Expanding the Liberty Canon: Marsilius of Padua on the Defence of civic Peace

There is a leap of more than a millenium from  my last post on Seneca to Marsilius (originally Marsiglio) of Padua (c. 1275 to c. 1342). I am not saying that no one wrote any texts advancing liberty during that time, but the major texts of late antiquity and the Middle Ages up to the thirteenth century concerning political ideas lean towards the desirability, or at least unavoidability, of law making and governmental powers centralised in a monarchical figure, rather than constraints on power,  or a positive vision of individual autonomy.

One might argue that the spread of Christian monotheism enhanced the value placed on individuality, and that the codification of Roman law in Constantinople in the sixth century CE (commanded by the Emperor Justinian) advanced the idea of liberty under law. Even if we take a very positive view of those developments, and they are certainly deeply important, they can be no more than elements in the creation of laws and institutions that promote liberty.

There must be more to social and political liberty than a belief in an inner soul and the institutionalisation  of the law outside the individual. The importance of the individual and the rule of law at least require some further articulation in how to form a political community that recognises the merits of individual liberty in every sense.

There were great thinkers who addressed political questions  during the time between the early Roman Empire (Seneca) and the late Middle Ages (Marsilius of Padua), most obviously Augustine of Hippo (354-430), Al-Farabi (872-950), and Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274), but in my judgement they lean too far towards emphasising the sovereign power, assumed to be be ideally a monarch, who can enforce law and religiously inflected notions of virtue, to be regarded as promoters of liberty, even if much of what they wrote is of value from a liberty advocating point of view.

Others may disagree, Murray Rothbard for example thought of Aquinas as very close to his own individualist anarchist point of view, which however does not strike me as the strongest point in his writings. My argument is that Marsilius made a decisive step in turning a rich tradition of writing on virtue, civil law, natural law, and sovereignty, towards  a concern with individual diversity and the right for everyone to play some part in determining the laws that one is obliged to obey.

In this, he was maybe anticipated by Florentine humanist and republican thinking, but not by any great historical distance, and there is lack of readily obtained in print or online texts in English from that time in Florentine history, though I hope to return to this in a  future post.

The historical background to Marsilius’ thought includes the political life of medieval north Italian city states, little republics often known as communes. Conflict between the Papacy and German Emperors gave them the opportunity to maintain independence through playing off the great medieval political powers against each other.

Their independence, like that of the ancient Greek city states, ,involved a good deal of conflict with each other about boundaries and alliances, and internally with regard to governmental power. This of course was a violent process, but there was violence elsewhere with less productive results for liberty.

Some background on  the Papacy and the Empire is necessary here, as general background, and with regard to the life of Marsilius, who was very much part of the struggle between the two. The Roman Empire was revived, in name anyway, in 800 for Charlemagne, the ruler of what is now France, Germany, Austria and neighbouring territories, including northern Italy.

Charlemagne was crowned by the Pope in Rome in a move the emphasised separation from the continuing eastern Empire in Constantinople and a strong ally for the power of a Roman centred Catholic church in the west. By the time of Marsilius, the title of Emperor had disappeared, revised, and evolved in its meaning.

The stage reached was the Emperor was elected by major German princes and was known as the Emperor of Germany, though also as Holy Roman Emperor, or Emperor of the Romans, in recognition of his preeminence in Catholic Europe, and apparent role of providing secular partnership to the divinely ordained role of the Papacy.

The Emperor’s power over most of Germany, outside the hereditary lands of the prince elected, was very limited, so that Germany was essentially a patchwork of a very large number of very varied kinds of sovereign entity (city republics, bishoprics, monasteries, domains of a margrave, duke, knight, etc) under a grand  but weak monarch, who had some claim to universal monarchy within the Catholic world but only at the level of symbolism .

The Emperors had continuing claims in northern Italy, which brought them into conflict with the political ambitions of Popes to dominate the region, and generally the supposed partnership of throne and alter led to violent conflict about how to share the power.

