The debate over the source and stewardship of supreme power in Polish political discourse of the 16th century
Added: 2017-10-30
Added: 2017-10-30

This article featured in the collective work: Temat polemiki: Polska. Najważniejsze polskie spory ideowo-polityczne, Krakow 2012.


Representatives of the republican discourse who refer to the classical republican tradition, considered that power in a commonwealth, i.e. in a well-organized and just political community, was not to determine the nature of order, but to adapt to the already planned and constituted order. A commonwealth was to be based on an institutional order that would cement freedom, ensure external and internal independence, and thus lay the foundations for civitas libera, a condition of the rule of law and freedom of citizens whose will, rather than the will of the ruler-superior, was to have legislative power. Institutional order, primarily meaning the structure of power and authority, was to safeguard freedom in two dimensions: external, related to civitas libera, to the independence of the community from any external entity, and internal, including the political and personal freedom of citizens who participate in the decision-making process of the political community. This approach was accompanied by the concept of the sovereignty of law as the only real superior one to whom everyone is subject. Stanisław Orzechowski noted in the middle of the 16th century that in Poland “the law so orders the king as the subjects”.[1] Until the middle of the 16th century, however, the king often played a leading role in the process of creating and enforcing law, and his will was considered to be the will of the state.[2] However, this will was supposed to be limited by the rule of law, as the diary of the diet from 1592 pointed out: “Each of us is the heir to this kingdom, to which we elect the king, and so that he would command us in accordance with the law”.[3] It was therefore of fundamental importance to determine who constitutes the law and according to what measures.[4] The political structure, which made nobility – citizens the legislator in the Commonwealth, was supposed to ensure their freedom from domination, as they would be subject to the law to which they gave their own consent.

The dispute that began at this point concerned the importance of two types of mixing which were associated with the mixed political system and clearly recognized by Aristotle. The first refers to the mechanics of the system, the harmonious combination of elements of monarchy, aristocracy, and democracy. The second concerns the well-formed, average nature of citizens, who in their public activity are guided by virtue and duties towards the commonwealth.[5] A Florentine author of this period, Francesco Guicciardini, who was sceptical of human nature and thus of the latter type of mixing, instructed to turn to the strong power of the monarch rather than to rely on the nature of the people. This view was also expressed by some Polish authors, especially Krzysztof Warszewicki, Piotr Skarga and Sebastian Petrycy of Pilzno, postulating not weakening, but strengthening the monarchy while maintaining the normative foundation of the republican order. This would mean that – since this type of mixing, which is involved with the nature of citizens, is difficult to achieve – the mixing related to political mechanics must be strengthened and redesigned so as to clearly empower the one-person governing body and not the collective representative body. Here, however, lies the central problem for the republican political theory, which, after all, regarded the relationship between freedom in both its dimensions and the participation of free persons in setting standards as a key aspect of political order of a commonwealth. A significant narrowing or total exclusion of this participation would not fit in the republican approach. This tension will manifest itself in the dispute about the form of Poland's political system, both in the 16th century and later.

Traditionally, the mixed system was considered superior and more durable than pure systems, because it was not susceptible to degeneration and erosion into its own opposite; the perfect balance of a mixed constitution was supposed to ensure that the system would not be vulnerable to corruption. Freedom and the rule of law were supposed to be best protected in such an order, which is sometimes referred to as respublica mixta or even “monarcha mixta”. According to sixteenth-century humanists, in particular Niccola Machiavelli, but also his precursors, both in Florence and Venice, the sustainability of the republic was to depend on the nature of its citizens and on the sustainability and stability of its institutions and laws. However, the author of the highly influential De magistratibus et Republica Venetorum (1543), Gasparo Contarini, who enjoyed great respect in Poland, emphasized that the second element, i.e. legal and institutional order, is of the greatest importance for the sustainability of the commonwealth. In the 16th century, this statement did not find many followers among political writers – other than those already mentioned. Political writers among the nobility were to decisively stand on the side of the mixed system in which the role of the Sejm, not the monarch, is significant. In the Polish context, particular attention will be paid not only to this balance giving the three deliberating estates of the Sejm equal participation in power, but also to safeguarding the freedom that the mixed system was supposed to provide, allowing the nobility a broad participation in governance. In the relation between power and freedom, the former – equated with a broadly understood self-government, i.e. the executive authority acting in cooperation with the senate and the chamber of deputies – was supposed to ensure freedom, to stand as its guardian and not allow lawlessness, because, as was proclaimed during the preparations for the convocation and election of the king in 1572, it was not for “our will” to be improved, but rather the improvement of liberties “therefore we, who want to be free and freely elect the king, need the most power”.[6] Free election was supposed to be an expression of the enforcement of rights, i.e. maintaining the existing order established by their forebears.[7] In Warszewicki's interpretation, the Commonwealth was based on a system that Aristotle referred to as a mixed system, “therefore one where not only the royal power but also the freedom of citizens should be taken into account”.[8] However, he did not consider the principles of such a system in detail, i.e. the fact that two principles applied in the mixed system established in the Commonwealth: freedom and political equality. The nobility, that is, citizens in the proper sense, who ruled and were ruled together, saw the backbone of their freedom in political equality, manifested in their participation in power.[9]

