The Pathos of Politics – Natural Law

Natural Law

Natural law is a philosophy of justice supposedly based upon the nature of humanity, and therefore presumed universal. Natural law aims to connect ethics with human nature as a basis for determining what rights should be inalienable, and for adjudging the justness of laws.

Musings of Plato and Aristotle laid the foundations for natural law that emanated from later thinkers who faced political dilemmas after the demise of the independent city-state.


There is no such thing as justice in the abstract; it is merely a compact between men. ~ Epicurus

Greek philosopher Epicurus (341–270 BCE) was a matterist, following in the steps of Democritus (460–370 BCE), who claimed that the universe, infinite and eternal, was composed of discrete atoms moving in empty space. (Matterism is the philosophical folly that actuality is reality, that the material world is all that there is.)

Matterism was a stock-in-trade of several Hellenistic philosophers, including the Stoics. Matterism is disdained by those who believe in divinity and transcendental souls.

He who has peace of mind disturbs neither himself nor another. ~ Epicurus

Epicurus taught that the purpose of philosophy was to attain a blissful existence. To Epicurus, pleasure and pain are the measures of good and evil. Epicureanism was the progenitor of 18th-century utilitarianism: that proper policies provide the greatest benefit to the most people.

Not what we have but what we enjoy constitutes our abundance. ~ Epicurus

Epicurus’ hedonism was a natural outgrowth of his matterism. Though Epicureanism is associated with sensuality, Epicurus was a minimalist in this regard: more concerned with not experiencing pain than pursuing pleasure.

If thou wilt make a man happy, add not unto his riches but take away from his desires. ~ Epicurus

Though the philosophic loci were polar, the restraint of Epicurus aligned with contemporaneous Stoicism.

The wealth required by Nature is limited and is easy to procure; but the wealth required by vain ideals extends to infinity. ~ Epicurus

Though Epicureanism had later political implications, Epicurus advised abstinence from politics, which he viewed as a formula for frustration. His was an appropriate response in facing a changing societal order in which citizens of city-states had lost control of their destinies.

Of all the ancient Greek philosophies, Epicureanism was the only one that achieved lasting popularity. Epicurus’ followers formed their own communities in a social movement that lasted for 7 centuries throughout the European world.


All things are parts of one single system, which is called Nature. The individual life is good when it is in harmony with Nature. In one sense, every life is in harmony with Nature, since it is such as Nature’s laws have caused it to be; but in another sense a human life is only in harmony with Nature when the individual will is directed to ends which are among those of Nature. Virtue consists in a will which is in agreement with Nature. ~ Zeno

The Stoics developed the idea that virtue consisted of acting in accordance with Nature. Hellenist philosopher Zeno of Citium (334–262 bce) founded the Stoic school of philosophy.

Well-being is attained by little and little, and nevertheless is no little thing itself. ~ Zeno

Zeno was a native of Cyprus, a Hellenized Phoenician, and a stranger to Athens. His philosophy was an outgrowth that came from Hellenization: the spread of Greek culture through the conquests of Alexander, and by dint of its intellectual vigor.

The Hellenistic World

The Hellenistic period lasted from ~300 bce to 200 ce. Even at the peak of Roman power, Hellenization was a more potent cultural force than Romanization, which held its own only in areas where it did not compete with Hellenistic culture.

The Hellenistic world was characterized by Greece acting as a clearinghouse for new ideas by non-Greeks. Men Hellenized their names, and garbed their works in Greek language and forms, in hopes of finding a wider audience. Zeno was exemplary.

Virtue, which alone is truly good, rests entirely with the individual. Therefore, every man has perfect freedom, provided he emancipates himself from mundane desires. ~ Zeno

The Stoics did not think of themselves as political theorists, nor is stoicism a theory of state. Still, stoicism had lasting influence in providing a philosophic justification for a disciplined life. Many of the political elite in the Hellenistic and Roman periods professed, if not always practiced, stoicism.

Stoicism not only infused political philosophy with the concept of natural law, it set the platform for all philosophies that followed which espoused virtue as a product of human will through self-restraint.

It’s not what happens to you, but how you react to it that matters. ~ Turkish Hellenistic Stoic philosopher Epictetus

The political implications of Stoic philosophy forge a double-edged sword, in having a conservative bent while justifying revolution when deemed rational.

The Stoic idea that no one can rob a person of integrity, and its promotion of detachment to materiality, affords easy submission to authority.

Other men have power only over externals. ~ Zeno

The sharp edge of the Stoic sword came from the fact that authority has force only through fear. Men determined to live in accordance with their natures, with indomitable wills, are the very men that tyrants fear, and rightfully so.

Stoicism stands out for centering its teachings emphatically on individual responsibility and integrity and doing so without threating divine penalties or promising rewards, as religions commonly wont. As matterists, the Stoics did not even dangle an immortal soul as an allure.

Creeds rarely demand so much and pledge so little. As a consequence, Stoicism never had mass appeal. Instead, 2 types that tend to austerity find Stoicism attractive: reflective ascetics who attain peace of mind through withdrawal from the world, and, conversely, activists who seek communion with Nature by aiming at its apogee, which also encompasses the individual’s life. Both types have holism in mind.

Zeno turned Plato’s Republic inside out with his own Republic (Politeia). The purpose of Politeia was to outline the ideal society based upon Stoic principles, where the virtuous would live a life of simple asceticism in equality, regardless of gender. Zeno excluded the ignorant, as “the unwise are incapable of living together harmoniously in a community.”

Zeno’s utopian state was without artifice. There was no need for courts of law or money. Equity reigned, as all was shared.

Zeno’s Politeia was well within the Greek tradition of societal idealism. The notion of a utopia populated by an ethical people has roots as far back as Homer’s “city of the just” in the Odyssey (~800 bce), and the race of heroes in Hesiod’s Works and Days (~700 bce).

Societal progress toward ethical perfection has been dreamt by many political philosophers. Marx’s “pure” communism resembled Zeno’s ideal state.

Democracy embraces idealism, in entitling all citizens to an equal say in political affairs, regardless of intelligence. This notion accords with natural (inalienable) rights.

Marcus Aurelius

Reject your sense of injury and the injury itself disappears. ~ Marcus Aurelius

Roman emperor Marcus Aurelius (121–180) acquired the reputation of a philosopher-king within his lifetime. Aurelius remains as one of the most important Stoic philosophers.

Loss is nothing else than change. But the universal Nature delights in change. ~ Marcus Aurelius

Aurelius’ tome Meditations, written in Greek in the last decade of his life, remains revered as a literary monument to the ideals of service and duty. It aims to inspire equanimity while buttressed in conflict by finding strength in one’s own nature.

Be like a rocky promontory against which the restless surf continually pounds; it stands fast while the churning sea is lulled to sleep at its feet. ~ Marcus Aurelius

The central theme of Meditations was to develop a holistic perspective.

You have the power to strip away many superfluous troubles located wholly in your judgment, and to possess a large room for yourself embracing in thought the whole cosmos, to consider everlasting time, to think of the rapid change in the parts of each thing, of how short it is from birth until dissolution, and how the void before birth and that after dissolution are equally infinite. ~ Marcus Aurelius

Aurelius was an adept administrator, legislator, and jurist who clearly formulated the universality of natural law, reinforcing the basic Stoic doctrine of a holistic world.

