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  • Marsilius of Padua and "The Truth of History"
  • Cary J. Nederman
Marsilius of Padua and "The Truth of History." By George Garnett.(New York: Oxford University Press. 2006. Pp. xii, 221. $80.00.)

George Garnett has produced an original, provocative, and clever book that adds new dimensions to the understanding of perhaps the most controversial antipapal polemicist and political thinker of the later Middle Ages, Marsiglio (Marsilius) of Padua. Although a relatively brief volume, Garnett packs into it a wealth of new interpretations and insights to which no short review can possibly do justice. Stated summarily, Garnett's thesis is two-pronged. First, despite Marsiglio's clear division of his magnum opus, the Defensor pacis, into two main discourses—Dictio I on the foundation of temporal authority, Dictio II on the nature of ecclesiastical government—the bifurcation is a distraction from the overall unity of the treatise. Second, this unity is constituted by a providential recounting of human history from the Fall through the life of Jesus and the early Church down to the Roman Empire and Marsiglio's own age, which Garnett terms a "dialectic" of "perfection"and "perversion" (p. 52). Garnett thus treats Marsiglio's oeuvre (not only the Defensor pacis but also his De translatione imperii and Defensor minor) as of a piece, rather than distinguishing between "temporal" and "spiritual" dimensions of his thought.

This reading is both a valuable and a challenging one. Its value derives from its effort to recontextualize Marsiglio's contribution from the perspective of his immediate audience, including those sympathetic to his political agenda as well as those hostile to it. The second section of Garnett's first chapter is devoted to a careful analysis of this historical reception. Garnett insists that the only proper and appropriate way to approach Marsiglio's thought is through the eyes of his contemporaries, whose reactions to the Defensor pacis arose not from the main propositions of Dictio I per se, but instead from the purported errors contained in Dictio II when read in conjunction with the first discourse. (Since Garnett is so concerned with getting history right, it does not seem churlish to point out that his account contains a few historical inaccuracies concerning the date and circumstances of Marsiglio's departure from [End Page 342] Paris following the completion of the Defensor pacis in the middle of 1324, which have now been corrected by the very recent research of Frank Godthardt; I do not have the space in the present review to list them, but this is not nit-picking, because so much of Garnett's interpretation rests on a correct chronology of the details of Marsiglio's post-1324 activities.)

As one might surmise from Garnett's rigorous emphasis on historical context, the challenge posed by his book stems from his distaste for scholars who privilege the first discourse of the Defensor pacis as the core of Marsiglian political theory and hence largely ignore the (much longer) Dictio II. The latter perspective enjoys a long and venerable lineage in modern scholarship, starting at least as early as the nineteenth century—and perhaps arising from the memorable phrase of Albertus Pighius, coined in the sixteenth century, that Marsiglio was "homo Aristotelicus magis quam Christianus." Garnett regards this line of interpretation to depend on a fundamentally and irredeemably flawed anachronistic hermeneutic. Unfortunately, Garnett's literature review section in his opening chapter in highly compressed and selective, as well as somewhat mean-spirited. He neglects the important and well-known views of Conal Condren and James Blythe in English, does not address the work of numerous Italian scholars (including Maurizio Merlo and Roberto Lambertini), and ignores a substantial body of literature in German. Since the present reviewer is one of Garnett's targets, I wish to point out that he seems not to realize the legitimate differences between the questions that philosophers and political theorists ask about a text and those posed by historians. Unlike him, however, I see nothing especially problematic about laying historical interpretations side by side with philosophical ones. It seems burdensome to demand a single, indubitable interpretation of a complex set of ideas—a declaration of absolute "right" and "wrong...


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