Realism in 16th-century polish political thought (an introduction to research)
Added: 2017-10-30
Added: 2017-10-30
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From: Patriotyzm i zdrada. Granice realizmu i idealizmu w polityce i myśli polskiej, OMP, Kraków 2008.


The Italian thinker Alessandro Passerin d’Entrèves, one of the most influential historians of political thought during the first two or three decades after WWII, once remarked that the concept of political realism was formulated for the first time in “Thrasymachus’ argument” as presented by Plato in his dialogue Republic, in which the Platonic ideal state was described as well. The sophist Thrasymachus (and Plato argued against sophists not only in that dialogue) doubted the existence of justice as such, unequivocally rejecting the proposition that the essence of this concept should be sought outside human will and that this will should be bound by norms derived from justice. For this sophist, justice was to be associated only with the rules set by those who were stronger, with decisions made by the will of those who exercised power by imposing their will on others, bending the others’ will to fit their own and defining the rules that bound the will of those ruled by them: the individual who gave orders was the sole source of justice and his will was tantamount to the law that established the essence of justice.[1] First, then, there was the will, which may be termed the “legislative will”; then there were the laws derived from that will, and finally there was the essence of justice that was in fact determined by those laws, and ultimately by the individual’s “legislative will”. In this approach, it is actually impossible to consider the essence of justice as the normative criterion for verifying whether laws are correct; any law, if it is established by the will of the current ruler, is not only necessarily just, but it is also a source of justice itself, since it is this law that determines the essence of justice. However, if we adopt this perspective, it is also impossible to indicate any criterion whose fulfillment would make a legal norm – a norm derived from the “legislative will” – just, since the very act of such a will already makes that norm just. One may, of course, speculate to what extent some later thinkers were willing to adopt this position. Some will argue that the standpoint that the legislator’s will was the sole source of laws, which proved to be a very influential one in late medieval discussions, was sometimes accepted in late Antiquity and in the early Middle Ages (e.g. by the Roman jurist Ulpian and in Justinian’s Digest), and that Jean Bodin considered the sovereign’s personal order to be a source of law, and finally that 19th-century founders of analytical jurisprudence and continental legal positivism claimed that the legislator’s will was not restrained not only by “moral requirements”, but even by legal norms established by anyone other than himself. However, this is not what we are interested in here. If we define “political realism” in the manner proposed by the Italian theoretician several decades ago, we will conclude that its essence lies in the conviction that political relationships are based solely on strength, on physical rather than just psychological coercion, and on violence as such, which is, however, not unlawful, but rather based on law, and moreover, that this is “just violence”, since standards of justice are to be determined by the “legislative will”, which is free from all restraints. We will conclude, moreover, that “textbook” approaches to political realism, which is considered to be “the most influential theoretical standpoint [also] in the study of international relations”, are precisely in line with this description. It is sufficient to recall a Polish textbook, which was published relatively recently, and which presents, inter alia, findings based on abundant Western literature: “The realist paradigm is developed around the concept of state sovereignty and its logical consequence, i.e. international anarchy. It maintains that if we want to understand certain processes and events in international relations, we are best served by examining the states’ interests and strength.… Violence and war are immanent features of the international system…. Realism assumes that people appear to other people not as separate individuals but rather as members of a group that is bound by loyalties.… Territorially organised sovereign states are unitarian and homogeneous actors in the sense that the government is the sole body that expresses the state’s policy. States behave rationally, i.e. they choose the solutions that are the best for them. When taking action, they assess potential profits and losses, set goals, consider possible ways of achieving them and use the resources available in order to pursue the options selected. Governments have a monopoly on the legitimate use of force against their own societies.… The aim of states is to become as powerful as possible, since it is their strength that determines their importance within the system. Realists disregard moral norms: there are no good or bad states, they all should be treated as billiard balls of various sizes. The state is a ‘black box’ and its internal organisation does not influence its foreign policy. International politics is not a function of ethics; it is rather ethics that is a function of politics.… In a realist world, rules are treated instrumentally and countries manipulate them to further their interests”.[2] The aforementioned “correspondence” between the realism identified by the Italian writer in “Thrasymachus’ argument” and the realism as applied to international relations is worth emphasising not so much because it forms the basis for analyses that expose the lack of not just ethical or moral, but also of any normative restraints on the “legislative will” or the “will of the government”, and not so much because it links “rationality” with constraints typical of the utilitarian approach and makes it “internal” in relation to the will that is focused on the “interests” of the ruling elites or of the entire population as represented by the government, and finally not because it becomes the basis for related speculations on the government’s actions undertaken in its own interest and its actions undertaken in the name of the “reason of state”, but rather because it highlights the fundamental issue that results from associating the actions of the “legislative will” towards the ruled population, which unites this population if only because of the norms that it sets arbitrarily, with acts of “international politics” in which this previously formed unity is already present. That what unites, i.e. the law that is just because it is derived from the “legislative will” (regardless of how it is assessed), is set against that what divides. In some cases, realism is presented as a position that explains why the will is not restrained by binding norms during its efforts to establish unity and to subordinate all citizens to a single centre (even if it is a legislative centre only), and in other cases it is presented as a position that reflects the fundamental absence of unity and the struggle to survive in an international system that exhibits anarchic characteristics. Sometimes it is a position that allows us to transcend anarchy, while at other times it posits anarchy as the necessary context of all activities.