If our intellectual part is common, the reason also, in respect of which we are rational beings, is common: if this is so, common also is the reason which commands us what to do, and what not to do; if this is so, there is a common law also; if this is so, we are fellow-citizens; if this is so, we are members of some political community; if this is so, the world is in a manner a state. ~ Marcus Aurelius


The concept of natural rights blossomed in European thought in the 12th century and was fully developed into a coherent theoretical construct by the end of the 14th century. Thomas Aquinas was an early developer of natural law.

Natural law was the basis for the political philosophies of Thomas Hobbes and John Locke, among many others. Any political philosophy premised upon the sociality of mankind has its roots in natural law.

Common law – the accretion of law through precedential court decisions – was heavily influenced by natural law. This is particularly true in the instance of English common law, from which American law took its cue.

1/3rd of the world’s population – ~2.3 billion – live under common law, or a mixture of it and civil law.


Monarchy first changes into its vicious allied form, tyranny; and next, the abolishment of both gives birth to aristocracy. Aristocracy by its very nature degenerates into oligarchy; and when the commons inflamed by anger take vengeance on this government for its unjust rule, democracy comes into being; and in due course the license and lawlessness of this form of government produces mob rule to complete the series. ~ Polybius

Greek historian Polybius (200–118 BCE) was first taken to Rome as political prisoner. Once there he made influential friends, turned into an admirer of Roman governance, and so became an ally.

Polybius was the first to study polity from an institutional standpoint, and to relate foreign policy to domestic policies and practices. (The Histories was originally written by Polybius in 40 volumes, covering 264–146 bce.) Polybius’ analysis of the evolution of Roman institutions convinced him that Rome’s rise to supremacy was not the work of a few political leaders or military leaders, but instead a product of the less visible and less dramatic force of political standards and practices.

In his day, Aristotle considered Carthage to have been a 1st-rate city-state government. Polybius compared the standards in Carthage, where “nothing which results in profit is regarded as disgraceful” to those of Rome, which condemned “unscrupulous gain from forbidden sources.”

At Carthage, candidates for office practice open bribery, whereas at Rome death is the penalty for it. ~ Polybius

Polybius saw monarchy, aristocracy, and democracy as the 3 chief forms of government. Without checks and balances, each carried within itself the seed of its own demise.

Polybius considered the secret of Roman political health its mixed constitution in political authority. The counsels represented the principle of monarchy; the senate was aristocratic, and the popular assemblies a democratic form.

Many contemporaries of Polybius saw the tripartite system as having a divisive effect on political unity, and an impediment on the ability to act. Polybius thought otherwise.

Such being the power that each part has of hampering the others or cooperating with them, their union is adequate to all emergencies. None of the 3 is absolute. The purpose of the one can be counterworked and thwarted by the others. Any aggressive impulse is sure to be checked and from the outset each estate stands in dread of being interfered with by the others. ~ Polybius


There is a true law, a right reason, conformable to Nature, universal, unchangeable, eternal, whose commands urge us to duty, and whose prohibitions restrain us from evil. Whether it enjoins or forbids, the good respect its injunctions, and the wicked treat them with indifference. This law cannot be contradicted by any other law and is not liable either to derogation or abrogation. In all times and nations this universal law must forever reign, eternal and imperishable. It is the sovereign master and emperor of all beings. ~ Cicero

The legacy of Roman philosopher, political theorist, lawyer, and politician Cicero (106–43 BCE) had a profound and abiding influence on political thought. A Stoic by philosophy, Cicero contributed next to nothing to political theory per se. His books were compilations, as he himself averred.

It is instead that everyone read Cicero’s lucid works. The rediscovery of Cicero’s letters by Italian scholar and poet Petrarch (1304–1374) is often credited with initiating the Renaissance.

The apex of Cicero’s authority came through leading Enlightenment thinkers – John Locke, David Hume, and Montesquieu – in passing on the Stoic doctrine of natural law that universally resonates to this day across the political spectrum.

We are born for Justice, and that right is based, not upon man’s opinion’s, but upon Nature. ~ Cicero

The contrast to Aristotelian thought could not be starker. Aristotle conceived citizenship as appropriate only for equals, and all men are not equal. Cicero, on the contrary, inferred that all men are subject to natural law, and so must be treated equally.

For Cicero, legal equality is a moral imperative. Kant rephrased this ideal 18 centuries later in stating that a person must be treated as an end, not as a means.

Cicero’s general principles of government – that authority rightly proceeds from the will of the people, exercised only by warrant of law, justified only by moral rectitude – achieved universal acceptance within a short span after Cicero wrote them, and remained the core of political philosophies thereafter.

Let the welfare of the people be the ultimate law. ~ Cicero

Another aspect of Cicero’s thought resounded in Christianity: “consciousness of love” as the basis for human sociality. Cicero saw the foundation of law in “our natural inclination to love our fellow men.”

This notion deeply affected the fathers of the Catholic Church. At the beginning of the Middle Ages, Cicero was likely more widely read and quoted than any other ancient political writer, as he passed on an apt summation of classical Hellenistic thought that harmonized with Christian teachings.

Liberty has no dwelling-place in any State except that in which the people’s power is the greatest, and surely nothing can be sweeter than liberty; but if it is not the same for all, it does not deserve the name of liberty. ~ Cicero

The framing of the United States Constitution was under sway of Cicero. Cicero’s subscription to balanced governmental powers appealed, but even more so his view of the state as a “community of law,” which answered the dilemma of how to create one nation out of a plethora of peoples.

We the people of the United States, in order to form a more perfect union, establish justice…. ~ United States Constitution preamble.


Medieval thinkers were almost always theologians first, philosophers incidentally, and political speculators as an afterthought. Augustine was the first Christian political thinker of historical significance, but it was the least of his achievements.


Hope has 2 beautiful daughters; their names are Anger and Courage. Anger at the way things are, and Courage to see that they do not remain as they are. ~ Augustine

The world of Latin theologian Augustine of Hippo (354–430) was that of the Roman Empire. In his lifetime, that empire was dismembered in the west by Germanic warrior tribes, but not yet in decline in the east. As a provincial Algerian bishop, Augustine’s eyes were on the west.

The physical damage from the Visigoth incursion into Rome in 410 was modest. But it deeply shocked its citizens.

Many Romans saw the sack of Rome as a punishment for abandoning the Roman pantheon of gods for Christianity. Augustine wrote The City of God in response to the accusation.

Augustine’s retort was that the old gods had never kept their side of the bargain to begin with, as Rome had suffered innumerable calamities before its ostensible conversion to Christianity. Good and bad fortune fall upon the just and unjust alike.

The City of God was no political tome. Augustine nowhere bothers discussing the merits of various polities. Only in later interpretation do his words effuse political implications.

Two cities have been formed by 2 loves: the earthly by the love of self, even to the contempt of God; the heavenly by the love of God, even to the contempt of self. The former, in a word, glories in itself, the latter in the Lord. ~ Augustine

Augustine’s city of God was an imagined heavenly polis, populated by those granted entry by God. Earthly cities are populated by people, all sinners; some of whom may pass through the pearly gates by God’s grace when they shuffle off the mortal coil.