Theoretical considerations on the subject of power and the mixed system referred to a certain model of respublica mixta[10] derived from Polybius and Cicero, but also found in Aristotle's politei.[11] They were also accompanied by a practical reflection concerning the political form of the Commonwealth, its constitution, the role of the three deliberating estates of the Sejm and their participation in governance, the prerogatives of each of them, the relations between them, the desired balance and unity, the way in which decisions were taken, the principle of universal consent, etc. What had been developed on a theoretical, normative level was to be applied to what existed on the empirical level, thanks to which it became possible to indicate the solid foundations of a republican mixed system, as well as the desired direction of change when these foundations were at risk. On the empirical level relating to systemic and constitutional solutions, the dispute was about how best to secure the balance of estates and prevent the extension of the monarch's power, i.e. how to protect oneself from absolutum dominium. It was manifested both in the executionist movement, and the struggle for the form of the election. Recognising the constant threat posed by the kings' pursuit of domination and concentration of power, analogous to the process that began in other European countries, the nobility in the Commonwealth tried, thanks to its political position, rights and privileges, to maintain a balance within the dualism of power. It therefore considered the mixed system, which it co-created through the chamber of deputies and its active participation in law-making, to be an ideal political order ensuring freedom from domination and the guarantee of personal freedom. It was clear that the mixed system, which, after all, was not without various tensions, and the division of power on which it was based, required justification, especially when there was any threat to freedom, any sign of tyranny. This justification was formulated either by referring to the classical republican tradition and the notion of res publica as a free political community where citizens governed and are governed simultaneously, or by referring to the rights of ancestors who, through their wisdom, provided a lasting political foundation for a free state, just as the Venetian authors did.[12] In Orzechowski's Policyja we find the former type of justification, whereas his Mowa do szlachty polskiej constitutes the latter,[13] which of course are not mutually exclusive.

It is worth noting here that the political theory developed in Poland in the 16th century was an expression of the tendencies that had already emerged in Western countries' political theory. Along with the nominalism of the late medieval period and the recognition of the independence of political power from the clerical authority, the very essence of political power, concentrated in the hands of the monarch, has been weakened. In Poland, such thinking was manifested in the belief that the ruler is to be elected by the people (free election) and that the law is an expression of the people's will (the principle of representation and empowerment of the general Sejm). The tendency expressed in England by John Fortescue, who believed that the king could not stand above the law, was becoming increasingly stronger, and that judges should always be guided by a permanent law, even against the will of the ruler, who can only legislate with the consent of the three estates of the kingdom.[14] In France, such a belief was proclaimed by Jean Gerson, while in Germany by Nicholas of Cusa, who derived power from the people approving the established law, which was also supported by Machiavelli, who referred to the example of France.[15] In the literature of the 14th and 15th century, “the dogma was commonly repeated that man is a political being by nature, but this thesis has slowly been given secondary importance, while emphasizing the voluntary character of the formation of a state created by a specific (contractual) act of subordination”.[16] These tendencies could not be undermined in Poland by Jean Bodin, who, in his 1576 Sześć ksiąg o Rzeczypospolitej, proclaimed the idea of the sovereignty of a monarch subject only to divine and natural law, criticizing Aristotle's concept of citizenship as a co-participation in the establishment of universally binding norms (which is even more explicit in Hobbes's approach), since a citizen is he who is subject to (absolute in the above sense) the monarch's power. Although Bodin ordered the sovereign ruler, who was not supposed to be bound by the established laws, to rule – as far as possible – according to the requirements of the law and not to arbitrary will;[17] he did not, however, allow sovereignty to be extended to the community or group of people, considering that it was indivisible. The prince's power associated with absolute capacity (although not limitless) was understood as “a sovereign kind of command, which is absolute, infinite and above laws”.[18] Such capacity, defined as the power of command of a purely subjective nature, provided the ruler with powers in relation to citizens, going beyond the principle of principes legibus solutus.

The Polish authors were much closer to such concepts as those advocated by Robert Bellarmin, who presented the public authority as belonging directly to the entire community, as if it were a subject, and Francisco Suárez, who followed him, questioning that power was given to anyone directly from God and proclaiming that, by virtue of natural law, power belongs not to the individual-ruler, but to the community of people; the power to legislate belongs to the community that is to be guided by the common good, i.e. a properly organised one.[19] The rule expressed by Aristotle that political power is power over the equal and the free returns here, because in line with such an understanding of power as the one presented by Suárez and also close to some Polish authors, both the rulers and the ruled are subject to it; some are forced to submission resulting both from the nature of political commitment and from civic virtue, while others remain servants of the political community, they execute power as a public service.[20]

In Poland, the anonymous author of Naprawa Rzeczypospolitej stated that we have two kinds of sovereignty over us: “One which subdues the hearts of man with the fear of the Lord” (meaning the provisions of God's law), and “The second one, which metu poenarum, premio virtutum, brings people to duty”, that is, the sovereignty of law in secular order.[21] At the beginning of the 16th century, Stanisław Zaborowski proclaimed, following Paweł Włodkowic as well,[22] that the ruler is not the owner but the administrator of the kingdom, so he cannot treat it as his own property. In Tractatus de natura iurium et bonorum regis (1507) he recognised that royalty was established as a result of the appearance of property and the need to ensure order and justice for people who had originally lived without laws and rulers.[23] The appointment of a monarch was to be preceded by the consent of the people who surrendered to his authority, but only conditionally, for if the king held the laws in contempt and committed unworthy deeds, he should be removed.[24] The law in question resulted from a contract, but it was based on natural law and could therefore become a solid foundation for political order. In a well-organised state, as observed by Warszewicki, an advocate for the strengthening of royal power, the rulers were to take care of fulfilling their duties, remembering that they were elected and put on the throne by the people and for the people, not for themselves, (reges populo porter populum, non sua causa electos et inauguratos esse serecordenutr).[25] This fact of electing and delegating authority was to result in the benefit of the entire community, which in this way gained a helmsman and a governor in the person of the monarch, as Zaborowski used to call him, rather than an absolute ruler, therefore the Polish nobility's conviction that one-man rule inevitably had to turn into tyranny seemed wrong. Zaborowski had no doubt that if the king does not fulfil the task to which a ruler as such was initially appointed, if he does not contribute to the good of his kingdom and its inhabitants, if he violates the laws or commits wicked deeds, he should be removed and replaced with one who would be able to “rule admirably and be subject to the laws”.[26] What is more, he proclaimed that power was established in order to place everyone under the rule of law, so that “justice would reach the powerful and the weak with equal law”.[27]