Passerin d’Entrèves, whom we mentioned at the outset, realised that Thrasymachus’ claim was not that the law is respected by those to whom it is addressed only because the stronger resort to physical force to make the weaker obey; he preferred to claim that the law, which is just and based solely on the rulers’ “legislative will”, is binding owing to the rulers’ ability to convince the subjects that their will is righteous and that the norms established by them are just.[3] The polemic between Socrates and Thrasymachus in one of Platonic dialogues demonstrated the fundamental absence in this concept of knowledge as one of the elements (if not the only one) that constitute political relations; a concept of knowledge that must be supplemented with findings on how to ensure its effective impact on these relations. Those findings led Plato and Aristotle towards the organic concept of the political community as a body in which the most important members have knowledge that exceeds the knowledge of the other members of that body, and even represent this body, while the other members play a secondary role, acting as components that are lower in hierarchy than the whole. This organic metaphor made it largely possible to refute Thrasymachus’ argument, and to show relationships between individuals within a community and the relationship between the community and its constituent elements without being limited to a description of relations based solely on force; the metaphor made it possible to go beyond the considerations concerning the mechanism by which forces clash within the body and to recognise that the body is an ordered organism whose individual parts are important, although only as long at they properly perform their functions within the body. Looking from another angle: if the organism was to survive, it could not in any event divide, and its individual elements could not collide with one another, since that would destroy the body and sap its strength (we will certainly not find a similar “organic dimension” in the discussion of political realism as a theory of international relations, since such a theory is supposed to accept that these are basically anarchic). Certainly, in this approach, the strength of the body was not a simple sum of its constituent strengths; it was stronger than this sum would suggest owing to harmonious cooperation between its parts. It is worth noting, however, that in some approaches the organic body became a person with a will distinct from that of its constituent parts, and this will was able to set its own goals that were different from the goals of constituent parts. This “personification” of a political community could be a dangerous procedure, as a result of which the parts started to “belong” to the whole and, having lost their relative independence, only existed as “appendages” afterwards. While it was not necessary for the organic concept to be complemented by the “personification” of the organic political community, the concept did not preclude this interpretation either, and it turned out to be a relatively common one in the history of political thought.[4]

Meanwhile, it is easy to notice that there is no “personified state” in the reality that surrounds us, we only see certain individuals whose decisions and actions are sometimes regarded as actions by the state. Therefore, if the organic concept is to be retained, it must be supplemented with many caveats, the first of which is the existence of a legal system; as in the case of all corporations, the state has its powers and acts, but their essence is determined by law (and by the law only); the second one is the thesis that a “personified state” may have a will, even a “universal will” that defines the goals of the community and gives its members signals concerning the norms that are binding upon them. In particular, the second supplement already exceeds the boundaries of political realism, which, similarly to Thrasymachus’ claims, only accounts for relationships between individuals within the community and does not allow for any arrangements that go beyond these relationships. Established in the 19th century at the latest, the “school of political realism” refutes the organic vision of the political community, and even the concept of a state as a “fictitious person” (persona ficta) that was adopted by civilists and canonists in the late Middle Ages; it claims that there really are no “personal corporations” that could be distinguished from their constituent parts. Political realism is a response to political problems that is based solely on the data we acquire through sensual experience, and therefore its theses are subject to empirical verification. For a realist, no man either has or can have access to “absolute knowledge” which could be used to design a solution that would be universally applicable to the political world; there is also no “final test” whether a given form of government or a given political solution is the right one; only verification based on empirical facts is possible.

