After reading this article you will learn about the bio, life and political ideas of Marsilius of Padua.
Life and Work of Marsilius of Padua:
The defeat of Boniface brought about three definite tendencies towards the end of the medieval period—the secularisation of life, particularly politics, the rise of the bourgeoisie and the formation of the nation-state. Marsilius of Padua was the representative philosopher of these tendencies.
He was born in 1275 and died in 1343. There is a gap of one hundred years between the death of St. Thomas and birth of Marsilius. Marsilius or Marsilio is better known in the name of his birth-place Padua which was a city of Ezzelino da Romano.
He was a physician and a student of philosophy, theology and law. Marsilio led a wandering life. At one time he was canon of Padua. Study of medicine and to some extent of law made his mind scientific, secular and critical. He was very much hesitant to accept anything on its face-value.
Marsilio went to Paris and studied there different subjects. Later on he became a teacher of Paris University. His stay at Paris contributed to the formation of his ideas and philosophy. He was an energetic and adventurous person.
His anti- papacy feeling reached the highest point while he was at Paris and historians say that here he planned to write a book on anti-papacy. His famous book Defensor Pacis or The Defender of Pence was published in 1324.
The book contains fierce hatred against the Pope. It is said that John of Gandun was the co-author of The Defender of Peace. The Defender of Peace is a remarkable book. Its approach is quite bold and uncompromising.
Critics maintain that Marsilius cannot be regarded as an original thinker, because he collected his ideas from the publicists and pamphleteers. Paris University, at his time, was a congregation of top-ranking philosophers and thinkers. Marsilio’s connection with them enriched his outlook and thought.
Political Ideas of Marsilius of Padua:
1. Conception of the State:
Marsilio’s The Defender of Peace has three parts. The first part is a repetition of Aristotelian principles of classification of government, origin of society and state. The second part deals with the church, functions of priests and their relation to the temporal authority.
The volume of the third part is very short. It comprises forty- two conclusions from the theories developed in the previous two parts.
The starting point of his analysis is the political society. What we call state or political society originates in a general recognition of common needs. To meet the common necessities, people have built up the foundation of the state.
Following Aristotle, Marsillius has said that family is the primary or first stage of state. The family arose to meet certain limited demands which were short of common needs.
So the evolution of society did not stop there. The association of several families gave birth to a bigger organization. Again, the bigger organization or association failed to meet all the common needs.
Moreover, it suffered from coordination or cooperation among all the members. The state came into existence to fulfill the common needs and to materialize the cooperation among the members. Marsilio’s view of the origin of the state is simply the repetition of Aristotle’s views. He frequently quotes Aristotle.
Again in his analysis of various forms of state and its other aspects we find clear influence of Aristotle. He classifies government into two broad types—good and diseased forms. In the first type there are three forms—monarchy, aristocracy and constitutionalism. The second type consists of tyranny, oligarchy and dictatorship.
The criterion of this classification it based on whether the ruler serves his own interest or the interests of the subjects. But he departs from Aristotle by adding that the common good at which the good government aims must be based on the consent of the people.
What is common benefit and what is not needs to be decided by the people and not by the ruler. Summarizing Marsilio’s view of state Gettel says “The state was conceived as a living organism, intended to secure to men guarantees of order and free development of capacity, leading to a general welfare. The right of the state to a life of its own independent of any outside control was the basic principle in Marsilius’s thought”.
Another critic observes “Like Aristotle, Marsilis treats the state as a natural organism, and it exists so that men can live sufficient life. The parts of the state are parts making different contributions to the life of the whole. The parts of the state are functionally identified as contributors to the sufficient life”.
2. Functions of Government:
Man, according to Marsilio, is a perverse creature. He is self-seeking, violent and aggressive. He is disposed to regard other men as his rivals and this creates an atmosphere of animosity among all men. Marsilius feels the necessity of the termination of this condition.
That is why he suggests that the first duty of the government is the repression of the perverse will of man. Its primary business is to force men to do their own work and not to meddle with others’ affairs. This perverse nature of man is injurious to society. The government checks it and creates a congenial atmosphere of development.
There is another necessity of government and it is the realisation of tranquillitas. Tranquillitas means peace and security which are preconditions of progress and prosperity. It further means that, without cooperation and adjustment, general welfare of the community is not possible at all.
“Government is required not only for the repression of the perversity but for the organisation of cooperation” Marsilio has enumerated the different functions performed by different classes of people— judge, soldier, farmer, artificer, capitalists, priests etc. All these are to be coordinated and organized for the common benefit of the political society. It is the business of the government to allot to each man his proper work and keep him at it. Hearnshaw comments— “The conception is quite what we call socialistic.”
3. Law, Legislator and Popular Sovereignty:
Marsilius of Padua speaks of two main types of law—divine law and human law. According to Marsilio the divine law is a direct command of God, without human deliberations, about voluntary acts of human beings to be done or avoided in this world, but for the sake of attaining the best end or some conditions desirable for man, in the world to come.
Human law is a command to the whole body of citizens or of its prevailing party arising directly from the deliberation of those empowered to make law, about voluntary acts of human beings to be done or avoided in this world, for the sake of attaining the best end or some condition desirable for man.
The divine law is the will of God and it has no relation to the man-made law. The punishments and rewards are awarded according to this law, but they are not in this world. Both will be available in heaven.
On the contrary, man makes laws to facilitate the performance of something or avoidance of something. Punishments and rewards are the subjects of this world and God is not connected with it at all.
Human law is the imperative expression of the common need, formulated by reason, promulgated by recognized authority, and sanctioned by force. Law is also a judgment on what is advantageous or disadvantageous for the community as a whole.
Marsilius then embarks upon the analysis of the source of law and process of enactment. In his opinion, the legislator is the cause of law. The legislator, or the primary and proper efficient cause of the law, is the people or whole body of citizens, or the weightier part thereof, through its election or will expressed by the general assembly of the citizens. It implies that the law is the result of the corporate action of people or the whole body of citizens or its weightier part.
When all the citizens assemble together and enact law, it is obvious that Marsilius speaks of direct democracy. But his term ‘weightier part’ is really confusing. He, however, defines it in the following way.
It means the quantity and the quality of persons in that community over which the law is made. It may not always be possible that all the citizens at a particular time will be able to meet together to make a law.
In that situation, only the weightier part (to some it is the prevailing part) will participate in the enactment of law. This is the working solution of Marsilius of any probable deadlock.
The subsequent analysis of Marsilius makes it amply clear that for a better law it is necessary that all the citizens should participate in its enactment.
The authority to make the law, says Marsilius, belongs only to those men whose making of it will cause the law to be better observed. Only the whole bodies of citizens are such men. Since the whole body of citizens, by giving consent, makes a law valid, it also creates a legal authority.
Marsilio’s conception of law and government lays the foundation of popular sovereignty. Law will be valid when it receives the consent of the people. His emphasis on weightier part of the state does not negate the idea of popular sovereignty.
The will of the whole body of citizens will, under all circumstances, get priority and this makes the popular sovereignty complete. Marsilio’s idea of popular or democratic sovereignty has good deal of impact upon the thought system of the nineteenth and twentieth century’s.
His theory of the accountability of the ruler to the general public also highlights the idea of popular sovereignty. The ruler is susceptible to mistakes and misdeeds and these must be corrected, otherwise he will be a despot. But the question is who will rectify the authority? Here Marsilio’s suggestion is the legislator, that is, the whole body of citizens will bring the ruler to order.
The legislator will have the power to correct the government or to change it completely. It may so happen that the whole body of citizens may not be in a position to exercise its power and, in that situation, this body will delegate its authority to some other persons.
Whatever may be the situation the legislator reserves the right to call for explanation from the authority to correct it. Here we find that, in Marsilius’s thought system, the legislator plays a vital role. In fact, the legislator’s activities and alertness make the sovereignty popular.
The purpose of enunciating the doctrine of popular sovereignty was to cut the wings of church. It had also another purpose—to destroy the possibility of class rule. He had declared quite explicitly against any class government.
Marsilius wrote Defensor Pads in the fourteenth century and in his time there were gross economic and other forms of inequalities. Apprehending class rule he made a strong brief for the sovereignty of all people or at least for the weightier part. He thought that the weightier part would be the numerically majority.
4. Church and State:
In the realisation of tranquillitas the role of the government is to coordinate the activities of different classes of society and particularly the functions of the church with those of the rest of the society.
Marsilio is not sure of the functions of the church or the priest. There is no evident necessity of the priest. Yet in all societies religion and ecclesiastical organizations are to be found. Although law checks the nefarious activities of man, yet its uniform application is not possible.
Even law cannot reach everywhere. In this situation the true function of the priest, according to Marsilius, is to supplement the action of the police and the judge by the fear of hell.
The fear of hell prevents men from doing unlawful and perverse activities harmful for society. The Christian revelation assertively says that there is a future life, and the wellbeing of that life depends on the scrupulous adherence to those principles and revelations propagated by the church. The priests are, therefore, necessary parts of human salvation. There is, therefore, a necessity of the church.
Regarding the church the most important function of temporal power is to recognize and maintain it. Beyond this the temporal authority has nothing to do with the church. It means that the emperor cannot interfere with the ecclesiastical activities of the church.
On the contrary, the activities of the priest will have reference to the welfare of the other world. The priest has no possible claim to interfere with the cooperative effort to secure earthly ends.