In Warszewicki's opinion, the threat of tyranny did not result from the very essence of the monarchical system, but from the inevitable human weakness that manifested itself in every system, including the commonwealth, favoured by many authors, which combines the features of various systems considered good. There was no institutional mechanics, which in itself was supposed to guarantee the rule of law and responsible governance, impeded not so much by the moral sense and virtue of the ruler, but by the requirement of fulfilling clearly formulated duties. Unlike Warszewicki, Orzechowski considered the King's appointment with his subjects' consent as the source of his authority, to be a sufficient guarantee of the rule of law, for the king was not to be anything more than “the mouth of the kingdom”, ”bound by a voluntary and legitimate choice,” doing only what is true to the will of the subjects and the law.[28] Likewise, Andrzej Wolan, referring to the principle of royal sovereignty, not only suggests that the king must be a “speaking law”, thus acting not only according to his own will, but also wants this sovereignty not to take anything from common freedom, not to become a source of domination, but rather to ensure a moderate rule governed by law, and therefore by the requirements of virtue. In the context of Poland, an additional limitation of royal sovereignty (was it still sovereignty?) was the principle that the ruler could not introduce any laws and change existing ones without the consent of the citizens.[29] His principle was very often raised by noble political writers as a safeguard of freedom: “Then there is the corresponding Polish freedom, that the Polish king may not introduce anything new concerning all the estates without their permission”.[30] It was clearly about everyone's consent and not just advice that was primarily to be given by the senate, and therefore also about the conviction that everyone is capable of making a proper judgement and choosing what was right and just, contrary to these republican arrangements, e.g. of Wawrzyniec Goślicki, which attributed a decisive role in this respect to the best citizens, those who actually had been able to rise above particular interests. It was here that the tension between civic equality and civic virtue was revealed, between nobility associated with birth and nobility associated with virtue and merit. This was followed by the notion possibly proclaimed by Marsilius who believed that since the aim of a political community was to serve the common good, and to govern is to strive for what is most beneficial for everyone (therefore the number has the greatest importance), thus the recognition of this benefit should be left to those who were directly concerned by legal decisions. But if so, then Marsilius's principle of the sovereignty of the people should actually be extended to the people, at least to allow some kind of participation, such as in the republican Rome or Venice, of the lower classes of society. Wolan did not go that far, but at the very least he justified equality before the law as one of the foundations of just order.[31] Quite uncritically, he also stated that the legal solution consisting in fortifying everything that the monarch does with law must be merged with another, considered by him to be a fortress of freedom, i.e. that “the same laws that govern everyone are not adopted by the liking of several people or the sovereignty of the ruler himself, but all the nobles have this power to introduce them for themselves. And if they were to be slightly erroneous in their formulation and stray from the common benefit, then simply the power to amend or improve them proves to be a great sign of freedom”.[32] Łukasz Górnicki saw this as a threat to the foundations of the Commonwealth – he was afraid that the decisive voice of one layer in public affairs, all the more when it does not partake in its virtue, cannot contribute to the achievement of the goal of the political community, which is the benefit and happiness of all its members. The question of the right balance between the various components of a mixed system became crucial here; how to prevent the predominance of one of them and, finally, how to ensure a mixing concerning people's character, who to entrust with the care for upbringing.

When explaining the origin of the Commonwealth's system, Marcin Kromer pointed out that while a king or prince used to rule, and the monarch's power was vast and unlimited by any law, in the course of time, either for the sake of the knights' merit, or for fear of them, kings and princes had handed over most of the rights they had held thus far to the nobility, and therefore “today the power of the ruler is precisely delineated, safe for the people and the citizens' wealth, and remains dominated by the clergy and the nobility”.[33] This contributed to the transformation of the state's system after that of Sparta or Venice. The king, who formerly, i.e. during the Piast monarchy, had used to be the living law, was limited by the council and representation of the noble deputies in order to safeguard against absolutism,[34] and the senators' duty became to “turn the ideas and deeds of the ruler to the benefit of the Commonwealth, to direct the courts toward righteousness, and, while measuring out his power with saving warnings and advice, to watch over him as if a living law”.[35] In the 16th century, however, a worry emerged as to whether the mixed system of the Commonwealth managed to achieve a harmony of the three estates which determined its durability and effectiveness, or whether it did not allow unlimited power of the deputies to change into a licence, which by overthrowing the majesty of the king and the gravity of the senate could become a source of a worse tyranny than the one feared by the nobility.

