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22.01.02 Heinen/Ubl (eds.), William of Ockham, Dialogus, part 3, tract 2

22.01.02 Heinen/Ubl (eds.), William of Ockham, Dialogus, part 3, tract 2

In this well-edited volume, we find a critical edition of the second tract of part 3 of Ockham’sDialogus. As the editors point out, the Dialogus is incomplete when it is viewed as whole; the segment that Ockham intended to write on the history of the Franciscan order and its relationship to the Papacy was apparently never written (xi). The segment of the work presented in the volume here is also defective, breaking off in mid-sentence even in the witnesses that carry the most complete version of the text (327). Despite the complexities of a manuscript tradition that involves three different sources of ultimate transmission, the editors have done an admirable job in describing the historical situation of the text, justifying their choice of witnesses to follow, and following the principles to which they commit.

The text of the Dialogus comes down to us in 18 manuscripts and three early printings (1476, Paris; 1494, Lyons; and 1614, Frankfurt). The separative accident of ceasing to display text and thus having an incomplete text is what primarily divides the extant witnesses into three major families: the first group, labeled the Alpha family, stops some 34 pages short of the most complete version of the text; the second group, labeled the Mu family, stops a mere 4 pages short of the term of the text; and the third group, labeled Omega, ends abruptly, but has as much of the text as is available.

The editors spend some time trying to account for the phenomenon of the three different models generating texts of varying lengths. As they remark, “The existence of three different endings is open to different interpretations” (xix). Their tone and critical observations suggest that the commonplace explanations for such defects, namely, the loss of quire(s) or the failing energy of the scribes of the apographs involved, are not plausible, for quires missing or energies flagging would have to have occurred twice to account for Alpha and Mu. Their suggestion as a more likely alternative is that copies were made from Ockham’s text when he was still working on the text. Yet they find this explanation also wanting; they argue that it is not likely Ockham twice allowed the text to be copied when he was still working on it, especially when in both instances the actual ending of the version then available ended, as it ultimately did even in the most complete version, in mid-sentence. Another alternative, namely that Ockham redacted the text and is the source of the three different versions, is also rejected since even in the ultimate version, Omega, there are plenty of unfinished elements in the text. As a result, the editors do not advance any satisfactory explanation of the three models. A further suggestion, however, might be added. Medieval authors often could not control the transmission of their texts; this was especially true in the context of medieval friars whose tendencies were to acquire books when they were available, whatever the state of the text or the predilections of the author. Perhaps the second alternative needs reconsideration without the assumption that Ockham controlled access to his working text, for he probably worked in the Munich friary wherein visiting friars may have copied the text as it was then written.

The editors present a lengthy and rich discussion of the various witnesses within each of the family groupings, reviewing the salient features that cause the witnesses to be classified into subgroups. One of the remarkable findings in this section (xix-lxiv) is that the most widespread version of the text as transmitted is the Alpha version, and it is also the version that was available in Paris at the earliest period at which the text can be traced. This finding has its correlative as well: the Omega version is extant in only two manuscripts and its text was not known in Paris. Furthermore, the Omega version is overall the best version of the text: it is both the most complete and most free from errors.

The dating and the text’s reception are curious matters. The Dialogus was clearly produced in stages: some parts may have been written as early as 1338, whereas Professor Jürgen Miethke maintains now that the portion edited in the present volume should be dated 1341 and 1346. In any event, the reception of the work in Paris, connected to the advent of the Great Schism and the enthusiasm on the part of Pierre d’Ailly for having Ockham’s political thought brought to bear on contemporary issues, dates from the 1370s, some 30 years after the death of the author. The scholarship down to the present edition, moreover, is based on the printings of the work, each of which derive mainly from the Alpha text. As a result, the editors have wisely decided to print the second incunable’s variants in the apparatus criticus so as to accommodate the needs of researchers in detecting the influence of the printed text on scholarship.

Other conventions such as spelling and the language of the apparatus, both criticus and fontium, are perhaps more questionable. The text is given in the so-called medieval spelling, i.e., the spelling that is used by the Leonine editors of Aquinas’s works and now regularly employed in editions of medieval texts. As R. James Long pointed out, however, in a brilliant, albeit brief, article, [1] fidelity to the manuscripts cannot be a justification for such “medieval spelling” inasmuch as the manuscripts exhibit many more spelling variations than the “medieval spelling” allows. Furthermore, as Long also pointed out, the reader who knows Latin but does not have manuscript training is inconvenienced at the very least. The editors should have considered normalizing the spelling according to the classical model, a form of spelling known to nearly all contemporary readers of the Latin language. The decision to render all the notes of the apparatus fontium and some in the apparatus criticus into English is without discussion or rationale. The mix of languages in the latter can be annoying, while those used to reading notes in the apparatus fontium--and for that matter explanatory notes--in the Latin language are going to lament that another long-standing convention of scholarship is being set aside.