It should be noted, however, that at the core of the realist position there is a significant supposition that in the political world, people act as if they were aware that both they and all other political actors are driven by the desire to impose their will on another person or on other persons (or that they at least instinctively act in this manner). However, this hypothesis leads to the conclusion that actors in the political world are driven by their actual capabilities rather than by the sense that their conduct is righteous, and that their actions are determined by the fact that they are more powerful than those around them rather than by their knowledge or spontaneous sense of what is right e.g. owing to the fact that they belong to the human race, and finally that when they strike alliances with others, they are driven by the desire to strengthen their position rather than by the will to act together in order to multiply benefits for each individual and for everyone at the same time. In fact, this interpretation of reasons that drive participants of the political world is highly pessimistic, and paradoxically close to the views of both Saint Augustine of Hippo[5] and of Machiavelli, who was quite far from sainthood, and was even said by some to be an atheist. But this is only an apparent paradox, since it should be noted that Saint Augustine described a state that did not yet know “true justice” and essentially resembled a “band of robbers” headed by the most cunning or the strongest of them who, as the ringleader, determined and enforced the rules according to which loot was divided. In such a state, the subjects’ loyalty is the loyalty of those who are less capable of ruling and weaker, but may still hope that at some point they will be able to replace the ringleader and inherit his power. We should also notice that those founders of modern political theories, especially Protestant ones, who later used Augustine’s ideas, in fact rejected the above reservation made by him, e.g. Martin Luther did not associate power with justice but rather with force and therefore he directed the attention of “real Christians” to that which transcends earthly matters, at the same time pointing out that a political ruler is an instrument in God’s hands and everyone owes him obedience no matter what methods he resorts to. Saint Augustine was not as categorical; he noted that the Romans did not know “true justice” and that is why they did not in fact have a state; still, they knew “something of justice”, were organised and were not engaged in a constant violent struggle; this “something” was their administration, which was better than that of any other country and ensured their safe survival. So is it not so much justice that manifests itself in laws, but rather the efficient management of individuals in order to achieve the goal set by the ruler, which precedes the “legislative will” of the ringleader, which is the centre of the political world? However, this management was still based on universal consent to rule by a single person – consent that was not so much forced as caused by the perceived benefits of rallying around a single centre that managed the actions of all individuals. Consequently, Augustine ultimately justified the state by claiming that it resulted in increased justice – how else could one explain his position if not by reference to a sense of utility that is different from the organic one of Plato and Aristotle and that is more “individualistic” in its nature?[6]