As far as Polybius's view goes, while institutional mechanics were important, the mixed system was supposed to ensure a balance which made it possible to reconcile the conflicting interests and aspirations of various parts of society, the understanding of the essence of such a system in the sixteenth-century Commonwealth was dominated by the conviction that it had an inherent aspiration for consent and unity. It was not only a matter of real division of power between the deliberating estates of the Sejm, but rather of their participation in governance, of joint decision-making. Example of such thinking are found not only in political treatises, but also political writings, especially those created during the period of the first interregnum, preparing for the future election and dealing with often fundamental political issues. The author of one of them proclaimed: “After all, we well know the laws and privileges of our own, that the higher estate can do nothing without the lower one and cannot constitute anything, until everyone agrees to” and added: “for every undertaking of ours to strive for concord and for mutual appreciation”.[36] The words of an author who considered that “this is the Commonwealth, own, complete, where multorum concordantia vota ad unam pacem et unam salutem, ut bene beatque vivatur, universos iugo quasi aheneo nectunct[37] remained in the same vein. The well-being of the Commonwealth was to be based on the appreciation and concord of the citizens, therefore choosing a king could not be imagined other than with the consent of all (de consensu omnium).[38]

Authors writing after the first period of interregnum and at the end of the 16th century, who notice the systemic weaknesses of the Commonwealth, show not simply distrust towards the principle of a mixed system, but disbelief that it would be possible to achieve a full balance between the three deliberating estates in Poland. If any of them were to play a greater role than the others, let it be the senate, as Goślicki stated, or the king, as Warszewicki and Górnicki declared unanimously. What seems particularly important is Warszewicki's sceptical approach, who fears that the mixed system in Poland is starting to deteriorate, as it lacks internal repair mechanisms, since institutional balance and concern for the benefit of the entire system is losing out with the ideals of noble freedom. What is more, there is no real basis for unity in this system, that is, the pursuit of the good of the political community excluding any particular interests, such as the interests of a single estate. He wrote in the Paradoksy about the dangers of freedom which transforms into arbitrariness, noting that the tyranny of many is more burdensome than the tyranny of one. Properly understood freedom, in fact, was meant to consist not in the freedom to do what one likes, but rather in “a certain moderation and restraint of the spirit, in taming its affections, keeping people obedient to the law and impartial justice”.[39] Warszewicki, similarly to Skarga, opted for a monarchical system in this work, not seeing a sufficient barrier against these dangers in the mixed system. Monarchy as a form of governance seemed to him more in harmony with nature, “as a family feels the need to have one father – the head of the house, a ship – one helmsman, an army – one leader, so the state needs one ruler, so that in the most difficult situations and circumstances, when the fate of all is at stake, one has in his hands the power to establish what he would consider appropriate”.[40] Moreover, the aim of the state was to create “good living conditions” and not to guarantee political freedom. At the same time, Warszewicki was convinced that it would be easier for us to submit to the rule of one than to that wielded by many.

Warszewicki's voice was not isolated. Taking issue with republican authors on the subject of the political system and dignity of power, Piotr Skarga argues that a state, like the head and soul in a human body, should be governed by one, that is to say, the king, who is the only one that can ensure the unity and consent of all its parts: “And so in the Commonwealth, when one does not rule, and does not take note of human diversity, everything in the kingdom is overturned with dissent”.[41] Similarly to Saint Thomas Aquinas, the author of Kazania sejmowe saw in the royal power a model established by God, and in monarchic governance – an imitation of heavenly authority, appropriate for human communities. Here Skarga referred, though not explicitly, to Plato's theory, emphasizing that in the Commonwealth everyone should stay in their place and perform their proper function. The unity of the Commonwealth was to be guaranteed not only by the person of the monarch, who in the state was the equivalent of a head in the human body, but also by the stability and unity in faith, which the Catholic faith could best ensure. In the expansion of the significance and authority of the deputies, Skarga saw further weakening of the royal power, and thus a weakening of the unity and the binding element that the monarch's figure was supposed to have given the kingdom when his power was strong enough to be able to play such a role. In a “multi-head” government, it was impossible to maintain the consensus and unity of the commonwealth, necessary for the realization of the general good, i.e. it was impossible to achieve the goal for which the political community is established. In Warszewicki and Skarga's postulates there is a rejection of such a system, which is a monarchy only by name, as it refuses to give the king a leading role in the state.

These two important statements in favour of a monarchical system and one-man rule appear in the late 16th century, however, it is largely supposed to be a system equipped with the same devices as those referred to by the supporters of the mixed system, and thus – above all – the rule of law. According to Warszewicki and Skarga, good governance should not be based on the virtue and wisdom of the many co-participants in the administration of the Commonwealth (since if the rule of many turns into a tyranny, will it not be more dreadful than the tyranny of one? – Warszewicki asked), but on the virtue and wisdom of one, as it was supposed to give greater assurances of unity and stability of rule, and was also closer to the natural order of things. In the Paradoksy, Warszewicki formulates a political theory that is independent of the Polish context, going against and contrary to the principles guiding political systems and prevailing opinion of that time. In the dialogue entitled De optimo statut libertatis libri duo, he focuses his attention on the political system of the Commonwealth and Polish freedom, explaining the meaning of properly understood freedom and how a good political order should be shaped. Here, however, he is unequivocally in favour of a monarchic system, although closer to those political systems that have been rooted in Poland, and he does not simply reject the mixed system, but rather indicates that only one has to rule, though with the advice of prominent citizens – those gathered in the Sejm, and those gathered in the Senate. Therefore, he compares a good order to the one in nature that can be found among bees: What is more beautiful, what is a smarter invention of the preventive and thoughtful nature than bees? It is among them that one king rules, although he lacks a sting, not to combine supreme power with fierce behaviour. There are servants and guardians, who guard the majesty of their kings; there are also the people who observe the mighty; there is an army that does not allow enemies; there are punishments that fall on the guilty; bees also have their rewards, which they use to honour the noble and meritorious, and which are awarded to those who lead them in their struggles, and then to others”.[42] The kingdom and the state were to be created not for freedom – as freedom is never an end in itself – but for a fair life.[43] It was not thanks to freedom that states were supposed to last, but thanks to virtue, laws and customs that freedom did not become less important, but it should also not be placed on the pedestals of all norms and values, as it was done among the Polish nobility. Just like St. Thomas, Warszewicki considered the monarchy to be the ideal of political system, “the most eminent and wisest of all forms of government, in which everyone – as far back as memory serves and to the very ends of the world – it was not the learned but the initiated, who preserved the teachings learned not in the Lyceum, but sent from heaven, unsettled and untouched”.[44]

