The influence of natural law on the discourse of toleration on seventeenth-century Poland-Lithuania

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Taking Hugo Grotius’s comment that ‘Poland does not legislate on religion’ as point of departure, this article traces the impact of natural law discourses on the debates around toleration in the multi-religious and multi-national Commonwealth of Poland-Lithuania. Starting from earlier sources of natural law thinking in the Polish conciliarist tradition, it explores the ‘process of Confederation’: the attempt to implement the decisions of the Interregnum Sejm of Warsaw (1573) curbing ecclesiastical jurisdiction, preventing civil war, and making the king promise not to use coercion to create religious unity. Leading up to the mid-seventeenth century, it shows how political writers linked the desire to maintain religious peace with a defence of the forma mixta constitution, appropriating a natural law discourse to balance the conflict between self-interest and the common good through the exercise of virtue and civic duty. While retaining a religious discourse on morality and virtue for the exercise of political office, several Polish writers adopted Lipsius’s stoicism and Grotius’s natural law teaching to separate church and state. With a focus on the rights of the individual (noble) citizen and freedom of religion, Polish natural law discourse promoted the participatory republican model of the Commonwealth, rather than the need for state-building, as natural law discourse did in West European monarchies. The transfer of ideas did not just flow from West to East: the Polish model of civic responsibility also left an imprint on Grotius’s own thinking on matters of faith and state. The article sketches the exchange of ideas between Hugo Grotius and several writers of Catholic and Protestant faith: Andrzej Frzcy Modrzewski, Andreas Volanus, Piotr Skarga, Lukasz Opalinski, Szymon Starowolski and the Antitrinitarian Samuel Przypkowski.
Original languageEnglish
Title of host publicationNatural Law in Eastern Europe
EditorsGabor Gango, Knud Haakonssen, Diethelm Klippel
Place of PublicationLeiden
PublisherLeiden: Brill
Number of pages43
Publication statusPublished - May 2023
EventNatrural Law in Eastern Europe - Erfurt Augustinerkloster, Erfurt, Germany
Duration: 21 Nov 201923 Nov 2019

Publication series

NameEarly Modern Natural Law: Studies and Sources.
ISSN (Print)2589-5982


ConferenceNatrural Law in Eastern Europe
Internet address


  • Natural Law
  • Poland-Lithuania
  • toleration
  • Antitrinitarianism
  • constitutional debates
  • Religious history
  • Citizenship


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