Follow by Email

Tuesday, 19 September 2017

Original Sin and Late Medieval Political Thought #2


Hello, all. I will be posting over the next few weeks the results of my 2017 undergraduate thesis. The work focused on the relationship between the Christian concept of Original Sin and its relationship to political theory from the 13th to 16th centuries. My principal argument is that Original Sin plays both a conscious and sub-conscious role in the political thought of the middle ages, and re-enforced a natural understanding of human limitations in the political sphere serving as a natural inoculation against utopian thinking and high ideals that would emerge in more secularize thought.  Furthermore, Original Sin as a political concept played an important role in defining the limitations of peace as a concept and as a pragmatic ideal in medieval thought. If you see any issues with the arguments presented please bring them up to me in the comments as I I know the effort was sophomoric, and I could always use feedback. 

Likewise, my apologies in advance for its limited scope and lack of Nicholas of Cusa as a prominent example of the concepts focused upon. Sadly, this was a single semester project, and both Cusa as well as Richard Hooker, and King James I/VI. If you can forgive this oversight I feel you might have a genuinely enjoyable read on your hands.  

--Cole 
These same patterns [as found in Thomas Aquinas] begin to emerge as one considers the contributions of Marsilius of Padua in his book the Defender of the Peace and Dante Alighieri’s treatise De Monarchia. Both authors place a premium on two objects: virtue and Law. Both virtue and law accord with the search for peace and its manifestation in the political realm. One acts to cultivate man and align his will with the common good, and the other compels man and limits him because of the vicissitudes of his nature.  This relationship is further complicated by Historian Quinten Skinner who postulated that both men, as theorists, dissociated “philosophy and theology” as well as “nature and grace.”[i] This is a consequence of their antipathy toward the papacy, and places them not only direct opposition to Aquinas but allows for the authors to propose that mankind has additional ends outside of beatitude in God. Instead, man can engage in politics independent of faith for the purposes of securing peace and tranquility.

The argument Dante makes for peace begins with first an observation of man's two ends divine and earthly, corruptible and incorruptible. The two goals are earthly happiness and happiness in eternity each requiring its own respective leader and attained through specific virtues. The temporal goal is reached through cardinal virtues, and the eternal goal is reached through faith and the theological virtues.[ii] The path to the earthly end then begins with his assertion that the end of man resides in the potential actualization of the highest human activity. This activity by virtue of both nature, man’s naturally social character, and proximity to God is the social use of human reason.[iii] For this world of fulfilled intellectual potential, the reaching of this telos, universal peace is the ultimate means and precondition.[iv] For he does not conceive of anything less than a universal state “hence it is clear that universal peace is the best of those things which are ordained for our human happiness.”[v] Universal peace can enable man to maximize this faculty firstly because reason resides in the community; therefore, the potential for reason is greater in a greater community both in terms of unity and size. Secondly, unity is a quality of God and things united toward their ends by reference to the greater from the lesser are most like the character of God.[vi] 

To fulfil these demands Dante then exalts the men of the classical world and focuses on the absence of virtue in his contemporary man as a key failing in politics. It is implicit from the start that he believes that the nature of man is not only flexible, but flawed as he notes that it is imperative that “higher natur[ed]” men leave behind a legacy to posterity.[vii] If there is a higher nature there must be a lower and in this sense his contending with those who lack adequate virtue and jeopardize peace. Man is prone to dispute in his discourse; in order to rectify these continuing conflicts the proposition is that men naturally designated leaders of exceptional virtue to arbitrate between them.[viii] This is evident even in the narrowest society: the household where fathers take on this prerogative for the benefit of the family.[ix] The monarch, who is the solution to universal peace, illuminates the conundrum of human nature, for human beings including the monarch, are appetitive, and the will can be motivated and twisted by its desires. As a solution, the monarch is proposed to be not only highest in rule but provided with the greatest wealth and abundance of resources so he may covet nothing further.[x] Dante does not solve the problem of nature through character, though his ideal monarch has a virtuous character but rather by inundating the desires with commodities to satiate them. Unity with the will of God and the proper order of the universe cannot be achieved in one man, even if he is the monarch, but the unity could be found in a return to right if the people of the world place their trust in the proper authority: The Holy Roman Empire.

