Marsilius of Padua (c. 1275/1280–1342)

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Marsilius of Padua (Marsilio dei Mainardini), an Italian political theorist, was born between 1275 and 1280 and died in 1342. He probably studied medicine at the University of Padua. In 1313 he was rector of the University of Paris, where he met such leading Averroists as Peter of Abano and John of Jandun. He is chiefly famous for his antipapalist treatise Defensor Pacis (Defender of peace; 1324), a landmark in the history of political philosophy. When his authorship of this work became known in 1326, he was forced to flee to the court of Louis of Bavaria in Nuremberg; Pope John XXII thereupon branded him a heretic. Marsilius subsequently assisted Louis in various imperial ventures in Italy.

Defensor Pacis

The primary purpose of the Defensor Pacis was to refute the papalist claims to "plenitude of power" as these claims had been advanced by Pope Innocent IV, Egidius of Rome, and others in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries. So crushing was the refutation produced by Marsilius that it completely reversed the papalist position. The papal position had held that secular rulers must be subject to the papacy even in "temporal" affairs, so that they must be established, judged, and, if necessary, deposed by the pope. Marsilius, in contrast, undertook to demonstrate that the papacy and the priesthood in general must be subject not only in temporal, but even in "spiritual," affairs to the whole people and to the secular ruler acting by the people's authority. The powers of the priesthood were to be reduced to the administration of the sacraments and the teaching of divine law, but even in these functions the priests were to be regulated and controlled by the people and its elected government. The upshot of Marsilius's doctrine was that the attempt to base human society on religious values under priestly control was decisively overthrown; instead, the way was opened for a purely secular society under the control of a popularly elected government. Hence, it is understandable that Marsilius has been hailed as a prophet of the modern world. His treatise exerted a marked influence during the period of the Reformation.

theory of the state

Equally as important as these revolutionary conclusions are the premises from which Marsilius derived them. These premises are found in his general theory of the state, which is noteworthy for its fusing of three distinct themes. The first is the Aristotelian teleological view of the state as subserving the good life. The various parts of the state, including government, are defined by the contribution they make to the rational "fulfillment" of men's natural desire for a "sufficient life." This fulfillment proceeds through the "proper proportioning" of men's actions and passions, ranging from nutritive and sensitive acts to appetitive and cognitive ones. The function of government is to regulate men's transitive acts in accordance with the law as a standard of justice. The first theme, then, stresses an affirmative and maximal utilitarianismwhat is required for the attainment of the highest ends of the "sufficient life," the common benefit, and justice.

The second theme of Marsilius's political theory, in contrast, is a negative and minimal utilitarianism. It emphasizes the inevitability of conflicts among men and the consequent need for the formal instrumentalities of coercive law and government in order to regulate these conflicts. Without such regulation, Marsilius repeatedly insists, human society itself must be destroyed. In developing this theme, Marsilius presents a positivistic concept of law, which stands in contrast with his nonpositivistic conception of justice (a distinction often overlooked in discussions of his ideas). He holds that there are objective criteria of justice, which he characterizes in terms of Aristotle's analysis of rectificatory justicemoderating the excesses of men's transitive acts and "reducing them to equality or due proportion," thereby promoting the common benefit. But whereas Marsilius views law as a system of general rules concerned with the regulation of the same "excesses" and the resultant conflicts, as well as with other matters bearing on the common benefit, he emphasizes that these legal rules need not be based on "true cognitions of justice." On the contrary, laws may be based on "false cognitions of the just and the beneficial," so that Marsilius, unlike most medieval political philosophers, holds that justice is not a necessary condition of law. What is necessary is that the legal rules have coercive force, such that with regard to their observance "there is given a command coercive through punishment or reward to be distributed in the present world." These rules and the government that enforces them must be unitary in the sense that, if a society is to survive, it cannot have two or more rival coercive bodies of law and government.

The third theme of Marsilius's political theory is that the people is the only legitimate source of all political authority. It is the people, the whole body of citizens or its "weightiest part," that must make the laws either by itself or through elected representatives, and it is also the people that must elect, "correct," and, if necessary, depose the government. Marsilius presents many arguments for this republican position: (1) The whole people is intellectually and emotionally superior to any of its parts, so that only from its choice will emerge the best law and government, the ones most conducive to the common benefit, as against the ones that subserve the interests of some special group; (2) self-legislation is necessary for individual freedom; (3) only if the laws and government are chosen by the people will they be obeyed; and (4) that which affects all ought to be subject to approval by all.

