Marsilius and William of Ockam

In the third part of his Dialogues, William of Ockam briefly dealt with Marsilius of Padua’s theory of conciliar infallibility. By contrast, none of the contemporary papal responses to the Defensor pacis discussed the Marsilius anti-papal conciliar program.

Marsilius of Padua

The greatest and most original political treatise of the Middle Ages was the work of Marsilius of Padua (1270-1340). Marsilius trained in medicine was made rector of the University of Paris, where William of Ockam, the famous English Franciscan and the leader of the new Nationalist movement, held undisputed mental sway.

Each no doubt influenced the ideas of the other; both went beyond the limits of speculation permitted by the university; and both were excommunicated and joined the group of Franciscans who gathered around the enlightened but feeble German emperor Lewis of Bavaria.

Neither Marsilius nor Ockam was impressed with the imperial idea, but both desired to establish the state as a consolidated authority, independent of and in its sphere superior to that of the church. Marsilius, indeed suggested that peoples with separate languages should form separate states and that wars among states were a wise provision of nature. Internal peace was what he desired.

The first book of Marsilius’s work was devoted to a discussion of the principles of the state; the second to an examination of the origin and growth of the church, its organization under the papal system, and its relation to the civil authority; the third was a summary of conclusions. Terms were carefully defined and Aristotelian formulas were frequently used.

The State was viewed as a living organism, intended to secure to men guarantees of order and free development of capacity, leading to general welfare. The right of the state to a life independent of any outside control was the basic principle in Marsilius’s thought.

Marsilius stated far-reaching principles concerning the popular basis of government in state and church, and the subordination of church to state, Influenced by the Greek concepts of democracy and by the Roman doctrine of popular sovereignty, he held that the aim of the state is the welfare of its people, that the essence of the state is in the making of law, that the source of law is in the whole body of citizens, and that the administration of government should be in the hands of persons chosen by the people and responsible to them. He taught that the people should have the right to punish their rulers for exceeding their authority or for disobeying the law, and should even be able to depose them if necessary.

He made a clear distinction between the ultimate source of sovereignty in the state, which he located in the people, and the form of government chosen to execute the laws. For this purpose, he decided that perhaps an elective monarch was best. The duty of the king, however, was to interpret and apply the law, not to make it; and the royal power was limited in all directions.

Marsilius believed that the church should also be organized on a democratic basis, with final authority residing in a general church council, which should include secular as well as ecclesiastical delegates. The pope should be chosen by the people as represented in the council, and this body should also have the right to depose the pope. The church, moreover, should limit its activities to purely spiritual affairs; and the power to convoke the church council and to enforce even spiritual penalties should rest with the political authority.

The clergy, as members of the state, should be treated in the same way as other citizens and should have no exemption from political obedience because of their religious character. Marsilius placed the pope on a plane of equality with other bishops, except for a certain preeminence in dignity, and reduced the ecclesiastical organization to a humble position in the state.

Like Dante, Marsilius lamented the turbulence and lawlessness of the times and supported the emperor because of the necessity for order and security. He believed that the immunity of the clergy and the paramount claims of the papacy were the chief factors that prevented peace and good government. He also attacked the corrupting influence of wealth and upheld the Franciscan friars in their doctrine of poverty.

Aside from these medieval touches, the point of view of Marsilius was distinctly modern. In his theory of political and ecclesiastical organization, he brought forward in the fourteenth-century ideas that were not generally accepted until the Protestant Reformation in the sixteenth and the political revolutions in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. The significance both of the Reformation in substituting the congregation of believers or the hierarchy of clergy and the later political revolutions recognizing the people as the source of sovereign power in the state was clearly stated.

William of Ockham

William of Ockham (1280-1347) though influenced by the political ideas of Marsilius, remained primarily a scholastic theologian. He discussed the nature of secular and ecclesiastical power in the form of questions and dialogues in which both sides of the controversy were stated and subtly analyzed.

This enabled him to raise questions and throw out suggestions without formulating answers, and makes it difficult for the modern reader to get a clear idea of his theory Ockam’s writings, rowing out of his active resistance to the pope, maintain, more than those of Marsilius, the orderly sequence and method of medieval thought.

While Marsilius was confident of the wisdom and justice of the people of Christendom as the final authority in matters secular and ecclesiastical, Ockam was less confident of this point. He was inclined to believe that no human institution is absolute and final; and he was more disposed to emphasize the law of nature, from which neither pope nor emperor could be exempt.

He was less impressed with the idea of a universal empire, and he suggested that it might be better to have several popes and several sovereigns. His English birth and French training no doubt made the idea of a universal empire seem less real and Jess desirable than it was to the Italian Marsilius.

In placing limitations upon the emperor’s power, Ockam held that the emperor is bound to conform to the laws common to all nations, and therein he presented conceptions that appeared later in the growth of international law.

Both Marsilius and Ockam denied the absolute nature of sovereign power, viewing it as distinctly limited by considerations of justice and expediency. In dealing with political organization, Marsilius was influenced by the Greek idea that the people must either act directly or make a general delegation of their power.

In outlining a plan of organization for the church council, however, he suggested a system of representation, in which each province should have delegates according to the number and quality of its inhabitants. Ockam worked out this idea of a general representative church council in more detail.

For a century the ideas of Marsilius and Ockam concerning the location of authority and the system of representation in the church were subject to violent debate in the ecclesiastical world. They were incorporated by the jurists into the civil and canon law, and their application to issues of purely political significance gained great importance.

During the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, liberal ideas thrived best in France. The great French poem, the Roman de la Rose, introduced ideas of a state of nature in which men lived in freedom and equality, without property and fear or strife.

In the reign of Charles VI, the king’s chancellor stated to the people that monarchs rule by popular consent and that royal splendor flows from the sweat of the subjects. The ideas of Marsilius and Ockam were vigorously stated, for French rather than for imperial ends, in the French dialogue, modeled on the Dialogue of Ockam, known as the Songe du Verger.

Ideas of popular sovereignty, handed down from Greek and Roman times and strengthened by Christianity, never entirely disappeared. Traces of the doctrine of freedom and equality under the absolute law of nature survived. The clergy frequently supported the belief that kings derived their power from the people since a theory of monarchy limited by popular control helped to support a theory of monarchy limited by the church.

The growth of the church hierarchy and the establishment of feudalism, however, crushed freedom of thought and divided society into sharply separated classes. Custom and tradition prevented individualism, and men occupied a fixed status. Not until the Renaissance and Reformation made men self-conscious individuals could they become free.

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