This groundwork for this conclusion is laid out in book two and confirmed in book three. These previously abstract considerations of the nature of man receive greater illumination in two arguments made by Dante. First, that politics only became necessary after the fall of man.[xi] This is briefly considered when arguing against the apologists for the pope's authority over the secular world.[xii] Furthermore, this argument is buttressed by the claim that, any error in the world, any flaw in “earthly things are flaws do to the material they are constituted.”[xiii] Secondly, that man showed himself to be flawed when he deviated from “true and pure right”[xiv] by renouncing the authority of the Roman Empire, the first universal monarchy, which has now in his contemporary time been divided schismatically between the Papacy and the Holy Roman Empire.[xv] To assert this position first it must be demonstrated that the secular power can receive its authority directly from God. Dante does so by drawing on Virgil and Livy to demonstrate God’s favour toward the Roman emperor as universal monarch.[xvi] God’s will is directly evident in history through both the success of the Roman Empire and the incarnation. God willed the success of the Romans because they were the noblest people, at the end of a great chain of other empires whom they beat in a divinely judged contest between them. Each empire rose and fell in time, from east to west leading to a summation in Rome.[xvii] True confirmation of the approbation of God then is found in the incarnation and the events proceeding from scripture. For Christ chose Roman territory as the land of his birth and because Christ was born under the Roman law, God conferred his favour to Roman law.[xviii] In addition, the Roman law and empire preceded the incarnation indicating that the authority of Rome did not need the sanction of the Catholic Church and operated completely independently of the Church.[xix] To bring the argument into 14th century Europe Dante asserts the transmutation of the Roman prerogative to the Holy Roman Empire that serves as the inheritor of the Roman tradition. This is made evident by references both to the Donation of Constantine, and the crowning of Charlemagne and Otto the Great.[xx] The restoration of the emperor and empire with the relegation of the Church to its spiritual duties becomes the method to restore man's nature to righteousness by realigning it to the will of God in history.[xxi] This, to Dante, would have the further consequence of achieving man’s earthly end by establishing universal peace as the only means to absolutely fulfil man’s teleological potential.

Dante then exists in a tension with Aquinas, his predecessor. There are distinctions and continuities between the two. Both work within a scholastic framework and draw heavily on the works of Aristotle, but differences are immediately obvious both in relation to peace and the relation of the secular and spiritual powers. Aquinas remained vague on the question of the superiority of the spiritual and temporal powers, he subscribed to the theory of two swords, both in possession of the church in a literal sense, and openly called the church the higher power in relation to the temporal power.[xxii] Meanwhile, he does not explicitly state that the church may command the secular power, rather “the temporal sword should be unsheathed at the church’s bidding.”[xxiii] This statement leaves open a voluntary subordinate relationship which Dante rejected. Instead, he proposed that the Pope caused discord through his usurpation of the authority of the temporal ruler while remaining convinced that historical precedent reinforced the claim that the spiritual and temporal powers received their ends independently of one another and equally from God.[xxiv]

Moreover, they differed in another important respect: they saw different origins for discord in the polity. Aquinas traced warfare and rebellion, in their negative incarnations, to the relationship between man and the good, specifically the common good, in that man when he caused unrest in the political world did so out of a misguided notion of the good. His will to sin arose from a lack of virtue.[xxv] In opposition to this position, Dante despite taking a dim view of human nature, not unlike Thomas Hobbes, saw the political world as suffering from problems when there was no absolute sovereignty to resolve necessary disputes between political actors.[xxvi] Only when no higher appeal to authority could be made did Dante predict that a just and stable constitution would arise. That being said, both thinkers saw the highest good on the earth and available to man as the ability to exercise reason in a social context. In this way, they will both be set apart from the individuals who follow. 

It comes next to identify whether the same strains can be recognised in the Defender of the Peace by Marsilius of Padua. Marsilius certainly favoured law as the measure of political society but is their evidence of his determining its necessity based upon the fallen nature of man itself? If so this is him presenting the political world as a solution to the turning of man from God. The first thing to be noted about the Defender of the Peace is that it is principally an anti-papal tract[xxvii] that also attempts to assert the independence of the Italian Republican city states against projects like Dante’s De Monarchia that exchanged the vassalage of the Papacy for subordination to the empire.[xxviii] These considerations mean that Marsilius must identify new origins for the power of the city to exercise sovereignty and in turn he needs to show that independent government by “the faithful human legislator” can supplant the government of the Holy Roman Emperor and the Church while remaining efficacious at dealing with the fallen nature of mankind.[xxix] 

Marsilius begins his treatise by citing Cassiodorus who claimed that “every realm must desire tranquility,” for the purposes of prosperity, profit, multiplication of the human race, and resources.[xxx] This emphatic focus on the material world immediately sets the stage for the division of the human temporal world of politics and the spiritual world which belongs to the church. The aim of politics to Marsilius became “sufficiency of this life” originating in “peace and . . . tranquility.”[xxxi] To identify the origins of tranquility Marsilius suggests the examination of contraries by identifying the origins of intranquility. He asserts that the Italians lived rightly before they came into discord amongst themselves. This he portrays as a sickness of man identified by men of the philosophy of civil science, but it is chiefly the product of a prior unforeseen power. This power, later identified with the papacy, capitalized on the sickness of the Italian people to subjugate them further. In identifying this source, however, it becomes imperative then to find the source of the evil within the papal government, and identify why to Marsilius it asserts itself unjustly into the realm of civil government. 

