Melancholy of Power

Perception of Tyranny in European Political Culture of the 16th Century

by Igor Kąkolewski (Author) Jan Burzyński (Revision)
©2021 Monographs 502 Pages
Open Access


The book discusses how the most severe abuses of political power, traditionally termed from the ancient times as ‘tyranny’, were presented in 16th century political philosophy, propaganda, and literature in Italy, France, England, Scotland, German countries, and Poland-Lithuania. Using a unique interdisciplinary methodology, the book is both timeless and timely as it demonstrates various approaches of acknowledged Renaissance intellectuals to the problem of tyranny and how best to avoid or fight it. The author consciously avoids categories of the classic history of ideas or political thought and instead reveals broader intellectual and cultural connections in the perception of tyranny in the 16th century and its impact on modern debates on different dangers of political abuses of power.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the author
  • About the book
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Table of Contents
  • Foreword
  • Introduction: From Word to Concept and Antinomy: The Critique of Tyranny and Praise of Monarchy in Antiquity and the Middle Ages
  • Tyranny as a Problem and Element of Discourse in the Twentieth Century and the Present Day
  • In the Beginning Was the Word…
  • Tyranny in Antiquity: From Word to Systematic Concept
  • Tyranny in the Middle Ages: Tyranny as the Antinomy of the Kingdom
  • ‘The Unity of Opposites’: The Opposition Between Monarchy and Tyranny and the Relativization of Tyranny
  • Jacob Burckhardt and the Myth of Renaissance ‘Despotism’
  • A Different History of Ideas: Methodology
  • Part One:The Machiavellian Coup: Tyrant à rebours. The Onset of a New Era
  • Chapter I. The Machiavellian Paradox: Machiavellian ‘Paradoxes’ and ‘Moments’
  • Il Principe Nuovo: Moses or Cesare Borgia? In Search of a Positive Model
  • Il Principe Nuovo and Negative Models: The Rhetoric and Dialectics of Machiavelli’s Arguments
  • A Reverse Mirror: Construction and Literary Genre of Il Principe
  • Il Principe Nuovo: An Unnamed Tyrant
  • Machiavelli – A Republican by Conviction or a Monarchist by Necessity?
  • Chapter II. The Machiavellian Moment and the Political Correctness of Erasmus: The Times of Machiavelli, Guicciardini and Vettori
  • Machiavelli versus Erasmus and the Principles of Renaissance-era Political Correctness
  • Institutio Principis Christiani as a Masterpiece of Renaissance Humanism
  • First Major Theme: The Rule of a True Prince as a Reflection of Divine Power Versus Tyrannical Rule as a Reflection of the Devil’s Power
  • Minor Theme: If the Prince is Not a Philosopher, He is a Tyrant
  • Second Major Theme: Contrasting Catalogues of a True Prince and a Tyrant
  • Third Major Theme: The True Prince as the Father of the Family Versus the Tyrant as a Beast
  • Fourth Major Theme: The Ruler as an Actor on Stage, i.e. Criticism of Feigning Appearances
  • Minor Theme: It is Better to Abdicate than to Stain One’s Rule with Bloodshed
  • Minor Theme: Tyranny is Better than Long-Lasting Anarchy
  • Conclusion: Dialogue Between the ‘True Prince’ and the ‘New Prince’
  • Chapter III. Thomas More and Niccolò Machiavelli: Tyrannical Readings of the Renaissance? In the Realm of Utopia
  • The Opposition of King – Tyrant: The Examples of Edward IV and Richard III
  • Richard III as a Tyrant and Actor on the Stage-as-Scaffold
  • Tyrannical Readings: Castruccio Castracani – A Psychological Portrait of the ‘New Prince’
  • A Renaissance Metaphor in the Works of More, Erasmus, and Machiavelli: The Prince as an Actor on Stage
  • Chapter IV. Callimachus’ Advice: Machiavellian or Anti-Machiavellian Propaganda?
  • The ‘Tuscoscita’ and his Advice
  • Callimachus’ Advice: A Political Testament or Propaganda Pamphlet?
  • Callimachus’ Advice and Machiavelli’s Il Principe – Common Roots?
  • Part Two:The Anti-Machiavellian Moment: The Tyrant Restored. The Tyrant as Other During the Era of Rebellion and Religious Wars in Europe
  • Chapter I. The Reformation: from Obedience to the Right of Resistance –Tyranny as Religious Alienation
  • The Latter Half of the Sixteenth Century: The Era of Abdications, Depositions, and Tyrannicides?
  • The Reformation: from Obedience to Resistance – the Lutherans
  • The Reformation: from Obedience to the Right of Resistance – the Calvinists
  • Chapter II. The Birth of Anti-Machiavellism: Innocent Gentillet – Tyranny as Ethnic Alienation
  • The Phantom of Anti-Machiavellism
  • France in the 1570s: Innocent Gentillet – The Paradigm of Tyranny as Foreignness
  • Replacing the Tyrant as Religious Other with the Tyrant as Foreigner in France During the Wars of Religion
  • Chapter III. Jean Bodin – Despotism as Cultural Alienation
  • Jean Bodin and His Doctrine of Absolute Power
  • The Problem of Tyranny and the Right of Resistance in Six Books of the Commonwealth
  • Between Royal and Tyrannical Authority: Despotic Monarchy as an Intermediate Category
  • Chapter IV. Tyrants, Our Own and Foreign, in Propaganda Literature of the First Interregnum (1572–1574) in the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth
  • The Ideal of Monarchia Mixta and Vestiges of Machiavelli in Poland-Lithuania
  • The Vicissitudes of the Muscovite Candidacy During the First Interregnum
  • Promotional Propaganda – Amidst Stereotypes
  • Opposition: ‘Open’ Muscovite Tyranny and the ‘Hidden’ Tyranny of the West – Relativizing the Problem of Tyranny in Pro-Muscovite Propaganda
  • Familiarity as an Intermediate Category in the Opposition ‘Ours versus Others’
  • Part Three:The Humanized Tyrant on the Stage of Theatre and Life: Images of Rulers in the Era of Abdication and Deposition
  • Chapter I: The Tyrant as Madman: Albrecht Frederick of Prussia and Eric XIV of Sweden
  • Albrecht Frederick of Prussia – A Healthy Upbringing for the Heir to the Throne
  • Children of Nebuchadnezzar: Albrecht Frederick’s Disease – Melancholy or Tyranny?
  • Nebuchadnezzar’s Children: Eric XIV, the Mad King of Sweden
  • Under the Mask of Melancholy – Fashionable Pose or Disease?
  • Metaphors of Power: The Body and Head of the Ruler and the Health of the State
  • Chapter II: The Tyrant as a Man: Anti-Machiavellism in England and Elizabethan Theatre
  • The Birth of Anti-Machiavellism in England
  • Anti-Machiavellism on the Stage – Man as an Actor and Tyrant
  • William Shakespeare – The Human Face of Tyranny
  • Chapter III: The Woman as Tyrant: Mary, Queen of Scots, versus Elizabeth I, Queen of England
  • The Problem of Women’s Rule in the Late Sixteenth Century
  • John Knox and His Concept of Women’s Rule as Tyranny by Nature
  • George Buchanan – Monarchomachism and the Problem of Female Tyranny
  • The Phenomenon of ‘Two Queens on One Island’– the Image of the Good and Bad Queen
  • Strategies of the Woman-King – the Cult of Elizabeth
  • Epilogue: Women’s Rule as Naturally Tyrannical and the Place of Women in Sixteenth-Century Society
  • Afterword: Relativization of Tyranny in the Political Culture of the Sixteenth Century
  • Freedom, Tyranny and the ‘Triple Fear Syndrome’
  • The Sixteenth-Century ‘Media Revolution,’ the Image of Power and the Circulation of Social Energy
  • Concluding Remarks on the History of the Term ‘Tyranny’
  • Burckhardt and Machiavelli
  • Bibliography
  • Index


