By Kalev Pehme
Marsilius of Padua is a shadowy figure in the work of Leo Strauss. Even though Strauss devotes an entire essay to him, there is a vast silence about Marsilius that is rarely ever mentioned by anyone or even discussed. This omission, I believe, has more to do with a lack of care rather than careful reading. Marsilius makes an early appearance in what is a startling footnote to a Strauss article on Abravanel written in 1937. In discussing Abravanel’s critique of the monarchy of what is no-less than the philosopher king that is based on a cosmological hierarchy culminating in a god, Strauss writes: “…Abravanel objects that they are based on a metabolis eis allo genos [in Greek letters in the original], on a metabolis from things natural and necessary to things merely possible and subject to human will.” It should be noted here that the Greek refers to a logical fallacy that a set of understandings and methods applying to one kind of genus cannot be applied to another genus, unless that other genus is somehow subordinated to the first genus in some way. This fallacy is discussed in Aristotle’s Prior Analytics (75b9).
“Those philosophers tried, further,” Strauss continues, “to prove the necessity of monarchic government by contending that the three indispensible conditions of well-ordered government are fulfilled only in a monarchy. These conditions are: unity, continuity, and absolute power. As regards unity, Abravanel states that it may well be achieved by the consent of many governors.”
At this point, Strauss adds footnote 46: “Cp. Marsilius of Padua, Defensor Pacis, lib. I, cap. 15, 2.” A celeries paribus footnote! How often do you see one of them? There is a decisive sameness between Abravanel and Marsilius on this point.
Let’s look at another remarkable passage that is not a footnote. In his essay “On Natural Law,” Strauss writes:
The Thomistic natural law teaching, which is the classic form of the natural law teaching, was already contested in the Middle Ages on various grounds. According to Duns Scotus, only the commandment to love God or rather the prohibition of hating God belongs to natural law in the strictest sense. According to Marsilius of Padua, natural right as Aristotle meant it is that part of positive right which is recognized and observed everywhere I(divine worship, honoring of parents, raising of offspring, etc.); it can only be metaphorically be called natural right; the dictates of right reason regarding the things to be done (i.e., natural law in the Thomistic sense) on the other hand are not as such universally valid because they are not universally known and observed.
When reading this paragraph, one gets the sense that the dissent from St. Thomas is strictly an argument, even to the point of tetraplylictomy. After all, disputation was the hallmark of Medieval theology.
The greatest extent, I believe, that Strauss explains who Marsilius is comes in Natural Right and History.
There exists an alternative medieval interpretation of Aristotle’s doctrine, name.ly, the Averroistic view, or, more adequately stated, the view of the falasifa (i.e., of the Islamic Aristotelians). This view was set forth within the Christian world by Marsilius of Padua and presumably by other Christian or Latin Averroists. According to Averroes, Aristotle understands by natural right “legal natural right.” Or, as Marsilius puts it, natural right is only quasi-natural; actually, it depends on human institution or convention; but it is distinguished from merely positive right by the fact that it is based on ubiquitous convention. In all civil societies the same broad rules of what constitutes justice necessarily grow up. They specify the minimum requirements of society; they correspond roughly to the Second Table of the Decalogue but include the command of divine worship.
Strauss elaborates by repeating this problem in Persecution and the Art of Writing.
According to him [Marsilius], Aristotle understands by ius naturale a set of conventional rules, but of such conventional rules as are accepted by all countries, “so to speak by all men”; these rules, dependent upon on human institution, can only metaphorically be called iura naturalia. “Yet there are people,” he goes on to say, “who call ius naturale the dictate of right reason concerning objects of action.” Over against this he remarks that the very rationality of the ius naturale thus understood prevents its being universally, or generally, accepted, and, hence, we shall add, its being identical with that phusikon dikaion [in Greek letters in the original], or that koinos nomos, which Aristotle had in mind. By rejecting, in the name of Aristotle, the view that the ius naturale is a set of essentially rational rules, the Christian Aristotelian Marsilius opposes the Christian Aristotelian Thomas Aquinas in particular who had said that, according to Aristotle, the “justum natural” is a “rationi inditum,” and who had defined the “lex naturalis” as “participatio legis aeternae rationali creatura.”
Averroism derives from the someone who was called Averroes in Europe, but whose most commonly known name in the Muslim world was Ibn Rushd. Now, it is important to note that not everyone believed everything that Ibn Rushd put forth, but at the same time what was important is that there were basic principles of what is known as Averroism. Ibn Rushd attempted to reconcile Islam with Aristotelian philosophy, and this method was influential in Christian Europe with those who wanted to do the same. What makes the Averroists different is most critical in two particular areas. First, the Averroists accept Aristotle’s view that the world is eternal. The second view is that the man’s soul is divided into parts: a mortal one and an immortal one that belongs to all. But these problems are more cosmological than political on the surface, although an eternal cosmos certainly puts an end to any notion that the cosmos is created out of nothing over seven or whatever days.