Marsilius follows Aristotle and Plato in the assertion that man lives for man and has his origin as a complete person within the civil community.[xxxii] He is insightful, however, in that he first asserts that the civil order can never be completely free from disturbances caused by sophism.[xxxiii] Furthermore, he follows the assertion with a citation from James 4:17 that give great insight into the problem Marsilius faces, for “To him that knoweth to do good, and doeth it not, to him it is sin.”[xxxiv] This opens the possibility that man's will is potentially contrary to the will of the good even when the good is known to him. St. Augustine makes the Christian notion abundantly clear when he combats the multiplicity of disobedient wills in his Confessions.[xxxv] If Marsilius was arguing along Platonic lines strictly then the axiomatic assumption would be that knowledge of the good leads to doing the good.[xxxvi] He explicitly states that he is dealing with a fallen man, when he argues “and [if Adam] had remained in this state [of innocence], the institution or differentiation of civil functions would not have been necessary.”[xxxvii] This recognition of the new fallen nature will be further corroborated in Marsilius condemnation of pretensions of the Church to a right to civil government, its simultaneous corruption, and his recommendation for the best political constitution. 

In identifying the Pope as the chief enemy of tranquility and asserting that the purview of the priestly class ought to be restricted to “instruction and education of men on the subject of . . . things according to the evangelical law, it is necessary to believe, do, or, omit.”[xxxviii] He challenged the Catholic Church’s de facto and de jure claims to authority; in doing so he envisioned a new more precisely defined order on earth where the two governments, the two sovereignties adhered to a strict division of powers. This attack originated in a reading of scripture as well as an analysis of the activities of the church and relative disharmony between what the church claimed belonged to it by virtue of its ecclesiastical institutions, and the way the men in these institutions actually behaved. To Marsilius, the men of the church could not govern with adequate character and needed subjection to human law because “deacons . . . priests [and] . . . bishops commit, many voluntary actions that . . . inconvenience or inju[re] . . . in the status of this worldly life.”[xxxix] Instead, just like the problematic temporal rulers they indulged in pride, avarice, and caprice.[xl] In opposition to the claims of authority, he attacked the throne of Peter by arguing that the keys only bound and loosed souls; he assaulted the doctrine of the two swords; he undermined the Donation of Constantine; he argued that church was not the Roman Church but alternatively, the body of believers; and furthermore he claimed that Christ himself never made any claim to the temporal power instead he remained obedient to secular authorities even and up until his passion.[xli] For these reasons Marsilius aimed to invalidate the authority of the Pope, who managed to secure his rule through, custom, opportunity, and fear.[xlii] 

The points made against the papacy are indicative of a larger problem, however. The body of the Church itself has been corrupted, and it has become unable to shepherd the souls of those most in need of salvation toward their spiritual end. This is part of the sinful nature of the Church, which is the source of discord and intraquility in Italy.[xliii] The Church itself has turned away from God and in turn away from the truth by concerning itself with things of the world, and will not assume its proper role until it can be stripped of all earthly jurisdiction, which is the source of its corruption.[xliv] This same corruption serves as the cause that will drive Marsilius toward his novel constitutional model whereby the sovereignty is held first by the people, not in an absolutely democratic sense, but an aristocratic sense regarding the “prevailing part,” and resides in the consent of the city as a whole.[xlv] It is a necessary inculcation against the nature of the individual man in the political realm, which has already received the modest end of the “sufficient-life.”[xlvi]

To rectify or at least ameliorate the hardships of temporal life and politics a new form of government is suggested. This new government is designed to rectify individual “perverted affection.”[xlvii] In so doing it may achieve harmonious, sufficient, and sovereign government. This is achieved by subordinating the legislator and sovereignty of a city to the assembled whole and will of that city defined as the “human legislator.”[xlviii] This is the only way that Marsilius can see to prevent the emergence of tyrannical government because “the prince, being human, has an intellect and a desire which can take on different forms . . . it is possible for him . . . to do things contrary . . . to the law.” The prince then needs “something else” to “measure or regulate him.”[xlix] Because even the leading most men in a community, no matter how virtuous, are still scarred by a fallen nature. However, by insisting upon the government of the community, and the many, in its own name, the government can adopt and capitalize on human wisdom expressed by the many.[l] In this way the city receives the most virtuous ruler as in “heroic times” and, in turn, it’s possible to justify its liberty.[li] This new model of sovereignty and jurisdiction permits each government the temporal and spiritual to realise its ends in concert with its nature, just as the ideal citizens each work as a part of a greater body politic;[lii] this model unites politics into a whole and recognizes its limits, and in turn the spiritual guidance of the papacy and the temporal government can both best fulfil their ends: guiding men to salvation and the sufficient life respectively. 