It was also a time of growing commercial life in Europe, with northern Italy as part of the vanguard. The erosion of traditional forms of authority and loyalty which accompanied increasing commerce, combined with an intensification of conflicts between Emperor and Pope, along with competing candidates to be Emperor or Pope.

Marsilius was in the middle of this, born in northern Italy, in the city of Padua as his name indicates. He trained as a doctor, after a period as an Imperial solider and became Rector of the University of Paris, then engaging in work on theology and politics which led to conflict with the Papacy. He was sheltered by the German Emperor at his base in Munich.

The major result of this was the large book, The Defender of the Peace, often known by its Latin title of Defensor Pacis. It contains three discourses, the first of which is less than half the book, but contains his thought on the nature of politics, civil law, and the state. This might be seen as a defence of the role of the Emperor as defender of the peace, who the right to autonomy from the Pope with regard to worldly matters.

However, there is much about the First Discourse, which challenges the role of princes. That Marsilius was able to do so while relying on the Emperor for protection from accusations of heresy, is suggestive of the value of the papacy-empire and church-state splits in medieval Europe along with competition between states and the contestation of Church doctrine by ‘heretical’ groups, in fostering liberty in a Europe, which lacked any absolute overarching political or religious power centre.

As is normal with medieval philosophy, Marsilius writes with regard to the text of the Bible and even more with regard to the writings of Aristotle, which in this case means mostly the Politics and the politically oriented parts of the Nicomachean Ethics. As normal, there is also reference to the Commentator, that is Ibn Rushd, known in Latin as Averroes (1126-1198), a Muslim philosopher who like Seneca was born in Cordoba, Spain. His commentaries on Aristotle transformed Medieval philosophy, Christian and Jewish, as well as Muslim.

Marsilius builds up his political ideas taking Aristotle as the major philosophical source, which raises questions about the correctness of his view of Aristotle. I won’t go into that issue any further and will just note that since Marsilius, one way of taking Aristotle has been as a proponent of republicanism with a democratic emphasis. The ‘republican’ thinking is not about abolishing monarchs, and strictly speaking republican political thought has always been about how to share power between all citizens, or some significant part of the citizen body, rather than the abolition of all monarchical titles. This is why Marsilius can be both a republican and support the power of the Emperor, at least in relation to the Pope.

The argument is built up through reading of Aristotle, which emphasises the merits of elective monarchy, so turning the monarch into an elected for life president. If that life time tenure rests on the will of citizens, then at least some possibility is raised on ending that tenure early should the monarch prove unsatisfactory.

Of course the German Emperor was elected by a few princes, but Marsilius is very clear that he is referring to a broader electorate of all citizens. He contests readings of Aristotle, according to which Aristotle only allows for the election of a king by a small aristocracy of those citizens supposed to be very best. Marsilius both denies this is what Aristotle supports and makes his own arguments for saying that the wisdom of all citizens collectively is greater than that of a few privileged citizens taken to be particularly wise.

The wisdom of a few, however intellectually accomplished, cannot match the wisdom of all citizens as that collective wisdom contains all the knowledge there is of the society concerned. Social knowledge comes from the many thousands and even millions of individual perspectives on experienced reality, not the distanced theoretical wisdom of a few. Therefore the wisdom to elected the best candidate as monarch must come from all citizens, and they must all have the right to participate in the vote.

A decision resting on such a multitude also creates a strength and endurance in the state, with regard to external enemies, but more importantly with reference to the capacity of the state to sustain itself and allow a ‘sufficient’ life for citizens. That is a sufficient life of fully developed human faculties, not just pure physical survival which might take place without laws, but only in conditions of insecurity and with little hope of a ‘sufficient’ life.

The laws which allow sufficient life are more a matter of codifying the wisdom and experience of history, in forms which are acceptable to all citizens, than the kind of innovations in state power we have come to associated with new law in more recent times. The citizen body which participates in electing the head of the government must also participate in making laws since the same arguments invoked for electing a leader must apply to the laws. Laws, which Marsilius understands as what has the  consent of all, or close enough, rather than the imposition of the views of a narrow temporary majority on everyone.