When writing about a minor work by Maimonides, Strauss notes that there is a strange omission about the government of a nation, while Maimonides includes the self-government of the individual, the government of the household, the city, and of the great nation or of the nations.
The expression “the great nation or the nations,” as distinguished from “the great nation or all nations,” may indicate that there cannot be a great nation comprising all nations. This “Averroist” view is best known to us from Marsilius of Padua’s Defensor Pacis (I 17:10).
There is a kind of brutal truthfulness to Marsilius on the question of whether there ought to be one great nation, an Islam, for example, that brings peace to all. As the world is eternal and with it man himself, that there is the problem that men in such a state would consistently procreate to the point that there would no longer be resources for all. That there are many nations promotes periodic wars and other such demonstrations like plagues that keep the population in control.
One of major contentions that we find in the Defender of the Peace is that Marsilius opposes Thomas’s view that the hierarchy of the clergy of the Church is divinely established, and that basically all clergy are more or less equal in the eyes of god. I have read Strauss’s essay with others, and it is remarkable to me that Protestants have absolutely no sense of how truly revolutionary Marsilius’s political thought is. The reason is very obvious: Marsilius’s thought became a cornerstone of Reformation theology and ideology. Although Strauss never attempts to hide the radical nature of Marsilius’s thought, what is missing from Strauss are the actions of Marsilius, as opposed to his speech and thought.
In all mentions of Marsilius that I can find in Strauss, never once does Strauss let on how Marsilius’s work was translated into political reality. The only hint he gives us is buried in Persecution and the Art of Writing: “The Latin Averroists gave a most literal interpretation of extremely heretical teachings.”
The truth of Marsilius is what is overlooked: He was not just a theoretical man, but he was a politician as well. Rather than sum up the history on my own, I think it easier simply to quote from the Catholic Encyclopedia, which contains the sense of orthodox disgust that I could never reproduce.
It was at this time that Louis of Bavaria was about to reopen against the pope the struggles of Philippe le Bel against Boniface VIII. John XXII had just denounced Louis as a supporter of heretics, excommunicated him, and ordered him to cease within three months administering the affairs of the Empire. The emperor was looking for help, and Marsilius, who had now begun the study of theology, joined with Jean de Jandun, canon of Senlis, in offering him his assistance. Together they composed the “Defensor pacis” at Paris, and, about 1326, setting out for Germany, presented their work to the emperor. They became his intimate friends, and on several occasions expounded their teaching to him. What were the doctrines of these two Parisian doctors, the very audacity of which at first startled Louis of Bavaria? They recalled the wildest theories of the legists of Philippe le Bel, and Caesarian theologians like Guillaume Durand and the Dominican John of Paris. The teachings of these last mentioned had been proposed with hesitation, restrictions, and moderation of language which met with no favor before the rigorous logic of Marsilius of Padua. He completely abandoned the oldentheocratic conception of society. God, it is true, remained the ultimate source of all power, but it sprang immediately from the people, who had in addition the power to legislate. Law was the expression, not of the will of the prince, as John of Paris taught, but of the will of the people, who, by the voice of the majority, could enact, interpret, modify, suspend, and abrogate it at will. The elected head of the nation was possessed only of a secondary, instrumental, and executive authority. We thus arrive at the theory of the “Contrat Social”. In the Church, according to the “Defensor Pacis”, the faithful have these two great powers—the elective and the legislative. They nominate the bishops and select those who are to be ordained. The legislative power is, in the Church, the right to decide the meaning of the old Scriptures; that is the work for a general council, in which the right of discussion and voting belongs to the faithful or their delegates. The ecclesiastical power, the priesthood, comes directly from God and consists essentially in the power to consecrate the Body and Blood of Jesus Christ and remit sins, or, rather, to declare them remitted. It is equal in all priests, each of whom can communicate it by ordination to a subject legitimately proposed by the community. Luther would have recognized his theories in these heretical assertions, and the Gallicans of later times would willingly have subscribed to such revolutionary declarations. The two writers are just as audacious in their exposition of the respective roles of the Empire and the Church in Christian society and of the relations of the two powers.
According to the idea of the State propounded by Marsilius all ecclesiastical power proceeded from the community and from the emperor, its principal representative, there being no limit to the rights of the lay State (cf. Franck, “Journal des savants”, March, 1883; Noel Valois, “Histoire litteraire de la France”, XXXIII). As to the Church it has no visible head. St. Peter, he goes on, received no more power or authority than the other Apostles, and it is uncertain that he ever came to Rome. The pope has only the power of convoking an ecumenical council which is superior to him. His decrees are not binding; he can impose on the people only what the general council has decided and interpreted. The community elects the parish priest and supervises and controls the clergy in the performance of their duties; in a word—the community or the state is everything, the Church playing an entirely subsidiary part. It cannot legislate, adjudicate, possess goods, sell, or purchase without authorization; it is a perpetual minor. As is clear, we have here the civil constitution of the clergy. Marsilius, moreover, shows himself a severe and often unjust censor of the abuses of the Roman curia. Regarding the relations between the emperor and the pope, it is maintained in the “Defensor Pacis”, that the sovereign pontiff has no power over any man, except with the permission of the emperor; while the emperor has power over the pope and the general council. The pontiff can act only as the authorized agent of the Roman people; all the goods of the Church belong by right to Caesar. This is clearly the crudest concept of the pagan empire, an heretical assault on the Church’s constitution, and a shameless denial of the rights of the sovereign pontiff to the profit of Caesar. Dante, the Ghibelline theorist, is surpassed. Arnold of Brescia is equalled. William Occam could never have proposed anything more revolutionary.