From these two inheritors of the scholastic tradition Dante and Marsilius, one can see two vastly different attitudes toward rectifying government and politics to the fallen nature of man. One proposes vast and universal ends that assign the intellect and rationality as the final cumulative end for mankind on earth ruled over by an absolute monarch in the form of the Holy Roman Emperor. The other seems to envision a popular sovereignty[liii] that restricts itself to the local will of the “human legislator” and the sufficient life. Despite these differences, both argue for a secular authority independent of the authority of the Bishop of Rome, contrary to the writings of Aquinas, and propose instead two ends for mankind a spiritual and temporal.[liv] In concurrence, they both assert that the claims of the Pope to temporal power is a corrupting influence upon the institution of the Catholic Church and argue instead that the spiritual ends of man can only be achieved when the eyes of the Church turn from earth back towards God. In this way, these two medieval thinkers represent a growing tradition of limiting and designating ends for the ephemeral political realm that differ qualitatively from what can be achieved in the eternal.

The upcoming week will focus on various exmaples of Humanist thought and quasi modern theories. The Figures include Erasmus, Christine Pizan, and Niccolo Machiavelli.


[i] Quentin Skinner, The Foundations of Modern Political Thought, vol. 1 (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1978), 17-18. [ii] Dante Alighieri, De Monarchia, Trans. Prue Shaw (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996), 92. [iii] Alighieri, De Monarchia, 6-7, [iv] Ibid., 6-8. [v] Ibid., 8. [vi] Ibid., 13. [vii] Ibid., 3. [viii] Ibid., 8, 10-11. [ix] Ibid., 10. [x] Ibid., 18. [xi] Ibid., 71. [xii] Ibid., 69. [xiii] Ibid., 32. [xiv] Ibid., 33. [xv] Ibid., 62, 64, 66. [xvi] Ibid., 34. [xvii] Ibid., 34, 49-52. [xviii] Ibid., 59. [xix] Ibid., 87. [xx] Ibid., 80-81, 83-84. [xxi] Ibid., 92. [xxii] Aquinas, On Law, 182-183, 196. [xxiii] Ibid., 196. [xxiv] Alighieri, De Monarchia, 92 [xxv] Aquinas, On Law, 178, 188-189. [xxvi] Hobbes, Leviathan, 115, 213-214, 216-217; Alighieri, De Monarchia, 4, 10, 17-19. [xxvii] Ryan, On Politics, 273; J.S Mclelland, A History of Western Political Thought (London, UK: Routledge, 1996), 137. [xxviii] Skinner, Foundations of Modern Political Thought, 18. [xxix] Marsilius Of Padua, The Defender of the Peace, trans. Annabel Brett (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2005), 159. [xxx] Marsilius Of Padua, The Defender of the Peace, 3 [xxxi] Ibid., 3. [xxxii] Leo Strauss, The City and Man (Chicago, IL: The University of Chicago Press, 1978), 13-14, 16-17, 107-108. [xxxiii] Marsilius Of Padua, The Defender of the Peace, 6-7. [xxxiv] "The General Epistle of James," in Holy Bible (The Bible League, 1769), 4:17. [xxxv]St. Augustine, The Confessions, trans. Henry Chadwick (Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press, 2008), 148-150, VII (22-25). [xxxvi] Plato, The Republic of Plato, trans. Allan Bloom, 2nd ed. (New York: Basic Books, 1991), 381c; Plato, "Meno," in Euthyphro, Apology, Crito, Meno, Gorgias, Menexenus, trans. R.E Allen, vol. 1, The Dialogues of Plato (New Haven, Conn: Yale University Press, 1984), 77c-77e, 88a-89a; Plato, Dialogues of Plato: Gorgias, 460a-460c. [xxxvii] Marsilius Of Padua, The Defender of the Peace, 31. [xxxviii] Marsilius Of Padua, The Defender of the Peace, 35. [xxxix] Ibid., 150. [xl] Ibid., 134-135, 464-465. [xli] Ibid., 162-164. [xlii] Ibid., 134, 139, 142-143. [xliii] Ibid., 135. [xliv] Ibid., 142, 162-163, 246-247. [xlv] Ibid., 66-67, 73, 76. [xlvi] Ibid., 3. [xlvii] Ibid., 56-57. [xlviii] Ibid., 51, 62. [xlix] Ibid., 124. [l] Ibid., 74-76. [li] Ibid., 5, 44, 117. [lii] Ibid., 12-13, 127-128. [liii] Skinner, Foundations of Modern Political Thought, 61, 65. [liv] Alighieri, De Monarchia, 92; Marsilius Of Padua, The Defender of the Peace, 3, 35