Separating the Church and State, Marsilius of Padua

In Marsilius’s mind, the main disturber of the peace of his day was the papacy.

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Discussions of monarchy and hierarchy usually dominate medieval political thought. The 14-century thinker Marsilius of Padua breaks with his contemporaries arguing the church and state should be separate entities and that laws should be based on the consent and common good of all. Despite being a medieval mind, Marsilius has a distinctly modern voice.

Related Content:

Marsilius Was a Radical Medieval Thinker, written by Paul Meany

Separation of Church and State from the Encyclopedia of Libertarianism



00:05 Paul Meany: The Medieval era of Europe is a holy alien time to the modern mind. Whenever I think of the medieval ages I think of two major institutions. Monarchy and the church. Monarchy was the political order of the day. Most major nations were headed by Kings with an ever-changing Court of powerful nobles supporting their, at times, tenuous positions. But even monarchs were subject to the pressure of a higher power. The Catholic Church also known as the papacy, the Catholic Church’s role was colossal in medieval life, and can scarcely be underrated both in private and political matters. The enlightenment thinkers of the 18th and 19th century, ushered in regimes, which are the polar opposite of the medieval ages. Representative democracy, and secularism came to the forefront. Monarchs were relegated constitutional roles and religions grasps on politics was loosened over time. The institutional remnants of the medieval world were slowly peeled back as the enlightenment progressed.

01:01 Paul Meany: However no era is a monolith of beliefs, there are always dissidents and independent thinkers who manage to articulate ideas, which challenges the deeply ingrained mores of their society. Today, I’ll be discussing such a person Marsilius of Padua, a 14th century Italian writer who in his masterwork, the Defender of the Peace, argued in favor of a form of proto-secularism and a system of politics which is uncharacteristically democratic and pragmatic for medieval thinker.

01:25 Paul Meany: Today, I will be discussing such a person, Marsilius of Padua, a 14th century Italian writer who in his master work, the Defender of the Peace, argued in favor of a form of proto-secularism and a system of politics which is uncharacteristically democratic and pragmatic for a medieval thinker.

01:41 Paul Meany: Marsilius was born roughly between the years of 1275 and 1280. His family had served in the civic administration of his home town of Padua. His father was a notary, some of his relatives were lawyers. Marsilius did not follow in his family footsteps, and 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 of medieval Europe which was ruled by Kings, Italy was composed of many small self-governing city-states. Systems of councils and elected officials governed Padua in Marsilius early years. However these small city-states such as Padua were often brought into conflict between the Holy Roman Empire and the papacy, which both put forward claims of universal hegemony. Church fathers, such 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 or the city of man.

02:43 Paul Meany: The city of God is dedicated solely to the love of God. While the secular state has aimed its affections at a variety of sinful loves. The church was superior to the state. Naturally, therefore, advocates of the church explained that the secular state’s authority must be derived from the church’s authority, which had been given directly through Saint Peter. If power came from God, the Creator of all things, why should the less holy state command the holier institution of the Church? Neither church nor state authorities wished to abolish the other. The relationship between the two was symbiotic. Medieval power was solidified by prestige, both institutions needed each other, but both wished to have the upper hand in their relationship. The papacy had control over affairs which affect all aspects of secular life, including marriage and inheritance. The Pope also commanded the power of declaring oaths of allegiance invalid.

03:34 Paul Meany: The various nobles of the monarchs obeyed their rulers based upon oaths of fealty. If these oaths were dissolved overnight discontented nobles could justifiably overthrow their former masters, most importantly the Pope could excommunicate individuals or even entire communities. Excommunication from the church meant that one’s entrance to heaven will be difficult, if not impossible. A deeply religious society, the threat of excommunication was a grave affair in medieval Europe.

04:00 Paul Meany: Excommunication from the church meant that one’s entrance to heaven will be difficult, if not impossible. A deeply religious society, this threat of excommunication was a grave affair in medieval Europe. So where does Marsilius fit into this complex jostling between the secular and religious authorities? In the year 800, the first holy roman emperor Charlemagne, have been crowned by the pope. A political act to boost is prestige. However, by Marsilius’s 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 the 12th, 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 the Pope in 1324. Marsilius was closely watching 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 against strife.

05:05 Paul Meany: In Marsilius’s mind, the main disturber of the peace of his day was the papacy, which had not only been constantly encroaching upon secular authority, it had also misappropriated the teachings of the Bible for its own selfish ends. Marsilius explains that all actions are either temporal or spiritual. Temporal actions consist of things I do for material reasons which affect others in negative or positive ways. The key is temporal actions affect others. On the other hand, spiritual actions do not affect others, they’re 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. It only affects me, and only I can know my true beliefs on the topic. Because spiritual actions are wholly self-regarding they can only be known by God. Secular powers legitimate authority is based in the realm of temporal actions, while the church’s power is located in the aspects of spiritual life.


06:11 Paul Meany: Those who take the reins of secular power punish criminals for their misdemeanors. Since spiritual matters are not easily observable by human eyes, they can only be punished by God, therefore, humanity has no legitimacy in doing God’s work and punishing those they deem to be sinning.” Marsilius did not for a second envision a world without some form of church, he simply believed that the papacy had over-extended their legitimate authority. Priests’ proper role was to educate people upon matters of morality and prepare them for the after-life, a task which is spiritual, not temporal. The church is but part of a society, not an entity which competes with the state. Marsilius argued that, if anything, religious authority should be subordinate to secular authority. In arguing that the church could not meddle in secular affairs, Marsilius pointed to the fact that Jesus possessed no political power, nor did he wish for his church to exercise political power. Marsilius based his claim on two pieces of evidence. Firstly, when Jesus was asked by the Jewish Pharisees whether or not they should pay taxes to Rome, He applied “Render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s and unto God the things that are God’s.”

