Modrevius, the political personalist

For the Jagiellon era, and the Sigismundus Augustus’s reign specifically, Modrevius (Andrzej Frycz Modrzewski) is the Polish thinker that people tend to think of. Sadly, this brings with it lots of expectations. Modrzewski is forced to represent everything what is thought to be of worth in the intellectual atmosphere of Poland’s Golden Age and to fit into the classroom version of history of the pre-1795 Republic.

Truth be told, pointing out in the footnotes what is right and what is wrong in the author’s view, as it was done in the early 1950s, in now rare. But people are still all too tempted to be didactic. For example, the recent editor of the 1577 Cyprian Bazylik’s translation of Commentaries on the Improvement of the Republic just cannot live alone the fragment: no Private, that is someone holding no office, can long live a calm and joyful life indifferent to the Republic (żaden Prywat, to jest urzędu żadnego na sobie nie noszący, uciesznego a spokojnego żywota mimo rzeczpospolitą, długo wieść nie może[1]), and give us a footnote that Modrzewski contributes here to the burgeoning critique of “prywata of the nobles” (prywata being the contemporary word for caring about one’s own interests over the public).

Meanwhile, the straight reading of Commentaries on the Improvement (De republica emendanda, 1551) is that the matter here is much general and more universal: it’s the question of the possibility of satisfying one’s needs without interaction with the political commonwealth. It is a question as relevant in the era of expansion of centralist monarchy as in any other. Reading this is in the context of the situation of Polish nobility is of course legitimate, but treating this as a sole interpretation amounts to reducing the depth of Modrzewski’s thought catastrophically.

I think the popular image of Modrevius would benefit from freeing him of the burden of representing the whole political thought of the country. What was his individual message in De republica emendanda, compared to Polish and European literature, is more interesting. A careful reading can lead us to hypotheses on the peculiar nature of the work. One such possible hypothesis I will present below.

Modrevius refuses to perceive political structures in any other way than as a congregation of specific individuals. Actions of each member of the commonwealth do not depend on historical necessity, one’s structural institutional position, or a direct God’s intervention, but on individual affinities and customs of the person. Every human being, says Modrevius, has their own customs, with which, by their own volition and preference (lat. sponte sua), they conduct matters their own as well as of the others (Każdy człowiek obyczaje swoje ma, którymi wedle wolej a upodobania swego, sam siebie i sprawy tak swoje jako i cudze sprawuje[2]). The role of each person in the society is to be determined by the good of the community. But this good, again, is about the happiness of individual people, and not some value higher than them.

Jan Kochanowski hands the poem „Satyr” to the king Sigismundus Augustus (which happens in 1564 r., engraving from the 19th century). The court is for Modrevius still the main place of everyday Commonwealth’s politics.

Similarly with the concept of custom (lat. mos, hence mores in English from plural), which is so crucial for Modrzewski. Custom nowadays is something we associate with cultural convention, but for him it is rather the individual way of “conducting oneself”. Modrevius declares that he could talk about these phenomena in terms of virtue (virtus) or duty (Cicero’s officium)[3], but recognizes that about these notions many volumes were written before him. The language proposed by Modrevius for early modernity is to contain the notion of free individual, choosing to shape their conduct in the society in some way.

Each individual has the moral duty, accompanied by the rational interest, of upholding the Republic – which, as Modrevius reminds, is necessary to preserve your own happiness in the long term. The foundation of supporting the existence of Commonwealth, even more important than law, is built by the customs of citizens. This creates a direct link between the conduct of one person and the condition of the whole country. It is the essential political mechanism that returns in De republica emendanda time and time again in many shapes.

In some places this approach leads Modrevius to somewhat bizarre statements, such as when he insists that the courtiers be extraordinary people and akin to demigods, the nearest, as much as possible, to the goodness and wisdom of the Greatest and Best God (lat. excellentibus viris, et quasi semideis, qui ad Dei opt[imi] max[imi] bonitatem et prudentiam quam proxime accedant[4]). The anxious desire to find or create the best, maybe even superhuman people is something that Modrzewski has in common with the attempts of Goślicki (De optimo senatore – The Best Senator, 1568) and Górnicki (Dworzanin polski – The Polish Courtier, 1566) to prescribe the way of educating the ideal elite for the state.

Modrzewski also describes the king as the image of God’s power on the Earth and a the man who has to exceed everyone in his virtue.

This does not entail, to be fair, power over humans without limits. The author of On the Improvement asserts that there are punishments for kings badly performing their office and praises the Polish law of electing monarchs. It helps to ensure quality of rulers: kings are to be elected not for the excellence of their ancestry, but for their ability to rule the commonwealth (królowie nie dla zacności rodu mają być obierani, ale dla umiejętności rządzenia rzeczpospolitej[5]). In contrast to the theorists of Absolutism, for Modrevius even people at the highest positions are subject to political oversight and moral judgement. It is the personal virtue of extraordinary individuals that, according to him, lied at the root of monarchy.

