Marsilius of Padua

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MARSILIUS OF PADUA (c. 12751342), originally Marsilio dei Mainardini; Italian political theorist. Marsilius 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 famous chiefly 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.

The primary purpose of the Defensor pacis was to refute the papalist claims to "plenitude of power" as advanced by Pope Innocent IV, Egidius of Rome, and others in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries. 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, with the powers of the priesthood reduced to the administration of the sacraments and the teaching of divine law.

Marsilius's doctrine overthrew the attempt to base human society on religious values under priestly control; 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 on the conciliar movement and during the period of the Reformation.

Equally as important as these revolutionary conclusions are the three premises from which Marsilius derived them. These premises are found in his general theory of the state. 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 man's natural desire for the highest ends of a "sufficient life," which include the common benefit and justice.

The second theme, in contrast, is a negative and minimal utilitarianism. It emphasizes the inevitability of conflicts among persons and the consequent need for the formal instrumentalities of coercive law and government in order to regulate these conflicts and avert the destruction of human society. In developing this theme, Marsilius presents a positivistic concept of law, which stands in contrast to his nonpositivistic conception of justice (a distinction often overlooked in discussions of his ideas). 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. 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 are the only legitimate source of all political authority. It is the people, the whole body of citizens or its "weightier part," who must make the laws either by themselves or through elected representatives, and it is also the people who must elect, "correct," and, if necessary, depose the government.

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. The full consequence of these emphases emerges in the applications he makes of his general political theory to the problems of ecclesiastical politics.

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. 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 theoretical philosophy.

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. According to Marsilius's second theme, the secular government, as bearer of 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.

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 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. 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. Also, 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 opposed to its traditional monarchical structure.


There are two critical editions of Defensor pacis, one edited by C. W. Previté-Orton (Cambridge, 1928), the other edited by Richard Scholz in Fontes juris Germanici antiqui of the Monumenta Germaniae Historica (Hanover, 1932). I have translated it in volume 2 of my Marsilius of Padua, the Defender of Peace (New York, 1956). This translation has been reprinted in several later editions.

For studies of Marsilius's doctrines, see my Marsilius of Padua and Medieval Political Philosophy (1951; reprint, New York, 1979); Georges de Lagarde's La naissance de l'esprit laïque au déclin du moyen age, vol. 3, Le defensor pacis (Louvain, 1970); and Jeannine Quillet's La philosophie politique de Marsile de Padoue (Paris, 1970). Two volumes of essays from the Convegno Internazionale su Marsilio da Padova, held at the University of Padua in 1980, are in the historical journal Medioevo: Rivista di storia della filosofia medievale 56 (19791980).

Alan Gewirth (1987)

Marsilius of Padua

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Medieval political philosopher; b. Padua, Italy, probably between 1275 and 1280, the son of a Paduan notary.

Life. The details of his early life are obscure. It seems likely that he began his education at the University of Padua and subsequently studied medicine and philosophy at Paris. Certainly he was rector of the University of Paris in 1313, and he was teaching there in 1324 when he completed his one major work, a treatise called Defensor pacis (crit. ed. R. Scholz, Hanover 193233, and C. W. Previté-Orton, Cambridge, Eng. 1928; Eng. tr. A. Gewirch, New York 1956). This book was vehemently antipapal in tone, and when Marsilius's authorship of it became known he was forced to leave Paris. He took refuge at the court of the German king, Louis IV of Bavaria, who was engaged in a dispute with Pope john xxii.

In 1327 Marsilius accompanied Louis on an expedition into Italy. The imperial forces occupied Rome early in 1328 and a series of assemblies of the Roman people was held (a procedure entirely in accordance with Marsilius's political theories). These assemblies acclaimed Louis as emperor, denounced the pope as a heretic, and approved the installation of an antipope. Marsilius himself was appointed vicar of Rome and vigorously persecuted the clergy who remained loyal to Pope John. Within a few months, however, the Roman mob turned against its new emperor and Louis was forced to leave Rome. Marsilius accompanied him back to Germany and spent the rest of his life at the imperial court. In 1342 he produced a brief treatise entitled Defensor minor, in the main a restatement of the conclusions of the earlier book. He died a few months after completing this work.

Teaching. Marsilius grew up at a time when the political role of the popes was a matter of intense controversy. During the 13th century the theory of a universal temporal dominion inhering in the papacy had come to be stated more and more explicitly by canonists, theologians, and popes. Some reaction against such a claim was natural and, perhaps, desirable. But with Marsilius the reaction was carried to a point where he advocated a radical secularism and denied to the pope any legitimate jurisdiction, even in ecclesiastical matters. The Defensor pacis was divided into three books. The first presented a philosophy of the state; the second, a theology of the church; and the third, a brief summary of conclusions.