Although all three themes of Marsilius's general political theory were found in earlier medieval political philosophers, no other philosopher had given the second and third themes as central a position as did Marsilius. As a result of this, although Marsilius's first themeabout the ends of the "sufficient life," the common benefit, and justicepersists throughout his treatise, it is overshadowed by his emphases on coerciveness as the essence of political authority and on the republican bases of all such authority. The full consequence of these emphases emerges in the applications he makes of his general political theory to the problems of ecclesiastical politics.

applications of the theory

In keeping with his first theme, Marsilius views the Christian priesthood as one of the parts of the state dedicated to achieving the "sufficient life" for all believers. Unlike the other parts of the state, however, the priesthood subserves the "sufficient life" to be attained primarily "in the future world" rather than the present one. Like the other Averroists, Marsilius manifests skepticism about the rational demonstrability of such a future life; nevertheless, he officially accepts the Christian doctrine that the future life is superior to the present life. He also holds, however, that secular and religious values are in basic opposition; here he seems to be applying in the realm of the practical the Averroist doctrine of the contrariety of reason and faith in theoretic philosophy.

Taken in conjunction with the maximal, affirmative utilitarianism of his first theme, accepting that the priesthood subserves the highest end of man would have required Marsilius to accept also the papalist doctrine that the "secular" government, subserving the lesser end of this-worldly happiness, must be politically subordinate to the priesthood. At this point, however, Marsilius's second and third themes have their effect. Since the essence of political authority is the coerciveness required for the minimal end of preserving society, it follows that the higher end subserved by the priesthood does not entitle it to superior political authority. The question of the order of political superiority and inferiority is thus separated from the question of the order of moral and religious values. What determines the order of political authority is not the greater excellence of one end over another but, rather, the specifically political need for unified coercive authority in order to prevent unresolved conflicts from destroying society. Hence, the secular government, as bearer of this coercive authority, must be politically superior to the priesthood. If the priests refuse to obey the government and its laws, then they must be compelled to do so, because such disobedience threatens that unity of coercive authority without which society cannot survive. Indeed, it is because of this disobedience and because of its claim to a rival, superior "plenitude of power," that Marsilius convicts the papacy of being the gravest enemy of civil peace. In this context Marsilius presents his whole critique of the papacy as an application to fourteenth-century conditions of Aristotle's book on revolutions (Politics V), dealing with the ways in which threats to civil peace may be avoided.

In addition to this political argument against diverse centers of coercive power in any society, Marsilius also stresses, from within the religious tradition itself, that religious belief, in order to be meritorious, must be purely voluntary. Hence, in order to fulfill its mission, divine law and the priesthood that teaches and administers it cannot be coercive in this world.

Marsilius's third theme, republicanism, also plays an important role in the political subordination of the priesthood and papacy. The only rules and persons that are entitled to the status of being coercive laws and government officials are those ultimately chosen by the people; hence, there can be no crediting the claims of divine law and the priesthood to a separate derivation of coercive political authority from God. It is true that Marsilius subsequently holds that secular rulers govern by divine right, but he views this only as a divine confirmation of the people's ultimate electoral authority. This republicanism operates not only in the relation of the priesthood to the secular state but also in its relation to religious affairs. Because the whole people is superior in virtue to any of its parts and because freedom requires popular consent or election, the priesthood itself must be elected by the people of each community rather than being appointed by an oligarchically chosen pope, and the pope himself must be elected by the whole of Christendom. Similarly, the whole people must elect general councils to provide authoritative interpretations of the meaning of divine law. In these ways Marsilius's general political theory leads to a republican structure for the church as against its traditional monarchic structure. In effect, this also means that the secular government, acting by the people's authority, secures hegemony over the priesthood and papacy in all spheres.

See also Aristotelianism; Aristotle; Averroism; John of Jandun; Medieval Philosophy; Political Philosophy, History of; Republicanism; Sovereignty; Utilitarianism.


The Defensor Pacis is available in two critical editions, one edited by C. W. Previté-Orton (Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1928) and one edited by Richard Scholz, 2 vols. (Hanover: Hahn, 19321933), in the series Fontes Juris Germanici Antiqui of the series Monumenta Germaniae Historica. There is an English translation by Alan Gewirth, Defensor Pacis (New York: Columbia University Press, 1956).

A comprehensive bibliography of studies published to about 1950 of Marsilius's doctrines is contained in Alan Gewirth, Marsilius of Padua and Medieval Political Philosophy (New York: Columbia University Press, 1951), pp. 323326.

Bibliographical information on subsequent studies will be found in Georges de Lagarde's important study, Marsile de Padoue, 2nd ed. (Paris, 1948), which is in the series La naissance de l'esprit laique au déclin du moyen âge, 3rd ed. (Paris, 1959).

Alan Gewirth (1967)

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Marsilius of Padua (c. 1275/1280–1342)

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