The present book is an English translation of my essays on the perception of tyranny in the 16th century that were published in Polish in 2007. My considerations refer to a limited number of selected primary and secondary sources on the subject and a somewhat narrow geographical scope. As a result, many important European sources and literature, including those from early modern Spain, were not analyzed and presented in this book. The essayistic form allowed me to merely touch upon some general aspects related to the political culture of the early modern era as far as they seem to be important for our contemporary perception of politics and history. The pressure of time and difficulties posed by the pandemic, during which the book was translated, also made it impossible for me to update my considerations based on the state of art and literature published after 2007. Due to lockdown restrictions in Germany, my access to book collections that included English translations and critical editions of the primary sources was extremely limited.

I would like to express my gratitude to those who contributed to the publication of this text. Publishing a book is often difficult in the best of circumstances, and as I mentioned previously, doing so during a worldwide pandemic was particularly challenging. Above all, I would like to thank my wife, Rebecca Denton, for her help and understanding. Without her support, I would not be able to complete this work. I also would like to express my acknowledgments to Mr. Thomas Anessi, for his translation of my essays and his suggestions of corrections of the original text, and to the editors Mr. Jan Burzyński, Mr. Łukasz Gałecki, Mr. Adam Gorlikowski, and Mr. Rafał Szklarski from the Peter Lang Verlag for their work, support and patience with me.

Introduction: From Word to Concept and Antinomy: The Critique of Tyranny and Praise of Monarchy in Antiquity and the Middle Ages

Just as the government of a king is the best,

so the government of a tyrant is the worst.

Thomas Aquinas, De regno (On Kingship)1

Tyranny as a Problem and Element of Discourse in the Twentieth Century and the Present Day

In the first decades of the twenty-first century, use of the terms ‘tyranny’ and ‘tyrannical’ has become increasingly common in political science and public discourse on politics, taking a place alongside such terms as ‘authoritarian’ and ‘authoritarianism.’ Not long ago, the term ‘tyranny,’ related to a monocratic degenerate form of government, would have seemed outdated. Since the early twentieth century, as republican forms of government in Europe began to replace monarchies, it has ceased to be frequently used as a systemic concept in textbooks on political philosophy in which mainly the notion of collective ‘tyranny of majority,’ a warning against excesses of democracy, has remained relevant. However, the emergence of new forms of dictatorship also fostered the development of new concepts such as ‘authoritarianism’ and ‘totalitarianism.’ The latter was precisely defined and analysed following the rise and expansion of various forms of fascism and communism in the first half of the twentieth century and during the Cold War era.

After the Second World War, a profound discussion of different symptoms of ‘tyranny,’ based on his research of the ancient Greek political thought,2 was initiated by a German-American political philosopher Leo Strauss, who critically distanced himself from both fascists and communists regimes3. However, in Western political discourse, shaped by the development of mass ideologies and new mass media, the concept of ‘totalitarianism’ in the postwar era acquired a much more sinister and relevant connotation: it was perceived as a modern form of degenerate political system, which had previously been referred to as ‘tyranny’ for more ←13 | 14→than 2,000 years.4 In The Origins of Totalitarianism (1951), Hannah Arendt argues that totalitarianism was a ‘novel form of government’ that ‘differs essentially from other forms of political oppression known to us such as despotism, tyranny and dictatorship.’5 In another classic work, Arendt states that tyranny stands in direct contradiction to the essence of power, understood in the Aristotelian tradition as a structure that functions according to laws and norms that protect the community from chaos. In her opinion, ‘while violence can destroy power, it can never become a substitute for it.’ Thus, tyranny is tantamount to the powerlessness of the ruler, which is why, sooner or later, it destroys all power.6 Despite the prevalence of the concept of totalitarianism in the public discourse in the latter half or the twentieh century the classic Aristotelian model of tyranny was still applied for analyzes of various symptoms of the totalitarian regimes.7

Francis Fukuyama, the famed advocate of liberal democracy, analysed tyranny in a similar vein in the late twentieth century. Whether it referred to a classic ancient form, such as autocracy, or twentieth-century forms of government, such as totalitarianism and authoritarianism, Fukuyama saw tyranny as a pathology – a dead end or a side road – and a discontinuity in a linear historical process that was to lead humanity to liberal democracy, culminating in the ‘end of history.’ He emphasized the antinomy between tyranny and freedom. In its violation of basic human rights (including property rights), tyranny embodies the most extreme violation of freedom. He also argued that people’s natural preference to define themselves as equal and free, rather than as slaves, stands in direct contradiction to tyranny.8 A similar assessment of tyranny can be recently found in Timothy Snyder’s short collection of essays, On Tyranny. However, Snyder presents a much more pessimistic approach to the political reality of the 2000s, encouraging the reader to draw conclusions from the sad ‘history lesson’ of the 1920s and 1930s.9

←14 | 15→

By the end of the twentieth century, the notion ‘tyranny’ had already begun to be used again more frequently as a systematizing concept, mainly as a defining element of contemporary dictatorships. In his book Modern Tyrants, Daniel Chirot made a distinction between classic tyranny exercised by the individual for selfish purposes (old-fashioned tyranny) and modern ideological tyranny. Contemporary nationalism and scientific doctrines in the spirit of social Neo-Darwinism gave rise to the latter. This is why Hitler, Stalin, Mao Zedong, and Pol Pot were the most sinister ‘ideological’ tyrants of the twentieth century.10 However, a sad ‘history lesson’ may be that the contemporary crisis caused by the return of nationalism, xenophobic resentments, and populism, let alone the economic and political chaos caused by the current coronavirus pandemic, can feed new forms both of the monocratic tyranny and multi-headed tyrannies of ‘majority’ (related to majoritarianism) or ‘minority’ (related to minoritarianism) in the twenty-first century.