The unquestionable power of one person is justified for Modrevius by practical necessity (to avoid internal strife and discord) but as much necessary is giving him a senate and counsellors (to increase the number of people of great virtue and intellect influencing the government). The royal decisions are to be approved by opinion and consent of the council.

We’ve already mentioned how much Modrevius expected of courtiers; the characteristic of senatorial office strikes similar chords. It is the office the most grave, the most demanding in qualities, training and virtue[6].. Aside from that, king should have a smaller group of personal confidants whom he consults informally in current matters. They should be like friends that regular people have to get another perspective on their affairs.

The way Modrzewski describes the general sejm, the parliament, maybe illustrates the best the difference between his perception of institutions and the modern one.

Deputies of the knightly estate, which do not appear at all as a house or a chamber, don’t have, as we are told, the right to speak (lat. ius dicendae sententiae non habent[7]). According to Bazylik, the contemporary translator, they cannot wotować, which the modern editors confusingly explain as being unable to vote[8]. But Modrevius is far from thinking about proceedings of these institutions in terms of any kind of voting. He insists, even, that decisions be made not according to those who have majority in the room, but to those who are presenting the best arguments! He illustrates the point with a story about a dispute between parts of human body whether the sun is bright or dark, in which it was necessary to accept the position of eyes (who are able to see the sun’s brightness) in spite of all the other parts. This reluctance to leave decision to the majority, as opposed to the people that are right, appears to be common for a long time – which also shows in the later argumentation and career of liberum veto.

How is, then, the sejm or a council to function in a commonwealth? It turns out that it happens by the aforementioned wotowanie, advising, that is, putting forward one’s judgement (lat. sententia) on the matter given. In this sense deputies cannot, in fact, speak at the senate’s council. It is senators who, as in ancient Rome, take turns in delivering speeches presenting their assessment of the situation. Modrevius sharply criticizes the tendency to correct the predecessors and minimally alter their stance in order to have the pretext to perform one’s own separate oration. He wants senators to concisely agree with one of the existing positions, whenever possible. Also as a means of saving time he proposes the Roman method of splitting senators between two sides of the room, signifying their support for one of two options.

In such a system the role of deputies appears to be indeed auxiliary. In any case Modrevius assesses it very favorably, speaking of their projects of new laws as well as of blocking the harmful designs of the king and the senate. He describes how they review all the laws and nothing can be decided without their assent. He also compares them to the ancient tribunes of the plebs in their function of defending the people – emphasizing, by the way, the need of observing not only the interest of the noble estate. But otherwise, he doesn’t have much to say about deputies.

Sejm during the reign of Sigismundus Augustus. In the circle around the king are the senators; the crowd standing behind may be the deputies of lands, which is consistent with the Modrzewski’s vision.

It appears that the way of operating of the house of deputies is too far from the way Modrevius likes to talk of politics. A deputy (poseł) on one hand is a one from many, striving to push his program on a wide forum, on the other – kind of a personification of the will of his constituents. All this decreases his independent significance. He is, in principle, a private man who only for a moment contributes to directing the republic. The affinity of the author of De republica for raising professional public servants, who would live for their public function, is finding here little room to unfold.

Given his remarkably personalist vision of the state, there is little wonder that Modrevius does not associate a particularly creative or regulatory function with law. Law to him is only a tool to fight evil and corruption in a relatively static political order. This is in contrast with the later projects of Górnicki and the “geometric” ruminations of Orzechowski, who would seem to have deeper faith in the power of establishing institutions. As to the laws concerning public offices, Modrzewski demands above all for seats to be filled with people of the right inclinations and abilities – warlike people for hetmans, people knowing the law for judges and so on – as well as for kings to be elected from home, not from abroad.

It is common in popular treatments of Modrevius to point out that his concern for virtue and civic conduct leads him to establishing supervisors of public custom. Along with the elitist message of his views on government this can give the whole De republica a flavor of totalitarian power invading private homes. But this appears to be a semantic misunderstanding that stems from substituting the modern meaning for Renaissance vocabulary. Let’s see what are the Modrzewski’s wardens and guardians to do: intervening in the cases of mistreating peasants by their lords, public violence or fighting between spouses, buying stockpiles of food for periods of inflated prices, regulating prices, measures and units… If we look at these projects this way, we can recognize various functions of the public officials of “police” and “good order” in the European 18th century, and in any case mostly things that we treat as public matters today.

