This month the RSJ Blog is delighted to feature Counsel and Command in Early Modern English Thought by Joanne Paul.
Joanne’s book takes up the issue of counsel in early modern England. As her introduction expertly lays out, counsel is tricky: if counsel is required, it diminishes the monarch’s sovereignty but if counsel is optional, it becomes essentially useless.
The book argues for three things:
it provides an account of the move from the monarchy of counsel to modern notions of sovereignty, making the argument that the paradoxes inherent in the discourse of counsel prompt this transition. Second, it contributes to an understanding of the boundaries of this change, in particular the division between public and private that is essential to modern ideas of politics. … Thus, third, this study contributes a new perspective on the development of modern ‘political science’, by tracing the moves from moral philosophising to historical knowledge to the observation of contemporary affairs in the writings about the counsellor (4).
The first chapter, on the humanist counsellor, focuses on the writings of Erasmus, More and Castiglione. These works grapple with ideas about princely education, too, and the balance between instruction and counsel. The second chapter investigates what humanists said about the timing of giving counsel. Erasmus and More largely argued for silence until the opportune moment, while a younger generation of writers, such as Thomas Starkey and Thomas Elyot, disagreed. They wanted counsel to be more public and institutionalized. Although these humanists disagreed on when a counsellor should speak up, they all agreed that rulers needed to listen to counsel.
Chapter three looks at Machiavellian counsel in England. Machiavelli argued it was better for the ruler to be good and capable than his counsellors to be. In addition, he thought counsellors would probably be selfish and should be kept in check. The ruler needed to command and dominate his counsellors, a contrast with humanist arguments. Exploring eight related aspects of Machiavellian counsel, this chapter expertly contrasts it with humanist perspectives that saw counsel in more positive terms.
Chapter four looks at the acceptance of Machiavellian ideas even by those opposed to his work. Prudence in the political sphere is separated from morality. Politics becomes morally flexible or even amoral, and counsellors are not expected to keep a ruler from being a tyrant by cultivating the monarch’s virtue. Chapter five, “Late Tudor Counsellors,” focuses on how these new ideas, coupled with “weak” monarchs (children and women) led to increased institutionalization of counsel as represented by Parliament and the Privy Council. Humanist texts promoted the idea that child and female monarchs would be in particular need of advice, but Machiavellian ideas suggested individual, selfish counsellors could and would exploit these monarchs for their own gain. This tension helped to change the way counsel operated.
Chapter six looks at “Reason of State,” wherein knowledge of the contemporary world, rather than virtue, is the main qualification for a counsellor. The chapter argues the Stuart monarchs preferred this idea because it helped them to re-assert monarchical power after the “weak” (and so exceptionally counsel-needing) late Tudor rulers. The counsellor is further subordinated to the monarch because he transmits information rather than guidance on morally-correct governance.
Chapter seven looks at some of the counsel-related problems faced by James VI/I and Charles I. While both kings saw counsel as subordinate to their authority, they relied on personal favorites as counsellors. On the other side, theorists and politicians saw Parliament as the best choice of counsel, contending that Parliament’s self-interest was the state’s interest. Another aspect of the English Civil War is the fight over counsel. Through investigation of the writings of theorists such as Thomas Hobbs, the chapter argues that ideas about counsel fade away in the later 1600s as discourses of sovereignty come to the fore.
This fascinating book gives insight not only into the political thought of early modern England, but also offers ideas on why and how political discourse has changed over time.
The blog also caught up with Joanne to ask her a few questions.
RSJ Blog: How did you get the idea for the book?
Joanne: This book emerged out of my PhD, which I completed under the supervisor of Professor Quentin Skinner at Queen Mary, University of London. From my undergraduate onwards I had been interested in what we might think of as the ‘middle men’ in the Tudor court, as well as in the writings of the time which theorised about their role. The Tudor political discourse thought a lot about these intermediaries, who sat between ‘the people’ and ‘the ruler’. When I first sat down with Professor Skinner, we discussed that two ways in which we might explore these figures and the writings about them: (a) work on ambassadors and themes of representation or (b) work on counsellors and themes of rhetoric. I chose the latter. This was largely because almost every political text of the time, especially in England, devotes significant attention to the role of ‘the counsellor’, and yet there was no book-length study of the topic. I focused particularly on the relationship between ‘counsel’ (giving advice) and ‘command’ (giving orders): a relationship which thinkers have been contemplating since Homer and which reached a head (as it were) during the English Civil War. The ‘paradox’ is fairly straightforward: if your advice isn’t obligatory and can be ignored, what is the point in giving it (especially when it might come at great cost)? On the other hand: if it is obligatory, then it isn’t advice. In either case, counsel becomes less important than command. The working out of this paradox shapes much of the political thinking of Tudor and Stuart England, defining events such as the Break with Rome and the Civil War and sweeping up figures such as Thomas More, Elizabeth I and Charles I.
RSJ Blog: For students who want to undertake similar work, what archives or printed sources do you recommend starting with?
Joanne: Fortunately, much of what I was looking at is available in print form, and some in modern editions (such as Utopia, The Prince, Leviathan, etc). Those that have not been printed since the Early Modern Period can be found on online resources such as Early English Books Online. It is difficult to read any political tract of the age without coming across the figure of the counsellor (and most were written by counsellors themselves and offered as advice!). For those looking at the inner workings of counsel itself, which is not something I devoted much time to in this book but is work that needs doing, State Papers Online is a fantastic repository of letters offered by counsellors (formal and informal) to those they advised (not always their monarch). Most calendars of papers (for instance those on British History Online) also give a good impression of the type of advice given, how it was framed, the rhetorical devises used, and so on. But I do think it is difficult to understand such sources without understanding the widely-held and circulated ideas about these matters. There were essentially guidebooks about how to give advice, based on the texts about rhetoric taught in schools. I think we can wander astray if we do not understand the intellectual framework in which these counsellors were consciously and unconsciously operating.
RSJ Blog: What are you working on now?
Joanne: I have just finished my first draft of a narrative history of the sixteenth-century Dudley family, to be published with Michael Joseph (Penguin imprint), a book I had the idea for while working on Counsel and Command. I am also working on modern editions of two sixteenth-century texts. The first (for Tudor and Stuart Texts) is The French Historie, written by Anne Dowriche in 1589, which I also used in Counsel and Command. This is an often overlooked text by a female Elizabethan writer, and I think it deserves a modern edition. I am also producing a new edition of Utopia by Thomas More (for Oxford World Classics), based on the mid-sixteenth-century English translation. This early translation of More’s text is interesting in its own right, and I will be striving to bring that out in my editing. This work follows up on my book on Thomas More’s thought, published with Polity in 2017.
RSJ Blog: Thank you!