Counsel, Command and English Renaissance Politics: Classical and Medieval
“On the one hand, it was a long-standing requirement that monarchs receive counsel in order to legitimise their rule. On the other, this condition had the potential to undermine their authority if the monarch was required to act on the counsel given. In other words, if counsel is obligatory, it impinges upon sovereignty. If it is not, it then becomes irrelevant and futile.”
The period between the Wars of the Roses and the England Civil War has been referred to by scholars as the ‘monarchy of counsel’: an era where advice and advisers were at the centre of political discourse. As concepts of ‘counsel’ (political advice-giving) and ‘command’ (sovereign authority) developed and came into conflict, writers also touched on issues of free speech, political prudence and reason of state. This blog series explores these topics and the essential changes to ideas of politics that came about, drawing on material from Counsel and Command in Early Modern English Thought by Dr Joanne Paul.
To understand the Renaissance discourse of counsel, we must go back as far as they did: to the classics. In fact, the relationship between counsel and command is present in the earliest writings of the Western political tradition. The Iliad is shot through with references to good counsel and how it must be balanced with military might, expressed through the characters of Polydamas and Hector. Born on the same night, Hector is superior “with the spear”, whereas Polydamas is “far superior with words” (18.251-2), giving a divine balance to human affairs. Now, these early Greek epics rarely portrayed successful counsel, but that was hardly the point: counsel must be judged on the process of deliberation, not the outcome, given that fortune (and the gods) were always playing their own games.
Plato combined these early dyadic companionships into a singular whole, in his Philosopher-King in the Republic. Of course, Plato’s Republic is largely idealistic; in his more realistic Laws Plato returns to the relationship between a sovereign and an adviser. For this relationship to work, Plato makes clear, the counsellor must be given the right to speak freely.
The much-admired philosopher Aristotle gives us another essential element of counsel-giving for our Renaissance writers: right-timing. Good counsel, he defines as “arriving at the right conclusion on the right grounds at the right time” (Nichomachean Ethics 1142b). This involves knowing “what is suited to the circumstances on each occasion” (1104a) And, finally, he also connects counsel-giving to the virtue of ‘practical wisdom’ or ‘prudence’, the ability to determine “what is expedient as a means to the end” (1142b).
Notably, this might only be going on within one person’s mind, and indeed from Aristotle to the Renaissance and beyond writers thought about counsel as an internal process, as well as one that could be communicated to others. Aristotle acknowledged that when it came to determining what is not just good for ourselves, but for others, there is reason to “take others into our deliberations, distrusting our own capacity to decide.”
This means that counsel must not only be prudent and well-timed, but also persuasive. Enter the rhetoricians. Plato might have preferred they wait outside. For him, as the orator must suit his speech to the audience; truthful rhetoric is only possible when speaking to an individual in a private setting. The more people, the more confused, and the likelier it is that who we’re really letting in is a demagogue. Aristotle minded a little less. For him, there was no singular ‘truth’ to be arrived at in political deliberations, given all those whims of fortune and changing circumstances. Instead, he put rather a positive spin on it, suggesting that public rhetoric can create a community out of individuals, accounting for private particularities while aiming at the public good.
Plato, though, did have a point, as the Roman rhetoricians acknowledged. Cicero, writing during the collapse of the Roman Republic was especially keen to ensure that persuasive speakers moved their listeners toward what was ‘honourable’, acknowledging that advantage would follow. Nothing advantageous can ever be dishonest, Cicero argued, thus the question of a conflict between them in a counsellor’s advice is moot.
Cicero also intervened on another longstanding debate between Plato and Aristotle: whether it was worth getting involved in politics at all. Plato had advocated for a life of quiet contemplation. Cicero rejected this outright. Everyone has a duty to give everything he has to his community, and he places giving counsel alongside sharing water in the duties we owe our fellows. Without it, there is no republic, no community, at all.
The writings of Cicero and another Roman rhetorician, Quintilian, make up most of the Renaissance reading on rhetoric. Quintilian agreed with Cicero that the orator ought to be a good man, who “guides cities by his counsel”, though he acknowledged cases where advantage and honesty might diverge, when the orator must “colour” his counsel to make it more acceptable (Institutio 3.8.44).
The thinker who brought all these ideas together - wrapping them with a nice little bow for the Renaissance writers - was Plutarch. He insisted that whoever deliberated about politics needed to understand circumstance, fortune and occasion. Philosophers ought to give their advice to rulers, implanting in kings virtues to the benefit of all. Such a one “philosophizes, as it were, in the public interest and corrects the general power by which all are governed.” Whereas for a private individual it is enough to be virtuous, a statesman this must go hand-in-hand with oratorical ability. Their speech must be frank and free, and ought to be persuasive, as the “occasion” demands.
Plutarch’s most extensive and influential treatment of counsel and rhetoric is his essay “How to Tell a Flatterer from a Friend”, one of the most widely read classical pieces in the Renaissance. In it, Plutarch set out a series of tests to determine the difference between these two counsellors; one of the most crucial is that the friend gives frank advice at the right time. Untruthful speech is flattery, and frank speech given at the wrong time can drive the offended listener into the soft hands of flatterers.
Perhaps most importantly, these writers all agreed that – for good or ill – the skilful orator/counsellor had immense power. As Plutarch put it, they pour their influence, “ not into a single cup, but into the public fountain which, as they see, everyone uses.”
The pen is a mighty sword, perhaps even mightier than the sword itself, and therein lay the problem.
Primary Sources (OLL)
Aristotle, Nichomachean Ethics
Cicero, On Duties
Homer, Iliad and Odyssey
Plato, Republic, Laws
Lukas De Blois et al., eds., The Statesman in Plutarch’s Works: Proceedings of the Sixth International Congerence of the International Plutarch Society Nijmegen/Castle Hernen, May 1-5, 2002: Plutarch’s Statesman an (Leiden: Brill, 2004).
Matthew Landauer, ‘Parrhesia and the Demos Tyrannos: Frank Speech, Flattery and Accountability in Democratic Athens’, History of Political Thought 33, no. 2 (2012): 185–208.
Joanne Paul, ‘The Use of Kairos in Renaissance Political Philosophy’, Renaissance Quarterly 67, no. 1 (2014): 43–78.
Malcolm Schofield, Saving the City: Philosopher-Kings and Other Classical Paradigms (Routledge, 1999).
Aristide Tessitore, Reading Aristotle’s Ethics: Virtue, Rhetoric, and Political Philosophy (New York: SUNY Press, 1996).