VI. THE REFORMERS

While ibn-Khaldun was founding sociology in Islam, Pierre Dubois, Nicole Oresme, Marsilius of Padua, and Nicholas of Cusa were developing kindred studies, less systematically, in Christendom. Dubois served Philip IV of France as Ockham and Marsilius served Louis of Bavaria, by aiming intellectual broadsides against the papacy, and singing doxologies to the state. In a Supplication du peuple de France au roi contre le pape Boniface (1308), and in a treatise De recuperatione terre sanete (On the Recapture of the Holy Land, 1305), the ardent lawyer recommended that the papacy should shed all its temporal possessions and powers, that the rulers of Europe should repudiate the papal authority in their realms, and that the French Church should divorce itself from Rome and submit to secular authority and law. Moreover, proceeded Dubois, all Europe should be united under the French king as emperor, with his capital at Constantinople as a bastion against Islam. An international court should be established to adjudicate the quarrels of nations, and an economic boycott should be declared against any Christian nation that should open war against another. Women should have the same educational opportunities and political rights as men.

No one seemed to pay much attention to these proposals, but they entered into the intellectual currents that undermined the papacy. Two centuries after Dubois, Henry VIII, who doubtless had never heard of him, followed his program, and Wyclif’s, in religion; and in the early nineteenth century Napoleon set up for a moment a united Europe under French leadership, with the pope a captive of the state. Dubois belonged to that rising legal profession which aspired to replace the clergy in administering the government. He won his battle; we live in the heyday of his victory.

Oresme, who stirred so manv pools, wrote toward 1355 one of the clearest and most straightforward essays in all economic literature—On the Origin, Nature, Law, and Alterations of Money. The money of a country, he argued, belongs to the community, not to the king; it is a social utility, not a royal perquisite; the ruler or government may regulate its issue, but should make no profit from minting it, and should maintain its metallic quality undebased. A king who dilutes the coinage is a thief.77 Moreover, bad money (as “Gresham’s Law” would say two centuries later) drives good money out of circulation; people will secrete or export good coin, and the dishonest government will receive in its revenues only its depreciated currency. These ideas of Oresme were not merely ideals; he taught them, as tutor, to the son of John II. When his pupil became Charles V, the young King, after one desperate devaluation, profited from his teacher’s instruction by restoring the shattered finances of war-ridden France to a sound and honest basis.

Marsilius of Padua was of more volatile temperament than Oresme: an uncompromising individualist proud of his intellect and courage, and making his political philosophy an inextricable part of his hectic life. Son of a notary in Padua, he studied medicine at the university; probably he owed some of his anticlerical radicalism to the atmosphere of Averroistic skepticism that Petrarch found and denounced there in the same generation. Passing to Paris, he became for a year rector of the university. In 1324, with the minor collaboration of John of Jandun, he composed the most remarkable and influential political treatise of the Middle Ages —Defensor pacts (The Defender of Peace). Knowing that the book must be condemned by the Church, the authors fled to Nuremberg and placed themselves under the wing of the Emperor Louis of Bavaria, then at war with the pope.

They could not have expected so lusty a fighter as John XXII to take calmly their bellicose defense of peace. The book argued that the peace of Europe was being destroyed by strife between state and Church, and that peace could be restored and best maintained by bringing the Church, with all her property and personnel, under the same Imperial or royal authority as other groups and goods. It was (ran the argument) a mistake for the Church ever to have acquired property; nothing in Scripture justified such acquisition.

Like Ockham, the authors defined the Church as the whole body of Christians. As the Roman people, in Roman law, was the real sovereign, and merely delegated its authority to consuls, senate, or emperors, so the Christian community should delegate, but should never surrender, its powers to its representatives, the clergy; and these should be held responsible to the people whom they represent. The derivation of the papal supremacy from the Apostle Peter is, in Marsilius’s view, an historical error; Peter had no more authority than the other Apostles, and the bishops of Rome, in their first three centuries, had no more authority than the bishops of several other ancient capitals. Not the pope but the emperor or his delegates presided over the first general councils. A general council, freely elected by the people of Christendom, should interpret the Scriptures, define the Catholic faith, and choose the cardinals, who should choose the pope.78 In all temporal matters the clergy, including the pope, should be subject to civil jurisdiction and law. The state should appoint and remunerate the clergy, fix the number of churches and priests, remove such priests as it finds unworthy, take control of ecclesiastical endowments, schools, and income, and relieve the poor out of the surplus revenues of the Church.79

Here again was the strident voice of the upsurging national state. Having, through the support of the rising middle classes, subdued the barons and the communes, the kings now felt strong enough to repudiate the claims of the Church to sovereignty over the civil power. Seizing the opportunity presented by the deterioration of the Church’s international and intellectual authority, the secular rulers now dreamed of mastering every phase of life in their realms, including religion and the Church. This was the basic issue that would be fought out in the Reformation; and the triumph of the state over the Church would mark one terminus of the Middle Ages. (In 1535 Henry VIII, at the height of his revolt against the Church, had the Defensor pads translated and published at governmental expense.)

Marsilius, like Ockham and Luther, after proposing to replace the authority of the Church with that of the people, was compelled, both for social order and for his own security, to replace it with the authority of the state. But he did not raise the kings into ogres of omnipotence. He looked beyond the triumph of the state to the day when the people might actually exercise the sovereignty that legal theorists had long affected to vest in them. In ecclesiastical reform-he advocated democracy: each Christian community should choose its representative to church councils, each parish should choose its own priests, control them, dismiss them if need should be; and no member of the parish should be excommunicated without its consent. Marsilius applied similar principles to civil government, but with hesitant modifications:

We declare, according to truth and the opinion of Aristotle, that the legislator—the prime and proper effective cause of law—should be the people, the whole body of citizens, or its weightier part (valentiorem partem), commanding or deciding by its own choice or will, expressed verbally in a general assembly of the citizens.... I say weightier part, taking into consideration both the number of persons, and their quality, in the community for which the law is enacted. The whole body of citizens, or its weightier part, either makes law directly or commits this duty to some one or a few; but the latter do not, and cannot, constitute the legislator in the strict sense of the term; they act only in such matters, and for such periods, as are covered by the authorization from the primary legislator.... I call citizen him who participates in the civil community with either deliberative or judicial authority, according to his rank. By this definition boys, slaves, aliens, and women are distinguished from citizens.... . Only out of the deliberation and will of the whole multitude is the best law produced.... A majority, more readily than any of its parts, can discern the defects in a law proposed for enactment, for an entire body is greater in power and worth than any of its separate parts.80

This is a remarkable statement for its time (1324), and the conditions of the age justify its hesitations. Even Marsilius would not advocate equal suffrage for all adults in a Europe where hardly one person in ten could read, communication was difficult, and class divisions were mortised in the cement of time. Indeed, he rejected complete democracy, wherein policy and legislation would be determined by a count of noses (egenorum multitudo—“a multitude of needy people”); and to correct this “corruption of a republic” he was willing that individuals should have political power commensurate with their value to the community—though he did not say how or by whom this was to be judged. He left room for monarchy, but added that “a ruler who is elected is greatly to be preferred to rulers who are hereditary.”81 The king is to be a delegate and servant of the public; and if he seriously misbehaves it may rightly depose him.82

These ideas had a medieval, even an ancient, origin: the Roman lawyers and the Scholastic philosophers had regularly endowed the people with a theoretical sovereignty; the papacy itself was an elective monarchy; the pope called himself servus servorum Dei—“servant of the servants of God”; and Thomas Aquinas had agreed with John of Salisbury on the right of the people to overthrow a lawless king. But rarely in Christendom had these ideas been extended to so explicit a formulation of representative government. Here in one man, in the fourteenth century, were the ideas of both the Protestant Reformation and the French Revolution.

Marsilius was too far ahead of his time to be comfortable. He rose rapidly with Louis of Bavaria, and fell rapidly with his fall. When Louis made peace with the popes he was required to dismiss Marsilius as a heretic. We do not know the sequel. Apparently Marsilius died in 1343, an outcast alike from the Church that he had fought and from the state that he had labored to exalt.

His temporary success would have been impossible had not the rising legal profession given to the state an authority rivaling that of the Church. Over the ruins of feudal and communal law, beside and often against the canon law of the Church, the lawyers raised the “positive law” of the state; and year by year this royal or secular law extended its reach over the affairs of men. The law schools of Montpelier, Orléans, and Paris turned out bold and subtle legists who used Roman law to build up, as against papal claims, a theory of divine right and absolute power for their royal masters. These ideas were strongest in France, where they evolved into L’état c’est moi and Le roi soleil; they prevailed also in Spain, preparing the absolutism of Ferdinand, Charles V, and Philip II; and even in parliamentary England Wyclif expounded the unlimited authority of the divine king. Lords and commons opposed the theory, and Sir John Fortescue insisted that the English king could not issue laws without the consent of Parliament, and that English judges were bound, by their oath, to judge by the law of the land, whatever the king might desire; but under Henry VII, Henry VIII, and Elizabeth, England too would kneel to absolute rulers. Between the rival absolutisms of popes and kings some idealistic spirits clung to the notion of a “natural law,” a divine justice implanted in the human conscience, phrased in the Gospels, and superior to any law of man. Neither the state nor the Church paid more than lip service to this conception; it remained in the background, professed and ignored, but ever faintly alive. In the eighteenth century it would father the American Declaration of Independence and the French Declaration of the Rights of Man, and would play a minor but eloquent role in a revolution that for a time upset both the absolutisms that had ruled mankind.

Nicholas of Cusa fought, and then resigned himself to, the absolutism of the papacy. In his varied career he showed the best face of organized Christianity to a Germany always suspicious of the Church. Philosopher and administrator, theologian and legist, mystic and scientist, he combined in one powerful personality the best constituents of those Middle Ages that were closing with his life. Born at Cues, near Trier (1401), he learned a medley of scholarship and devotion in the school of the Brethren of the Common Life at Deventer. In a year at Heidelberg he felt the influence of Ockham’s nominalism; at Padua he was touched for a time with the skepticism of Averroës; at Cologne he absorbed the orthodox tradition of Albertus Magnus and Thomas Aquinas; all the elements were mixed in him that would make him the most complete Christian of his time.

He never quite abandoned the mystical mood that had reached him from Meister Eckhart; he wrote a classic of mysticism in De visione Dei; and in a philosophic defense of such visions (Apologia doctae ignorantiae) he coined a famous phrase—“learned ignorance.” He rejected the Scholastic rationalism that sought to prove theology by reason; all human knowledge, he felt, is relative and uncertain; truth is hidden in God.83 Generally he rejected astrology; but, succumbing to the delusions of his epoch, he indulged in some astrological calculations, and reckoned that the end of the world would come in 1734.84 Amid a life crowded with ecclesiastical activity he kept abreast of scientific thought. He urged more experiment and more accurate measurements; he suggested timing the fall of different bodies from different heights; he taught that the earth “cannot be fixed, but moves like other stars”;85 every star, however fixed it may seem, moves; no orbit is precisely circular; the earth is not the center of the universe, except in so far as any point may be taken as the center of an infinite universe.86 These were sometimes judicious borrowings, sometimes brilliant aperçus.

In 1433 Nicholas went to Basel to present to the ecclesiastical council there the claims of a friend to the archiepiscopal see of Cologne. His plea failed, but he took the opportunity of presenting to the council—then at odds with the pope—a work of some moment in the history of philosophy. He called it De concordantia Catholica, and its general purpose was to find terms of accord between the councils and the popes. In an elaborate analogy with a living organism, he pictured the Church as an organic unity, incapable of successful functioning except through the harmonious co-operation of its parts. Instead of concluding, as the popes might have done, that the parts should be guided by the head, Nicholas argued that only a general council could represent, express, and unify the interdependent elements of the Church. He repeated Aquinas and Marsilius, and almost plagiarized Rousseau and Jefferson, in an idealistic passage:

Every law depends upon the law of nature; and if it contradicts this it cannot be a valid law.... Since by nature all men are free, then every government... exists solely by the agreement and consent of the subjects.... The binding power of any law consists in this tacit or explicit agreement and consent.87

The sovereign people delegates its powers to small groups equipped by education or experience to make or administer laws; but these groups derive their just powers from the consent of the governed. When the Christian community delegates its powers to a general council of the Church, that council, and not the pope, represents the sovereign authority in religion. Nor can the pope rest his claim to legislative absolutism on the supposed Donation of Constantine, for that Donation is a forgery and a myth.88 A pope has a right to summon a general council, but such a council, if it judges him unfit, may rightly depose him. And the same principles hold for secular princes. An elective monarchy is probably the best government available to mankind in its present depraved condition; but the secular ruler, like the pope, should periodically convene a representative assembly, and should submit to its decrees.’

Nicholas’ later life was a model for prelates. Made a cardinal (1448), he became in person a Catholic Reformation. In a strenuous tour through the Netherlands and Germany, he held provincial synods, revived ecclesiastical discipline, reformed the monasteries and nunneries, attacked priestly concubinage, furthered the education of the clergy, and raised, at least for a time, the level of clerical and popular morality. “Nicholas of Cusa,” wrote the learned Abbot Trithemius, “appeared in Germany as an angel of light and peace amid darkness and confusion. He restored the unity of the Church, strengthened the authority of her Supreme Head, and sowed a precious seed of new life.”89

To his other titles Nicholas could have added that of humanist. He loved the ancient classics, encouraged their study, and planned to print for wide circulation the Greek manuscripts that he himself had brought from Constantinople. He had the true scholar’s tolerance. In a Dialogue on Peace, composed in the very year when Constantinople fell to the Turks, he pleaded for mutual understanding among the religions as diverse rays of one eternal truth.90 And in the dawn of modern thought, when the rising freedom of the intellect was an intoxication, he wrote sound and noble words:

To know and to think, to see the truth with the eye of the mind, is always a joy. The older a man grows, the greater is the pleasure that this affords him.... As love is the life of the heart, so is the endeavor after knowledge and truth the life of the mind. Amid the movements of time, the daily labor, perplexities, and contradictions of life, we should lift our gaze fearlessly to the clear vault of heaven, and seek ever to obtain a firmer grasp of .... the origin of all goodness and beauty, the capacities of our own hearts and minds, the intellectual fruits of mankind throughout the centuries, and the wonderful works of Nature around us; but remembering always that in humility alone lies true greatness, and that knowledge and wisdom are profitable only in so far as our lives are governed by them.91

Had there been more such Nicholases there might have been no Luther.

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