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Giles of Rome on Political Authority

From: Journal of the History of Ideas
Volume 60, Number 1, January 1999
pp. 21-36 | 10.1353/jhi.1999.0007

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Journal of the History of Ideas 60.1 (1999) 21-36

Dabo tibi regem in furore meo
"I will give you a king in my rage"

It is a commonplace among historians of medieval political theory that two great systems of thought dominate the period. Augustine's City of God held the field until Thomas Aquinas absorbed Aristotle's political thought largely culled from the latter's Politics and Nicomachean Ethics. Aquinas stands as a watershed, a moment when both sources meet and a synthesis is worked out in which Augustine loses ground to Aristotle. Indeed, Augustine's thought loses such a hold on the political theory of the age that R. A. Markus has spoken of a "comfortable obliviousness" in the minds of theorists subsequent to Aquinas that "a profound cleavage" had been wrought by Thomas in the tradition of Christian political thought. Ptolemy of Lucca and Giles of Rome, both of whom were students of Thomas, are picked out by Markus as typical of those theorists who are oblivious to the definitive break that Aquinas makes with Augustine.

Although modern commentators of medieval political theory speak of an Augustinian tradition after Aquinas they are only referring to a series of thinkers who defended papal authority over and above monarchical authority. This tradition is said to be Augustinian because the thinkers defending papal authority, who included Giles, James of Viterbo and Augustinus Triumphus, were members of the Order of Hermits of St. Augustine. Nevertheless, these Augustinians are said to have absorbed Thomas's Aristotelianism: convinced by his argument that since coercive power is intrinsic to political authority and since political authority is natural to the human condition, it must have been the case that coercive power existed in the state of innocence. These Augustinians, modern scholarship maintains, did not then defend Augustine's thesis that coercive political authority is unnatural to human society and was only introduced (albeit necessarily) into post-lapsarian society so that the worst excesses of our sinful condition might be controlled. Markus is by no means alone in identifying Giles as a follower of Thomas whose theory of dominium marks a radical break with Augustine. Recently, J. M. Blythe has cited Markus when concurring with him that Giles simply adopts Thomas's position which, as he puts it, "was to become ubiquitous in late medieval political discourse."

Perhaps this consensus has its origin in a most peculiar fact about twentieth-century scholarship on Giles's political thought: none of it is based on a wide reading of his philosophical and theological corpus. Admittedly, an extensive reading of Giles is a daunting task. The editors-in-chief of the project to provide critical editions of Giles's works catalogue sixty-seven titles and this vast array of writings match those of the other "greats" of the period in their scope, variety, complexity, and influence. The hope of this essay is to show that a reading of Giles's Sentences-commentary reveals him to be far more Augustinian than previously acknowledged this century.

Although it is well recognized that Giles was one of the most original and influential political theorists of the Middle Ages, the pages dedicated to his political ideas amount to a few pages here and there, and sometimes as little as a few isolated comments, in the standard works on medieval political theory. Moreover, these works unanimously consider only Giles's explicitly political works. This limitation began with Otto Gierke, who single-handedly demonstrated the depth and richness of medieval political theory. At the beginning of his classic work, Political Theory of the Middle Age, Gierke provides a fifteen-page list of sources. For Thomas's political thought Gierke directs us not only to Thomas's explicitly political treatises such as his commentary on Aristotle's Politics and the opusculum, De regimine principum, but also to the Summa theologiae, Summa contra gentiles, Thomas's Disputed and Quodlibetal questions, his exposition of the Psalms, and commentaries on Paul's Letters as well as his Sentences-commentary. Yet for Giles only his De regimine principum and De potestate ecclesiastica are cited. Gierke's selection is repeated by McIlwain, Lewis, Kantorowicz, Wilks, Ullmann, Morrall, Viroli, and the...


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