God judged it better to bring good out of evil than to suffer no evil to exist. ~ Augustine

To Augustine, pagan states can never practice true justice because they do not give God his due. He leaves it unclear as to whether a Christian state might achieve this lofty goal, but such a state does not, at least, fail from the get-go for faithlessness.

The honors of this world, what are they but puff, and emptiness, and peril of falling? ~ Augustine

Channeling the spirit of Plato, earthly kingdoms exist to promote peace. Peace on Earth is nothing to peace in the city of God, but we must accept our situation. Materiality is nothing compared to union with God, but it is not to be despised.

God had one son on Earth without sin, but never one without suffering. ~ Augustine

Augustine formulated the Christian doctrine of original sin, considering it the most salient fact about us. Some may be saved from eternal damnation in the afterlife, but all are sinners; hence, suffering is ubiquitous.

There is a nature in which evil does not or even cannot exists; but there cannot be a nature in which there is no good.
~ Augustine

Augustine did not believe that evil was an active force. Augustine accepted the Neoplatonic view that evil is a privation, a loss of rectitude. But love is an active force, which can guide us toward goodness if we have the will to do so.

In order to discover the character of people we have only to observe what they love. The measure of love is to love without measure. ~ Augustine

The ultimate cause of political societies is our innate sin. Absent our fall from grace, we might live in communist communities, without need of property, law, or government.

Augustine took it for granted that being coerced into receiving the truth was a benefit, not a burden; it was a view one might expect from a man who thought that corporal punishment might be administered lovingly and with the intention to bring the offender to his senses. ~ English political theorist and historian Alan Ryan

Augustine accepted that the central feature of the state is wielding coercive power. Just as the state has the right to punish its citizens, so too it has the right to punish other states for their transgressions.

Thus, Augustine believed that war could be just. The earthly city, with “desires that cannot justly be said to be evil, desires earthly peace for the sake of enjoying earthly goods, and it makes war in order to attain this peace.”

Punishment is justice for the unjust. ~ Augustine

Christ’s injunction to “compel them to come in” [Luke 14:23] meant to Augustine obedience to proper authority. Give the state its due in earthly matters, and the church its due in spiritual affairs.

Augustine subscribed to Stoic natural law, but naturally cast it as God’s eternal law.

Peace between man and God is the well-ordered obedience of faith to eternal law. Peace between man and man is well-ordered concord. ~ Augustine

Augustine’s measure of decent earthly society was one that was orderly. This powerful thought was an elegant kidnapping of an idea at home in the minds of republicans. But Augustine cared not a whit how a society achieved its order: any polity would do.

Augustine’s influence was enormous, owing in no small measure to his cogent writing. Augustine also had good luck in maintaining a reputation for orthodoxy despite some extreme views, such as his Aristotelian support for slavery, albeit with a moral twist.

The prime cause of slavery is sin. ~ Augustine

His ideas accepted into Christian doctrine, Augustine created a dangerous legacy: placing Christian subjects at the mercy of a ruler’s notions about where the line of heresy was drawn, making it inevitable that the church would claim to police a Christian ruler’s orthodoxy, and equally inescapable that rulers would resist the church’s claim.

Justinian I

Justice is the constant and perpetual desire to give to each one that to which he is entitled. Jurisprudence is the knowledge of matters divine and human, and the comprehension of what is just and what is unjust. ~ Corpus Juris Civilis

Justinian I (482–565) was an Eastern Roman (Byzantine) emperor (527–565) who sought to revive the greatness of the Roman Empire and reconquer its lost western half.

Justinian was genuinely concerned with promoting the well-being of his subjects, by rooting out corruption and providing justice through a uniform set of laws.

His attacks on malfeasance were not well received by those with vested interests. Justinian nearly lost the throne over riots in Constantinople in 532 (the Nika revolt) that destroyed half the city and was only put down by wholesale massacre of rebellious citizens. Some 30,000 rioters were killed.

The law that natural reason has prescribed for all men, and which is equally observed among all peoples, is called the law of nations, as being that which all nations make use of. ~ Corpus Juris Civilis

Justinian’s legal legacy was Corpus Juris Civilis (Body of Civil Law), a compilation of jurisprudence issued 529–534 that was a late Roman expression of natural law. Corpus Juris Civilis remains the foundation for civil law in many modern states.

According to natural law, all men were originally born free. ~ Corpus Juris Civilis


The decline of the Roman Empire occurred over centuries. Increasingly inefficient and corrupt administration, along with a burgeoning tax burden upon the populace, guaranteed the empire’s collapse.

The city of Rome had a million inhabitants in the 1st century ce. By the time barbarians crossed the Rubicon river on their way to plunder Rome, the city had lost over half its population. By the end of the 14th century, Rome had less than 20,000 people.

Europe’s Dark Ages spelt the disintegration of urban civilization on that continent. With the decline of towns and trade, land increasingly defined wealth and political power, as authority was in the hands of those who possessed land.

With its large landholdings, the church was sitting pretty in the feudal system. In some countries the church was the single-largest landlord.

Culturally, the destruction of urban civilization by barbarian incursions further enhanced the church’s prestige, as the church and its monasteries were the only centers of intellectual activity, preserving for posterity tradition and culture that martial conquerors trod on.

Moreover, the general ignorance and illiteracy of laymen compelled secular rulers to employ clerics at all levels of government. Literacy and other refined accomplishments were for centuries confined to ecclesiastics.

Into the Dark Ages, the church had its own divisions; but the larger political concern was over the uneasy alliance between church and state.

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Pope Gelasius I was a prolific writer who pushed for papal authority at a time of increasing tension between the Catholic churches in the west and east.

Gelasius’s election in 492 was a gesture of continuity with his predecessor, from whom Gelasius inherited a struggle with Byzantine Emperor Anastasius and the church patriarch of Constantinople; a problem which Gelasius exacerbated with his strict orthodoxy, which was somewhat ironic given his doctrine of cooperative authorities.

Gelasius defined the relation between the 2 authorities: ecclesiastical and political (the “swords,” as they came to be called). According to Gelasius’ mythology, Christ himself was king and priest, but knowing the nature of man as sinful and weak, he bifurcated authority. This facile independence necessarily involves interdependence, as the state and church are supreme only in their respective spheres, and so must rely upon one another to some degree in exercising their authority. Gelasius never addressed what issues were predominantly religious or political.

Had Gelasius pursed his doctrine to its logical ends, he would have discovered this dualism to be deficient: whoever has the power to decide whether a matter is ecclesiastical or temporal is, in effect, the sovereign authority. In his dualistic conception, Gelasius naïvely assumed cooperation, not jurisdictional disputes. After all, both must recognize that the source of all power is singular: from God.

Nevertheless, Gelasius skewed his doctrine to favor the church in mentioning that its burden is heavier than the state, as the church is answerable for all souls, including the king. To Gelasius, this merely meant that the church had an especial responsibility, as the most difficult task of all – spiritual salvation – was assigned to it. Gelasius’ ostensibly innocuous intent became tarnished with time. From the 9th century on, the doctrine was interpreted as a claim to greater authority compared to mundane government.

As the tension between church and empire grew in the 10th–12th centuries, papalists were first to set aside the Gelasian doctrine of twin authorities posed in equilibrium. They claimed supreme authority, as holding title directly from God, where the state received its power indirectly, through the church.

In the age of feudalism, institutions and social rights were less well-defined than in earlier or later times.