Immoderate exercise of freedom was to lead to the collapse of kingdoms, because arbitrariness is the “mother of transgressions” and the “seed of discord”, which is why it is useful for free nations to obey the law, not so much because of the fear of it, but because of the feeling of shame and morality, and therefore moral ability.[45] Thus, without believing it possible to support and strengthen the mixed system with virtue and behaviour, that it is possible to consolidate these moral abilities through public education, as assumed by Frycz Modrzewski, Warszewicki opposes the political mixing that allows for a democratic element within co-governance, allowing its role to take precedence, in which the plurality and number of votes decide, and it is not the value of views that is judged, but the number of their supporters.[46] A mixed system dominated by democratic elements was supposed to be an opposite of good political order, because it allows a large number people not characterised by the virtue of moderation, stability, wisdom, and reasonableness to participate in governance. In this way, Warszewicki becomes a critic of such republican theory, which limits itself to the political mechanics of a mixed order, and does not fortify freedom with moral requirements, even if they are included in institutional solutions, as in the Venetian system.[47]

The “monarchic moment” and the dispute whether it is the king's power, or the balance of the three estates, that should be strengthened, differentiated the theorists' positions in the 16th century. The postulate of strengthening the monarchy was justified either by the attachment to the traditional way of thinking about power and its sources, or by the conviction that the ideal of a mixed system is exposed to a multitude of threats, that a “truly illustrious” commonwealth, as Sebastian Petrycy of Pilzno called it, based solely on virtue, cannot be established and maintained among the people.[48]

In the discourse of the nobility, the attachment to the mixed system and the reluctance to modify it, especially one which would deprive the nobility and its representative body, i.e. the chamber of deputies, of its political position dominated throughout the 16th century. The mixed system was considered a necessary basis for respublica libera in the time of Zebrzydowski's rebellion: “We call it rempublicam liberam when it is not one, but three estates that govern and rule simul et semper, one state not more than the other, and they rule through commonly applicable law. And the commonwealth is composed of three forms: ex monarchia, aristocratia et democratia. There is a king, there is a senate, there is the knightly estate, but these three estates form the one body of the Commonwealth”.[49] Absolutum dominium was equated to slavery, with the subjection to the power of one, which is not limited by law, but turns the ruler into the law.[50] The author of the brochure considered the nobility to be the main pillar of the Commonwealth, which he derived from past rights and privileges of this estate, and the Commonwealth to be the third free state of this kind (respublica libera) in history, next to Rome and Venice.[51] In the opinion of political writers, the threat of an absolutum dominium became even more real, since – as one of them proclaimed – “in our Commonwealth, all power is left to the supreme lord, who, having in his hand his dignitates et officia, may do many things contrary to our rights and freedoms, basing all such dignitates et officia not on the rights and freedom and the entire Commonwealth, but on the establishment of his reign, and therefore our freedoms and rights turn in abusum, and these guardians do not guard, but doubt and overturn laws, allowing for everything that the king needs, for them to receive all they urgently strive for so that they may raise themselves and their families”.[52] Here, liberties have been contrasted with superior power, whose most appropriate limitation could have only been found in the sovereignty of law and properly manned administration. Significantly, the rebelling nobility not only failed to notice the balance and seat of wisdom in the Senate, described by Goślicki in De optimo senatore, but on the contrary – they saw it as a supporter of the king's interests and considered it a threat to their position and privileges, and thus to freedom.

However, this discourse lacked indications of the mechanisms and political solutions that would preserve freedom without destroying the foundations of the mixed order and not allowing freedom to turn into a lawlessness. Even then, the results of the unanimity-based viritim election, which Zamoyski warned of, were already felt, but in the common belief of the nobility, the following axiom became entrenched: “no one in our country recognizes any government unless they voluntarily subject themselves to it”.[53] This principle shows that it is the individual and their will, and not the community and its commitment to it, that becomes the basis of order – i.e. like in the contractual theory. At a time when the will of individuals without regard for public good became expressed, and upheld by equality before the law and unanimity, it has become increasingly difficult to maintain the republican basis of political order. They were always related to the teleological political community, for which the greatest threat was the corruption manifesting itself in the concern for the good of the entire community, excluding particular interest related to one of its parts. The specific structure of power in the mixed system in Poland created constant tensions resulting from the fact that it was becoming more and more difficult for the three factors to agree on nature of the purpose in the Commonwealth and how to pursue it together.[54]


The article was featured in a book summarizing the project «Program badawczo-edukacyjno-wydawniczy “Temat polemiki: Polska. Najważniejsze spory ideowo-polityczne w polskiej historii”», co-financed by The Museum of Polish History in Warsaw under the programme Patriotism of Tomorrow.


[1]               S. Orzechowski, Dyjalog albo rozmowa około egzekucyjej Polskiej Korony, [in:] idem., Wybór pism, ed. J. Starnawski, Wrocław 1972, p. 327.

[2]              K. Grzybowski, Teoria reprezentacji w Polsce epoki Odrodzenia, Warsaw 1959, p. 143.

[3]              Diariusz sejmowy z 1592 r., [in:] Diariusze i akta sejmowe r. 1591-1592, ed. E. Barwiński, Krakow 1911, p. 208, Scriptores Rerum Polonicarum, vol. 21.