Yet the general appearance, punctuation, and paragraphing of the volume are quite good. Indeed, in terms of layout, all that might be added is either a general index at the back of the volume listing the chapters and their themes or one before the outset of the text doing the same. The indices of quotations are quite complete, listing Biblical, canonical and Roman law, papal bulls, other medieval and classical authors, as well as other writings of Ockham.

The overarching theme of Dialogus tract 3 part 2 is imperial power. This portion of the work, which Ockham refers to here as the praesens tractatus, is designed to treat five subjects in five corresponding books: whether it is better to have the emperor rule over the whole population of the world and whether the “imperium” can be rendered null and void, divided or transferred (book I); what rights the Roman emperor has over temporal things (book II); whether the emperor has rights over spiritual things (book III); whether the emperor is bound to defend the rights of the emperor/imperial rule against the leaders of the Church (Pope, cardinals, etc.) and if the latter infringe those rights to do so by force of arms if necessary (book IV); determining the relationship between the imperial power rebels, usurpers, and traitors (book V).

As matters turn out, Ockham’s presentation of the books ends at book III, chapter 22 in the middle of a sentence. But the portion of the work that is extant both confirms views that Ockham expresses elsewhere (e.g., in his Eight Questions on the Power of the Pope) and delves into the distinction between temporal secular power and spiritual authority and power by denying that the Pope has any proper role in the temporal sphere to institute or transfer the imperial rule. As the Master puts the argument to the Disciple in the 24th chapter of book I:

The answer is that the Pope is the Head of the Church, which is the congregation of the faithful and for that reason in spiritual matters the Emperor is under the Pope and so too he ought to receive direction and some spiritual power from the Pope. But because the Pope is not the Head in temporal matters, the Emperor in temporal matters is not subject to the Pope and does not receive the Empire from the Pope. [2]

Such a surprisingly “modern” division of secular and sacred powers is also seen in the discussion of the most desirable form of temporal power. Many alternatives are considered in discussing temporal power’s possible arrangements: a single ruler of a single regime that has lordship over the whole world; rule by a group of rulers in different realms each exercising their own rule; many rulers under many different forms of governance and even some communities in which rule varies from one form of governance to another over time; and the possibility of an ecclesiastical ruler, rather than a secular ruler, being in charge. At the outset of a long discussion of these alternatives, Ockham clearly indicates his preference for a single ruler, e.g., the Emperor, in a single ultimate form of governance, e.g., the Empire. But what is striking is his rationale: unless such a state of affairs is reached, there can be no reasonable expectation for putting to an end conflict, strife, and ultimately war. [3] Such reasoning should put readers in mind of Immanuel Kant’s account of history and his efforts to sketch out a condition in which perpetual peace would be possible. [4] Yet Ockham’s account is not developed against the background of the distinction between nature and freedom that Kant’s is and does not expect the culmination in a world federated state to be inevitable, as Kant does on grounds largely taken from Hobbes. [5] Rather, for Ockham, the prospect of such a general regime is attractive and best, while whether humans will actually choose that regime is undetermined.

The volume of Dialogus 3.2 is truly worthwhile not only for historians of medieval political thought and politics, but for philosophers and those studying religion and theology. We have the thought of one of the greatest medieval philosophers on pressing issues of practical politics in his day, arguing that there is a lesson to be taken from that often unfortunate history and politics, a lesson that could advance the well-being of mankind.



1. R. James Long, “Scholastic Texts and Orthography: A Response to Roland Hisette,” Bulletin de Philosophie Médiévale 41 (1999), 149-151.

2. “Respondetur quod papa est caput ecclesiae que est congregatio fidelium. Et ideo in spiritualibus imperator subest pape. Et ideo aliquam direccionem et virtutem spiritualem recipere debet a papa. Sed quia papa non est caput in temporalibus, ideo imperator in temporalibus non subest ei nec imperium recipere debet ab ipso.” Dialogus, 3.2, liber I cap. 25, ed. Heinen-Ubl, 102. (My translation).

3. Dialogus, 3.2, liber I cap. 1, ed. Heinen-Ubl, 17.

4. Immanuel Kant, Perpetual Peace and Other Essays, tr. Ted Humphrey (Indianapolis/Cambridge: Hackett Publishing Inc., 1983, Idea for a Universal History with a Cosmopolitan Intent (1784), 17-31.

5. See Emil L. Fackenheim, “Kant’s Concept of History,” in Emil L. Fackenheim, The God within: Kant, Schelling, and Historicity, ed. John Burbidge (Toronto: University of Toronto Press,1996), 34-49.