Marsilius of Padua (I): “This Singular Cause of Strife”

It can be rightly said that to understand the development of resistance to the excessive form of papal claims that characterized the later Middle Ages one needs first to have a basic familiarity with Aristotle’s Politics. Everyone, regardless of whether they are papalists or imperialists, who engaged in political theologizing cites from this work, engages with it, and, occasionally, either dissents from it or attempts to modify it to take into account new situations relative to the Christian commonwealth. Thus Thomas Aquinas uses Aristotelian political principles to justify kingship as the best form of government, and, by implication, the papacy as necessary for the governance of the Church.

On the other hand, in the next generation Marsilius of Padua (1275/80-1342) uses Aristotle as a weapon against what he calls “the intricately obstructive sophisms” of the absolute papalists.:”(The Defender of the Peace, trans. Alan Gewirth, pg. 444.)”: As Marsilius has it, the papacy’s conflation of spiritual and temporal powers is “this singular cause of strife” in the Christian world, and it must be opposed by all who love peace and seek proper social order and the good life. Aristotle could not have foreseen either the papacy or this corruption of it, and so Marsilius proposes to use Aristotelian principles to do what neither Aristotle nor anyone else prior to Marsilius himself has done: “to unmask [this singular cause of strife] so that it may henceforth be readily excluded from all states or cities, and virtuous rulers and subjects live more securely in tranquillity.”:”(Ibid.)”: Like all good Medievals, Marsilius has his “authorities” (auctoritates) to call upon, and for the theme of peace he calls upon the great Cassiodorus, who wrote:

Tranquillity, wherein peoples prosper and the welfare of nations is preserved, must certainly be desirable to every state. For it is the noble mother of the good arts. Permitting the steady increase of the race of mortals, it extends their means and enhances their manners. And he who is perceived not to have sought for it is recognized to be ignorant of such important concerns.:”(Ibid., 441, citing Cassiodorus’ Variae i.I.)”:

Marsilius’ identification of himself as a “defender of the peace” rather than as a “defender of the faith” is intriguing given the times in which he lived, and although like Aquinas he is a Christian Aristotelian, this focus marks his work out as fundamentally different from Aquinas’. It is probably part of why Marsilius is sometimes seen as having “Averroist” tendencies (Latin Averroism separated faith and reason) and as giving support to the development of a more “secular” outlook in Christendom. In this light, some of what Marsilius has to say is genuinely revolutionary and radical – for instance, he wants to completely eliminate the coercive power of the Church, even to the point of eliminating excommunication. Nevertheless, with his contemporary William of Ockham (who was writing anti-papalist political theology in the court of Ludwig of Bavaria at the same time as was Marsilius), he provides some much needed, provocative, and valuable criticisms of the blind, and very socially destructive, absolutisms of the papacy of his day.

I had a chance to read much of Marsilius’ Defender of the Peace a few years back, but now that I’ve got more time to give it I hope to be able to bring out some interesting things about it in this forum. Between that and the posts on Duns Scotus I’ve already promised to do, my plate is rather full at the moment! If you’re new to Marsilius of Padua, you might want to check out my biographical sketch of him before reading this series of posts.


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