Marsilius of Padua (1270-1343)

Of Marsilius of Padua Pope Clement VI (r. 1342-1352) thundered “that he had never read a more pestilent heretic.”:”(Mandell Creighton, <em>A History of the Papacy From the Great Schism to the Sack of Rome, Vol. 1</em> [New York and Bombay: Longmans, Green, and Co., 1904], pg. 45.)”: One modern scholar of the Paduan remarks likewise that “His name is the most hated in the whole category of the mediaeval order…”:”(Ephraim Emerton, <em>The Defensor Pacis of Marsiglio of Padua</em> [Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1920], pg. 2.)”: Of Marsilius’s major work, The <em>Defender of the Peace</em> (<em>Defensor Pacis</em>), a third scholar says that “It was a book at which solid men of the age shuddered”, and, after noting that Wycliffe, Huss, and Luther were all rhetorically delegitimized by being tarred as “Marsilians”, adds that “To be a Marsilian was regarded as subversive in a way similar to that which, centuries later, attached to being a Marxist.”:”(Alan Gewirth, trans., <em>Marsilius of Padua, The Defender of Peace: The Defensor Pacis</em> [New York: Harper and Row Publishers, 1956], pg. xix.)”: Marsilius was, indeed, condemned as a “son of Belial” by Pope John XXII in the bull <em>Licet iuxta doctrinam</em> (1327).

What could one man have done to deserve such harsh criticisms from his contemporaries? Nothing more than overturn the entire late Medieval basis of <em>societas Christiana</em>, really. Small wonder, then, that a contemporary Roman Catholic historian colorfully writes:

Marsiglio did more than loosen a few stones in the structure of the universal papal monarchy-he levelled it to the ground. In its place he set up a vision of a Church deprived of all authority, restricted to the purely spiritual sphere, impoverished, democratically governed, and subject to the secular state in her temporal condition and in her possessions.:”(Hubert Jedin, <em>A History of the Council of Trent, Vol.1: The Struggle for the Council</em>, trans. Dom Ernest Graf [St. Louis, MO: B. Herder Book Co., 1957], pg. 9.)”:

At least, that is one way of looking at it-the way of those against whose theories Marsilius’ work was directed. It is indeed true that the work of Marsilius of Padua was a direct and sustained frontal assault upon late Medieval hierocratic papalism. Thus, to the extent that ecclesiological Idealists everywhere believed that such a theory actually was “the way things are” Marsilius of Padua was a devastating threat to society itself. But from his own perspective, and that of his patron, Emperor Lewis of Bavaria, he was literally the “Defender of the Peace,” for his aim was to expose what he believed to be the central cause of strife within Christian society and to promote the restoration of peace and tranquillity through proper government.

It should be remembered that at this point in the fourteenth century the Papal Monarchy was at its peak of power over the Christian world and was coming to be seen increasingly as a tyranny–a spiritual power with no restraints upon it and striving improperly to dominate every other power in the Christian world. Marsilius’ eloquent protest against this abusive form of the papacy was merely part of a larger ongoing protest that included such worthies as John of Paris and the famed Dante Alghieri, and which made use of a number of commonly accepted principles of law and justice. As well, Marsilius’s protest was only one of two that Lewis of Bavaria was concurrently sponsoring, the other one being the highly influential theological-philosophical work of William of Ockham. The work of Ockham and “the Paduan” placed the capstone on the antipapalist constructs of the Imperial publicists as over against the theories of papalist publicists such as James of Viterbo and Augustinus Triumphus. The absolute, hegemonical rule of the Roman Bishop over the Western Church—anticipated by Gregory VII, painstakingly constructed by his successors through Innocent III, and self-immolated on the pyre of Boniface VIII’s reign—was soon to come crashing down around the papacy’s ears.

According to some scholars the distinctiveness of Marsilius of Padua’s work is that it breathes the spirit of the Modern rather than the Medieval world. They observe that unlike many of its predecessor works of political theory the <em>Defensor pacis</em> does not proceed according to the familiar logical and rhetorical conventions of Medieval Scholasticism. Rather than being divided into “Questions” (<em>Quaestiones</em>) or “Distinctions” (<em>Distinctiones</em>) which are then supported by a recitation of authorities (auctoritas) it follows a plan of “Dictations” (<em>Dictiones</em>). That is, Marsilius makes statements and then expounds them, referring to authorities in a manner that plainly shows the authorities are being engaged critically, not merely being cited as if their words suffice to prove the point.

Further, the keynote of Marsilius’s argument appears to be that “law” is not grounded in the “divine right” of rulers or in a special class of “enlightened few” in society, but rather, within the very body of the people, the majority (<em>valentior pars</em>). This, it is thought, is akin to the distinctively “modern idea of majority rule as, on the whole, the best expression of the will of the whole community.”:”(Emerton, ibid., pp. 20-25; citation from pg. 25.)”: As well, Marsilius is sometimes thought to be akin to Machiavelli in that both men “broke with the antecedent tradition, in the one case to undermine the theoretical foundations of the medieval <em>res publica Christiana</em> (Christian Republic), and in the other to defend the ‘reason of state’ doctrine which became the practice if not the theory of the rising absolute monarchies.”:”( Paul E. Sigmund, Jr., “The Influence of Marsilius of Padua on XVth Century Conciliarism,” in <em>Journal of the History of Ideas</em> Vol. 23, No. 3 [Sept. 1962], pg. 392.)”:

To be fair, there is a sense in which Marsilius may be properly termed a “radical”–the sense in which he advocated the removal of all coercive ability from the spiritual power, the Church, including the normal powers of church discipline such as excommunication.:”(See the “condensed” form of the argument in Marsilius’ own summary work, the <em>Defensor minor</em>, ed. Cary J. Nederman [Cambridge University Press, 1993], particularly pp. 32-33. This was a genuinely “radical” proposition because it cut to the radix of Medieval society, which was at this point still struggling to adequately live out political dualism.)”: But it would not be fair to leave the evaluation of his work at that. Several points may be made that the <em>Defensor pacis</em> and its author are still connected to the Medieval tradition even though they move in some different grooves and toward some different goals than the “mainstream” of the tradition.

First, there does not seem to be a tremendous conceptual distance between Marsilius’ concept of the “majority” (<em>valentior pars</em>) as the basis of legal authority in society and some of the patristic-era conceptions of authority. As well, it is in line with the slowly developing “corporation theory”:”(Brian Tierney, <em>Foundations of the Conciliar Theory</em> [Leiden, New York, and Koln: Brill, 1998], pp. 97-140.)”: of the twelfth to fourteenth century Decretists and Decretalists, which puts Marsilius standing temporally “between” these two groups.

Second, Marsilius’ major concern, the independence of the temporal power from the domination of the spiritual that prevailed in his day is also in agreement with Gelasius’ two letters <em>Duo sunt</em> and <em>Cum ad verum</em> and the opinions of Wenrich of Trier (11th century) and Huggucio (12th century) on the origin of the temporal power and the nature of its relations with the spiritual power.

Third, in discussing “the qualities or dispositions of the perfect ruler” Marsilius presents the Aristotelian concept of “equity” (epikeia) as the principle by which justice may be served when the existing positive laws prove simply unable to do so because of their fallibility and deficiency.:”(<em>Defensor pacis</em>, pg. 58.)”: If this is a “novel” principle, then not only is the <em>Nicomachean Ethics</em> of Aristotle (a widely used source in the Middle Ages) a “novel” book, but so too is Thomas Aquinas, who wrote:

Since human actions, with which laws are concerned, are composed of contingent singulars and are innumerable in their diversity, it was not possible to lay down rules of law that would apply to every single case. Legislators in framing laws attend to what commonly happens although if the law be applied to certain cases it will frustrate the equality of justice and be injurious to the common good, which the law has in view…In these and like cases it is bad to follow the law, and it is good to set aside the letter of the law and to follow the dictates of justice and the common good. This is the object of <em>epikeia</em> which we call equity.:”(Aquinas’ comment on epikeia in Aristotle’s <em>Nicomachean Ethics</em> 5.10, <em>Summa Theologica</em>, 2a 2ae qu. 120 art. 1, as given in Francis Oakley ‘The Propositiones Utiles’ of Pierre d’Ailly”, <em>Church History</em> Vol. 29, No. 4, pg. 403 fn. 20.)”:

This concept of the positive law (the laws “on the books” at a given time) being limited by “equity” will become very important during the Conciliar Movement of the fifteenth century, so it is of great import to recognize that it was a principle adhered to even by “mainstream” theologians like Aquinas. The extremely conservative Conciliarist Nicholas of Cusa would read Marsilius’ treatise during the time when Cusa himself was writing his own great work, <em>The Catholic Concordance</em>, at the Council of Basel. Although Cusa would strongly reject some of the Paduan’s particular attacks upon the papacy as being too radical, he would nevertheless remain positively influenced by the better parts of Marsilius’ work. A study remains to be done which recounts in detail the influences of Marsilius upon Cusa, and of both upon the Protestant reformers of the sixteenth century.

The <em>Defensor pacis</em> appeared in 1324, the same year that Pope John XXII excommunicated Marsilius’ protector, the Emperor Lewis of Bavaria. A short time later Marsilius issued the <em>De translatione imperii</em> (<em>On the Transfer of the Empire</em>), a work designed to justify the German claim to possess, via lawful transfers of imperial authority, the seat of the ancient Roman Empire. The pope condemned him and his works in 1327 in his bull <em>Licet iuxta doctrinam</em>, issued even as Ludwig of Bavaria was mounting a military expedition into Italy for the purpose of visibly confirming the German Empire’s traditional rights over the northern provinces of Italy. Marsilius was present with the emperor throughout this expedition, which ultimately failed. After this point Marsilius seems to become obscure in the records, and the work of opposing the papacy with the pen is taken up by William of Ockham instead.

Although it is certainly possible to raise significant criticisms about the legitimacy of Marsilius’s plan to “secularize” the Church-Society by essentially reversing the scheme of the Papal Monarchy and making the secular power the only holder of coercive force, it is nevertheless true that Marsilius represents a necessary stepping stone out of the corruption and tyranny of the out-of-control late Medieval papacy. Whatever novelties he actually did promote, on balance Marsilius was still a faithful son of the Tradition. Like so many other figures from the Middle Ages, his work resounds even today, informing and challenging our own era.

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