Landed property was not attached to a single owner who held absolute dominion over it. Property was instead compartmentalized, where the legal owner shared its employment. A lord may retain certain privileges while granting particular uses to his vassals.

The papalist doctrine followed this line, claiming that secular authority was only held like a fief: in tenure, while true title rested with the church. This was a ratcheting up of the legal doctrine of eminent domain, under which a king retains ultimate title to all property within his purview.

In other eras, the argument of medieval papalists might have logically led to theocracy, as evidenced in some Islamic nations. In the feudal context, papalists were entirely content to leave the exercise of secular authority to the state. They merely wanted to ensure their ultimate power to protect against heresy at any level.

Proponents of the imperialist position made more moderate claims, essentially restating Gelasian doctrine. As the conflict between church and state sharpened in the 11th century, the more extreme antipapists argued that secular power was supreme in both worldly and spiritual matters.

The struggle between papalists and antipapists was not a theological disagreement, but one of power and control; and the contest was not nearly as universal as the phrase “church and empire” implies.

The Holy Roman Empire of the Middle Ages began with the coronation of Charlemagne, King of the Franks, in Rome in 800, and crashed with the abdication of the Hapsburg Emperor Francis II in 1806. The Holy Roman Empire was little more than a German empire that included much of Italy. Outside the realm were the politically key areas of England, France, and Spain.

Similarly, the church could not claim all of Christendom, but only those who were under the jurisdiction of Rome. The Eastern Orthodox and Roman Catholic churches irrevocably parted ways in 1054.

Contestants in any dispute attempt to inflate their stature by aligning their interest with a general, ideally universal, one. The Catholic Church represented itself as the guardian of all Christians. Likewise, to gain respectability and universality, German kings coveted the cloak of the Holy Roman Empire.

The original Roman Empire had been defeated militarily in the 5th century by Germanic invaders. Roman popes continued the struggle during the Middle Ages against expanding German power. The papacy also collided with English and French monarchs, but its principle opponent was Germanic, which threatened Italy, and thereby the Roman church most directly.

Another tension between church and state was intimately bound to the feudal system. Bishops were charged with administering the local church while simultaneously being land holders, and as such vassals of the king.

Unlike the institutionalized modern state, feudal ties were personal. The loyalty of a vassal to his lord was more profound than the modern notion of obeying an impersonal law.

Another rub was in secular administration. During the early Middle Ages, the clergy enjoyed a monopoly on literacy and scholarship; hence, they were entrusted with important positions in the courts and chancelleries of Europe.

Perhaps a bishop could be both faithful to the church in spiritual matters and a loyal vassal to the king in economic and political affairs, but this happy circumstance only held when both aligned on policy. Given a disagreement, a priest or bishop had to pick a side, and so a first loyalty.

In 1076, Holy Roman Emperor Henry IV deposed Pope Gregory VII. This was the culmination of a long-standing power struggle between the church and the emperor, termed the Investiture Controversy. The main wedge issue was who selected bishops.

Henry got his comeuppance when Gregory replied by excommunicating Henry and all the bishops named by him. A year later, Henry stood in the snow outside the castle where Gregory was for 3 days, begging the pope to rescind his sentence. Gregory relented.

This did not end the strife. In 1080 Henry again deposed Gregory, whom by this time he had dubbed “The False Monk,” because of continued intrigues that led to civil wars from upstarts whom Gregory supported.

In the final tally, Henry deposed Gregory twice, while Gregory excommunicated Henry thrice.

Gregory died in 1085, still the pope, albeit in exile, as a result of choosing an unpopular ally to fight for him against Henry. In his last campaign, Gregory had cajoled the Normans, whom the Romans resented for their excesses.

Henry IV reigned as Holy Roman Emperor until his forced abdication in 1105. He died the next year, shortly after defeating his son’s army, who nonetheless, as Henry V, went on to become Holy Roman Emperor.

Until the end of the 13th century, conflict between secular and ecclesiastical power dominated both the theory and practice of politics in Europe.

John of Salisbury

No one should seek his own interest but that of others. ~ John of Salisbury

English author, clergyman, and diplomat John of Salisbury (1120–1180) was the reincarnation of Cicero politically, albeit in papalist garb. Like Cicero, John’s political disposition was utilitarianism: “attend to the common utility of all.”

Like Augustine, John was a firm believer in eternal law.

Law is the gift of God, the model of equity, a standard of justice, a likeness of the divine will, the guardian of well-being, a bond of union and solidarity between peoples, a rule defining duties, a barrier against the vices and the destroyer thereof, a punishment of violence and all wrongdoing. ~ John of Salisbury

John’s most important work is Policraticus (The Stateman’s Book) (~1159). Though John originated no political doctrine, he uniquely formulated familiar, isolated ideas into a coherent pattern. Because of his style – its freshness, integrity, and sense of humor (exceedingly rare for the time) – John was the most influential medieval political writer.

John portrayed “the state as an organism,” with the ruler the head of the body, and the church acting as its soul. John championed the supremacy of ecclesiastical power over secular rulers.

The head is quickened and governed by the soul. ~ John of Salisbury

In buttressing his arguments, John, like most medieval papalists, relied heavily on the Old Testament, with its firm bias against temporal rulers. The New Testament had a more positive tone that “the powers that be are ordained of God,” but, reflecting Jewish animosity of the Romans, the Old Testament’s fire and brimstone hostility against secular authority was unequivocal. John made such an overwhelming case for the moral sovereignty of the church that later protagonists of the papal cause found it easy to plead for legal supremacy as well.

Projecting Christian esteem for love into the political theater, a virtuous king rules through kindness.

Kindness will compel the most faithful and constant love from even the sternest, and will increase and confirm the love which it has produced. ~ John of Salisbury

An ethical ruler adheres to eternal law, and so seeks to serve others. In contrast, a tyrant exercises power for himself.

He who rules in accordance with the laws is a prince. A tyrant is one who oppresses the people by rulership based upon force. ~ John of Salisbury

John found tyrannicide eminently justified. In violating the rule of law, a despot assails the grace of God.

The prince, as the likeness of the Deity, is to be loved, worshipped, and cherished; the tyrant, the likeness of wickedness, is generally to be even killed. The origin of tyranny is iniquity, and spring from a poisonous root, it is a tree which grows and sprouts into a baleful pestilent growth, and to which the axe must by all means be laid. ~ John of Salisbury

For papal apologists such as John, in seeking to curb authoritarianism, liberty itself was at stake: a larger issue than any petty rivalry between popes and emperors.

Nothing but virtue is more splendid than liberty, if indeed liberty can ever properly be severed from virtue. A man is free in proportion to the measures of his virtues, and the extent to which he is free determines what his virtues can accomplish. ~ John of Salisbury


One of the most paradoxical aspects of medieval life was the contradiction between the deep yearning for unity in religious and philosophic ideas and the pluralism of extant institutions. The feudal period represented the hallmark of diversity and decentralization in western civilization. This starkly contrasts with medieval thinking on religious and secular affairs, which took the principle of unity for granted.

The oneness of God, and of divine law and reason, was presumed to permeate the whole universe. The diverse plurality that existed in the world was subordinate to a higher unity.

Both imperialist and papalist partisans were loath to abandon unification of church and state. Their disagreement was of priority, not of principle.

