.

[10] Krzysztof Warszewicki, O najlepszym stanie wolności [De optimo statu libertatis libri Duo, 1598], in Krzysztofa Warszewickiego i Anonima uwagi o wolności szlacheckiej, ed. K. Koehler, Kraków, 2010, p. 378.

[11] See especially Stanisław Orzechowski, Mowa na pogrzebie Zygmunta I, in S. Orzechowski, Wybór pism, Wrocław, 1972, p. 58-59.

[12] Francisco de Suárez, Tractatus de legibus ac deo legislatore: in decem libros distributus, Neapoli, 1872, 3.2.4, p. 165.

[13]Laurentii Grimalii Goslicii De Optimo Senatore Libri Duo, Basileae, 1593, p. 22.

[14] Ibid., p. 33, 34.

[15] Ibid, p. 61.

[16]Wawrzyniec Goslicki (Laurentius Goslicius), The Accomplished Senator in Two Books trans. L. Lekwenor, (edition 1733), Gale Ecco Printed Editions, 2010, p. 39.

[17] Ibid., p. 25.

[18] This term was coined by John Pocock, The Machiavellian Moment: Florentine Political Thought and the Atlantic Republican Tradition, Princeton 1975

[19] see e.g. David Wootton (ed.), Republicanism, Liberty and Commercial Society, 1649-1776, Stanford; 1994. Pocock , The Machiavellian Moment…, 1975; Quentin Skinner, ‘A Genealogy of the Modern State’, Proceedings of the British Academy, Vol. 162, 2009, pp. 325-370.

[20] See Teresa Bałuk-Ulewiczowa, Goslicius' Ideal Senator and His Cultural Impact Over the Centuries: Shakespearean Reflections, PAU, Kraków, 2009, pp. 50-51.

[21] Gasparo Contarini, De magistratibus et Republica Ventorum, apud Baldum Sabinum, 1551, p. 128. The same topic was addressed in 1459 by Poggio Bracciolini’s Laudem Rei Publicae Venetorum in which he observed that the key to Venice’s achievement was the fact that the city was ruled by many ancient and noble families so that public offices were entrusted only to persons of outstanding capacities within the ranks of the nobility. In such system no role was prescribed to the body of the people, be it the entire nobility like in the Polish case where the principle of equality, birth alone was decisive when it came to political rights including the right to participate in legislation. With such measures Venice could avoid internal discord and dissension.

[22]  Pocock, The Machiavellian Moment…, p. 324.

[23] Giovanni Silvano, La Republica de’ Viniziani, Florence, L.S. Olschki, 1993, p. 88

[24] Gasparo Contarini, De magistratibus…, p. 9.

[25] Pocock, The Machiavellian Moment, p. 285.

[26] Conti, in M. Van Gelderen, Martin, and Q. Skinner (eds.), Republicanism : A Shared European Heritage, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002, Vol. 2, p. 76.

[27] See Contarini, De Magistratibus…, book 2, pp. 42-53.

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