- Marsilius of Padua at the Intersection of Ancient and Medieval Traditions of Political Thought by Vasileios Syros
The meaning of Marsilius of Padua’s political thought is highly contested. Two central problems have characterized the ongoing scholarly debate concerning the Paduan’s political writings. First, scholars have failed to ascertain conclusively the etiology of Marsilius’s political thought and, second, scholars have been unable to posit the exact locus of the Italian thinker in intellectual political history. The attendant consequences of these shortcomings are the proliferation of numerous rival and mutually exclusive interpretations of the Paduan or a recent crop of complexity interpretations, perspectives that emphasize the indebtedness of Marsilius to numerous intellectual traditions without privileging any of these traditions. The first set of interpretations characterizes Marsilius as a distinct and active political thinker (e.g., Aristotelian, secular) within a particular historical locus (e.g., medieval, modern). The latter set of interpretations focuses on the intellectual traditions that appear to have influenced the Paduan’s thought characterizing Marsilius more as a political receptor than a distinct political actor.
Vasileios Syros’s erudite monograph belongs to the complexity genre of Marsilian scholarship. Syros is primarily interested in positing Marsilius more as a receptor of numerous intellectual traditions—a “purveyor” of ideas—than as a distinct intellectual with a definite progeny. This is evidenced in one of the central arguments of the book—Marsilius is not Aristotelian. Syros presents a lengthy and weighty treatment of Marsilius’s political thought in the Defensor pacis (1324) in comparison to Aristotle, Plato, Cicero, and various Islamic and Latin thinkers. He concludes that the Paduan is more indebted to numerous non-Aristotelian intellectual traditions than he is to “The Philosopher” calling for a “drastic reassessment of the notion of political Aristotelianism” (p. 114). Syros plows no new ground here. Other scholars, particularly Cary J. Nederman, have for some time called into question the essentialist approach to interpreting Aristotle in the moral and political thought of the Middle Ages. Nederman and other scholars also have provided significant evidence concerning the various intellectual lineages (e.g., Cicero, Augustine) that may have influenced Marsilius. Syros’s important contributions are in expanding the range of sources important for this discussion as well as in introducing a comparative dimension to Marsilian studies through an exploration of the relationship between the Defensor pacis and medieval Arabic and Jewish intellectuals. It is here where Syros’s work is exemplary. [End Page 598]
The complexity approach to interpreting Marsilius does not prohibit Syros from venturing into affirmations characteristic of interpretations that focus more on Marsilius as a political actor than simply a receptive purveyor. Syros suggests that Marsilius advances the secularization of politics and that his political thought anticipates modern political ideas. This is both surprising and disappointing. It is surprising because the complexity paradigm emphasizes intellectual lineages in an effort to deconstruct reductionist perspectives; and yet one finds Syros advancing such a perspective about Marsilius. It is disappointing because, in his deconstruction of a reductionist perspective (e.g., Marsilius the Aristotelian), Syros uses certain intellectual lineages to reconstruct a secular and anticipatory Marsilius while ignoring other lineages that raise significant challenges to this reconstruction. One of these lineages is Marsilius’s clear and consistent identification with the Christian faith and his extensive use of biblical sources, ecclesiastical history, and theological concepts in the Defensor pacis—particularly in discourse II. Any serious interpretation of Marsilius’s political thought must take this into account. This is sadly not the case in Syros’s interpretation.
Marsilius of Padua continues to garner attention, reminding one that the Italian political thinker has earned an important place in the history of political thought. Syros’s volume is a vital and welcomed addition to Marsilian scholarship and deserves careful consideration.
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