In Book one Marsilius followed Aristotle in asserting that the state existed to enable men "to live and live well." The only authority competent to enact law for the state, he maintained, was a legislator humanus composed of "the whole body of citizens or the weightier part (pars valentior ) thereof" (1.12.3). This was because laws were made to promote civil justice and the common welfare, and the whole body of citizens was the best judge of the common utility of a law. Moreover, "That law is better observed by every citizen which each one seems to have imposed upon himself " (1.12.6). Marsilius held that, for the preservation of peace, there had to be one single supreme "governing part" to enforce the law, and he insisted that it should be chosen by the whole community. Powers of government could be vested in one man or several and a people might even choose to install a line of hereditary monarchs, but, whatever the precise form adopted, legitimacy of government depended on popular consent. A ruler who persistently violated the laws established by the community was to be deposed and punished.

Book two is strikingly different in tone and in manner of argument. The author began by rebuking the papacy for its "ardent desire for rulership" (2.1.1), and, against the papal claims to temporal power, he quoted texts such as Jn 18.36, "My kingdom is not of this world." According to Marsilius, Christ conferred on the Apostles only a power to administer Sacraments, not coercive jurisdiction of any kind. Marsilius would have liked to see the Church stripped of all its power, privileges, and property. His argument went even further, however, for he attacked root and branch the whole Petrine theory of papal primacy and indeed the whole conception of any divinely ordained hierarchical structure in the church. All the Apostles shared equally the same priestly power, he maintained, and Peter was given no jurisdiction over the rest. In any case, the bishops of Rome were not necessarily successors to any authority that might have inhered in Peter.

It remained true that there was a need for some regulation of ecclesiastical affairs. Marsilius argued, therefore, that the same legislator humanus (the whole community) that appointed the civil government should also control ecclesiastical appointments. All candidates for ordination as priests were to be selected by the community; so were the bishops. If a community wished to punish religious unorthodoxy, it was for the community to enact appropriate legislation and for the civil government to enforce it. If doubtful matters of faith had to be decided, the appropriate tribunal was a general council in which laity as well as clerics were represented. And, again, the summoning of such a council pertained to the legislator or an official to whom the legislator had delegated this authority (Marsilius had in mind the emperor). It was these views on the structure of the Church, not the preceding political argumentation, that John XXII condemned as heretical.

Critique. The significance of Marsilius's contribution to political theory has been sharply debated in modern times. He has been regarded as both a forerunner of modern democracy and a prophet of the modern totalitarian state. Some scholars argue that Marsilius rejected the whole preceding tradition of a rational natural law to substitute instead the theory that the will of a sovereign people was the sole source of law. Others point out that Marsilius did require law to conform to principles of justice and that he approvingly quoted Aristotle's dictum, "Law is reason without desire" (1.11.4). The view of Marsilius as a radical democrat cannot be sustained since he explicitly stated that the quality of persons as well as their numbers should be considered in determining the "weightier part" of a community. On the other hand, his insistence that rulers had to govern according to the law indicates that he was not intending to propound a theory of political absolutism. Marsilius's theory of the state was in fact firmly rooted in the earlier tradition of medieval constitutionalism. If it contains elements of thought that seem strikingly modern that is perhaps because the jurists and philosophers who preceded Marsilius had already begun to formulate the concepts of law and sovereignty that would be developed into the theory of the modern state. Marsilius certainly selected for emphasis just those ideas that would be most important in the future.

The very bitter antipapal polemics in Book two were of course far removed from the main stream of earlier medieval thought, though one can find anticipations of them among the Spiritual Franciscans and the legists of Philip the Fair. These views retained a considerable notoriety during the next two centuries. Several Catholic critics of Luther accused him of espousing the heresies of Marsilius, and the Defensor pacis was translated into English in 1536 to provide ideological support for the policies of Henry VIII.

Bibliography: c. k. brampton, "Marsiglio of Padua: Life," English Historical Review 37 (1922) 501515. r. w. and a. j. carlyle, A History of Mediaeval Political Theory in the West, 6 v. Edinburgh 190336; repr. New York 1953). a. gerwith, Marsilius of Padua: The Defender of the Peace, 2 v. (New York 195156); "John of Jandun and the Defensor Pacis, " Speculum 23 (1948) 267272. e. lewis, "The 'Positivism' of Marsiglio of Padua," ibid. 38 (1963) 541582.