In the Beginning Was the Word…

The ancient Greek word ‘tyrant’ (tyrannos) is most likely a borrowing from the Lydian language, once spoken in Asia Minor. Perhaps, it was used in Greek already in the times of Homer and Hesiod, who, however, never employed it in their works. The term ‘tyranny’ (Greek: tyrannis) first appeared in the seventh century BCE to describe the reign of Gyges (ca. 685–657 BCE) – a historical ruler of Lydia in Asia Minor, who is also mentioned in Greek mythology in which his name was associated with political murder and usurpation. In the fifth century BCE, Herodotus claimed that Gyges seized power after murdering a descendant of Heracles, the Lydian King Candaules.11

←15 | 16→

The word ‘tyrant’ originally did not have a pejorative connotation. It probably meant ‘lord’ or ‘ruler.’12 It was only at the end of the sixth century BCE – which is to say, when Peisistratos and others seized power in the Greek poleis – that it began to be associated with power gained by force. However, the original morally neutral meaning of the word in the sense of ‘lord’ or ‘ruler’ did not disappear, neither in Antiquity nor later.13 The archaic Greek aesymnetae, or ‘elective tyranny,’ mentioned in Aristotle’s Politics, referred to a situation when an autocrat ruled with the consent of ‘willing’ subjects, and his rule was not hereditary.14 Earlier on, Herodotus had presented Peisistratos’ tyranny in Athens in a rather positive light, and mentioned that his rule in the city followed its established laws. In turn, in the dialogue Hiero Xenophon presented the tyrant of Syracuse, Hiero I, though with critical overtones, as a leader who struggled for the common good of his subjects. Despite his own failure to convert another tyrant of Syracuse, Dionysus II, Plato argued in the Laws that, in order to create the best state and legal system, a wise legislator should cooperate with a ‘virtous’ tyrant. Sophocles, besides his critisicism of tyrannical rule in Antigone, also used the term ‘tyrant’ without a negative connotation in the title of one of his most famous tragedies, Oidopous tyrannos (better known as Oedipus Rex).15 However, we might wonder whether his use of the word ‘tyrant’ in reference to the main character was not meant to signal the destruction of moral norms and the human psyche, or even the political schizophrenia, associated with power as such – especially when exercised by a king whose rule is both legitimate and illegitimate, an usurper and heir to the throne in one person.

The archaic and neutral, or ethically indifferent, connotation of the word ‘tyrant,’ in the sense of a ruler who seizes power thanks to military genius and personal strength, survived to the early Middle Ages.16 Such ‘tyrants’ can be found ←16 | 17→in England in the fifth and sixth centuries – during the times of the legendary King Arthur.17 In the early thirteenth century, the Polish chronicler, Wincenty Kadłubek, also wrote about legendary tyrants, including the ‘Alemanni [i.e. German – I.K.] tyrant’ rejected by Princess Wanda, the daughter of Krakus, the legendary founder of Kraków.18

Tyranny in Antiquity: From Word to Systematic Concept

The difference between words and terms consists in the systematization and normalization of words and the contexts in which they are used, including philosophical and scientific concepts and legal norms. The processes of appreciation, relativization, ethical neutralization, and objectification all play a role in how a given term is used. Words, like terms and concepts, are subject to interpretation – their meaning thus changes over time. Words and terms can become taboo, or, just the opposite – they can regain popularity.

Such a conceptual evolution of the word ‘tyrant’ can be seen in Greece in the the fifth and fourth century BCE. In his Histories, Herodotus discussed three basic proper forms of government in the Greek poleis: democracy, oligarchy, and monarchy. Apart from his description of Peisistratos’ tyrannical rule, he mainly associated tyranny with the transgression of traditional laws by a single ruler, using the word tyrannos interchangeably with a more neutral term ‘king’ (basileus, monarchos), and stated that freedom, justice, and equality – the fundamental values of democracy – are the opposites of tyrannical government.19 In a similar vein, Xenophon, despite his rather critical approach to the Atenian democracy, argued in Hellenica that tyranny is a synonym for the ultimate bad monocratic or collective government, where the laws and the rights of the people are violated, like during the rule of Thirty Tyrants in Athens (404–403 BCE), imposed by Sparta after the Peloponnesian War. In the Republic and the Statesman, Plato discussed the opposition between monarchy and tyranny in ←17 | 18→more detail, claiming that tyrannical governments, which may also frequently arise out of the excesses of corruptible democracy, were disastrous for their subjects. He identified tyranny with an extensive catalogue of moral and political abuses, which later became a topos in classic Greek political philosophy.20

A fundamental contribution to the systematization of the concept of tyranny was made by Aristotle in Politics. Apart from the above-mentioned archaic neutral meaning (aesymnetae), the notion tyrannis has here at least three additional meanings. First, it is a degenerate form of ‘kingdom’ (basileia), that is, a proper monarchical system. Second, it is a form of political autocracy in the Greek poleis – unlike despotism (despoteia), which mainly referred to political systems, but only in the ‘barbarian’ world. Third, it is a usurpation of power by leaders of the people (e.g. in democratic systems) or due to factional strife (e.g. in oligarchic governments) through a coup.21 Moreover, the phenomenon, which we would define as a ‘many-headed tyranny,’ could emerge from oligarchic, but especially democratic governments, which, in Aristotle’s argument, are by themselves degenerate forms of the proper governments, i.e. aristocracy and politeia, the latter being a mixture of oligarchic and democratic elements, and recommended by him as the best form of government. The many-headed tyranny in the democratic systems, in a form of the ‘mob rule’ (ochlocracy), disregarding the rule of law, usually becomes a breeding ground for monocratic tyranny of the demagogues.22

In the context of the antinomy between the kingdom and tyranny, Aristotle characterized the tyrant, first, as a ruler who disregards the good of the people, the essence and purpose of every state, to fulfil his selfish interests. Second, as a ruler who, unlike a king, does not want to achieve moral qualities but ←18 | 19→only ‘use’ different goods.23 In an extensive list that was adopted a few centuries later by political philosophers of the Middle Ages and early modern times, followed by eighteenth-century theorists of revolution in Europe and America, Aristotle presented the most important flaws of ‘traditional’ tyrannical governments. In his view, they encourage political murders, especially those of outstanding individuals, and thereby limit the freedom of association and assembly, as well as educational opportunities. Out of the ruler’s fear of conspiracies and coups, the people are subjected to extensive control and invigilation. They are deprived and divided so that they can be easily manipulated. The tyrant strives to obtain funds to finance mercenaries as his guards, composed of foreigners and not native citizens, and remains in a state of permanent war with its neighbours, in order to divert attention from internal problems of the state and strengthen the need for a strong ruler.24

