Marsilius of Padua deemed the church of his day to be one of the most potent disturbers of the peace.

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Paul Meany
Intellectual History Editor, Lib​er​tar​i​an​ism​.org

Paul Meany is the Assistant Editor of Intellectual History at Lib​er​tar​i​an​ism​.org. He is interested in libertarian themes in political thought throughout ancient, medieval and early modern history.

The medieval era of Europe is alien to the modern mind. Monarchy was the political order of the day and most major powers were ruled by kings forced to delicately balance the interests of an ever‐​changing court of powerful nobles. But even monarchs were subject to the pressure of a higher power, the Catholic church. The Catholic church’s colossal role in both medieval daily life and national politics is hard to exaggerate.

The Enlightenment thinkers of the 18th and 19th centuries disavowed the medieval world order. The institutional remnants of the medieval world were slowly peeled back as the Enlightenment progressed. Representative democracy replaced monarchy, and secularism diminished the influence of organized religion on political matters. Many of the aristocratic nobility were stripped of their titles. To Enlightenment thinkers, the medieval ages represented a dark age during which humanity had stagnated miserably.

However, no era is intellectually homogeneous. There are always independent thinkers who articulate ideas which challenge the deeply ingrained preconceptions of an era. Marsilius of Padua, a 14th‐​century Italian writer, was one such person. In his masterwork, The Defender of the Peace , Marsilius argued in favour of a form of proto‐​secularism as well as a theory of the state which is uncharacteristically democratic and pragmatic for a medieval thinker.

Who is Marsilius?

Marsilius was born between the years of 1275 and 1280. His family had served in the civic administration of his hometown of Padua, in northern Italy. His father was a notary, and some of his relatives were lawyers. However, Marsilius did not follow in his family’s footsteps. Instead, he chose to study medicine, firstly in his hometown then in the university of Paris. While studying in Paris, Marsilius encountered the works of Aristotle and Cicero, which would profoundly shape his later political thought.

Unlike most other medieval European countries which were ruled by kings, Italy was composed of many small city‐​states. Councils and locally‐​elected officials governed Padua in Marsilius’ early years. However, small city‐​states like Padua were often drawn into the continent‐​spanning conflict between the Holy Roman Empire and the Papacy, which both put forward claims of primacy.

The Church’s Moral Superiority to the State

Church Fathers such as Augustine in the 5th century had argued that there was a hierarchy of human communities. The city of God was at the very top, and at the very bottom was the state. The city of god is dedicated solely to the love of God while the secular state aimed its affections at a variety of sinful, less worthy loves. Augustine stated that “The Heavenly City outshines Rome, beyond comparison.” The church was morally superior to the state. If power came from God the creator of all things, why should the less holy state command the holier institution of the church? Thus advocates for the church explained that the authority of secular states must be derived from ecclesiastical authority, which had been directly given through Saint Peter, who in turn had been sanctioned by God.

A misconception in medieval history is that the church and state were in a contest for absolute power over the other. This was not the case. Neither church nor state authorities wished to abolish the other. Their relationship was symbiotic. Medieval power was solidified by prestige; medieval kings benefited by being in the good graces of the church as it enhanced their right to rule, their claim to legitimacy. Similarly, the church’s role in coronation ceremonies also bolstered the church’s authority, symbolizing their primacy over earthly rulers. However, each institution wished to have the upper hand on the other, leading to incessant political intrigue.

How the Church Affected Politics

The Papacy had control over many aspects of ordinary life, including marriage and rights of inheritance. The pope could also declare oaths of allegiance invalid. No monarch no matter how powerful could rule alone, the support of powerful nobles was required. Nobles pledged their support based upon oaths of allegiance which cemented their dominion over certain areas. While under oath nobles were obligated in a variety of ways to support their respective monarch. If these oaths were suddenly dissolved by the Papacy, discontented nobles could justifiably overthrow their former masters. The highly personalized nature of medieval courts meant that monarchs often favoured some nobles over others. This meant that there were always nobles who felt like they could attain more status and wealth under a different monarch. They might go so far as to lobby the Pope to declare their oath to the monarch invalid, giving them tacit ecclesiastical permission to revolt.

Most importantly, the pope could excommunicate individuals or even entire communities. Excommunication from the church meant that one’s entrance to heaven would be impossible. In a deeply religious society, this threat of excommunication was a grave affair.

Why the Church and State Became so Entangled

Furthermore, in the year 800 the first Holy Roman Emperor Charlemagne had been crowned by the pope. This was the first time the pope had officially crowned a monarch. But by Marsilius’ day, this had become a controversial tradition. After defeating his competitor to the crown in 1322, Ludwig of Bavaria, without waiting for his title as emperor to be confirmed, began to move into Northern Italy, which had formerly been a province of the Holy Roman empire. The pope at the time John XXII viewed Ludwig’s excursions into Northern Italy as a threat to the Papacy. Ludwig’s brash disrespect of Papal authority resulted in him being excommunicated by pope John in 1324.

