18 May 2006 - Thursday

Marsiglio of Padua

One political theorist who has attracted my attention lately is Marsiglio (or Marsilius) of Padua, a fourteenth-century writer. For his time, Marsiglio had a remarkable understanding of human society -- a republican, or perhaps more accurately, a contractarian understanding.

In any society, Marsiglio believed, the citizens are the proper ultimate source of legislation. Civil government exists to protect the community's temporal happiness, so the communal will is a better determinant of law than a particular will is. Rulers, according to this view, derive their authority from the election of the citizens.

His 1324 work Defensor pacis (possibly co-written by John of Jandun) appeals to Aristotle for support:

We declare, according to truth and the opinion of Aristotle, the legislator, or the prime and proper effective cause of law, to be the people or the whole body of citizens or its weightier part, commanding or deciding by its own choice or will, expressed verbally in a general assemblage of the citizens, that something be done or omitted concerning the civil actions of men, under a temporal punishment or penalty. I say the weightier part, taking into consideration both the number of persons and their quality in the community for which the law is enacted.

The whole body of citizens, or its weightier part, either makes law directly or commits this duty to some one or few; the latter do not, and cannot, constitute the legislator in the strict sense of the term; they act only in such matters and for such periods as are covered by the authorization from the primary legislator. [This translated excerpt is from Francis William Coker's Readings in Political Philosophy (Macmillan, 1938); I have added paragraph breaks.]

The geopolitical context of Marsiglio's work was a dispute between Pope John XXII and Ludwig of Bavaria. Ludwig imagined himself emperor. John had other opinions, and as pope, he declared Ludwig's authority void. (This conflict, by the way, is the backdrop of Umberto Eco's novel The Name of the Rose.) Marsiglio took the side of the emperor, denying the authority of the pope to interfere in civil government.

Ludwig became Marsiglio's patron. John, on the other hand, condemned the writer as a heresiarch in 1327. It is not difficult to see why. First, Marsiglio applied his governmental model even to church governance -- replacing the authority of popes and councils with "the common consent of Christians," denying the Petrine succession of the papacy. Furthermore, he denied that the Church rightly possesses any temporal authority:

... Neither the Roman bishop, called the pope, nor any other bishop, presbyter, or deacon, ought to have the ruling or judgment or coercive jurisdiction of any priest, prince, community, society or single person of any rank whatsoever. ... Christ Himself did not come into the world to rule men, or to judge them by civil judgment, nor to govern in a temporal sense, but rather to subject Himself to the state and condition of this world; that indeed from such judgment and rule He wished to exclude and did exclude Himself and His apostles and disciples, and that He excluded their successors, the bishops and presbyters, by His example, and word and counsel and command from all governing and worldly, that is, coercive rule. [This translated excerpt is found here.]
It is not particularly easy to locate online resources on Marsiglio. Here's what I've found:

+ An excerpt from Defensor pacis
+ The conclusions of Defensor pacis
+ The condemnation by John XXII
+ An entry at Wikipedia
+ An entry in The Columbia Encyclopedia
+ An unflattering Catholic Encylopedia entry
+ Lecture notes by R. J. Kilcullen

In preparing this entry, I also referred to Coker's book (cited above) and an article by Cary J. Nederman: "Marsiglio of Padua," in David Boucher and Paul Kelly, eds., Political Thinkers (Oxford, 2003).

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