The medieval mind drew its nourishment from 2 fountains: Christian religious inspiration and the intellectual heritage of antiquity. Reconciling these 2 sources was fairly easy early on. The major ideological conflicts in the early Middle Ages were between the church and heretics, not between theology and philosophy.

Besides, the church practically had sole possession of the classical philosophic heritage in its monasteries. Plato was the dominant influence. Until the mid-12th century, Aristotle was known only from a few treatises on logic.

As Augustine amply illustrated, Plato’s conceptions of morality and ideas as the essence of reality, his ideals of a society in which spirituality would rule, as well as his tendency toward mysticism, were easily woven into the fabric of early Christian thought.

Seek not to understand that you may believe, but believe that you may understand. ~ Augustine

From the 9th to 13th century, medieval scholasticism strove to meld theology and philosophy, to unite revelation and knowledge. The guiding principle was the primacy of religion over philosophy, of revelation over empiricism, of faith over knowledge, of dogma over science.

The church’s outlook changed entirely as it became a political organization struggling for hegemony in the western world. The Augustinian conception of a Christian community faded. The intellectual need of the institutional church was not of mystic personal visions, but systemic analysis of all traditional thought and emerging forces with portent.

Armed with the best-trained scholars and bureaucracy, the ecclesiastical domination of scholasticism was assured. As most philosophic writers were clerics, nurtured on church doctrine and subject its discipline, underlying all speculation was that reason never contradicted faith.

Papal power reached its peak in the 13th century, correspondent with scholasticism achieving its golden age. The synthesis of theological doctrine, honed over a millennium, was one cornerstone. The rediscovery of Aristotle – the consummate conservative realist – was the other.

While only a few of Aristotle’s writings on logic were known in the West until the mid-12th century, the Aristotelian tradition had never been abandoned in the East. Constantinople in particular remained a nexus of Greek scholarship. From there, Greek studies spread to the Near East, which were then carried to Spain by Arab and Jewish scholars. Latin translations made their way to Paris and Oxford, which were the liveliest clearinghouses for philosophic scholarship in the 13th century.

The church was wary of Aristotle at first and sought to stem the tide of Aristotelianism. Its attitude gradually changed through the work of many men, but above all Thomas Aquinas.

Thomas Aquinas

By nature, all men are equal in liberty, but not in other endowments. ~ Thomas Aquinas

Italian theologian and philosopher Thomas Aquinas (1225–1274) reconciled Aristotelian philosophy with the principles of Christianity. He never thought himself a philosopher, whom he considered pagans for failing to appreciate “the true and proper wisdom to be found in Christian revelation.”

Aquinas conceived of both faith and knowledge as having a divine origin. Conflict between them was never real, only apparent. This assumption erased the tension between philosophy and theology.

Aquinas put faith above reason. Because faith relies upon divine revelation, it is closer to the source of all truth than philosophy, which is based on human insight.

Aquinas’ reconciliation of faith and reason put the church on a forward footing. It was not enough.

As early as the 14th century, the movement toward rationalism appeared unstoppable. In the 15th century cradle of the Renaissance lay the rebirth of classical humanism, which would break with the church by proclaiming the supremacy of knowledge. – So much for the emergence of the Age of Enlightenment; back to politics.

Every natural government is governance by one. ~ Thomas Aquinas

Aquinas found government a necessity because “man is naturally a social being.” Aquinas preferred monarchy, as it fit within the scholastic preference of unity.

In the whole universe there is one God, maker and ruler of all things. ~ Thomas Aquinas

This is a religious twist of Plato’s philosopher-king: a ruler with superior wisdom and morality governing for the benefit of all. In contrast, a tyrant “aims, not at the common good, but at the private good of the ruler,” which is “unjust and perverted rulership.”

Aristotle too preferred monarchy, though he doubted that both superior moral and intellectual faculties were to be found in one man. Aquinas concluded that one ruler was more likely to maintain peace, whereas a ruling council might be given to disagreement that could threaten stability.

To ensure quality, Aquinas favored elective kingship to heredity. Whereas the papacy and empire at the time were ruled by elective heads, the English and French had defaulted to hereditary dynasties.

To thwart degeneration, Aquinas suggested that a king’s power “be so tempered that he cannot easily fall into tyranny.” Aquinas was silent as to how this may be achieved.

All should take some share in government. ~ Thomas Aquinas

Unlike John of Salisbury, Aquinas had no taste for tyrannicide. Aquinas was also hesitant to tackle every tyranny with revolution, going so far as to suggest that even tyrants rule by divine permission, and so may be a punishment for the sins of the subjects.

Aquinas distinguished between minor and egregious varieties of transgression, proposing that revolution could carry a heavier price to society than the evil it seeks to remedy. He appreciated that a gyre of violence might be unleashed which could be hard to stop. Edmund Burke later applied this doctrine to his condemnation of the French Revolution.

Applying the Aristotelian principle that “the one to whom it pertains to achieve the final end commands those who execute the things that are ordained to that end,” and correspondent with Gelasian doctrine, Aquinas concluded that “kings are subject to priests.” Whereas the secular ruler has intermediate goals, the church looks to the salvation of souls, which is the ultimate end.

Law: an ordinance of reason for the common good, made by him who has care of the community. ~ Thomas Aquinas

The part of Aquinas’ political theory that is not primarily Aristotelian is his philosophy of law, which is conservative in its conception of being properly based on the custom of the community.

The natural law is promulgated by the very fact that God instilled it into man’s mind so as to be known by him naturally. ~ Thomas Aquinas

The origins of Aquinas’ construct of law are found partly in the Judeo-Christian doctrine of divine law above human law, and partly in the Stoic-Roman concept of there being a rational order of the world which is reflected in human society. The feudal system was itself largely an organic evolution, with proper relations between a lord and vassals determined by custom.

The concept of sovereignty in the Middle Ages was that of the law itself, whereas it had been in antiquity, and is now, attached to the lawgiver – whether a monarch, aristocracy, or representative government in a democratic application.

The medieval preference to communal custom as the basis of justice was not philosophic predilection but a reflection of social reality: status rather than social contract dominated, mobility was low, and political authority decentralized. This conception of the supremacy of law based upon the custom of the community is the greatest lasting contribution the Middle Ages made to political theory.

Mercy without justice is the mother of dissolution; justice without mercy is cruelty. ~ Thomas Aquinas

Though a man of kindness and humility, Aquinas had ideals of violence. He favored death for persistent heretics: a mild penalty, he thought, compared to the eternal torment that awaits a sinner in hell.

Aquinas started with the premise that proper government is an expression of divine order. Therefore, because the commandments of God include a duty of deference, “disobedience to the commands of a superior is a mortal sin.” Such dogmatic certainty has seen repeated incarnations throughout history to justify the persecution of dissenters, regardless of whether the dogma was religious or political in origin.

In order for a war to be just, three things are necessary. First, the authority of the sovereign. Secondly, a just cause. Thirdly, a rightful intention. ~ Thomas Aquinas

Aquinas’ take on women was also conventional; just what one would expect of a medieval monk.

As regards the individual nature, woman is defective and misbegotten, for the active power of the male seed tends to the production of a perfect likeness in the masculine sex; while the production of a woman comes from defect in the active power. ~ Thomas Aquinas

Aquinas had socialist inclinations. This aspect of his teachings is largely forgotten.

Man should not consider his material possessions as his own, but as common to all, so as to share them without hesitation when others are in need. ~ Thomas Aquinas

In reaching back to a near-mythical past of communal living, this view is reactionary. It is also radical, in being echoed by Karl Marx 6 centuries later.


The growth of cities from the 11th century created new centers of intellectual and economic vitality that the church viewed with anxiety and hostility. The church shared the same fears and prejudices as other large landowners in facing a nascent capitalist economy that threatened to swamp the static, agrarian life of feudalism.

Further, the church saw the rise of cities as a menace to its intellectual dominion. The restless spirit of urbanity challenged the existing order, where the church and aristocracy divided all power between themselves. To the conservative church, the existing order also recommended itself because it seemed in harmony with morality and custom.

Whereas those who toiled on manorial estates were serfs, city dwellers had freedom and mobility. The medieval motto “city air makes free” expressed the revolutionary import of urbanization.

The rising bourgeoisie saw the extant social system as one of unjustifiable privilege and ecclesiastical domination. The church lost its monopoly on learning and technical knowledge. Laymen in burgeoning cities increasingly assumed intellectual leadership, first apart from churches and monasteries, then in opposition to them. This dynamic was exactly what the church feared.

Accumulation of wealth permitted the emergence of lay artists, writers, and teachers. This secularization challenged the traditional medieval civilization based upon church dogma and landed power.

The revival of urban life was especially vigorous in Italy in the 13th and 14th centuries. There too came the rebirth of ancient Greek and Roman thought that blossomed into the Renaissance. It began with the intellectual movement called humanism, which was, in essence, a secular replacement for the philosophic unity developed under medieval scholasticism.

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To be born, the church needed Plato. To last, it needed Aristotle. ~ Austrian political scientists William Ebenstein & Alan Ebenstein

For the church to remain relevant, it needed to answer the challenge of emergent humanism and secularism. In enfolding Aristotle, the church enlarged its scope into a coherent and all-encompassing body of thought that was full of common sense, moderate in tone, and adaptable: human, yet universal and timeless.

Augustinian mysticism, with its emphasis on faith leading to grace, was relegated in official church theology, to find revival in late Middle Age sects that sought to resurrect the original character of Christianity. Their themes were later championed by Protestant reformers, who found Aquinas’ Aristotelian spin too much cold logic and too little inspiration.

As a monk, Martin Luther declared that what he had learned of value was found in the Bible and works of Augustine. Luther thought that Aristotle was to theology what darkness is to light.

Only without Aristotle can we become theologians. ~ Martin Luther

Protestantism was thus a return to Christian roots, not only because of its stress on earlier sources, but also owing to its preference to Augustine over Aquinas, of Plato over Aristotle.

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The modern secular view is separation of church and state, stemming from the liberal orthodoxy that developed during the 18th century. Revisionist history saw the contest for power between state and church in the Middle Ages as a struggle between reason and irrationality, between progress and reaction.

Owing to its long association with monarchy, the church was seen as a primary impediment to the development of liberal government. The assumption was that once religion was scoured from political discourse, the progress of reason and liberty would prove irresistible.

This dogma has been disproved by historical events. The experience of 20th century totalitarianism, and 21st century democratic plutocracy, shows that societies which lack an ethical counterbalance to the state may be devoured by despotism, whether politically or economically inspired.

Dante Alighieri

Of all things that are ordered to secure blessings to men, peace is the best. ~ Dante

Italian poet Dante Alighieri (1265–1321), simply called Dante, is best remembered for his Divine Comedy (1320), an imaginative vision of the afterlife that is representative of the medieval worldview as it had developed in the church by the 14th century.

The darkest places in Hell are reserved for those who maintain their neutrality in times of moral crisis. ~ Dante

Dante’s use of the vernacular in his works helped create a national Italian language while breaking the monopoly that Latin had on literary communication. This was a revolt against tradition.

This shall be the new light, the new Sun, which shall rise when the worn-out one shall set, and shall give light to them who are in shadow and in darkness because of the old Sun, which does not enlighten them. ~ Dante

Dante was a member of the lower nobility. He abhorred the nouveaux riche and their ostentatious manner of living. He saw Florentine society as becoming vulgar and coarse.

Dante’s political philosophy had one foot in the past and the other in the future. It was a curious mix of ecclesiastical scholasticism and pungent antipapism that nevertheless was typical of his age.

Dante’s chief political work was On Monarchy (De Monarchia) (~1313), which condemned the theocratic conception of power. An antipapist, Dante argued that the emperor and pope both derived their authority directly from God.

Dante’s yearning for unity was as strong as that of ecclesiastical scholars centuries earlier. His arguments followed their same lines of logic, albeit coming to a contrary conclusion on the issue of the “swords of power.”

The predominant Christian conceptions of the state came from Augustine and Aquinas. Augustine saw government as a penalty and remedy to human frailty and sinfulness, set up by divine providence. In contrast, the later Aristotelian view of Aquinas was that government was a natural expression of human sociality.

Dante combined the two into a new synthesis. Following Aquinas, Dante saw the state as arising from social drives. But Dante considered its atomistic forms – city-states, principalities, and kingdoms – as inadequate because the sin of avarice perverts them.

Using Augustinian elements to argue a remedy for these sins, Dante imagined the institution of universal government as divine providence, so that man may partake of the blessings of earthly peace, justice, and freedom in the same way that God provided the universal church with the means to attain salvation.

Dante was the first to address whether a world government would benefit the human race: a prospect he enthusiastically averred.

Where unity is greatest, there good is also greatest. ~ Dante

Dante also had an argument for world government that was quite modern: the need to settle disputes between states without resorting to war.

Wherever there is controversy, there ought to be judgment; otherwise there would be imperfection without its proper remedy, which is impossible; for God and Nature, in things necessary, do not fail in their provisions. ~ Dante

There can only be judgment if the authority issuing it is mutually recognized as final. Dante was centuries ahead of his time in appreciating that the essential institutional development toward world government would be judicial.

When a number of things are arranged to attain an end, it behooves one of them to regulate or govern the others, and the others to submit. ~ Dante

Dante considered an absolute ruler a necessity.

The whole human race is ordered to gain some end. There must, therefore, be one to guide and govern. And so it is plain that monarchy is necessary for the welfare of the world. ~ Dante

Channeling Thomism, Dante cited the example of God as the monarchial ruler of the universe, to which humans must submit.

Dante was by no means advocating tyranny. He stressed justice and freedom as virtues. Dante determined that the greatest enemy of justice is avarice: the inability to be disinterested and content.

Dante emphasized the Aristotelian idea that rule of law is preferable, because personal judgment is likely to be perverted by self-interest. A monarch of a world state would be in the best position to dispense justice according to the law, as he would have nothing further to gain.

Moreover, because a world monarch would be “the servant of all,” freedom would best be realized under monarchy, as regional rulers could at best only identify with a portion of humanity.

Despite his enthusiasm for a unified state under a single ruler, Dante did not believe in uniformity for its own sake. He expected cultural diversity to continue. Dante was one of the first to separate political sovereignty from cultural autonomy.

For nations and kingdoms and states have, each of them, certain peculiarities which must be regulated by different laws. ~ Dante

Dante’s revolutionary break with the church was in finding that the 2 universal orders – church and state – were equal in relation to the other, neither subordinate; each dominant in its own domain.

In cleanly bifurcating church and empire, Dante did more than diminish the temporal authority of the church. He declared the independence of philosophy from theology; a radical departure from Aquinas, who marked the culmination of the scholastic doctrine in finding philosophy the “handmaiden” (ancilla) of theology.

Dante’s challenge was a transitional step to the subordination of theology to philosophy inherent in the humanism that imbued the Renaissance.

From a little spark may burst a flame. ~ Dante

The church was fully aware of the tinder potential packed into De Monarchia. Pope John XXII banned the book as heretical in 1329, and it was put on the Index of Forbidden Books in 1554, 5 years before the taboo book list was printed. De Monarchia stayed proscribed for some 350 years before being removed as no longer a threat.


The spiritual man judges all things and he himself is judged by no man. ~ 1 Corinthians 2:15, The Bible

Rejecting the Gelasian doctrine of equilibrium, inveterate political meddler Pope Boniface VII went for broke at the end of the 13th century by claiming the supremacy of the church over the state. It won a small concession, but otherwise backfired.

In return for recognizing his title to become Holy Roman Emperor, Albert I of Germany bent his knee to papal consent. France and England were not so pliant.

Boniface’s boldfaced power grab was a guise for money grubbing. The church, like every ambitious great power, consumed prodigious quantities of not-so-filthy lucre. Its financial needs conflicted with those of nascent national monarchies, especially France and England, which were building expensive central administrations over the patchwork feudal system.

In 1296, Boniface declared that laymen had no jurisdiction over the clergy (“over the persons and goods of ecclesiastics”) without prior papal permission. No mundane authority could levy taxes on church property, nor were clergy permitted to pay them. The sanction for such action was excommunication.

Both France and England, to which the papal bull was particularly targeted, would not countenance a financial state within a state. Without tax sovereignty, political sovereignty was meaningless. More to the point, church property was so vast that tax exemption was beyond what either monarchy could afford.

King Edward I of England threatened that the king’s peace could not be had for nothing. If the clergy were to refuse taxes, he would consider them outcasts, and treat them as such. Boniface had to give in. The principle was never mentioned again.

King Philip IV rejected out of hand Boniface’s interference in French finances. The pope was powerless to enforce his edict.

One sword ought to be subordinated to the other, and temporal authority subjected to spiritual power. ~ Pope Boniface VII in the papal bull Unam Sanctam (1302)

Boniface was not finished lording it over royalty. In declaring “that it is altogether necessary of salvation for every human creature to be subject to the Roman Pontiff,” Boniface brandished his sword.

Philip IV accepted the challenge thrust at him. Having been excommunicated, Philip planned to bring Boniface to dock before the church in France over 29 charges, including heresy, murder, sexual immorality, magic, and idol worship.

With fulminations bouncing back and forth, Philip decided to resolve the dispute with a coup. He sent a small force to kidnap the pope and bring him back to France to be tried, condemned, and deposed.

Though seized in Italy, Boniface was saved by local revulsion against the plot. Boniface returned to Rome, where he died a few weeks later from the shock and stress of being held under duress.

Boniface’s power play ended up undermining universal authority: first of the emperor, then of the papacy itself. In going up against England and France, Boniface challenged the strongest political institution of the future: the sovereign nation-state. By diminishing belief in universality, Boniface unknowingly abetted the growth of separatist nationalism, as well as inspiring hostility against the church itself for his high-handed antics.

The following year, a French archbishop was elected pope. Clement V cleaned up the mess Boniface left by annulling all pronouncements against Philip and his advisors, including those who kidnapped Boniface.

Clement V did not go to Rome. Instead he set up his court in Avignon, in southern France, where he and his 6 successors, all French, resided.

Marsilio of Padua

Every government is over either voluntary or involuntary subjects. The first is the genus of well-tempered governments, the second of diseased governments. ~ Marsilio of Padua

Aristotle and Dante were the springboards for the The Defender of Peace (Defensor pacis) (1324), a political treatise by Italian scholar Marsilio of Padua (1275–1342).

Though following Aristotle closely, Marsilio arrived at a conclusion widely divergent from other medieval Aristotelians. Marsilio was antithetical to Aquinas, who sought to harmonize reason and faith. Marsilio considered Christianity, in essence, belief in the supernatural, and so beyond rational discussion. The political upshot was that, in secular relations, the clergy was merely one class of society.

Such separation of faith and reason is the direct ancestor of religious skepticism. Its consequences are tantamount to a secular view which is inherently anti-religious.

Marsilio was artful, in simply stating that faith is too sacred for reason to touch. Practically speaking, there is scant difference between too sacred and too trivial.

Marsilio lived in one of the Italian republican city-states, a unique phenomenon for the time. From the 12th century, most of these city-states were self-absorbed: caring only for their own freedom of action.

These city-states only cooperated when threatened by an imperial expedition to enforce the emperor’s authority. They otherwise acted with a mixture of rivalry and distrust that characterized the Greek city-states 1,500 years earlier.

Padua was notably known for its spirited independence, including defending its authority against the local clergy and the Roman Curia, the church’s administrative apparatus.

Marsilio’s mental mold was characteristic of a middle-class resident of a free Italian city-republic with ancient secular traditions. His practice of medicine for many years fostered a critical, scientific view.

Marsilio identified strongly with Aristotle, who also lived in an urban, secular civilization. Like Aristotle, who also practiced medicine, Marsilio eschewed dogma and abstract speculation for an empirical sensibility.

Marsilio was also influenced by intellectual developments in Paris, where he spent a considerable portion of his formative years at the university there. Paris at the time was at the forefront of the antipapal movement.

Like Dante, Marsilio was a link from the Middle Ages to the modern age. But whereas Dante was essentially medieval, Marsilio was modern in his arguments, which were peppered with irony and skepticism.

Marsilio recycles Aristotle in identifying the 3 good forms of government as monarchy, aristocracy, and constitutionalism, as contrasted to those that are diseased: tyranny, oligarchy, and democracy (in which the masses practice majority rule “not entirely for the common benefit according to proper proportion”). Marsilio radically diverged from Aristotle by adding that, in decent forms of government, “the ruler governs for the common benefit in accordance with the will of the subjects,” while the diseased forms benefit rulers without common consent.

Marsilio anticipated modern political theory by highlighting the method of government rather than its objects: that the problem of governance is of means as much as of ends.

Law is the measure of human civil acts. ~ Marsilio of Padua

Marsilio’s break with the Middle Ages is clearest in his conception of law as an expression of political authority. Medieval writers typically assumed the law as “an ordinance of reason for the common good” (Thomas Aquinas).

Instead, Marsilio defined law as “a coercive command” by an authority that can “punish its transgressors.” This positivist conception abandoned the medieval tradition of natural law, moving law into the mundane form expressed by modern jurists; as early-20th-century American jurist Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr. put it, “the prophecies of what the courts will do in fact, and nothing more pretentious.”

The legislator, or the primary and proper efficient cause of the law, is the people or the whole body of citizens, or the weightier part thereof. By the weightier part I mean to take into consideration the quantity and the quality of the persons in that community over which the law is made. ~ Marsilio of Padua

Marsilio’s use of the Latin term legislator has multiple implications. 1st is the political sovereign of a state, which Marsilio called the “absolute” legislator. 2nd is the modern legislative function of making laws, whether directly or by a select group (a legislature). 3rd is constitutionalism: that the authority of government derives from a fundamental body of law.