Marsilius closely watched these events unfold, and in the summer of 1324 he published The Defender of the Peace, which aimed to explain how peace can be maintained during a time of strife. In Marsilius’ mind, the main disturber of the peace in his day was the Papacy, which had not only been constantly encroaching upon secular authority but had also misappropriated the teachings of the bible for its own selfish ends.

Spiritual and Temporal Actions

For Marsilius, all actions are either temporal or spiritual. Temporal actions consist of things done for material reasons and which affect others in negative or positive ways. Spiritual actions are wholly self‐​regarding.

The key difference between the two is that temporal actions affect others. On the other hand, spiritual actions do not affect others; they are wholly insular in a person’s mind and soul. Spiritual actions “do not pass over into a subject other than the doer.” For example, my belief or disbelief in God is a spiritual action in that it only affects me, and only I know the sincerity of my beliefs on this topic. Because spiritual actions are wholly self‐​regarding, they can only be known to an all‐​knowing God.

Secular power’s legitimate authority is based in the realm of temporal actions while the churches power is located in the spiritual aspects of life. Those who take the reigns of secular power punish criminals for their misdemeanours. But spiritual matters are not easily observable by human eyes. They can only be punished by God. For a human to punish another for spiritual actions is to usurp the rightful position of God, who is in charge of judging people’s souls. Therefore humanity has no legitimacy when attempting to do God’s work. Spiritual authority is regulated to educating people for their eventual afterlife. Unlike temporal authority, it is not vested with coercive power.

How the Church Disturbs the Peace

When the church intervenes in political affairs and exercises temporal power, it causes strife. Law is the domain of secular authority. In every territory, there ought to be one state, not multiple state‐​like institutions competing for obedience. By encroaching upon the government, the church creates confusion and conflict as no citizen knows which institution to obey. For this reason, Marsilius deemed the church of his day to be one of the most potent disturbers of the peace.

Marsilius did not for a second envision a world without some form of church. He simply believed that the Papacy had overextended their legitimate authority. Priests’ proper role was to educate people upon matters of morality and prepare them for the afterlife, a task which is spiritual, not temporal. The church is but a part of society, not an entity which competes with the state.

In arguing that the church should not meddle in secular affairs, Marsilius pointed to the fact Jesus possessed no political power nor did he wish for his church to exercise political power. Marsilius based this claim on two pieces of evidence. Firstly, when Jesus was asked by Jewish Pharisees whether or not they should pay taxes to Rome, he replied: “Render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and unto God the things that are God’s.” Secondly, Jesus’ acknowledgement of the judgement of Pontius Pilate proved for Marsilius that secular authority, at least in this world, has the upper hand on spiritual authority. Furthermore, Marsilius argues that church authority is derived from “the whole body of the faithful.” The people of each community appoint their priests and bishops. No position is divinely ordained by God.

We have dealt with spiritual power, but what about temporal or, as we would say today, secular authority? Where does it come from and what role does it play in our lives? Marsilius articulates a comprehensive and novel system of law based upon the coalescence of consent and self‐​interest.

First Principles and Human Nature

Marslius begins his account of secular authority by articulating what he believes are the fundamentals of human nature. Uncontroversially he states that “that all human beings not deformed or otherwise impeded naturally desire a sufficient life, and avoid or flee what is harmful thereto.” In simple terms, we pursue what is advantageous to us and avoid that which is not if we can.

However, unlike other animals, humans are not content to live in the wild. We do not only long for necessities such as food, water and shelter. Humans also long for luxuries, companionship, and entertainment. To achieve our desires an innumerable amount of skills are required, too many for one person to possibly master. The comforts we long for “cannot be exercised except by a large number of people through their association with one another, it was necessary for human beings to assemble together to obtain advantage.” For Marsilius, the division of labour is a natural and essential component of human existence. It takes multiple people to make even the simplest loaf of bread.

We unite together and form political communities to serve our own best interests. We benefit greatly from the division of labour and by exchanging goods and services with one another. Through our variety of talents and skills, we all can serve one another. However, we are not perfect by any stretch. Marsilius writes, “Everyone is prone to pursue one’s own advantage.” Marsilius believes that, by their nature, all people are self‐​interested; this is the unavoidable condition of humanity. This was a radical position at the time. During the medieval ages pursuing one’s own private advantage was often viewed as a vice which was indicative of man’s fallen nature. The bible was invoked when condemning self‐​interested behaviour, like the verse stating that it was “easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God.” Marsilius did not agree with this view and instead believed that as long as we are not harming others, we are free to pursue our own advantage as much as we like.

But this will inevitably lead to conflict when people overstep boundaries or pursue their own interests at the expense of another person. To solve this, we must have law, the primary function of secular power and which promotes peace. Without strife or conflict, we may pursue our own personal advantage, as long as this pursuit does not harm or hinder others.