07:20 Paul Meany: Secondly, Jesus’s acknowledgement of the judgment of Pontius Pilate proved for Marsilius that secular authority, at least in this world, had the upper hand on spiritual authority. Furthermore, Marsilius argues that church’s authority is derived from the whole body of the faithful, that 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, 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. Marsilius begins his account of secular authority by articulating what he believes are the fundamentals of human nature. Quite un-controversially, he states that all human beings, not deformed or otherwise impeded, naturally desire a sufficient life and avoid or flee what is harmful there too. In simple terms, we pursue what is advantageous to us, and avoid the rest if we can. However, unlike other animals, humans are not content to live in the wild. We long for necessity such as food, water, and shelter, but we also long for luxuries, companionship, and entertainment. To achieve our wants, an innumerable amount of skills are required, too many for one person to possibly master, even in a lifetime.

08:43 Paul Meany: 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 this advantage. For Marsilius, the division of labor is a natural and a central component of human existence. It takes multiple people even to make the simplest loaf of bread. We unite together and form political communities to serve our own interests best. We benefit greatly from the division of labor and exchanging of goods and services with one another. Through our variety of talent and skills, we can all serve one another. However, we are not perfect by any stretch. Marsilius believes that everyone is prone to pursue one’s own advantage. He believes that by their nature, all people are self-interested. This is the unavoidable condition of humanity. During the medieval ages, pursuing one’s own private advantage was viewed as an evil vice, which was indicative of man’s fallen nature. However Marsilius does not agree with this view, and instead he believes that as long as we are not harming others, we are free to pursue our own interests as much as we like. But this will inevitably lead to conflict when people overstep boundaries or pursue their own interest of the expense of another person.

09:52 Paul Meany: To solve this we must have law, the primary function of secular power, which promotes peace. Without strife or conflict, we may pursue our own personal advantage, as long as this pursuit does not harm others. Notice that Marsilius’s account of secular power is based around peace and a sufficient life. 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 prosperity and peace, while leaving the moral development of citizens to the non-course of spiritual powers. For it’s time, Marsilius’s account of the state was a truly radical notion. 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 only benefit those in power. 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. What we call democracy. Law comes from the bottom up, not the top down.

10:56 Paul Meany: Marsilius defends this democratic ideal on three grounds. Firstly when people come together, they have a lot more cumulative knowledge than individuals or small groups. He argues that the greater number of people is more able than any one of its parts to notice a defect regarding a proposed law. Secondly, he argues, while not every citizen may be able to formulate or express laws, they’re capable of judging their worth. He argues that those who object may be better judges than those who created the laws in the first place. I feel the best way to explain this is with food. I may have very little knowledge of cooking, but I don’t need to know how to make a tasty meal to know it is tasty in the first place. This is Marsilius’s logic. Thirdly, putting lawmaking 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 really mind breaking, but if we commit to rules of our own volition 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 would be implemented in the whole of society.

12:08 Paul Meany: The legitimacy of laws is determined for Marsilius by their voluntary nature. The consent of a broad base of citizens, what he calls the weightier part of the population, ensures that the law is established in such a way that it benefits all and does not favor a particular faction of 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 are the people who should be able to inflict punishments upon the executive, including suspension or even complete dismissal from office. Marsilius is so dedicated to the people’s control over the executive power that he even 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 the prince. Instead of being ruled solely by the knights, aristocrats, or kings of society, Marsilius envisioned a political order where all people of society come together collectively for decision-making.

13:10 Paul Meany: Marsilius explicitly says that he is not a Democrat, however this does not disqualify him from being a democratic thinker. Until the late 18th century, democracy was synonymous with anarchy, chaos, and factional strife. The Founding Father James Madison also explicitly denied that his ideas were democratic, yet today, the Federalist Papers are one of the most revered text arguments representative of democracy. Therefore, it’s not completely ridiculous to say that Marsilius is at least a democratic thinker. The Defender of the Peace was an extremely controversial book. In 1327, Marsilius was condemned as a heretic for his writings, and in 1342, Pope Clement VI would write that we have almost never read a worse heretic than that of Marsilius. After his death in 1342, The Defender of the Peace had a subversive underground readership. We mostly see Marsilius’s name crop up when authors disagree with him. Anyone who agreed with his ideas would not attribute them to him due to his status as a heretic. 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 he created.

14:21 Paul Meany: Defender of the Peace is now considered by historians as a classic in the canon of political philosophy. Marsilius argued that the church and state often have separate spheres of authority and should not compete against each other for preeminence in their respective domains. The state provides peace and material prosperity, the religious authorities offer moral guidance. There’s much that can be deemed novel and radical about Marsilius’s account of the proper function of the state. At times, his conclusions can sound eerily modern. The state exists to facilitate the peaceful cooperation of free individuals who may follow their own goals as long as they don’t harm others. Marsilius’s conclusions on secularism and the role of the state make him an exceptional thinker who argued positions well ahead of his time, and for this, he deserves appreciation from anyone who wishes to study the history of liberty, especially in the realm of secularism and democracy.

15:12 Paul Meany: Thanks for listening. I hope you enjoyed this podcast, and if you did, you can subscribe on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, and wherever else you may listen to podcasts. Visit the website to find more podcasts like this one. I hope to see you next time.