Indeed, tyranny destroys freedom and interpersonal relations (friendship), and is the main cause of the corruption of political life.25 Hence, because of its destructive nature, it is doomed to fail, collapse in confrontation with the ruled and their desire to live in a community whose natural goal is ‘common good’ and the happiness of the community. Tyrants are usually overthrown when conflicts arise within the group supporting them or as a result of attacks by oppressed subjects, who are driven by fear, contempt, ambition or honour.26 At the same time, however, Aristotle discusses a more optimistic scenario, which can be described as ‘tyranny therapy’ (Hela Mandt), where the ruler tries to mitigate the effects of his tyrannical regime by creating appearances and pretending to be a real king.27

Moreover, Aristotle also used the term ‘despotism’ (despoteia) as a systemic concept in his political philosophy. The word ‘despot’ (despotes) most likely ←19 | 20→has Indo-European roots. In the fifth century BCE in Greek, it already had two meanings. It referred to the ‘private power’ exercised by the head of a family in a given ‘household’ (oikos) and the absolute unlimited power of the gods.28 For Aristotle, the terms ‘despotism’ and ‘despotic’ had also two meanings. In the traditional, narrow sense, he used them to define the power of the master of the house and the father of a family in the private sphere, i.e. as in the art of household management (oikonomia). It takes different forms: the husband’s power over his wife, the father’s power over his children, and the master’s power over his slaves. Despotic rule understood in this way is the opposite of political power, that is, governing free individuals who comprise the state. Second, following earlier authors and a popular opinion in ancient Greece, Aristotle concludes that this ‘private’ and arbitrary despotic power, based as a rule on the hereditary right of succession to the throne, and the consent of the subjects, was widespread in barbarian and Asian states. According to him, unlike the Greeks, the barbarian peoples were slaves by nature, hence they were less able and inclined to rise up in a revolt.29 Thus, despotic rule can be described as semi-tyrannical – because it is exercised only according to the will of the ruler – and semi-monarchical – because it is derived from ‘tradition and law’ and therefore has a legal basis. Finally, Aristotle sometimes used the adjective despotikon in the sense of ‘tyrannical’ to describe any degenerate form of power: tyranny, oligarchy, or democracy, and the situation in which the ruler treats his subjects as slaves.30

The division between the king, despot and the tyrant thoroughly systematized by Aristotle became the basic topos in discourses on power and the political literature of late Antiquity, the Middle Ages and early modern era.31 However, in the literature of Latin Antiquity and in the Roman empire, the term dominus (master, owner) mainly began to be associated with the Greek tyrannos, but also with ←20 | 21→despotes (lord). Finally, dominus was recognized in the official title of the Roman Emperors under Diocletian, whereas the Greek term despotes in Byzantium was occasionaly used as a part of the imperial title, and later in the Middle Ages was bestowed on the high ranked courtiers and sons or sons-in-law of reigning emperors. The Latin medieval translation of Aristotle’s Politics in the thirteenth century made the term popular (in a Latinized form: despoticum, despoticus, despotice, despotizare) in Western Europe. Since the fourteenth century, it even appeared in national languages, mainly in relation to oriental states.32

The Latin terms tyrannus and tyrannia, borrowed from Greek, became important notions in the political culture of ancient Rome. In the period of the Republic, they were rather not used in the context of the antinomy between king and tyrant, largely due to a common antipathy towards ancient Roman kings, accused of the most serious abuses of power. Cicero described politicians seeking domination and destroying the freedom of citizens, using the term tyrannus as a synonym both for dominus, and ‘unjust king’ (rex iniustus). Because of these connotations, Augustus decided to assume the title princeps at the beginning of his imperial rule. In the early Principate period the term ‘tyranny’ was still oft associated with the politicians who, like Julius Cesar, were accussed of overthrowing the republican constitution of Rom. Besides, it was applied for moral judgment of cruel emperors, like, e.g. Caligula, Neron, Domitian, or Diokletian. During the final three centuries of the Roman empire, a time of widespread conspiracies and coups, the ‘tyrant’ meant not only a ruler who ruled by force and violated the law but also a usurper who gained power without the legal title to exercise it. At the same time, usurpers who took power through coups often accused their overthrown predecessors of tyranny However, the antinomy between ‘tyranny’ and ‘civil freedom’ considered by Latin authors from the perspective of the idealized republican Rome as a perfect ‘mixed’ (Polybius, Cicero) form of government, combining elements of monarchical, aristocratical and democratical sytems33, in the Middle Ages and Renaissance era still dominated both among advocates of the idealized liberties of the Roman Republic, praising those, like Brutus, who murdered the ‘tyrant’ Cesar, as well as supporters of the ‘limited monarchy’ or monarchia mixta, in which the influence of the monarch and the ruling etates were balanced.34

←21 | 22→

Tyranny in the Middle Ages: Tyranny as the Antinomy of the Kingdom

The antinomy between king and tyrant resurged in the early Middle Ages, mainly under the influence of Christianity. Christianity, in turn, strengthened the ethical dimension of the concept of ‘tyranny,’ dismissing or even ignoring its legal and systemic connotations, and thus contributed to the personalization of the concept. The cornerstone for this was laid by St Augustine in De civitate Dei, who, drawing on Cicero, identified the concept of tyrannus with rex iniustus and argued that tyrannical rule was above all a violation of the basic norms of Christian morality: peace (pax), justice (iustitia), charity (caritas), and devotion (pietas). Thus, tyrannical rule was also seen as ‘God’s scourge,’ sent by Providence as punishment for the sins of the subjects.35 In the seventh century, Isidore of Seville pursued a similar line of argument in his Etymologies. He argued that the word rex was derived from ‘do it right’ (recte facere) and ‘govern’ (regere), connecting them with the fundamental values of Christian political ethics: iustitia et pietas. He thereby strengthened the meaning of the antithesis between king and tyrant, describing tyrants as the ‘worst, and wicked kings’ (‘pessimi atque improbi reges’). Similarly, other medieval authors emphasized the ethical dimension of the concept of ‘tyranny,’ associating it with the ruler’s superbia, and punishment sent by God for human sins, or, from an eschatological perspective, with activities of the Antichrist. The classic Aristotelian legal and political connotations were here disregarded; instead, the concept of tyrannus was used in opposition to rex iustus, which was to become in the medieval political thought the embodiment of the Christian humbleness and piety.36

