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  • The Politics of William of Ockham in the Light of his Principles
  • Daniel Brooks (bio)


In the most recent monograph on William of Ockham’s political writings, Takashi Shogimen rightly asserts that “there is no such thing as the ‘standard’ view of the Venerabilis Inceptor as a political thinker.”1 This could be said of many medieval writers, but the extent to which it is true of Ockham is noteworthy. Who else has been described as both “a constitutional liberal” and “an anarchist?”2 Was he a “meticulous deconstructor of church and polity” who “irredeemably undermined the foundations of institutions” or “a true theologian” caught up in a “political and doctrinal hurricane?”3 As Tierney notes, we are “not dealing with a schizophrenic,” so it is impossible for these diverse categorizations of Ockham’s later writings to be correct simultaneously.4 The sheer variety of these descriptions implies that there is an explanatory aspect of his political thought that is currently being missed or overlooked, and the goal of the ensuing study is to identify this oversight.

Janet Coleman has affirmed that the question of what Ockham thought is inseparable from why he thought it, and it is the failure to address the latter of these questions which I believe has impeded the study [End Page 133] of the Franciscan’s later works, as scholars refer to his “so-called political tracts,” without asking why they are “so-called.”5 As a result of this willing acceptance of the “political” label, many scholars who claim to see “with Ockham’s eyes” fail to adequately address the theological background and metaphysical beliefs which must have inflected how the man himself perceived the “pure intention” behind his actions.6 A close reading of Ockham’s polemical writings does not reveal a man who had “abandoned his philosophical and theological speculations” as Shogimen posits, but rather a committed theologian who consistently presents “a Franciscan answer” in favor of a limited government which should function only for the common good.7 As the title of this article suggests, this approach is inspired by Armand Maurer’s seminal text The Philosophy of William of Ockham in the Light of Its Principles, as he emphasizes that Ockham “can only be understood in the context of his own time…growing out of a tradition that he inherited and shaped to his own liking.”8 Although Maurer acknowledges that he only feels at home in the philosophical and theological tracts, his approach is an illuminating one for Ockham’s “political” phase as well; if we view the Inceptor’s later works through the prism of his own principles and priorities, we reveal that his theory is not motivated by any political outlook, but by an intensely theological perspective.9

I shall demonstrate the pertinacity of this theological focus in three ways, starting by analyzing the sources to distil his ideas down to four key elements: regular versus occasional power, a negative approach to power, separation of Church and state, and magisterium. Most scholars take Richard Scholz’s suggested date of 1337 as the start of Ockham’s political phase so the “traditional” political works are the Breviloquium, An princeps, De imperatorum et pontificum potestate, and Octo quaestiones de potestate papae, but I will also delve into the earlier sources Epistola ad Fratres Minores, Opus nonaginta dierum, and III Dialogus to prove that – despite having “implications for what we may term political thought” – these four central ideas combine to present a theory which limits governmental [End Page 134] remits and prioritizes the common good of the Christian community.10 I shall then analyze Ockham’s contemporary intellectual context to show how these tenets and his methods are the result of “deep ties with his… predecessors,” and they therefore offer further indication that he built his thought on strictly theological grounds.11 Finally, I shall apply this understanding of his priorities and their intellectual roots to the political context in which he was writing, thereby uncovering a man who remained intensely theological and anti-political in his stance until he died “impenitent” in April 1347.12 His ideas may not have sat well with contemporary pontiffs, but the principles...


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