[4]              I discuss these issues in more detail in: D. Pietrzyk-Reeves, Ład rzeczypospolitej. Polska myśl polityczna XVI wieku a klasyczna tradycja republikańska, Krakow 2012, Chapter VI.

[5]              “The survival of the political system ultimately depended on an effective and determinedly introduced system of education, forming a good citizen and thus reproducing the moral conditions of the state's existence”. R. Legutko, Republika i demokracja, [in:] Oblicza demokracji, ed. R. Legutko, J. Kloczkowski, Krakow 2002, p. 149. Since, as Aristotle recognised, the goal of the state was a happy life, then this ethical goal could only be achieved through education in line with the virtues, through the acquisition of a constant ability to act properly. See Arystoteles, Polityka, translated by L. Piotrowicz, [in:] idem, Polityka; Ekonomika; Retoryka; Retoryka dla Aleksandra; Poetyka; Zachęta do filozofii; Ustrój polityczny Aten; List do Aleksandra Wielkiego; Testament, Warsaw 2001, 1280b, p. 89. This second mixing, referring to the nature of the citizens of the republic, was considered in Poland to be equally important or even more important, as to a large extent it conditioned the proper functioning of the first type of mixing, which practically all republican authors, including Polish ones, were aware of.

[6]              On the upcoming convocation, [in:] Pisma polityczne z czasów pierwszego bezkrólewia, ed. J. Czubek, Krakow 1906, p. 223. See also: Naprawa Rzeczypospolitej do elekcji nowego króla, [in:] Pisma polityczne z czasów pierwszego bezkrólewia, op. cit., p. 191.

[7]              Electiveness of the throne was supposed to be “at the root of post-Piast statehood. It was the source of the agreement between the future ruler and the subjects who agreed for the throne to be taken over by the candidate, and who at the same time agreed to observe certain conditions of the social agreement thus concluded”. This enshrined the principle “We have (…) elected you king with our free votes (Volumina legum, vol.1) and “The crown laws (…) are like the soul of the Commonwealth, without which there shall never be any commonwealth”. A. Sucheni-Grabowska, Przedmowa, [in:] Tradycje polityczne dawnej Polski, ed. A. Sucheni-Grabowska, A. Dybowska, Warsaw 1993.

[8]              K. Warszewicki, O najlepszym stanie wolności (De optimo statu libertatis libri Duo, 1598), [in:] Krzysztofa Warszewickiego i Anonima uwagi o wolności szlacheckiej, ed. K. Koehler, Krakow 2010, p. 378.

[9]              This kind of freedom, close to the classical republican tradition, was described some time ago by Philip Pettit as freedom as non-domination. This freedom, which cannot be equated either with positive or negative freedom, does not mean that there is no interference but rather lack of domination, understood as the relationship between a master and a slave or a master and servant, in which the dominant party (the master) can arbitrarily interfere in the affairs of a party that is subordinate to them (slave or servant). Freedom could therefore only be assumed in a situation where such domination and such a relationship do not exist and cannot occur thanks to certain institutional and legal guarantees. The essence of living in freedom according to this approach was not so much to rule as to not be governed by an arbitrary authority. Cf. P. Pettit, Republicanism: a Theory of Freedom and Government, Oxford-New York 1997, p. 22 ff.

[10]             Edward Opaliński suggests that the theory of monarchia mixta has been shaping since the middle of the 16th century, finding its prominent representatives in Frycz Modrzewski and Orzechowski, referring directly to Aristotle and expressing the victory of the system of noble democracy, limiting both the role of the monarch and the senate.(idem, Civic Humanism and Republican Citizenship in the Polish Renaissance, [in:] Republicanism: A Shared European Heritage, eds. Q. Skinner, M. van Gelderen, vol. 1, Cambridge 2002, p. 156). However, Orzechowski uses the term policya, whereas Frycz Modrzewski speaks about the forms of reipublicae, recognizing the mixed form as the most appropriate, sometimes using the terms respublica and politia interchangeably. (idem, Commentariorum de Republica emandanda Libri quinque, Basileae 1554, p. 12). See also: S. Orzechowski, Mowa do szlachty polskiej przeciw prawom i ustawom Królestwa Polskiego uporządkowanym przez Jakuba Przyłuskiego, [in:] idem, Wybór pism, op. cit. Cf.: A. Grześkowiak-Krwawicz, Anti-Monarchism in Polish Republicanism in the Seventeenth and Eighteenth Centuries, [in:] Republicanism: A Shared European Heritage, vol. 1, p. 44.

[11]              Jan Januszowski wrote, for example, such a passage which confirms that Aristotle's beliefs in this matter found numerous supporters in Poland of the 16th and early 17th century: “(…) and thus things will be measured out, as Aristotle wants them to be measured out in mixtis rebus publicis when the royal honour and crown freedoms also remain as a whole,”idem, Zwierciadło królewskie. Z wielu miejsc ludzi wielkich zebrane i na polski przełożone (1606), [in:] Sześć broszur politycznych z XVI i początku XVII wieku, ed. B. Ulanowski, Krakow 1921, p. 222.

[12]             Cf. G. Contarini, De magistratibus et republica Venetorum libri quinque (1543), [in:] Gasparis Contareni, cardinalis, opera, Paris 1571, vol. I. Contarini's work devoted to the political system of Venice was famous and frequently cited by Polish authors of the second half of the 16th century, who in their search for a rationale behind the mixed system, in a certain sense sought to justify the political system which began to be established in Poland at that time, but which required the establishment of both detailed political rules as well as institutions on which it would be based (the principle of representation, division and balance of power, etc.). This task was not fully undertaken by any of the theorists of the 16th century, however the theoretical foundations of the mixed order and its justification have been developed.