At the end of the sixth century, Saint Gregory the Great in Moralia developed a more diverse typology of tyrannical rule. He distinguished between five types of tyrants (in the state, in the province, in the city, at home, and also ‘in the mind’ – the latter category referring to an individual whose intentions were unlawful. He thereby moved tyranny beyond a purely political context, endowing the concept with a moral quality and endowing the tyrant with psychological complexity.37

←22 | 23→

Wilhelm von Moerbecke’s Latin translation of Aristoteles politicorum libri octo (c. 1268) and, most importantly, the works of Thomas Aquinas, gave rise to a different understanding of the concept of ‘tyranny,’ one that moved away from morality in favour of a more objective legal definition.38 In his discussion on the state Thomas Aquinas introduced the opposition between the kingdom as the best system of government, and tyranny as a degenerate system and the most unjust one. Drawing on Aristotle, he argued that the ruler should care for the common good (bonum multitudinis), and in relation to traditional Christian theory of monarchical rule, he stressed that God entrusted the ruler with an ‘office’ (officio). According to Aquinas, it was not the ruler or people who are the sovereign, but the law established by the ruler and the people in consilium. That led him to argue that ‘limited monarchy’ was the best form of government.39 At the same time, summarizing the classic distinction that dates back to Greek Antiquity, Aquinas updated the typology of tyranny based on legal categories, distinguishing between two basic types of tyrants, which were earlier mentioned by Augustin. The first type was tyrannus quantum ad modum adquirendi praelationis, i.e. a usurper who gained power by illegal means. The second type was tyrannus quantum ad usum praelationis, a tyrant ‘in the manner of exercising power,’ i.e. a ruler who admittedly took the throne legally, but violated basic legal norms.40 The typology of tyranny created by Thomas Aquinas, formulated in objective, legal and ethical terms, did not supersede the traditional Christian ‘moral’ concept of tyranny. However, the new approach developed concurrently with the medieval republican-constitutional ideal and the formation of city-states in northern Italy. In the mid-fourteenth century, Bartolus de Saxoferrato created in such a context a precisely defined and objective legal typology, based partly on Thomas Aquinas’ concepts, distinguishing among others: a tyrant-usurper ←23 | 24→(tyrannus ex defectu tituli); a tyrant ‘in the manner of exercising power’ (tyrannus ex parte exercitii); a ‘manifest’ tyrant (tyrannus manifestus), who openly flaunted the law; and a ‘concealed’ or ‘tacit’ tyrant (tyrannus vellatus et tacitus), who hid behind the appearances of the law.41

As a result of changes in the structure of monarchical systems between the twelfth and fifteenth centuries, including the ongoing depersonalization of the concept of royal power and the emergence of the legal concept of the ‘Crown of the Kingdom’ as well as the problem of legalizing new ruling dynasties, the traditional opposition between king and tyrant began to be relativized in certain situations. For example, during the reign of King Roger II (d. 1154), the founder of a centralized Sicilian state with its capital in Palermo, the concept of a ‘useful tyrant’ (tyrannus utilis) first appeared. A ‘useful tyrant’ was a ruler who took to the throne illegally but brought prosperity to the state and his subjects. In turn, in the mid-thirteenth century, the concept of a ‘useless king’ (rex inutilis) was introduced into canon law by Pope Innocent IV and employed in 1245 to depose Sancho II in Portugal. A ‘useless king’ was a legitimate ruler who, due to his weakness and incompetence, brought misfortune to the country and his subjects.42

In the political philosophy of the Middle Ages, the right of the subjects to resist the ruler who violated the law, which in consequence often led to his deposition, was usually legalized with the help of arguments that hinged upon the traditional antinomy between king and tyrant. Selected passages from the New Testament, calling for obedience to secular authority, and the Augustinian concept of the tyrant as ‘God’s scourge’ and punishment for the sins of the people, gave subjects the right to passive resistance only in the situation when they were encouraged by the ruler to violate basic moral and religious principles. Nevertheless, the early Christian tradition was but one of the two main sources of medieval doctrines relating to the right of resistance. The second source was the Germanic tradition, according to which subjects had the right to dethrone a legitimate monarch when he failed to comply with generally applicable norms.43 The assumption that the relationship between the ruler and his subjects is based on the principle of reciprocity and a covenant sanctioned by God, and that it ←24 | 25→remains valid as long as the ruler respects it, became one of the most important rules in the late medieval and later the early modern monarchies. This principle had been developed by the ninth century, and became binding alongside two other fundamental assumptions: (i) that Christians are free people, and their rulers should serve their subjects rather than vice versa, and (ii) that in contrast to the tyrant, the king serves the interests of his subjects and does not merely pursue selfish goals.44 The Investiture Controversy, which began as a dispute and power struggle in the eleventh century, and the assumption that a ruler who violated the norms imposed by the Church could be excommunicated and removed from power, marked a breakthrough in the Western Christian world, resulting in long-lasting transformations in political thought.45

The most extreme application of the right of resistance was the medieval theory of tyrannicide. Neither in Antiquity nor in the Middle Ages was a coherent and fully systematized theory of political murder developed.46 A crucial step in this direction was made shortly after the height of the Investiture Controversy, during the twelfth-century renaissance of classic Antiquity. Drawing on antique authors, John of Salisbury argued in favour of tyrannicide in Policraticus (1156). It is precisely by drawing on ancient concepts and Old Testament models that the author was able to distance himself from the teachings of the Fathers of the Church, who criticized active forms of resistance. In his argumentation, John of Salisbury used medieval Christian concepts and images of power. While the monarch is imago Dei, the tyrant is imago diaboli, and commits the worst offenses against God. Hence, the tyrant is not only an enemy of his subjects but also commits a mortal sin against God. Therefore, the murder of a tyrannical ruler by a private individual was an act that pleases God. In parallel to religious reasoning, he also used philosophical arguments. Every individual who enjoys membership in the ‘body’ of political community, has a duty to protect the common good and justice, first by expressing together with other people disapproval and recommending to an unjust ruler corrective measures. Only if they fail, the individual has a duty and right to kill an incorrigible tyrant.47

