Marsilius of Padua (VIII): “The Weightier Part”

In the last part of this series we saw that Marsilius of Padua identifies the legislator of his Aristotelian Christian community as “the whole body of the citizens, or the weightier part thereof, which represents that whole body.”:”(The Defender of the Peace, trans. Alan Gewirth, pg. 476.)”: It is important to devote one post of this series to the concept of “the weightier part” (valentior pars) of the body of the citizens to show how it stands both in relation to Aristotelian theory and to our own Modern views of republican government. As mentioned in the last part, Marsilius, like Aristotle, is hostile to pure democracy – a deviant form of government which makes the irrational will of the vulgus (the mob) the criterion of law.

In a larger, multi-volume version of his work than the one from which I have been citing throughout this series, Alan Gewirth explains at length what Marsilius’ concept of “the weightier part” actually entails.:”(Marsilius of Padua, The Defender of the Peace Volume I: Marsilius of Padua and Medieval Political Philosophy [New York: Columbia University Press,1951], pp. 184-199.)”: Although Gewirth has three headings, I will concentrate here only on the first: the relationship of quantity and quality.

Although Marsilius mentions both quality and quantity as factors in “the weightier part” of the body of citizens, most of his references to “the weightier part” are quantitative. A good example is the first time he mentions the concept: laws are to be made by “the whole body of citizens or the weightier part thereof, which represents the whole; for it is not easy, or not possible, for all persons to agree upon one decision because certain men have a deformed nature, disagreeing with the common decision through singular malice or ignorance.”:”(Defender of the Peace I.xii.5)”: Here the quantitative aspect is primary: the legislator is “all” the citizens except for the relatively few who have a “deformed nature.” Gewirth points out the several synonyms which Marsilius uses for valentior pars, each of which also highlights quantity: plurimi:”(I.xii.8; I.xiii.3)”: and pluralitas:”(I.xiii.3)”: (“most”), plurimum (“most [of its members]“):”(I.xiii.2)”:, in pluribus (“for the most part”),:”(Ibid.)”: maior pluralitatis (“greater number”),:”(I.xii.5)”: pars amplior (“the more ample part”),:”(I.xii.6)”: and superflua pluralitas (“the number which exceeds”).:”(I.xiii.1)”:

The concept of “the weightier part” as being quantitatively oriented is in keeping with Aristotelian philosophy, which holds that the whole is greater than any of its parts.:”(Politics I.ii.13)”: There may be cases when the whole elects a part (the few) to search out issues whose complexity would take the attention of the whole away from other tasks necessary to maintaining the city, but because this few would represent the whole, the elective, voluntary basis of the government would remain intact.:”(Gewirth, pg. 188.)”: As Marsilius himself puts it, the weightier part “is taken to be the same thing” as the whole.:”(Ibid., citing from Defender of the Peace I.xii.5.)”:

Qualitatively, on the other hand, “Marsilius means both the functional differentiations among the different parts of the state and the personal characteristics of the citizens.”:”(Ibid., 190.)”: Here Marsilius follows Aristotle’s understanding of polity, one of the three correct forms of government, in which each citizen participates in the government according to his own abilities.:”(Politics IV.viii-ix.)”: But, whereas Aristotle forbade common laborers to be citizens on the grounds that they did not possess the leisure time necessary for proper attention to government, Marsilius insists that they should have a share, though not an equal one with the leisure class.:”(Defender of the Peace I,xiii.4; Gewirth, pp. 192-193.)”:

Here it has to be remembered that on Aristotle’s theory, politics is basically applied ethics, and he explicitly states that the ethical life cannot be sought by one who does not have sufficient leisure time to avoid being caught up in the production of daily necessities.:”(Nicomachean Ethics X.vii-viii.)”: This is why Aristotle simply denied that a common laborer, or even an artisan, could be a “citizen” in a properly ordered state. Marsilius, however, departs from Aristotle’s scheme by separating the legislative task from the executive task: while the actual doing of government requires prudence, and thus, the leisure to develop a life of virtue, Marsilius makes room for the common laborer and the artisan by saying that it is enough for them to understand things adequately: “For most of the citizens are neither vicious nor undiscerning most of the time; all or most of them are of sound mind and reason and have a right desire for the polity and for the things necessary for it to endure…”:”(Defender of the Peace I.xiii.3.)”:

So, whereas the papal monarchist trusts the One, Marsilius trusts the Many. The interplay between these contrary ideas, each of which is capable of invoking the authority of Aristotle, is quite intriguing.


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