[13]             These forebears, as Orzechowski argues, “knew that in human life there are three kinds of running public affairs, that each assembly is governed by the reign of one, by the reign of a handful, or by the reign of the entirety. None of these types were considered to be good by themselves. (…) Therefore, they had in their Commonwealth such a way of governing that included what in other nations was divided into three kinds of rule”. (Mowa do szlachty polskiej, [in:] Wybór pism, ed. J. Starnawski, Wrocław-Warszawa 1972, pp. 103-104).

[14]             J. Fortescue, De natura legis naturae, [in:] The Works of Sir John Fortescue, Knight. Chief Justice of England and Lord Chancellor to King Henry the Sixth, ed. Thomas (Fortescue) Lord Clermont, London 1869, I.16.

[15]             Cf: N. Machiavelli, Rozważania nad pierwszym dziesięcioksięgiem historii Rzymu Liwiusza, translated by K. Żaboklicki, Warsaw 2009, III.1, pp. 247-249.

[16]             J. W. Gough, The Social Contract: a Critical Study of Its Development, Oxford 1957, p. 72, as cited in: J. M. Kelly, Historia zachodniej teorii prawa, translated by D. Pietrzyk-Reeves et al., Krakow 2006, p. 193.

[17]             J. Bodin, Sześć ksiąg o Rzeczypospolitej, translated by R. Bierzanek, Z. Izdebski, J. Wróbel, Warsaw 1958, IV.4, p. 413.

[18]             Ibidem, p. 310. Cf.: B. Szlachta, Konstytucjonalizm czy absolutyzm? Szkice z francuskiej myśli politycznej XVI wieku, Krakow 2005, pp. 300-303; J. Baszkiewicz, Francuski absolutyzm XVII stulecia, [in:] Europa i świat w początkach epoki nowożytnej, p. 2: Ideologie, kryzysy, konflikty, ed. A. Mączak, Warsaw 1992, p. 221; J. W. Allen, A History of Political Thought in the Sixteenth Century, London 1960, pp. 413-414.

[19]             F. Suárez, De legibus, Lugduni 1613, pp. 120-121, 142. In Poland, Paweł Włodkowic, who spoke most broadly about the origin of the monarch's power, said that “the king's power on earth is created in three ways: the first [one] is of God's will, revealed to people in some way; the second way is through the consent of those who are ruled; the third way is by coercion. The first and second ways make the king's power righteous; the third way does not”. P. Włodkowic, Pisma wybrane, ed. L. Ehrlich, Warsaw 1968, vol. 1, pp. 56-57.

[20]             Arystoteles, Polityka, 1333a, p. 205. Cf: J. Ekes, Natura, wolność, władza. Studium z dziejów myśli politycznej Renesansu, Warsaw 2001, pp. 110-112.

[21]             Naprawa Rzeczypospolitej…, op. cit., p. 192.

[22]             P. Włodkowic, Pisma wybrane, op. cit., vol. 3, pp. 141-142, 174. For Włodkowic, the rule is that the source and basis of power is the will of the governed. It is not about the sovereignty of the people, but about the common origin of power, about the rule accepting the “people” as the original source of power, as the only source of the creation and existence of the state. One can see here the influence of Francesco Zabarella and Marsilius of Padua, but also of Ulpian and the Digest. Cf. H. Bracton, De legibus et consuetudinibus Angliae (approx. 1235), ed. G. E. Woodbine, New Haven 1922, p. 127.

[23]             S. Zaborowski, Traktat w czterech częściach o naturze praw i dóbr królewskich oraz o naprawie królestwa i o kierowaniu państwem, translated by H. Litwin, J. Staniszewski, ed. H. Litwin, Krakow 2005, II.3, p. 27. Cf.: C. Backvis, Główne tematy polskiej myśli politycznej w XVI wieku, [in:] idem, Szkice o kulturze staropolskiej, selected and edited by A. Biernacki, translated by M. Daszkiewicz et al., Warsaw 1975, pp. 476-479. Most researchers include Zaborowski's work in the medieval tradition. For example Estreicher considered that the Tractatus de natura iurium et bonorum regis “belongs eminently to medieval literature,”S. Estreicher, Kultura prawnicza w Polsce XVI wieku, [in:] Kultura staropolska, Krakow 1932, p. 91.

[24]             Cf. S. Zaborowski, Traktat…, II.3, p. 31. Cf: M. Bobrzyński, Stanisław Zaborowski. Studium z historii literatury politycznej XVI stulecia, [in:] idem, Szkice i studia historyczne, vol. 2, Krakow 1922.

[25]             Ch. Varsevicii, Paradoxa. Quae Etiam Diversis Locis [et] temporibus semel [et] iterum prodiurent, Cracoviae 1598, pp. 71-72.

[26]             S. Zaborowski, Traktat…, II. 3, p. 24. Cf. M. T. Cicero, O powinnościach, [in:] idem, O państwie; O prawach; O powinnościach; O cnotach, translated by W. Kornatowski, Warsaw 1960, Pisma Filozoficzne, vol. 2.

[27]             S. Zaborowski, Traktat…, II. 3, p. 24. Zaborowski prepared the theoretical ground for the executionist movement, proclaiming the principle of quod omnes tangit ab omnibus aprobari debet (what touches all must be approved by all). Ibidem, II.2, p. 23.

[28]             S. Orzechowski, Mowa do szlachty polskiej…, p. 104.

[29]             A. Wolan, De libertate politica sive civili. O wolności Rzeczypospolitej albo ślacheckiej, translated by S. Dubingowicz, selected and edited by M. Eder, R. Mazurkiewicz, Warsaw 2010, IV.8, p. 97. Although Wolan uses the phrase “without the permission of all the people”, but he understands it narrowly and refers to the citizens of the Commonwealth, i.e. the higher layers; those to whom the monarch appointed by a unanimous decision of the nobility takes the oath not to act against the law, and thus not to threaten their freedom.