←25 | 26→

Even more important observations, despite certain internal contradictions, can be found in Thomas Aquinas’ discussion of tyrannicide. On the one hand, though he favoured non-active means of resistance to a ‘mild’ form of tyranny, he did not necessarily see active resistance against a tyrant as an act of rebellion, considering rather tyrannical rule as a form of rebellion against God.48 On the other hand, he argued that active resistance could have even worse consequences than tyrannical governments. The difference between the early views of Aquinas, which seem similar to those of John of Salisbury, insofar as he accepted tyrannicide committed by a private individual, and his later views, when he granted the right of resistance only to ‘public authorities,’49 is important. Indeed, although the interpretation according to which Aquinas only approved of the murder of a tyrant-usurper, but not a tyrant ‘in the manner of exercising power,’ is still treated in historiography as hypothetical,50 his concept of resistance by ‘public authorities’ exerted a huge influence on sixteenth-century concepts of the active right of resistance. Alongside this, there was an almost atavistic fear of chaos and anarchy resulting from tyrannicide: ‘if there be not an excess of tyranny it is more expedient to tolerate the milder tyranny for a while than, by acting against the tyrant, to become involved in many perils more grievous than the tyranny itself.’51 This peculiar horror anarchiae, which dates back to Antiquity, will become a topos in sixteenth-century political philosophy, inspiring attempts to create ‘institutionalized’ theories of the right of resistance in the sixteenth century when Europe was being torn apart by religious conflicts.52

At the end of the Middle Ages, in the turbulent fifteenth century, marked by upheavals and dethronements, the right of resistance gained special importance, becoming the subject of two fierce international debates. The first discussion ←26 | 27→began in Italy at the end of the fourteenth century and continued well into the sixteenth century, mainly among Renaissance intellectuals, who drew on on the ancient topos of Brutus’ right to murder Caesar.53 Second, the murder of unpopular Louis I Duke of Orléans, who tried to gain the guardianship over his insane brother King Charles IV of France, in Paris in 1407 and the apology of this act and its main inspirer, Duke of Burgundy John the Fearless, by a French theologian, Jean Petit, sent shock waves across Europe. For Petit, the tyrant was a traitor guilty of crimen laese majestatis (high treason against a sovereign), which was a crime equal to heresy, and therefore tyrannicide, even by resorting to a secret plot, poison or feigned friendship, was the duty of any subject, who should be awarded and not punished for killing a tyrant54. These views sparked a furious polemic with the Chancellor of the University of Paris, Jean Charlier Gerson. In 1415 the Council of Constance condemned Petit’s most radical theses as ‘erroneous’, ‘heretical’, and leading to anarchy.55

‘The Unity of Opposites’: The Opposition Between Monarchy and Tyranny and the Relativization of Tyranny

Regardless of the numerous classic definitions of the tyrant and tyranny in Antiquity and the Middle Ages, i.e. a time when monarchical systems dominated in Europe, the basic topos in the discourse on power was the antinomy between king/kingdom and tyrant/tyranny. An understanding of this opposition, which is closer to our contemporary republican and liberal-democratic mentality, namely the opposition between tyranny (construed as slavery, a lack of freedom) and freedom (understood as civil freedom to act within the law) appeared also in political thought in Antiquity and the Middle Ages. On the one hand, it was discussed by authors who cherished republican values, for example, as embodied in an idealized republican Rome, and the defenders of the republican system and liberties of city-states in late-medieval Italy. On the other hand, it was discussed by followers of a model of limited monarchy, e.g. by those who criticized the ‘absolutist’ rule of the Stuart dynasty in England.56 However, taking into consideration ←27 | 28→several thousand years of dominant monarchical rule, the opposition between the lack of freedom (tyranny) and (civil) freedom seems complementary to the fundamental opposition between monarchy and tyranny. Despite differing views on the role of the monarch, the antinomy between monarchy and tyranny was used both by the supporters of more centralized absolutist monarchies, in which the role of the sovereign was played by the monarch, as well as by advocates of limited monarchy, for example, that of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, where the nobility claimed the sovereignty of the law over the monarch. Indeed, in the Commonwealth any attempts at strengthening royal power were seen as tyrannical, threatening the ‘golden liberty’ of the Polish nobility.57

The antinomy between monarchy and tyranny remained a fundamental concept in the philosophy and political mentality of early modern Western and Central-Eastern Europe: from Scotland to the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth. From the historian’s point of view, this antinomy can be seen as contradictive, involving mutually exclusive oppositions (e.g. white-black). It may also be seen ontically as privative opposites (e.g. healthy and sick) or polar opposites, i.e. concepts which, under certain conditions, have intermediate degrees (e.g. male and female). Depending on the historical context as well as the beliefs and worldview held by an author perceiving and evaluating a given state of affairs in terms of the opposition between monarchy and tyranny, this antinomy can be construed in terms of any of the above-mentioned oppositions. However, I believe that a more ontological (and systematic) perspective of the ‘unity of opposites’ (coincidentia oppositorum) should be employed here. Dating back to the ancient Greek philosophy it was systematically discussed in the fifteenth-century theology and philosophy of Nicholas of Cusa (God as coincidentia oppositorum) and applied by Renaissance Neoplatonists to man (man as a convergence of opposing natures), coincidentia oppositorum characterized the philosophical culture of the Renaissance. 58 It seems that in the context of the discovery of the ‘objective’ human condition, based on the ←28 | 29→unity of opposites in the Renaissance, the antinomy between monarchy and tyranny might be also interpreted in terms of coincidentia oppositorum. In political philosophy, Renaissance realism also contributed to this ‘discovery.’ Niccolò Machiavelli’s thought and his systemic relativization of the problem of tyranny59 the starting point for my considerations and the basic problem discussed in this book – was a milestone in this respect.

Jacob Burckhardt and the Myth of Renaissance ‘Despotism’

The Civilization of the Renaissance in Italy (first published in 1860) proved to be one of the greatest bestsellers of contemporary historiography. Burckhardt’s concept of the Renaissance as an era permeated with the ‘spirit’ of anthropocentric individualism and secularism, as well as pagan Antiquity, remains valid today. Indeed, while Burckhardt himself is not always acknowledged, the concept can be found both in academic monographies of European history and school textbooks.