He does not make explicit barriers to majoritarian abuse of power, but does not need to since law clearly means to him what is acceptable to the community as a whole with regard to its collective wisdom and the historical experience of laws. The ‘monarch’ or ‘prince’ is clearly expected to apply those laws and to exercise no further powers beyond what defends the existence of the community from lawlessness and external aggression.

Marsilius emphasises the viability and sustainability of the community as a community of sufficient life rather than as a deduction of law making sovereignty from individual rights. His approach, grounded in antique political and legal thought, might sound less respectful of individual liberty than the deduction from individual rights, but the modern tradition of such deductions, these days forming the major part of ‘normative’ political theory/analytic political philosophy, have not proved at all immune to statist ideas, while individual rights to pursue ‘sufficiency’ are so deeply embedded in Marsilius’ assumptions as what is natural to an individual and to a sustainable community, that it does not need articulation in the form of pure abstract rights detached from the necessary conditions of lived communities.

How democratic Marsilius is, by our standards, can be debated on at least two counts. One count is that at this time, and right into the nineteenth century, ‘democratic’ politics might might still exclude ‘dependent’ individuals from political rights, that is those who were thought to be lacking in the economic independence and self-dependence, which would supposedly allow for free and considered judgement.

Those excluded included those making a living from employment by someone else rather than through property, self-employment as a skilled worker, or membership of some legally recognised corporation of individuals with equal rights (like a university or a trade guild). Farm labourers, employees of urban enterprises,  vagrants, and domestic servants were likely to be excluded along with women, religious minorities, and those still  carrying the vestiges of medieval serfdom in their legal status.

The second count is that Marsilius offers little indication of how his democratic ideas could be applied in practice, though he was presumably relying on memories of Italian communed, still leaving a huge gap on how to apply such principles to a political community as large as the German Empire, leaving the suspicion that he was mainly arguing for the power of the Emperor on the basis of pretended democracy, and a supposed rule by laws rather by any individual.

There is nevertheless more than enough in Defensor Pacis overall to stimulate considerable creative thinking about what it is to create the laws and government best suited to liberty. His criticisms of the supposed wisdom of  few at the top, are very powerful and necessary now with regard to the pretences of state planning and regulation. His understanding of how wisdom arises from the multiple experiences of the multitude, with regard to the limited   goals of government and legislation, have great application to the role of markets and voluntary co-operation in a society of free individuals.


7 thoughts on “Expanding the Liberty Canon: Marsilius of Padua on the Defence of civic Peace

  1. Excellent! This passage got me thinking, though:

    the major texts of late antiquity and the Middle Ages up to the thirteenth century concerning political ideas lean towards the desirability, or at least unavoidability, of law making and governmental powers centralised in a monarchical figure, rather than constraints on power, or a positive vision of individual autonomy.

    You mention a few thinkers as potential contrarians, but for the most part there is a thousand year gap in individualist thought throughout the West. This is, if I’m not mistaken, known as the Dark Ages in popular thought, but it seems to me as if there were other places in the world that were much better off than Western Europe during this time period. Did the thinkers in these regions of the world have a healthier respect for individual autonomy and a healthier skepticism of government power?

    At the same time, I have to wonder: During the period where the West was beginning its ascent again (the Italian city-states and small republics you mention, for example) there wasn’t much “pro-liberty” thought going on. And yet this decentralization happened anyway, and gave rise to thinkers like Marsilius of Padua. Given this, is it safe to ask if ideology is as important as we make it out to be? I am sure it’s much more complicated than “decentralization and then – BOOM! – liberty” but the question does linger in the back of my mind.