The pope was stirred by these heretical doctrines. In the Bull of April 3, 1327, John XXII reproached Louis of Bavaria with having welcomed duos perditionis ftilios et maledictions alumnos (Denifle, “Chart”, II, 301). On April 9 he suspended and excommunicated them (“Thesaurus novus anecdotorum”, ii, 692). A commission, appointed by the pope at Avignon, condemned on October 23 five of the propositions of Marsilius in the following terms: “1) These reprobates do not hesitate to affirm in what is related of Christ in the Gospel of St. Matthew, to wit that He paid tribute that he did so, not through condescension and liberality, but of necessity—an assertion that runs counter to the teaching of the Gospe1 and the words of our Savior. If one were to believe these men, it would follow that all the property of the Church belongs to the emperor, and that he may take possession of it again as his own; 2) These sons of Belial are so audacious as to affirm that the Blessed Apostle St. Peter received no more authority than the other Apostles, that he was not appointed their chief, and further that Christ gave no head to His Church, and appointed no one as His vicar here below—all which is contrary to the Apostolic and evangelic truth; 3) These children of Belial do not fear to assert that the emperor has the right to appoint, to dethrone, and even to punish the pope—which is undoubtedly repugnant to all right; 4) These frivolous and lying men say that all priests, be they popes archbishops, or simple priests are possessed of equal authority and equal jurisdiction, by the institution of Christ; that whatever one possesses beyond another is a concession of the Emperor, who can moreover revoke what he has granted, which assertions are certainly contrary to sacred teaching and savor of heresy; 5) these blasphemers say that the universal Church may not inflict a coactive penalty on any person unless with the emperor’s permission.” All the pontifical propositions opposed to the declarations of Marsilius of Padua and Jean de Jandun are proved at length from the Scriptures, traditions, and history. These declarations are condemned as being contrary to the Holy Scriptures, dangerous to the Catholic faith, heretical, and erroneous, and their authors Marsilius and Jean as being undoubtedly heretics and even heresiarchs (Denzinger, “Enchiridion”, 423, ed. Bannwart, 495; Noel Valois, “Histoire litteraire de la France”, XXXIII, 592).
As this condemnation was falling on the head of Marsilius, the culprit was coming to Italy in the emperor’s train and he saw his revolutionary ideas being put into practice. Louis of Bavaria had himself crowned by Colonna, syndic of the Roman people; he dethroned John XXII, replacing him by the Friar Minor, Peter of Corbara, whom he invested with temporal power. At the same time he bestowed the title of imperial vicar on Marsilius and permitted him to persecute the Roman clergy. The pope of Avignon protested twice against the sacrilegious conduct of both. The triumph of Marsilius was, however, of short duration. Abandoned by the emperor in October, 1336, he died towards the end of 1342. Among his principal works, the “Defensor Pacis”, which we possess in twenty manuscripts, has been printed frequently and translated into various languages. The “Defensor Minor”, a resume of the preceding work compiled by Marsilius himself, has just been recovered in the Bodleian Library, Oxford (Canon. Miscell., 188). It throws light on certain points in the larger work; but has not yet been published.”De translatione Imperii Romani” has been printed four times in Germany and once in England.”De jurisdictione Imperatoris in causa matrimoniali” has been edited by Preher and by Goldast (Monarchia Sancti Rom. Imperii, II, c. 1283). The influence of the “Defensor pacis” was disastrous, and Marsilius may well be reckoned one of the fathers of the Reformation.
While Strauss is scrupulously silent about the history of Marsilius, he does mention something that is entirely within the history of Marsilius. When writing about Farabi, Strauss notes: “He [Farabi] substitutes politics for religion. He thus may be said to lay the foundation for the secular alliance between philosophers and princes whose most famous representatives in the West are Marsilius of Padua and Machiavelli.”
If we start to see what is going on in Strauss with respect to Marsilius, one wonders, for example, if the celeris paribus footnote, for example, doesn’t indicate a very highly radicalized view that Abravanel takes or that perhaps the comparison between Thomas, Scotus, and Marsilius falls in favor of the heretic who seeks much more natural right than natural law.
As Strauss is completely silent about Marsilius’s biography, we cannot know what Strauss thought about what Marsilius attempted to do, including the overthrow of the pope. But that silence doesn’t not seem to indicate contempt so much as some kind of acceptance.