[b. tierney]

Marsilius of Padua

views updated May 17 2018

Marsilius of Padua

Jurisdiction in state and church

Formation of Marsilius’ views




Marsilius of Padua (c. 1275-c. 1343) is known primarily as the author of the Defensor pacis, a bold antipapal tract dedicated to Emperor Louis iv of Bavaria in 1324 during his controversy with Pope John XXII. Although contemporary condemnations name John of Jandun as coauthor, internal evidence and incongruence with John’s known political statements (Gewirth 1948) argue for its ascription to Marsilius alone. The Defensor is revolutionary in denying the clergy jurisdiction of any kind and in subordinating them completely to the state. The political concepts it brings to the support of these contentions are neither so “modern” nor so original as has sometimes been claimed. All are anticipated in some fashion somewhere in the long and complex medieval tradition. Yet, because Marsilius’ argument leads him to special emphases, and because he richly develops, with ingenious use of Aristotle, ideas briefly enunciated by canonists and by other publicists, he is the first to present in elaborated theoretical form views that were to be fundamental to much of modern political thought. Even though the teaching of the Defensor is not free of ambiguity, no other medieval writing offers so vigorous or so complete a theory of popular sovereignty.

Jurisdiction in state and church

Marsilius argued that clerical pretensions to rule destroy the state (civitas or regnum), which, with its specialization of economic, military, governmental, and priestly “parts,” is indispensable to “living and to living well.” The survival of the state depends on effective government by a single unified “ruling part” (pars principans), and since the proper function of the clergy is not government but teaching (Christ having forbidden them all coercion), clerical rule of any sort, over anyone, destroys the unity of the government and deprives men of “the sufficient life.” In this world divine law is without direct sanction. It is only by authority of the human legislator that infractions can be brought to judgment.

All that is “truly law” on earth is the expression of the will of the legislator—the citizens of each community as a whole or their “weightier part” (valentior pars), the citizen body including all free adult males. The “weightier part” is weightier through “quality” as well as quantity of persons, but Marsilius argued that the more people who participate in legislation, the better the laws will be. Legislation by the multitude normally results in justice, because all but the singularly malicious or ignorant naturally wish to preserve the state and are able to discern the common benefit and to judge proposals. The legislator also establishes or selects the government or ruler. This may be one man or several but should in almost every instance be elective rather than hereditary. The legislator has the power to correct and even to depose the ruler. Although at times Marsilius seems to imply that the delegation of power to the ruler is all but absolute, his statements on correction and deposition are unequivocal.

Denying the divine institution of the papacy and of the episcopacy, Marsilius provides that in a Christian community the legislator select from candidates those to be priests and bishops, appoint them to pastorates, and control their exercise of office. A general council, elected by the several legislators of the Christian world and composed of both clerics and learned laymen (the laymen voting if the clerics are not unanimous), determines the articles of faith. Only by decree of the human legislator do conciliar decisions become binding. For convenience the council or “the faithful human legislator without a superior” appoints a “head bishop” to act as president and executive secretary of the council. Custom alone argues the choice of the bishop of Rome. Although early in the Defensor Marsilius expressed a preference for a plurality of sovereign states, the idea of a “primary” or “universal” “faithful human legislator” and “a ruler by its authority” suggests the empire, and in the Defensor minor of 1342, written at the court of Louis, the “human legislator” becomes the “Roman prince.”

Formation of Marsilius’ views

In the molding of Marsilius’ concepts the fifth book of Aristotle’s Politics played a significant part. Also of importance in the genesis of his attitudes was his youth in Padua, a city sovereign de facto, republican in constitution, and often in conflict with the clergy. His being a physician and not a lawyer or theologian no doubt had much to do with the freshness of his attack. Acquaintance with the work of French publicists seems probable from his years at the University of Paris, and familiarity with corpo-ration law, from his position as rector of the university in 1313 (Lewis 1963, p. 564). Although he associated with Averroists, their influence on his ideas of church and state is impossible to ascertain.


Papal condemnations, including the excommunication of Marsilius (and John of Jandun) in 1327, established the reputation of the Defensor for the next three centuries. A principal charge in papal attacks on Wycliffe, and later on Luther, was that they borrowed Marsilius’ doctrine. In the circumstances, conciliarist writers used the Defensor with caution. It was first printed (in Basel in 1522) to serve the Protestant cause, and in 1535 Thomas Cromwell paid most of the cost of printing an English translation. Through Richard Hooker, who cited it and shared some of its doctrines, it probably had an influence on John Locke, and so, indirectly, played an important part in carrying ideas of popular sovereignty from the medieval to the modern world.

Jane E. Ruby

[For the historical context of Marsilius’ work, see the biographies ofAquinas; Aristotle; Gerson.]


(1324) 1951-1956 Marsilius of Padua: The Defender of Peace. Translated and introduced by Alan Gewirth. 2 vols. New York: Columbia Univ. Press. → Volume 1: Marsilius of Padua and Medieval Political Philosophy. Volume 2: The Defensor pacis. Volume 2 was written in 1324, and first printed in 1522 as Defensor pads.

