14.10.02, Syros, Marsilius of Padua

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Thomas Izbicki

The Medieval Review 14.10.02

Syros, Vasileios. Marsilius of Padua at the Intersection of Ancient and Medieval Traditions of Political Thought. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2012. Pp. 320. ISBN: 9781442641440 (hardback) 9781442663886 (ebook).

Reviewed by:
Thomas Izbicki
Rutgers University

Marsilius of Padua has, since the sixteenth century, been regarded as an Aristotelean. Vasileios Syros has, in his publications on Marsilius, argued that the Paduan was more eclectic. This volume expands the argument in English, previously presented in German, to book-length treatment. [1] The focus, inevitably, is on Dictio I of the Defensor pacis, Marsilius' most famous work. Syros demonstrates the author's knowledge of other texts, including medieval interpreters of Aristotle, medical texts and non-Christian writings. One of the most interesting authors the Paduan drew upon was the Jewish thinker Moses Maimonides. Others include "pre-humanist" figures from Padua, including Albertino Mussato, and physicians like Peter of Abano. Not important, however, was John of Jandun, the Averroist often credited with a role in writing the Defensor. Their ideas differed too much.

The argument in Syros' book expands well beyond sources, however, to show how Marsilius differed from the Philosopher in his ideas about society's nature and purposes. This question receives a full chapter (Chapter 2). So too do the ideas of Marsilius on law (Chapter 4) and his theory of government (Chapter 3). Marsilius' ideas on the origins and purposes of society receive the most detailed treatment. Aristotle and Marsilius both thought in teleological terms, but the Paduan's ideas were based on several sources. He drew on Augustine and Cicero, as well as looking to the Philosopher for inspiration. Aristotle looked to higher ends, but Marsilius was concerned with more concrete needs like nourishment and safety. Aristotle saw the family as the first community, providing necessities locally; but Marsilius saw society as diverse, providing needed goods by specialization. Thus the community had to be larger than the individual household. However, diversity brought opportunities for strife; and civil society was supposed to provide the tranquility most of its members desired.

How this community came into existence was another important matter for Marsilius. He did not think this the work of the hero-founder as Aristotle did. Marsilius emphasized common agreement, not just the acts of one hero; and this left room for rhetoric, for political persuasion. The governing part of society served to moderate excesses when persuasion failed, allowing room for the coercion of those who upset tranquility. In this case, Marsilius did depend on Aristotle, both of them emphasizing moderation. The "sacerdotal" part of society existed, in this context, to promote good conduct, even through myths of punishment after death. This moderation extended to political conduct, the conduct of all citizens, including the crowd (vulgus). All of them had a chance to participate in a harmonious society, sharing in the common wisdom of the whole body politic. (Bodily metaphors came naturally to Marsilius, a trained physician.)

Marsilius believed that law, derived from political prudence, was essential to an orderly society. Myths were used here too, he said, to promote respect for the laws; however, laws really arose from shared prudence. The legislator humanus originated these laws and maintained them. The imposition of laws required a judge or judges to administer justice and help maintain order, even though some judges might fail in integrity or knowledge. Marsilius had little interested in distributive justice, allocating goods within a society. His focus was on commutative or corrective justice, providing remedies for the problems arising in a society.

Marsilius is best known for his ideas about government, putting all power into the hands of the laity, especially the legislator humanus or at least its valentior pars. One of the most controversial terms in the Defensor is valentior pars, whether that means the majority or some privileged portion of the whole. Syros opts for the majoritarian interpretation, which works most simply with the Paduan's emphasis on shared prudence. Marsilius considered the nature of monarchy in its various manifestations, but he preferred a larger polity made up of all citizens, a living political organism. Here he contrasts vividly with the monarchic tendencies of most Scholastic theologians. The legislator humanus, a lay organism, created regimes but retained ultimate power. The priesthood was to support the regime, not exercise coercive power or command obedience. There was no room here for papal temporal power.

For readers interested in pursuing this argument further, Syros provides in an appendix a concordance of this book to his previous work on Marsilius in German. There are two points on which the reviewer would like to see further work. This book, like its predecessor, focuses on Dictio I. This makes the book seem like an inquiry into pure political theory except for a passing reference to Marsilius' critique of papal coercive power. (More attention is paid to the internal divisions of the city of Padua.) An expanded inquiry, making more use of Dictio II, which is more theological, would provide a more rounded picture of the Paduan as polemicist and theoretician of lay temporal power. Syros also makes references to later thinkers, especially to Paolo Sarpi, the chief defender of Venice in the Interdict Crisis of 1606-1607. Did Marsilius only foreshadow them, or did they know his thought? This intriguing question truly needs to be pursued. If Sarpi did indeed consult the Defensor, the Italian critique of the papacy would have a clearer lineage.



1. Vasileios Syros, Die Rezeption der aristotelischen politischen Philosophie bei Marsilius von Padua: Eine Untersuchung zur ersten Diktion (Leiden: Brill, 2007).

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Thomas Izbicki

Rutgers University