March 7, 2010
Among the many daring, shocking, and disturbing moves that Marsilius makes in his Defensor Pacis, the most unconvincing is probably his carefully-hedged espousal of democracy. Mindful of the fact that the classical and Christian political tradition since Aristotle has almost universally condemned democracy, and also that the rulers who are Marsilius’s patrons are likely to be none too friendly to it, but resting the chief pillar of his political theory on the concept that government derives from the will of the people, Marsilius does what perhaps anyone in such a position must do--he fudges. With a little phrase, “or the weightier part thereof” he sidesteps all the vexing problems of the issue of representation, which have underlain all major political disputes through the whole modern period.
It first appears here: “The absolutely primary human authority to make or establish human laws belongs only to those men wrom whom alone the best laws can emerge. But these are the whole body of citizens, or the weightier part thereof, which represents that whole body.” It then appears twice more right afterwards--”The authority to make or establish laws, therefore, belongs only to the whole body of citizens, or to the weightier part thereof....But that this [the making of laws beneficial to all] is best achieved only by the whole body of the citizens or by the weightier part thereof, which is assumed to be the same thing, I show as follows...” and then many more times throughout the treatise.
But, of course, it is not the same thing. Are the best laws made by all of the common people coming to unanimous agreement, or by 51% of the common people overruling the other 49%, or by an elected council of local notables, or by hereditary local notables, or by a king elected by the nobility? It does make rather a difference, and one cannot merely assume that whatever philosophical claims one may make regarding the entire body of the people can also be made for whomever happens to comprise “the weightier part” of the people, as ever more radical pushes toward democracy have insistently pointed out. Marsilius doesn’t really want pure democracy, but, if he appeals to the people, to the people he must go. Once he set in motion the train of government by the will of the people, it refuses to stop until it reaches democratic utopia, or flies off its tracks. Unfortunately, the latter seems a far more likely fate.