         Having said that, we have determined that the many statements that posit a correspondence between the political realism which we could term as “directed inwards” and that which we would term as “directed outwards” are correct – and not only that. With respect to 16th-century Polish political thought and also in connection with contemporary Western theories, the fact that this correspondence is indeed present is important, since it indicates a fundamental tendency, on the one hand, towards the unification of a potential organism or a community of individuals by a ruler who is able (even if only through persuasion) to induce those whom the decisions of his “legislative will” concern to respect them without taking into account any normative restrictions on that will, and on the other hand, towards maintaining the existence of an organism or community in an essentially anarchic environment of similar organisms or collectives. This correspondence is evident in an important reflection by Tarnowski who in his work Pisarze polityczni XVI wieku (“Political Writers of the 16th Century”) stated the following, formulating a dramatic assessment that pertained not only to contemporary relations, but also, or perhaps primarily, to causes of the future loss of independence of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth: “The medieval concept of secular power as originating from papal one, and the conditional character of the former, which could be taken away, as well as the medieval practice of excluding from the Church and deeming one unworthy of the crown were, firstly, never universally accepted without restrictions, and secondly, did not always have practical consequences, even at the time”. However, and this is particularly worth emphasising, because it is related to “Thrasymachus’ argument”, even if it is based not on violence or physical coercion, but solely on persuasion: “secular authority without any borders and restraints, with the state as the only rule and the only law, and with the state’s benefit as the measure and test of decency, and therefore the state’s absolute dominion over the conscience of men and the law of nations, only became possible after the Reformation and because of it, since it combined spiritual and secular power in the hands of a secular ruler”.[7] In Tarnowski’s view, we are dealing not only with some dubious “correspondence”; there is already a “fusion” of political realisms that have been analytically separated by us here: the realism that is “directed outwards” becomes the reason for the realism that is “directed inwards”, and increasing the power of the state becomes an essential factor that determines the decisions of the “legislative will”, if only because subjects can be effectively persuaded. “State absolutism” has become the essence of realisms thus combined, abolishing any appeals to “the conscience of men and the law of nations”, which have become ineffectual both on the internal (intra-state) and external (international) planes. This loss of “measures and tests of decency” other than the state, which, according to Tarnowski, was related to the Reformation and probably involved using Saint Augustine’s ideas in a way that he could not have foreseen, resulted in the following outcome: although “evil had been already present before”, it “was present as evil and knew itself, and even the worst and most cruel individual could be kept in check and caused, in a felicitous moment, to regain his self-control by religious feeling: by the power that faith had over conscience. Now, when the same ruler, both spiritual and secular, judged and resolved matters of interest and decency at the same time, and held both politics and conscience in his hands, was a unifying force and identified his benefit with decency, the voice of conscience was always suppressed and confused, and this moral sense was dulled by indifference, first in the ruler himself, and subsequently in his subjects; as a result, an era began that was marked by the raison d’état, the interest of the state as the only principle, and the result was the negation and collapse of the law of nations”, and also – let us note – of freedom[8] understood (as it seems) as freedom of conscience, as an authority capable of correctly assessing decisions and deeds, and even the “legislative will”, but still an authority that uses the knowledge of “measures and tests of decency” that are not subject to this will and remain above “state absolutism”, and are certainly not established (even as “measures of justice”, not to mention “true justice”) by the “legislative will” that is driven by the requirement to strengthen the state. It appears that Tarnowski is aware that both on the internal and international planes, the point is not to strengthen individual elements or individual entities understood as organisms or collectives; it is even less to strengthen the position of the ruler or “sovereign” who only focuses on strengthening such elements or entities. Both Tarnowski and Orzechowski, and it should be added that also almost all Polish thinkers of the 16th century who referred to Aristotle and Saint Thomas Aquinas much more often than to Saint Augustine and who looked with disgust on Machiavelli’s conclusions presented in The Prince (though not on his other works, since Renaissance republican thought from northern Italy was after all close to their hearts in many cases[9]) still see (or at least want to see) an “international plane” that exhibits no anarchy at all and an “intra-state plane” that exhibits as little anarchy as possible. Admittedly, even before the 16th century, the Polish tradition also included seeds of ideas that Tarnowski only associated with the “outbreak” of Protestantism, especially when we think of Jan Ostroróg’s postulates, but it appears that the viewpoints presented in the Jagiellonian era and under the reign of the first elected monarchs only had “juridical” value (perhaps this was the reason, even a secondary one, for similar thinking on the part of Polish conservatives as late as in the 19th century): there must be a normative order, which is not guarded not only, and not even primarily by the secular ruler (even if his function were to be taken over by some collective representative body) but rather by Christian clergy, which remains within a centralised framework with the papacy on top; this clergy is to guard, by its persuasive authority only and without using violence, a normative identity from which the individual conscience is to draw knowledge about “measures and tests of decency”, not just its own, but also that of others, and from which this knowledge is also to be derived by each ruler, even one sitting on a collegial body, who determines the content of the “legislative will” that is bound by such measures and tests (the purpose of this knowledge is to enable, on the one hand, constraining “state absolutism”, and on the other hand, seeing other points of reference for this will, which are more important than the state’s interests). Thus the political realism found in “Thrasymachus’ argument” is in principle absent from political thinking of that time; only later does it find its place in the Polish “public opinion” and appears in 19th-century thought. How else could one interpret the juxtaposition found in Tarnowski’s writings? In connection with Piotr Skarga’s Kazania sejmowe (“Sermons Before the Sejm”), he stated that “in today’s world, one cannot imagine a preacher who would reproach a parliamentary majority that it is behaving badly, that it adopts laws which are contrary to morality or harmful to the state, that it treats a minority wrongly or unjustly, a preacher who would reproach the government for using illegal means to secure victory, manipulating elections, etc. This would be considered strange behaviour and his critics would say that there are certain necessities that cannot be avoided, that each government has the right to defend its foundations and that the preacher meddles in other people’s affairs”.[10] In 16th-century thought, the “second realism” was absent as well, although Polish writers came much closer to it than to the first one. Let us refer to Pisarze polityczni again: Warszewicki (described by Bobrzyński as a writer without a sense of national identity who set Philip II as a model for Poles, although the course taken by that monarch was, as we have seen, disastrous for Spain) was supposed to be guilty (just once, but still) of this “bad piece of advice: as long as you reach your goal, no one will ask you which road you followed”.[11] For all Polish political thinkers of the 16th century, there still is a “certain and simple moral sense”, and still “conscience and honour are alive and vigilant, and the sense of responsibility before God and people for bad deeds is the basis of their morals, which apparently were shaped by the Christian school and held on to its principles steadily and firmly. Hence, in any internal or external relationship, these thinkers will always point out correctly and without hesitation what is right and what is not. In this respect, their views are very well-developed, constant and noble. None of them will think, even for a moment, that a deed which is evil in itself could be admissible because it benefits the Commonwealth: it is not right to attack one’s neighbour, to take his land away from him, to impose one’s rule on his subjects or to seek or give provocation; war is only justified by a just cause and self-defense, and not by one’s own benefit or easy opportunity. The advice offered by all thinkers on how to deal with a vanquished enemy proves once again that they are full of Christian mercy and magnificent chivalry. They are convinced that keeping one’s word, terms or dates of a signed agreement, respecting treaties and the sanctity of public faith are self-explanatory behaviours that do not require justification. They exemplify all basic concepts and elements of the perfect Christian and actual law of nations, which today could have been different than it is if the nation to which these writers belonged had exerted more influence on its shape and development”.[12] Probably each of them was certain (and perhaps mistaken, if we look from the point of view of political realism that rejects all “normative conditions”) that at stake was the preservation of the Commonwealth amidst the increasingly anarchic international relations and that this goal could only be secured by strengthening the Commonwealth internally, which they, however, associated with achieving religious and moral unity (and for them the two were very similar). However, was this unity, which eliminated political realism, the correct foundation for the project? This is a question that we are still asking, but in asking it today, we unfortunately usually sever the bond between the earthly and the religious as if we were abandoning this bond for good, which was unacceptable from the point of view of the 16th century, for Protestants as well.