Notice that Marsilius’s account of secular power is based around the sufficient life “which no one can obtain without peace and tranquillity.” According to Marsilius, the state does not exist to promote moral virtue or the heavenly salvation of its citizens as commonly expressed by his contemporaries. Instead, the state ought to pursue secular goals such as promoting prosperity and peace, while leaving the moral development of citizens to the non‐​coercive spiritual powers.

But who should implement the law? As Marsilius said, we are all prone to pursuing our own interests. If we put one person or a particular group of people in charge, the laws will be designed to benefit those in power, what economists today call rent‐​seeking. To resolve this problem, Marsilius argued that “the primary and proper efficient cause of the law, is the people or the [totality] of the citizens,” or more simply, democracy. Law comes from the bottom up, not the top down.

Marsilius explicitly says he is not a democrat. However, this does not disqualify him as being a democrat. Democracy until the late 18th century was synonymous with anarchy, chaos, and factional strife. For example, even four hundred years after Marsilius, the Founding Father James Madison explicitly denied that his ideas were democratic, yet today the Federalist Papers are one of the most revered texts arguing for representative democracy. Marsilius’ situation was similar. Few if any of his contemporaries would have supported the idea of an outwardly democratic regime. This resulted in Marsilius distancing himself from democracy despite advocating in favour of it as a system of government.

Marsilius defends his democratic ideal on three grounds. Firstly, when people come together, they will have more cumulative knowledge than individuals or small groups. He argues that “the greater number is more able than any one of its parts to notice a defect regarding a proposed law.”

Secondly, he argues that while not every citizen may be able to formulate and express laws, they are all capable of judging their worth. He argues that those who use an object may be better judges than those we created the object in the first place. He states that “many make a correct judgment of the quality of the picture, house, ship or other work of art, who would nonetheless not know how to invent one themselves.” The best way to explain this is with food. You may have very little knowledge of cooking, but you don’t need to know how to make a tasty meal to know that it is tasty.

Thirdly, putting law‐​making in the hands of the people makes for a more stable system. If laws are imposed in a top‐​down manner, they are foreign commands that we don’t mind breaking. But if we commit to rules of our own volition, it is a different story. As Marsilius explains, “any citizen will better observe a law that he seems to have imposed on himself.” Even benevolent rulers will not have the experience or perspective required to assess a law which will be implemented on the whole of society.

Executive Power should be Limited by the People

The law is then upheld by a prince or magistrate who acts as a kind of executive power. Marsilius believes that this executive power ought to be answerable to the legislator, aka the people. To avoid arbitrary rule, Marsilius argues that the people should be able to inflict punishments upon the executive, including suspension of the executive or even their complete dismissal. Marsilius is so dedicated to the people’s control over executive power that he argues that the “armed force of the prince must be determined by the legislator.” This armed force should be only large enough to provide protection for citizens, not large enough to be exploited by executive power.

Instead of being ruled solely by the kings, aristocrats, and knights, Marsilius envisioned a political order where all orders of society come together collectively for decision making.

Natural Law or Relativism?

Natural law was a pillar of medieval philosophical thought. This is the idea that there are inherent rules which are either divinely ordained or dictated through nature and which ought to regulate human conduct. Thomas Aquinas argued that these laws could be uncovered with the use of reason; when discovered they can be implemented to justly regulate the conduct of any given society. Marsilius determined the legitimacy of laws by their voluntary nature. Law ought to be exercised “over willing subjects and in accordance with a law passed for the common advantage of these subjects.” By bringing people together to deliberate over what the law ought to be, he believed that we come closer to natural law than simply philosophizing in an armchair. For Marsilius, reasoned discussion and consent allows us to achieve laws closest to their natural ideal.

The Legacy of Marsilius

The Defender of the Peace was an extremely controversial book. In 1327 Marsilius was condemned as a heretic for his writings. He spent the rest of his days in Munich. After his death in 1342, Pope Clement VI would write that “we have almost never read a worse heretic than that Marsilius.” But Defender of the Peace had a wide, subversive underground readership. We mostly see Marsilius’ name crop up when authors disagreed with him. (After all, anyone who agreed with his ideas would not attribute them to him due to his status as a heretic.) But later Protestant reformers such as Jan Hus and Martin Luther read his works and were even condemned as Marsilians for their beliefs, a testament to the controversy Marsilius generated in his own lifetime and the legacy he left more than a century later.

Defender of the Peace is now considered by medieval historians as a classic in the canon of political philosophy. There is much debate over exactly what Marsilius should be classified as. Is he a precursor to liberalism, a republican, or simply an advocate of secular authority? Regardless of how we classify Marsilius, it is undeniable he was an original thinker. By arguing that the church and state ought to have separate spheres of authority, that the states end goal is to provide peace and prosperity, and that laws ought to be made by the people, Marsilius can rightly be called one of the most radical thinkers of his time.