An intriguing puzzle in Burckhardt’s concept of the Renaissance, repeatedly criticized in later years,60 is the connection between the revival of individualism and Renaissance tyrants, or, as Burckhardt put it, ‘despotic’ governments, especially in late-medieval and early-renaissance Italy. In Part I of his book, enigmatically entitled The State as a Work of Art, Burckhardt presented his own historical typology of Italian ‘despotic’ governments. The oldest thirteenth-century type is fully embodied by the south-Italian monarchy of the King of Sicily and later Holy Roman Emperor Frederick II as the first ‘modern’ ruler.61 The second, ←29 | 30→fourteenth-century type is represented by tyrant-aristocrats, such as the Visconti of Milan who managed to gain power at the time of when city-states were in crisis.62 And finally, there are the Italian despots of the fifteenth century, who were described by the Swiss historian in the greatest detail. They are tyrants-condottieri who seized power after having served as military leaders hired to protect rich princes or city republics. The armies led by condottieri often turned against their employers, who were removed from power by mercenary forces. Referring to the amoral concept of power expressed in Machiavelli’s Prince, Burckhardt thus characterized this type of tyrant- condottiero: ‘Good and evil lie strangely mixed together [emphasis mine – I.K.] in the Italian States of the fifteenth century. The personality of the ruler is so highly developed, often of such deep significance, and so characteristic of the conditions and needs of the time, that to form an adequate moral judgment on it is no easy task.’63

Jacob Burckhardt closely links the emergence of modern individualism in the Renaissance, seeing it in opposition to medieval corporatism, with the rule of despots. This problem is discussed in the greatest detail in the second part of the book entitled The Development of the Individual. According to Burckhardt, tyrannies in the Renaissance shaped the revival of anthropocentric individualism in three ways. First, the individualism of the tyrant developed most fully under this form of government. Ironically speaking, we cannot object to the following observation: ‘despotism, as we have already seen, fostered in the highest degree the individuality not only of the tyrant or Condottiere himself.’ However, the second part of this sentence remains questionable: ‘but also of the men whom he ←30 | 31→protected or used as his tools – the secretary, minister, poet, and companion.’64 Burckhardt is probably referring here to the artistic patronage of the Italian princes in the Renaissance and the bureaucratic apparatus of power created by them. However, the twentieth century has taught us that ‘ideological tyrannies’ constrain the freedom of the individual and the freedom of art. Thus, the contemporary reader may find it difficult to understand the relationship between political oppression and the lack of creative freedom.

An even stranger explanation behind the connection between tyranny and individualism can be found in the following line of argument: due to their political powerlessness, the subjects of the tyrant-despot withdraw into the sphere of private life and thus develop their individualism.65 Again, for modern people, who recognize the power of liberalism and believe that only personal freedom and democratic values foster the development of the self, Burckhardt’s point seems bizarre. For us, who know the history of twentieth-century ‘ideological tyrannies,’ it is a given that a centralized government or a police state restrains all manifestations of individualism among its citizens and places group interests above the good of the individual. Forced to withdraw into their private life, man is deprived of development opportunities in the public sphere. Respectively, Burckhardt describes tyrannicide with irony, writing about a peculiar fifteenth-century fashion to attack tyrants in churches. He also sarcastically comments on ancient tyrannicides and two defenders of republican values, Brutus and Cassius, who served as role models for contemporary assassins. In a word, all tyrannicides: ‘Like bad physicians, they thought to cure the disease by removing the symptoms.’66

And finally, fascinated by the culture of Renaissance Florence, which was formally a republic until the beginning of the 1530s, Burckhardt admits that republics could also in certain situations foster the development of the individual. Especially when, due to internal struggles, power was held by an outstanding individual,67 who did not tolerate his opponents. ‘The members of the defeated parties […] often came into a position like that of the subjects of the despotic ←31 | 32→States.’68 Thus, they could choose between internal emigration, escapism, withdrawal into the private sphere, or actual emigration. In turn, exile life, in the case of particularly resistant and talented people, could also foster the development of their personality by shaping cosmopolitan attitudes. With a conservative emphasis, Burckhardt concludes: ‘The cosmopolitanism which grew up in the most gifted circles is in itself a high stage of individualism.’69

Although this thesis is difficult to understand from our contemporary perspective, the close relationship between the development of Italian Renaissance ‘despotism’ and the birth of anthropocentric individualism must be seen through the prism of the times in which the Swiss scholar lived. On the one hand, it should be assessed in the context of the critique of monarchical absolutism as monocratic tyranny and ‘despotism’ by German democrats and socialists (and before 1848 also by liberals). On the other hand, it must be viewed in the context of the liberal critique of democracy as the multi-headed tyranny of the majority, especially the conservative attack on the so-called parliamentary and party despotism.70 It was from a conservative point of view that Jacob Burckhardt – who was, after all, a member of the wealthy Basel patriciate, a representative and admirer of elite culture – observed with horror the massification and democratization of European culture, and consequently developed his concept of ‘the despotism of the masses’ (Massendespotismus).71 Thus, in opposition to the Massendespotismus, he saw Renaissance monocratic ‘despotism’ as a positive factor in the development of modern European culture. In addition, the nineteenth-century renaissance and the growing popularity of Machiavelli as a political thinker, especially since the 1850s, and the unification of Italy and Germany, must have had a significant impact on his views. The critique of plans to democratize the republican system in Florence, discussed in the part entitled ‘The State as a Work of Art,’ demonstrates that Burckhardt found Italian Renaissance ‘despots’ and rulers, who resembled Machiavelli’s ‘new prince,’ more fascinating – since ‘thoughtful men like Machiavelli knew well enough that Milan and Naples were too ‘corrupt’ for a republic.’72

Burckhardt’s line of argument, i.e. the fact that he saw a connection between the development of ‘despotism’ in Renaissance Italy and the birth of anthropocentric ←32 | 33→individualism, can be explained if we take into account the historical moment, or ‘the spirit of the time’ (Zeitgeist) – to use a word favoured in the nineteenth century by German-speaking cultural historians.73 However, more than 150 years after The Civilization of the Renaissance in Italy was written, critical reflection on Burckhardt’s methods of historical research and narrative leads us to believe that his thesis is a kind of historiographical myth. Burckhardt’s book mostly reflects a certain way of thinking characteristic of conservative intellectuals in the mid-nineteenth century and their views on the state of contemporary culture. Still, it fails to tell us the historical ‘truth’ about the culture of the Renaissance.

Despite its ahistorical approach, Jacob Burckhardt’s thesis can inspire us to pose the following question: How did changes in the understanding of tyranny in the sixteenth century affect the ‘discovery’ of various aspects of human personality in the context of the broadly understood political culture of the Renaissance? Or, to put it differently, how did Renaissance reflection on political evil associated with the tyranny shape early modern thinking about the role of man – both the ruler and the ruled – as a political being? I pose this question with scepticism, acknowledging that an answer to it will also be an attempt to read the culture of my times through the prism of the past.