[1] The Notion of the State. An Introduction to Political Theory, Oxford 1967, pp. 15–17.

[2] J. Czaputowicz, Teorie stosunków międzynarodowych. Krytyka i systematyzacja, Warszawa 2007, pp. 58–59.

[3] The Notion of the State…, op. cit., p. 17.

[4] Ibidem, pp. 16–18.

[5] By the way, Protestant writer Reinhold Niebuhr (who was among the proponents of political realism as a theory of international relations) had some interesting observations on the subject of realism, both metaphysical and political, in Saint Augustine’s writings. These are presented in his Christian Realism and Political Problems (London 1954).

[6] However, it is impossible to overlook the fact that such a foundation has little to do with the justice of the “city of God”: while in the city of God, no one measures their loyalty in individual terms, but rather loves the one who is perfect, in the “earthly city” this measure is the right one. Ultimately, however, Saint Augustine is a pessimist: he does not believe that people who are tainted by original sin and thus morally and intellectually deficient could improve on their own in order to meet the demands of justice together so that their community can be based on “true justice”; rather, he is ready to recognise that each individual alone, although subject to many conditions, is able to love and to learn the essence of “true justice”. Let us, however, look at this trend from the other side, and we will find that limiting our horizon to exclusively individual capabilities allows us to state that inaction by any individual, by a few individuals or even by a large majority of individuals does not abolish the earthly city because it does not abolish its essence, i.e. rallying around common goals rather than the common pursuit of absolute justice, or, so to day, “common love of God” that is the prerequisite for “true justice” or the justice of the city of God; and the survival of the earthly city is inextricably linked to the existence of a citizen – its member whose good or bad deeds are of little importance, since they are individual and insignificant from the point of view of a community that is completely different from the classical community of classical Greek thinkers who did not allow any “neutralisation” of the state.

[7] S. Tarnowski, Pisarze polityczni XVI w., Kraków 2000, p. 342.

[8] Ibidem, pp. 342–343. “From Protestants, this principle was passed on to Catholics”, continues the historian of literature, “and it has to be admitted that Catholic states were the first to suffer as a result: Philip II undermined Spain, Louis XIV – France, and Joseph II – the Habsburgs’ power in Germany. But this principle was first introduced in the 16th century, and it was the Protestants who adopted it; [Stanisław] Orzechowski [regarded at the time as one of the most insightful critics of the trend, which was then not only “sensed”, but also already clearly detected] – [although] putting forward weak and insignificant arguments, was in fact right about the present and the future when he warned that heretics, who wished to abolish spiritual authority, would abolish all restraints on the secular authority’s conscience together with it and would destroy both freedom and law in the process” (ibidem, p. 343).

[9] It is sufficient here to mention Górnicki’s idea of establishing a “republican dictatorship” that would be based on the “goodwill, reason and public spirit of the entire population”.

[10] S. Tarnowski, op. cit., p. 830.

[11] Ibidem, p. 895.

[12] Ibidem, pp. 894–895.

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