bonæ litteræ: occasional writing from David Rundle, Renaissance scholar

The necessity of tyranny: quotations of the day

Posted in History of Political Thought by bonaelitterae on 20 April, 2009

A brief post on medieval political thought. I have been re-reading Magnus Ryan’s Alexander Prize Essay on ‘Bartolus of Sassoferrato and Free Cities’, published in 2000 but first delivered as a paper several years earlier: I recall sitting in Keble in 1996 amidst bemused modernists, listening to this searingly intelligent and radical re-positioning of the thought of the fourteenth-century jurist and  his most famous dictum, civitas sibi princeps.

But what struck me today was an obiter dictum in the piece, a quotation from Bartolus’ De Tyranno that reads:

…raro reperitur aliquod regimen, in quo simpliciter ad bonum publicum attendatur et in quo aliquid tyrannidis non sit…

This called to my mind a comment of Giles of Rome in his weighty and influential (if, frankly, for the most part unexciting) speculum principis, De regimine principum:

…forte vix autem nunquam reperitur aliquis qui fit omnino rex quin in aliquo tyrannizet, esset enim quasi semideus si nihil de tyrannide participaret. Inde est ergo quod dominantes aliquid participant de cautelis regiis et aliquid de versutiis tyrannorum… [III.ii.11]

When I first read that passage, I described it as like a strike of lightning, momentarily setting ablaze the whole volume. For Giles, who is so willingly to place the prince above the laws, a little tyranny is a natural thing; he does not see that as setting a challenge to his trust in the prince. Bartolus’ world-view was sharply different, but was he consciously echoing Giles’ thought and phrasing when he made a similar comment? And, for both, is this the ultimate result of the reconciliation of classical civic thought with Augustine’s Christian critique — in the face of evil rule, to give a slight shrug of the shoulders?

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