A Different History of Ideas: Methodology

Naturally, an answer to such a question faces numerous methodological problems. First, regarding the choice of chronological and territorial frames. To analyse the problem in more detail, I have decided to concentrate on two sixteenth-century ‘sections.’ The first ‘section’ concerns the 1520s, i.e. the time when Niccolò Machiavelli wrote The Prince. The second section concerns the 1570s, i.e. the time when anti-Machiavellian trends became dominant in Europe. I argue that it is precisely an analysis of the problem of tyranny in the political culture of one century, but in the periods divided by 50 years, that makes it possible to define changes which took place at that time more accurately, without losing sight of the most important inspirations found in Antique and Medieval political thought, which fuelled the Renaissance culture and political mentality. Therefore, it is necessary to obtain a broad territorial perspective, insofar as a comparative look at the political culture of the Europeans in the sixteenth century is required. In order to discover what is common and predominant, I discuss political thought and mentality in some Western and Central-Eastern European ←33 | 34→countries (Italy, France, the Holy Roman Empire, England, Scotland, the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, the Duchy of Prussia, and Sweden, though I mainly refer to Polish sources in the latter case).

My book is not a work on the history of political thought, defined as the evolution of political concepts. Neither was my aim to discuss the doctrines developed by various political thinkers. Instead, I wish to present the history of ideas more as the history of political culture and political mentality ‘in interaction with history of politics’. To that end, my approach brings to a focus the problem of the transfer of tradition and the values of culture over time.

We read past historical epochs like books in which other historical epochs, which preceded them and inspired them, are hidden and described. The Renaissance was a time of a rediscovery (‘rebirth’) of classic Antique texts, which were read together with a central text for the Middle Ages, namely the Bible. However, at the same time we also project our own present on the interpretation of the past through readings of various books relevant for our times. The fundamental point is that in certain periods and in certain areas of collective, and sometimes only individual (i.e. among believers, doctrinaires, and certain scholars) thinking, the Book governs all aspects of life, be it the Bible or Karl Marx’s Das Kapital. A certain canonical text is often the key to understanding, at least partially, a particular cultural code of a past in connection with our present time.

The canon of books for my perception of tyranny in the sixteenth century incudes mostly the works of Machiavelli, More and Shakespeare. They sometimes achieved a monopolistic position in the culture of a given epoch, and not necessarily the one in which they were created. ‘Discovered’ later, through new interpretations, they take on new meanings depending on the historical context. For the historian, they may also become ‘canonical sources.’ The main difficulty in studying them lies in the enormous number of cultural references, as well as the volume of literature on the subject, which is practically impossible for a single researcher to navigate. An additional problem is that, in the process of analysing ‘canonical sources,’ the historian also needs to read secondary sources related to them critically, in the context of the time when they were written, and not merely as ‘objective’ studies.

The canon of ideas: a set of premises, assumptions, problems, theses, concepts, doctrines, and norms (including legal norms) discussed in various types of texts, including non-canonical texts. They constitute classic historical sources which should be studied using traditional methods of scholarly criticism. Transformed from one epoch to the next, the canon of ideas is not only re-adopted as ‘orthodox,’ but also amplified, paraphrased, mythicized, censored, questioned and undermined, giving rise to anti-doctrines, such as anti-Machiavellism.

The canon of examples: conventional images which function in canonical and non-canonical sources, and sometimes even become ‘icons’ in a given culture (e.g. as symbolic or allegorical representations). Found in canonical texts, they can often be used in various texts or iconographic representations, even disregarding their original meaning, depending on the needs and context of a given epoch.

The canon of instruments, which consists of: a) material media, which are the ‘carriers’ of the three above-mentioned canons (e.g. handwritten or printed texts); they enable a more intensive and extensive circulation and exchange of texts, information, and ideas; b) formal media, i.e. forms of communication and transmission of the three above-mentioned canons; formal media in the sixteenth century included, public theatres, but also new literary genres (e.g. the novel). Material and formal media not only serve the purpose of transmitting and distributing ‘books,’ ‘ideas’ and ‘examples’ in time and space. The emergence of new formal media gives rise to new interpretations of ‘books,’ ‘ideas,’ and ‘examples’ and endows them with new meanings in a given epoch.

Taking into account the four above-mentioned canons, we can try to at least selectively understand the mentality and broadly defined political culture of a given epoch.74 However, such a perspective requires numerous and diverse sources. On the one hand, ‘canonical texts’ require a specific approach to the critical texts which discuss them. On the other hand, the researcher should be familiar with non-canonical sources that require a more classical historical and critical approach. This concerns both scholarly works of political philosophy and history, as well as more ‘vulgar’ and journalistic and propaganda texts, and iconographic representations, too.

Literary texts of the era are of particular importance. Neither in Antiquity nor in the Middle Ages was the concept of the tyranny defined solely on the basis of political philosophy or legal treaties. Fiction, including dramas, was also important. In his fascinating essay devoted to the topos of the tyrant in medieval and Renaissance literature, written during the political crisis in Germany that preceded Nazi totalitarian ‘tyranny,’ Ernst Walser distinguished between two conventional medieval literary figures: the tragic tyrant (e.g. certain Roman ←35 | 36→emperors described in the hagiographies of early-Christian martyrs) and the comic tyrant (also described in hagiographies or rhetorical texts). Sometimes the same figure, for example, the biblical Herod, was endowed with both tragic and comic features in liturgical dramas and mystery plays. The origins of both these topoi date back to ancient literary representations of the ‘vulgar tyrant,’ and they were both often popularized in medieval written culture through textbooks on classic rhetoric.75

Respectively, thanks to the expansion of printed texts and the emergence of new literary genres, the Renaissance created new opportunities for an increasingly diversified and nuanced representation of the human condition, including the problem of tyranny. Certainly, the popularization of print in the sixteenth century can be seen as a ‘media revolution’ that irreversibly changed European culture, transforming it into ‘the Gutenberg Galaxy.’76 As a result, the circulation of information and its social impact dramatically increased, facilitating social communication. These developments (within the canon of instruments) also had to have an impact on culture in general, including the political culture of the era (the canon of the book, ideas, and examples). Hence, in my book, I focus on printed sources – be they old prints or newer editions – although I sometimes also refer to critically edited primary sources that were created and intended for circulation as handwritten texts.


ISBN (Hardcover)
Open Access
Publication date
2021 (March)
Niccolò Machiavelli Thomas More Political philosophy Civil resistance Renaissance Reformation
Berlin, Bern, Bruxelles, New York, Oxford, Warszawa, Wien, 2021. 502 pp., 8 tables.

Biographical notes

Igor Kąkolewski (Author) Jan Burzyński (Revision)

Igor Kąkolewski is a Polish historian, professor at the University of Warmia and Mazury and director of the Center of Historical Research Berlin of the Polish Academy of Sciences. His research fields are early modern history of Poland-Lithuania and Europe, history of European political philosophy and culture and history of Polish-German relations, and studies in memory culture, museology and pedagogy.


Title: Melancholy of Power
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