[30]             Krótkie rzeczy potrzebnych z strony wolności a swobód polskich zebranie…, [in:] Krzysztofa Warszewickiego i Anonima uwagi…, p. 89. Cf. S. Baczewski, Szlachectwo. Studium z dziejów idei w piśmiennictwie polskim. Druga połowa XVI wieku-XVII wiek, Lublin 2009, p. 97.

[31]             A. Wolan, De libertate…, passim.

[32]             Ibidem, IX.4, p. 139.

[33]             M. Kromer, Polska czyli o położeniu, obyczajach, urzędach i Rzeczypospolitej Królestwa Polskiego ksiąg dwoje, translated by W. Syrokomla, Vilnius 1853, p. 74.

[34]             Ibidem, p. 75.

[35]             Ibidem, p. 81. Interestingly enough, the authors who took up the idea of a mixed form of government paid most attention to the monarchic factor, i.e. the power of the king, and the aristocratic factor, meaning the senate and senators, leaving aside considerations related to the democratic factor, i.e. the elected representatives of the nation (in the context of 16th century Poland it was only the nobility by then), and thus the actual principle of representation. It is recognised as a fact and a sanctuary of freedom from domination, which was to be enjoyed by the nobility.

[36]             Napominanie braciej stanu rycerskiego, [in:] Pisma polityczne z czasów pierwszego bezkrólewia, pp. 211, 212.

[37]             Kto zna, co jest R.P. zupełna i cała…, [in:] Pisma polityczne z czasów pierwszego bezkrólewia, p. 215.

[38]             Ibidem, pp. 218, 217.

[39]             K. Warszewicki, Paradoksy, translated by J. Gajda, [in:] Filozofia i myśl społeczna XVI wieku, ed. L. Szczucki et al., Warsaw 1978, p. 389 (original: Paradoxa quae etiam diversis locis et temporibus semel et iterum prodierunt, Cracoviae 1598).

[40]            Ibidem, p. 392.

[41]             P. Skarga, Kazanie trzecie, [in:] idem, Kazania sejmowe, ed. J. Tazbir, Wrocław-Krakow 1995, pp. 69-70. “The natural way is in the body that one head should rule. Thus, in the Commonwealth monarchy, one-man rule, and the governance of one is the natural, best, and most appropriate to human reason. Which, if changing and dividing into many heads, a serious and fatal illness shall befall the Commonwealth”, idem, Kazanie szóste, p. 114. Górnicki also recognises that “the power of one is not evil when the one is virtuous and rules over his subjects according to law”, recalling that the greatest philosophers prefer the rule of one over other ways of organising the Commonwealth; idem, Rozmowa Polaka z Włochem o wolnościach i prawach polskich, [in:] idem, Pisma, vol. 2, ed. R. Pollak, Warsaw 1961, p. 467. The problem of the Skarga's position regarding the proper form of the political system is proven by Opaliński's interpretation, who considers (and Janusz Ekes follows him) that Skarga was a supporter of the mixed system. Cf. E. Opaliński, Kultura polityczna szlachty polskiej w latach 1587-1652. System parlamentarny a społeczeństwo obywatelskie, Warsaw 1995, p. 39; J. Ekes, Trójpodział władzy i zgoda wszystkich. Naczelne zasady „ustroju mieszanego” w staropolskiej refleksji politycznej, Siedlce 2001, p. 18.

[42]             K. Warszewicki, O najlepszym stanie wolności, op. cit., p. 436.

[43]             Idem, Paradoksy, op. cit.

[44]            Ibidem, p. 404.

[45]             Ibidem.

[46]            Idem, O najlepszym stanie wolności, op. cit., p. 404.

[47]             The ideal of a moderate monarchy, strengthened by the senatorial chamber as an advisory body, was proclaimed in the middle of the 16th century by Simon Maricius Pilsnensis, claiming that the king, ”if he wants not only to call himself a king, but actually be one, he should know the conditions of a happy and good life”[47]. (idem, O szkołach czyli Akademiach ksiąg dwoje, translated by A. Danysz, Wrocław 1955, p. 37). The supremacy of monarchy over other forms of political systems was supposed to result from the fact that it is a form characterized by the greatest simplicity and unity, exceeding other forms, whose diversity and variability makes it easy for them to deviate from their original form. The monarchy was to be arranged after a divine and immortal state which is governed by a single will. (ibidem, s. 25).

[48]            Cf. D. Pietrzyk-Reeves, Ład rzeczypospolitej…, op. cit., p. 301.

[49]            Libera respublica – absolutum dominium – rokosz (1606), [in:] Pisma polityczne z czasów rokoszu Zebrzydowskiego, 1606-1608, ed. J. Czubek, Krakow 1918, vol. 2, p. 403.

[50]             Ibidem, p. 409.

[51]             Ibidem, s. 407.

[52]             Przestroga i sposób na czasy przyszłej naprawy Rzpltej, [in:] Pisma polityczne z czasów rokoszu Zebrzydowskiego…, vol. 2, p. 561.

[53]             As cited in: W. Konopczyński, Liberum veto. Studium porównawczo-historyczne, Krakow 2002 (1918), p. 170.

[54]             Cf. D. Pietrzyk-Reeves, Pojęcie dobra wspólnego a relacja moralność – polityka w klasycznej tradycji republikańskiej, [in:] Moralność i władza jako kategorie myśli politycznej, ed. J. Justyński,  A. Madeja, Warsaw 2011.

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