From the modern perspective, then, Modrevius predicts in his own way the modern state that would fully form centuries later. However, it is plausible that for contemporary sensibilities these proposals were more invasive: specific research could inform us about that. Notably, all these institutions are by all appearances planned as offices of the whole Commonwealth, and not for example of municipalities of cities, which for Modrevius seem to constitute nests of greed and shameless inflation of prices. It is unclear how Modrzewski would finance and organize establishment of all the guardians, although he sees some opportunity for profit from state intervention in the crops market. We are free to see in the spirit of these proposals, as well as in the Modrzewski’s program for the Church, the desire to treat the whole Republic as one, independent political community, in which all the smaller communities play only a subordinate role.

My thesis that Modrevius approaches the social order as static is in conflict with the stereotype of a daring reformer, so commonly put forward in the last two centuries. But, as it was recently pointed out by Urszula Augustyniak, he doesn’t question at all the feudal order of estates[9]. The postulates in On the Improvement are limited to smoothing somewhat the injustices so plainly seen by the Renaissance thinker, such as the constantly returning issue of unequal punishment for homicide of nobles and peasants.

All Modrzewski wants is to bring the system to the state in which it, ideologically, should be if one would treat seriously the theories of mutually supporting estates of the realm. As to the postulates of equality before the law, they are not something alien to such a relentless ideologue of nobility as Orzechowski: nothing else is the purpose of this our Polish Republic, but to have all: the poor, the rich, the king and the subject, living the same way under the law, to be equal in law among all the others (nic inego przed sobą nie ma Rzeczpospolita nasza Polska, jedno to, aby wszyscy: ubogi, bogaty, król, poddany, pod prawem jednostajnie żywiąc, prawem sobie wszyscy między sobą równi byli[10]). According to the author of On the Improvement, good politics is mainly about discouraging non-nobles and serfs from complaining about their situation[11].

Modrevius not only isn’t a revolutionary; he is probably the last political theorist to whom the political order is something static, something given and still common as the mediaeval legacy from Spain to Poland. Something striking in his works is the complete lack of fundamental polemic on government systems: the role of each institution in the state is described matter-of-factly, with no hint of controversy or doubt. It’s like musings about Commowealth penned by an optimistic humanist, mainly proposing some improvements and revising the society and the Church in rational (according to him) way. It is Jean Bodin who would attack Modrzewski as the adversary from the other side of political barricade.

In near future the cause of ecclasiastical reform in Poland would be considered all but lost: the importance of Reformation and reorganization of the Church, issues which led Modrzewski to fight censors in Cracow, would diminish. On the other hand, the feeling of “monarchist encirclement” of the Republic in early modern Europe, so exciting for Orzechowski, would grow strong. The political order would cease to be something obvious and given for the whole Christendom, and become the outcome of specific historical trajectory of each country[12]. This would be accompanied immediately by awareness of significance of institutional system, apart from specific individuals and even their personal virtues. The mixed system, praised by Modrevius relatively carelessly and traditionally, would be analyzed and discussed in fine detail between the end of the 16th century and the beginning of the next one.

In some sense something happened that Modrevius would not enjoy at all: for some time the law, not the custom would become the center of attention. His program of humanist reforms could perhaps be more successful if the jovial stability of late Jagiellon monarchy turned out to be a more enduring phenomenon. Such conditions could be more friendly to gradual work on making the system more efficient and just. Still, Modrevius did not foresee that the Commonwealth would soon be forced to deeply rework the very foundations of her order.

/-/ Popiel.

  1. Andrzej Frycz Modrzewski, O poprawie Rzeczypospolitej księgi czwore, transl. Cyprian Bazylik, Piotrków Trybunalski 2003, p. 29. Below as: O poprawie (Bazylik).

  2. Ibid., p. 34.

  3. Andreas Fricius Modrevius, Comentatorium de Republica emendanda Libri quinque, Basilae [1559], s. 13.

  4. Andrzej Frycz Modrzewski, O poprawie Rzeczypospolitej, transl. Edwin Jędrkiewicz, Warszawa 1953, p. 116, below as: O poprawie (Jędrkiewicz). De republica…, p. 23.

  5. O poprawie (Bazylik), p. 69.

  6. De republica…, p. 41.

  7. De republica…, p. 39.

  8. O poprawie (Bazylik), p. 95.

  9. Urszula Augustyniak, Pro republica emendanda in KSAP XX lat, Henryk Samsonowicz (ed.), Warszawa 2010, p. 106-107.

  10. Stanisław Orzechowski, Dyjalóg albo rozmowa około egzekucyjej Polskie Korony in Wybór pism , Wrocław 1972, p. 384.

  11. O poprawie (Jędrkiewicz), p. 129; De republica…, p. 33.

  12. Anna Grześkowiak-Krwawicz, Regina libertas, Gdańsk 2006, p. 56 and next.

Start the discussion

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *