Underappreciated Philosophers: Marsilius of Padua

Sometimes, the cool people don’t get the attention they deserve. Marsilius is definitely one of these people.

Now, long-term readers have probably noticed me throwing this  name around quite a bit, usually as an example of a really brilliant philosopher who fits nobody’s tradition. I’ll probably keep doing this, of course, but it’s long past time for me to explain why he’s so awesome.

Granted, part of it’s personal—reading Marsilius, not Thomas Aquinas, is what made me go off and study medieval philosophy*—but there’s something very awesome about being the first person to come up with what amounts to a Hobbesian social contract theory 225-odd years before Leviathan was written. In reading Defensor Pacis, one gets the feeling that we’re already in modernity, that the divine right of the princes of this world has ended, and that we’re one good “here I stand, I can do no other” from bringing about the Reformation 200 years early—but this time, with Imperial backing, a weak Papacy in Avignon, no love for John XXII in Italy, and some of the most brilliant minds that ever lived, especially William of Ockham, arguing against the Pope. Rather than a dull and lifeless scholasticism with its buzzwords, formulae, and catchphrases, Marsilius advances arguments nobody with any respect for tradition, much less Tradition, would dare make, a spirited polemic against the “pernicious plague of Roman bishops, so profoundly inimical to all human calm and happiness” that even Luther might just enjoy.

Okay, specific philosophical points. For starters, there’s the idea that civil society arises when, in order to prevent a state of war, chaos, and barbarism, individuals, families, and clans submit to the authority of a single sovereign. Granted, Marsilius glances over this in three pages, while Hobbes spends several chapters on it, but still—frikkin’ Hobbes, man! There’s the idea for which he’s best known, that all power comes from the consent and election of the governed—but, again, a rather Hobbesian version. It’s not so much that the Marsilian emperor acts as an adjudicator of rules protecting individual rights and liberties as, say, one who exercises all power granted to him by those who chose him. He’s not a leader of one of Locke or Rousseau’s parliaments, but rather the sovereign of the Leviathan, chosen to exercise all power in order to prevent a state of war and defend the peace.

And then there’s all the pope stuff. I can go on for pages about this—and, for my senior thesis, did—but this is where the really cool church/state stuff shows up. If the Emperor wields all power, then where does the Pope get his from? The Emperor. Who picks the Pope? Ditto. Who can ignore, replace, or excommunicate a troublesome pope like John XXII who goes around disturbing the peace and claiming supreme temporal power in Europe, even in the Holy Roman Empire? I think that one’s pretty obvious.

There’s also that bit about the bishop of Rome being the successor of St. Paul, not St. Peter, but that’s not only a long story, but also one that even Ockham found a tad excessive.

What comes out during Marsilius’s writings on papal and church authority is how very little power the pope really has. Rome is just a city with a lot of churchmen running around—it’s mostly because it’s convenient that we keep its headquarters there. The pope is just a respected bishop, a simple spiritual leader, but not an arbiter of church authority, and certainly not a secular monarch. Since all matters of scriptural interpretation and theological dogma are referred to councils of all the faithful—a sort of general synod, convention, or assembly, it sounds like, something common in contemporary Protestantism—there really doesn’t seem to be much point to having a Pope, now does there?

Like I said. One good “here I stand” would have changed everything—and Marsilius clearly points the way. It may be two hundred years until anyone can actually do “no other,” but the roots of the Reformation are present in The Defender of the Peace.

*In case you can’t tell, this is really, really rare. Everyone who does medieval philosophy got into it because of encounters with Thomas. They may have done something completely different first before finding their way to Aquinas, but the Fat Italian is what sucks them in. Me? I remember my first time reading Tom, and my reaction—”that’s it? This is the great Aquinas, the Reconciler of Faith and Reason? Not Impressed.” The next week, we read Marsilius, and, well…
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2 thoughts on “Underappreciated Philosophers: Marsilius of Padua

  1. Ok, I’ve been meaning to check this guy out ever since you mentioned him awhile back, but now I really want to. Sounds awesome. Always been a big Hobbes fan (and Luther, for that matter) so it will be fun to read a predecessor of theirs. Also, his arguments about papal power remind me of the Norman Anonymous, which I love.

  2. I’ve never read the Norman Anonymous, and now I think I probably should.
    I should also mention that the standard Cambridge translation of Defensor Pacis also manages to sound a bit like Hobbes. I’m hoping that’s intentional.

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