Classical Humanism and Republicanism in English Political Thought, 1570-1640
Haly Heron presented numerous possible answers to the question of the origins of nobility. Ancient poets had suggested that gentry was 'the verye offspring of the Goddes,' while ancient philosophers had claimed that nobility derived its pedigree from the sun, the moon and 'manye other celestiall creatures.' The common people held the erroneous view that 'riches' had been 'the beginning of noble birth.' In the same way as Patrizi, Heron commenced his own answer by explaining in Ciceronian terms how civil society had been founded by degrees and how from the foundation of 'civil government' followed not merely 'the crown of princely dignities', but also 'the banner of true nobilitie.' There was no natural nobility and it was consequently 'the worthy fame of vertues alone' that raised man 'to the toppe and type of Honour.'
John Lyly declared that you are not necessarily 'a gentleman' although 'thy ancestours were of nobilitie;' 'a right Gentleman is sooner seene by the tryall of his vertue then biasing of his armes'. Philip Sidney agreed, esteeming, according to Fulke Greville, 'noble' actions far above nobility itself. Although John Rainolds confessed that 'it is a desirable beginning for the course of a happy life to be born of good parents,' he was confirmed that 'noble birth...weakens us in the course of virtue more than it furthers us.' 'It is,' Rainolds told his students, 'absolutely stupid and absurd to set the dignity of men in the rotten antiquity of time.' As Cicero and Juvenal had amply demonstrated, 'true nobility does not depend upon ancestral statues, but upon one's own virtues; not upon the titles of one's ancestors, but upon one's own deeds.' The conclusion was inescapable: 'virtue is the one and only nobility.' According to Philip Stubbes, he was 'no Gentleman' who claimed his title by virtue of his 'byrth,' because it was 'onely by vertue' that one attained nobility. Edmund Spenser insisted that 'the gentle minde' and 'gentle deeds' demonstrated 'Of what degree and what race he is growne'. But he asserted even more strongly that it was pompous and vain to 'onely boast of Armes and Auncestrie' without striving for 'vertuous deedes.' In a well-known passage he versed:
And certes it hath oftentimes bene seene,There is little doubt that the vocabulary of classical humanism was developed with a vengeance in the 1570s and 1580s. The main aim of human life was said to be the advancement of the common good which could only be attained by a relentless pursuit of a virtuous vita activa. In articulating the key concepts of humanist tradition, the theorists under discussion were further engaged in developing the consciousness of Englishmen as active citizens. The underlying argument was that the common good could not materialize unless everyone was fully committed to promote this aim by exercising the full range of civic virtues. It is from this point of view that we can perhaps best understand why Englishmen could find republican treatises, such as Patrizi's, so relevant to their own circumstances. Patrizi defined a 'civil man' and 'a good Cittizen' as a person who turned out to be 'profitable to his common weale;' it was the duty of 'all citizens to worke and traveile' in order 'to helpe the common weal, that not onely it be kept in good estate, but that it maye every day encrease better and better.' The vocabulary used by Thomas Rogers, for instance, was strikingly similar. He presented a man who was in so 'harde contemplation' that he was 'unwylling to bestowe his paines in keeping' his country 'from servitude' as a counterpart of 'a civile man' who was 'adorned with all vertues' and who promoted the common good by his 'civile actions.' The public good was, therefore, not totally dependent on the qualities and abilities of the prince, but also, and perhaps in particular, on the virtuous civic participation of the people as a whole. What was needed in order to accomplish this end was not so much any specific skill as a more general inclination to serve the commonwealth and a readiness to commit oneself to the advancement of its well-being.
That of the like, whose linage was unknowne,
More brave and noble knights have raysed beene,
As their victorious deedes have often showen,
Being with fame through many Nations blowen,
Then those, which have bene dandled in the lap.
Although it was widely agreed that everyone should actively seek to promote the common good by exercising his virtuous qualities and that this was the best and perhaps the only way to reach the honourable aim, the question can still be raised how these virtues should be put into practice, and what kind of activities should specifically be singled out. In other words, what were the spheres of the citizen's active life? One significant way of displaying one's virtuous character and advancing the common good was to be a soldier. The willingness to defend the fatherland was often directly linked with the cardinal virtue of courage, and since the former was taken to be the duty of every person, courage was frequently interpreted as a chief virtue of the people. According to Valerius, fortitude consisted in a double duty 'to adventure, and to sustaine daungcrs & adversities.' A major instance of the virtue in practice was 'Citizens fighting for their countrie.' Osorio agreed and presented the greatness of Rome as his example. In Rome men, who had been 'by race and birth no gentlemen,' had attained 'the hyghest degree of honour and dignity' by a lavish display of 'their rare and singular fortitude.' Although Patrizi maintained that it was best 'to bee quiet, and to lyve in peace,' he nevertheless admitted that one should always be ready to defend one's country. In accomplishing this, it was of the utmost importance to avoid the use of mercenaries and to employ citizens in the defence of the commonwealth. This republican idea of the militia received its fullest treatment in Machiavelli's The art of warre first published in English as early as 1560 and reprinted in 1588.
The same range of beliefs emerges again in the treatises written by the English. Thomas Pritchard wrote that one of the virtuous actions 'towardes our native Countrey' was 'to defend the same' and 'to dye for the honour of thy Countrey as there are many of the Romanes and others Chronicled in Livie.' Rogers believed that one aspect of a 'civile' man was his readiness to defend the fatherland. But the idea of the militia, so central to Italian republicanism, was more fully discussed and endorsed in a number of military tracts. The common point of departure of these military treatises was the Machiavellian idea that there was a close connection betwen good arms and good laws. 'Never was theare,' Thomas Procter declared, 'a great & famous estate, whearein armes and lawes, civill governement, and martiall prowesse florished not together.' Thomas Digges reminded the reader that 'the whole course of Histories of all times and Countreys' had shown that 'Kingdomes have flourished' when they took care that military skills were duly maintained and practised, 'and contrarywyse, how most happie Empires after warlike Discipline have bin corrupted, have fallen to ruine, and miserable servitude.'
Although there were authors who defended warfare as a professional vocation, the most common argument was to emphasize that untrustworthy mercenaries should be avoided and to put the main emphasis on the employment of a citizen-militia—as suggested by the 'interventionists' of the Privy Council in 1585. 'Not every mercionarie' and 'common hirelyng...is a Soldiour fitte to bee regestered,' Thomas Churchyard wrote, and stressed that as soon as service was over soldiers must return to their former occupations. According to Thomas Procter, the employment of mercenaries was the only serious shortcoming of the 'otherwise moste excellent governement, and plentyfull provisyon of all thinges, both for peace and warre' of Venice. One ought to follow the ancient Greeks and Romans who had fought their wars chiefly 'to purchase fame' for themselves and to acquire 'honour, and advauncement unto their countreys, and common wealthes'; they had not availed themselves 'of the spoiles & prises of their conquests'. Procter could thus summarize his whole argument in a marginal note: according to Aristode, 'he loseth the name of a good Citizen, which preferreth privat profit, before the common weale.'