(1342) 1922 The “Defensor minor” of Marsilius of Padua. Edited by C. Kenneth Brampton. Birmingham (England): Cornish.


Gewirth, Alan 1948 John of Jandun and the Defensor pacis. Speculum 23:267-272.

Lagarde, Georges DE (1934) 1948 Marsile de Padoue, ou le premier theoricien de Vetat la’ique. 2d ed. Paris: Presses Universitaires de France.

Lewis, Ewart 1963 The “Positivism” of Marsiglio of Padua. Speculum 38: 541-582.

Previte-orton, Charles W. (1935) 1937 Marsilius of Padua. British Academy, London, Proceedings 21:137-183.

Scholz, Richard 1937 Marsilius von Padua und die Genesis des modernen Staatsbewusstseins. Historische Zeitschrift 156:88-103.

Marsilius of Padua

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Marsilius of Padua

The Italian political philosopher Marsilius of Padua (c. 1275-1342) wrote Defensor pacis, the most important political treatise written in the late Middle Ages.

Marsilio dei Mainardini, who is known as Marsilius of Padua, was born at Padua. He was the son of a notary, and he received his early education in Padua, probably completing his arts degree and, perhaps, even a degree in medicine at the university there. Marsilius soon moved north to the leading university of his day, the University of Paris, where he became rector in 1313.

The years at Paris, first as a student, then as a teacher, were formative for Marsilius. He must have come into contact with the two most important theologians at Paris during that period, Durand of Saint-Pourçain and Peter Aureol. He certainly met the two leading Averroists, Peter of Abano and John of Jandun. Marsilius's teaching career culminated with the publication in 1324 of his extensive treatise on political power, the Defensor pacis. In this work Marsilius attacked many of the arguments used to support the political and temporal authority of the papacy. Going beyond this, Marsilius further attacked the absolute authority of the papacy within the administrative structure of the Church.

The principal idea upon which Marsilius established his political theory was the idea of popular sovereignty. All power is ultimately vested in the people. The secular monarch exercises his political authority not because he receives it as a divine right but because he derives it from the citizens of the state. The Roman pontiff derives his authority not from God, as Christ's vicar, but from the members of the Church. Desiring to counter the claims of the papal propagandists, Marsilius placed greater stress on "democratic" institutions in the Church than he did for secular society.

Political authority in the state, which Marsilius treats in the first book of his treatise, is derived from the citizens. Only they, acting as a whole or through a delegated authority, have the right to prescribe laws for the state. In order to ensure peace in the state, it is necessary to have one governing agency, which may be, but does not need to be, a hereditary monarchy. Such a head of state should be elected by the entire community. If the monarch acts against the welfare of the community or its laws, he can be deposed.

Stronger limits are placed on the authority of the papacy, a subject treated in the second book of Defensor pacis. According to Marsilius, the papacy has no authority in temporal affairs. Even in the Church, authority was to be shared with the bishops. Ultimately pope and bishops were to be answerable to the members of the Church.

When the work and his authorship became widely known in 1326, Marsilius decided to move outside the area of influence of Pope John XXII, who resided at Avignon in southern France. Marsilius sought protection and patronage from the German monarch Louis IV of Bavaria, who was already in conflict with John XXII. In 1327 Marsilius took part in Louis's expedition into Italy and was with him at Rome in 1328, when he was proclaimed emperor by the people of Rome. Marsilius was appointed vicar of Rome, a position in which he persecuted those members of the Roman clergy who remained faithful to John XXII.

When Louis was forced to return to Germany, Marsilius accompanied him. He remained at the imperial court for the rest of his life. In 1342 he wrote a short work entitled Defensor minor, a restatement of his earlier and better-known work. A few months later he died.

Further Reading

The Defensor pacis was translated into English by Alan Gewirth in Marsilius of Padua: The Defender of Peace (2 vols., 1951-1956), which includes an excellent introduction. Volume 1 was first printed alone as Marsilius of Padua and Medieval Political Philosophy (1951). Still useful is R. W. and A. J. Carlyle, A History of Mediaeval Political Theory in the West (6 vols., 1903-1936). A briefer summary of Marsilius's thought is in John B. Morrall, Political Thought in Medieval Times (1958). □

Marsiglio of Padua

views updated May 21 2018

Marsiglio of Padua ( Marsilius of Padua) (c.1275–1342). Political philosopher who called in question the primacy of Church over State in the political order. His Defensor Pacis (1324) was held to be antipapal and led to his expulsion from Paris. He argued that the State, not the Church, is the unifying bond in society, and that the task of a ruler is to maintain peace.

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