His function is, simply, to give instruction in the requisites of salvation, to exhort and to warn and to administer sacraments. The ecclesiastical organisation has no reason to interfere with the activities of the state. Marsilius does not recognise the special status of the Pope. He simply mentions the priest.
In Marsilio’s opinion the church, as such, has no rightful or rational claim to any kind of coercive jurisdiction. The clergy have no rightful claim to any kind of immunity from or independence of secular jurisdiction. Neither Pope nor clergy have any right to govern or even to speak for the church.
The clergy have no rightful title to property. As to the coercive jurisdiction, Marsilio’s view is very bold and simple. He has deprived the church the power to pass judgment on heresy. The heretics will be punished by the proper authority in the other world on the Day of Judgment.
Again, if the heretics violate the civil law they are to be first of all punished by the civil authority according to the prevailing civil law. On the next stage, his judgment will be conducted by God.
Marsilio’s courageous assertion provides the greatest assault upon the church and its authority in the so-called religious atmosphere of the Middle Ages. He treats the church as part of the civil authority and, naturally, it comes within the jurisdiction of civil laws. It cannot claim any special treatment.
Any violation of secular law by the priest is to be judged by the judicial department of the government. In this way Marsilio has reduced the church as a simple department of the secular government. Marsilius painfully observed that instead of devoting to spiritual functions, the church was engaged in amassing property and wealth for the attainment of material and earthly comforts—and this was anti-Christianity.
The amount of church property is required to be decided by the necessities of the priests. Naturally, there is no scope of accumulating property.
Marsilius also takes away from the hands of the priests, to teach and discipline the public. For this purpose the church should set up organizations and institutions as well as religious organizations. He is of opinion that this function is to be performed by the secular government.
The civil authority will decide who will be given this function. In support of his contention Marsilius has recalled the scriptures. Christ himself was against any property and secular rule.
Marsilio did not recognize the hierarchical structure of the church. He observes that the Pope, bishop and all other church personnel are of the same rank. So the spiritual quality and qualification of any Pope or priest is not different from that of an ordinary churchman. The priestly character of the Pope or the priest which authorizes him to perform certain rites of religion is purely a mystical stigma. By advocating spiritual equality he has denied the special status of the priests arid the Pope.
As to religious faith and doctrine, Marsilius believes that the divine scriptures are to be followed sincerely. Nobody has given the Pope the right of interpretation. People will judge scriptures according to their own belief, faith and wisdom.
If any inconsistency arises in interpretations of scriptures a general council of believers is to be formed for this purpose and this council will be authorized to settle all disputes. Ebenstein says (p. 267) Marsilio’s insistence on the return to the scriptures as the sole source of religious faith and divine law, his ruthless demolition of the edifice of dogma and the power which built up the church over centuries of institutional growth, is one of the winds that finally gathers in the hurricane of the Protestant Reformation.
Commenting on Marsilio’s tirade against the church, Sabine observes— “His theory is a root and branch attack upon the ecclesiastical hierarchy and especially upon a papal plentitudo potestatis, but he recognized that, even for spiritual purposes and to resolve spiritual questions, the church requires some organisation distinct from the civil community”.
Although Marsilius was against the supremacy of the church, it cannot be said that he was against any organisation or authority of the church as such. On the polemical spiritual issues and other ecclesiastical matters and faith the church will have the authority to deal with them.
The Church cannot be allowed to exercise uncalled authority and absolute power. However, by suggesting the establishment of a council, he cut the wings of church.
His General Council may rightly be compared with the executive organ of a government. He transfers to the church and, more particularly, to the General Council, an element of his political theory.
Analyzing from this angle, Marsilio’s whole idea of church-state relation may be called a patchwork, a compromise. Being a scholar and philosopher of the Middle Ages he did not try to keep himself above all sorts of religious beliefs, faiths and dogmas.
He wanted to cut the church to size. Marsilio’s citizens possessed two capacities—as citizens of the state and members of the church.
Today we are accustomed to treat the state as essentially a secular association. Marsilio’s state did not fall in that category. Sabine says that he did not affect a complete divorce between the state and the church. The state was mixed with certain religious elements and the church with certain political elements.
It was a patchwork. “It is true that his theory as a whole is something of a compromise. His citizens still appear as members of two corporations, the state and the church.” But he has divested the church of its overwhelming authority over the secular organ of the state. This is really a bold step of Marsilio and no other medieval thinker ventured to adopt such a step.
His secular authority is not empowered to perform religious duties, but the church will discharge its functions simply as a department of the state. It implies that the civil matters of the church will come under the jurisdiction of the state.
In this sense his state may aptly be compared with city-state. It is competent, says Sabine, to regulate every branch of its civilisation.