That the people are the rightful source of political authority was a basic idea in Roman jurisprudence and revived in the Middle Ages. Marsilio evolves the conception from a juridical fiction into a call for action.

Marsilio had a complex conception for the “weightier part” of citizenry. Though not intending elitism per se, Marsilio wanted quality taken into account in determining the legislature. Marsilio was undogmatic in knowing that there could be no formula for qualitative standards; that it must be “in accordance with the honorable custom” of the community.

Marsilio wrote in the 14th century, when socioeconomic inequality was taken for granted. Even now equality is at best a polite fiction. Countries where the “legislator” is equally attendant to “the whole body of citizens” are nonexistent.

The British experience illustrates Marsilio’s “weightier part.” The settlement of the Glorious Revolution of 1688 established in England the principle of parliamentary supremacy rather than popular sovereignty in the sense of equal suffrage.

A relatively small number of men – the weightier part of the citizenry – governed the country. This was a transitional step from monarchy to equal suffrage, which only came to fruition in England in 1948 when plural voting (giving businesses and universities unequal representation) was abolished.

The United States too has a qualitative aspect to its Congress. Its senate provides deliberate overrepresentation of less-populous states. This derivation from simple suffrage arithmetic owed that country’s federalist tradition but is a significant statistical departure from the egalitarian democracy which Americans pretend they have.

Marsilio saw freedom primarily as procedural self-government, which despotism lacks, regardless of how good its legislator is.

The elected kind of government is superior to the non-elected. ~ Marsilio of Padua

Just as Marsilio derived the law from an empirical source, he also based the authority of rulers on the will of the community, through election.

The traditional medieval view was that a ruler held office via divine sanction (Catholic dogma), with supposedly superior virtue and wisdom (the Platonic ideal of philosopher-king). Marsilio’s more modern, democratic take was that the authority of a ruler owed to his election, “and not by his knowledge of the laws, his prudence, or moral virtue, although these are qualities of the perfect ruler.”

Most of the citizens are neither vicious nor undiscerning most of the time; all or most of them are of sound mind and reason and have a right desire for the polity and for the things necessary for it to endure, like laws and other statutes or customs. ~ Marsilio of Padua

A minimum of optimism about human nature is requisite for any confidence in democracy. Marsilio conceded that few are sufficiently learned to craft good laws, but he made a leap of faith in assuming an overall quality in the citizenry that Aristotle never could.

The law is more usefully made by the wise and learned than by the unlearned and uncultivated, it seems that the authority to make laws belongs to the few, not to the many or to all. ~ Marsilio of Padua

Marsilio had trouble squaring the circle of quality in the legislator. The qualified few might take advantage of their position.

The common utility of a law is better considered by the entire multitude, because no one knowingly harms himself. Anyone can look to see whether a proposed law leans toward the benefit of one or a few persons more than of the others or of the community, and can protest against it. Such, however, would not be the case were the law made by one or a few persons, considering their own private benefit rather than that of the community. ~ Marsilio of Padua

There is an impractical dissonance to this. The legislator, selected from the “weightier part” of the citizenry, is admittedly subject to corruption, which might be checked by public review of proposed laws.

Alas, Marsilio is silent on how to make this process feasible. He is prescient in anticipating the problem of plutocracy, which is amply manifest in many democratic legislatures, most notably the United States.

If a ruler violates his trust of office, Marsilio thought that the legislator, which establishes the law, must rectify the malfeasance. The legislator temporarily becomes the ultimate power, as there must not be competing authorities. Also “because he is corrected not as a ruler but as a subject who transgressed the law.”

Marsilio rolled the role of judiciary into the legislative branch of government. He did not conceive of a separate judicial branch, which might have the responsibility of adjudging the quality of laws as well as determining and punishing transgressors.

That rulers were ultimately accountable to the people was typical of the Middle Ages. Whereas most medieval writers looked to divine punishment for remedy, or, in extremis, tyrannicide, Marsilio groped for an institutional response.

Marsilio’s conception of the governance as coercive social regulation according to the will of the political community was aimed at despotism, whether by laymen or clergy. His most revolutionary doctrine regarding the church, the one that made its mark on Protestantism, was the idea of congregational authority.

Marsilio had the bold thought that the church had no coercive authority over heretics, which he anyway had trouble construing as a moral offense. If heresy was a transgression, it was up to the secular authorities to deal with it. Marsilio picked an extreme example to argue that the church had no real power in a civil society.


The Middle Ages ended with the displacement of faith in God to faith in human reason, and from belief in papal and imperial authority to that of secular nationalism.

Niccolò Machiavelli

The vulgar crowd always is taken by appearances, and the world consists chiefly of the vulgar. ~ Niccolò Machiavelli

Italian historian, politician, diplomat, and philosopher Niccolò Machiavelli (1469–1527) was one of the founders of modern political science. Owing to his hard-nosed realism about the innate corruptibility of those who lust for power, Machiavelli came to command a sinister reputation like no other political theorist.

Of mankind we may say in general they are fickle, hypocritical, and greedy of gain. ~ Niccolò Machiavelli

Machiavelli viewed individuals generally as wickedly selfish and egoistic. Lacking honesty and a sense of fairness, a grasping man was ready to act in ways detrimental to communal interests. Modern capitalism proved Machiavelli prescient in painting an apt portrait of materialist man.

He who builds on the people, builds on the mud. ~ Niccolò Machiavelli

Machiavelli was convinced that a corrupt people could not achieve or maintain a decent polity, as they would be unable to distinguish between private interests and the public domain. For this reason, Machiavelli favored a strong ruler, and rule of law, with an independent judiciary as a check on corruption by the ruling elite.

There should be many judges, because a few will always favor the few. ~ Niccolò Machiavelli

Unlike Plato, Machiavelli did not dream of a moral philosopher-king. Instead, Machiavelli fondest hope for a ruler was a man with sensible benevolence toward his people.

Princes and governments are far more dangerous than other elements within society. ~ Niccolò Machiavelli

Machiavelli saw order and stable political authority as necessary for social cohesion. Hence, he stressed the need for a unified polity, and a government committed to the liberty of its people. By liberty, Machiavelli meant freedom from both external aggression and internal tyranny. Machiavelli felt that public spirit was essential, as selfishness was erosive of liberty.

The chief foundations of all states, whether new, old, or mixed, are good laws and good arms. – Niccolò Machiavelli

Machiavelli’s views were complex, nuanced, and not altogether consistent. He saw the proper polity as particular to the people governed.

As good habits of the people require good laws to support them, so laws, to be observed, need good habits on the part of the people. Besides, the constitution and laws established in a republic at its very origin, when men were still pure, no longer suit when men have become corrupt and bad. ~ Niccolò Machiavelli

On the one hand, Machiavelli valued freedom. On the other, he recognized the need for a strong authority.

The first method for estimating the intelligence of a ruler is to look at the men he has around him. ~ Niccolò Machiavelli

Machiavelli admired a republication form of government, but prescribed despotism to establish a state and to reform a corrupt people.

The first to espouse the power view of politics, Machiavelli was a pragmatist who thought that the end justified the means.

Politics have no relation to morals. ~ Niccolò Machiavelli