    • Hello Brandon, sorry I didn’t have time to check the comments on this earlier. I don’t really want to say there was a 1000 year dark age for thought about liberty, but in terms of big recognised classics, it does look like a ‘Dark Age’. Sadly I’m not equipped to discuss what was going on outside ‘Christendom’, the Medieval Christian world which largely corresponded with Europe particularly after the Arab (and in the west Berber) Muslim conquests in north Africa and south west Asia, so in what had been the Byzantine Empire outside its Balkan and Anatolian heartland. I’m very slightly better qualified to discuss the Muslim world of this time than the cultures further east, and as far as I can see despite the riches of Muslim intellectual achievement, and the building of legal traditions, there is no major figure who could be described as pro-liberty though as with Aquinas, William of Ockam and other major political writers in Christendom of the time, there is an interest in law and respect for law from the sovereign power. I personally feel it’s a bit of a stretch to include that in any kind of liberty tradition, though the rule of law ideas to feed into it and to some degree pick up on antique republican thought, but largely in its empire of laws aspect rather than other aspects of political and social liberty. There is a lot of really important and interesting stuff going on further east, particularly in China and India, going back to at least the time of Aristotle in Greece, in terms of philosophical, ethical, and political thought, and institutional innovation. On the institutional side though, I can’t see anything that looks very ‘republican’ or holding power accountable, or valuing challenges to excessive power. I’m sure there are texts that are important for liberty minded people to read, and some things some absolute rulers did like Buddhists who tried to abolish slavery, worth knowing about, but I’m just not competent right now to deal with this stuff properly. It is becoming better known in the west and that is going to produce results in the liberty community. I’ll see if I’m ever ready to engage, I’ve got some iras about how to get there from particular interests of mine, but it needs time. In discussing Asian political traditions, one issue which is being discussed a lot is state hill communities in southern Asia, though from a collectivist anarchist position rather than an individualist anarchist position, the discussion has been picked up to some degree from an individualist point of view (Peter Leeson, the George Mason economist for example) and I think we’ll see more of that over time. That issue of hill peoples brings me onto something else. Knowledge of the political structures of hill peoples comes from anthropologists (particularly the Yale anthropologist and agrarian studies specialist James C. Scott, a collectivist anarchist in inclination) rather than from texts in political theory by those stateless peoples. They were illiterate and maybe deliberately so to protect themselves from the low land state observations. Any political philosophy (or indeed philosophy of any kind) of such people comes from looking at the assumptions and everyday ‘ideologies’ of their lives. A big thing on that issue which has been getting increasing interest is that until the late 18th century European histories of philosophy included that kind of implicit philosophy of illiterate peoples observed in an ‘anthropological’ way by ancient historians like Tacitus and Herodotus. There has been a modern equivalent, roughly speaking, to that Herodotus/Tacitus observation of the supposed beliefs of peoples who seem very foreign, which is African philosophy, as studied by African scholars and outside Africa, largely by African-American scholars in US universities. This has engaged with an anthropological-philosophical study of the belief systems of colonised and pre-colonial African peoples. There is a scholar known to me by personal acquaintance as well as academic reputation working on that sort of approach to non-literarate or not very literate non-urban societies round the world. That is Justin E.H. Smith a (white) American based at the University of Paris, who has a book due out on this in a few years, I’m certainly looking forward to it. That leads me to your point about ideology. I agree that there is a valid area of study of philosophy, political throughout etc as it exists outside ‘ideology’ as written texts on those theme. It may have some relation to ‘ideology’ as everyday assumptions, though with less of the control/conformity associations of ‘ideology’. I am not on the whole the right person to say much about this, but over time I might be able to post a few things. I’m thinking of taking a step in that direction for next week’s post, which I’m thinking could be on the Medieval Iceland Eddas (heroic poetry) as it relates to a society, which apparently had very little in the way of a central state. That will mean breaking the timeline I’m working through, but that’s OK as I now realise I meant to cover the Roman historian Tacitus, but forgot, so next couple of posts will probably go back in history. Just working on a post on a 14th century English legal thinker, John Fortescue, for this weekend.

Please keep it civil (unless it relates to Jacques)

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