Andrew Fulford Archive Authors Civic Polity

Marsilius on When to Correct the Prince

Elsewhere I have written about Protestant resistance theory, and how the cases of justified opposition to magistrates are limited in scope:

Calvin also wanted to preserve a relatively just and peaceful social order, believing that such was natural good of human beings. As an implication of this principle, he upheld the basic principles of just war tradition, as Mark J. Larson has recently shown in his Calvin’s Doctrine of the Christian State. Included within this tradition are the rules that just wars should be waged for a just cause, and with the right intention, i.e., a just peace. Above I quoted Calvin’s justification for war based on the duties of the state, and the examples he gives for justified wars are what would count as just causes. It should be noted that Calvin does not list any minor, frivolous infractions there. Rather, he speaks of people who disturb “the repose of private individuals and the common tranquility of all, who [raise] seditious tumults, and by whom violent oppressions and vile misdeeds are perpetuated.”[5] The Magdeburg Confession around his time, and Calvinist thinkers like Christopher Goodman and “Junius Brutus” after him, would make explicit that resistance is justified not for any failing on the part of the government, but for atrocious and notorious ones, and Calvin’s own logic would support this point.

In Defensor Pacis, the basically proto-Protestant Marsilius of Padua elucidates further, based on natural law reasoning, how to detect when such cases have arisen. He points to three criteria in particular: the severity, regularity, and legality of the offence:

However, because the prince, being human, has an intellect and a desire which can take on different forms … it is possible for him, if he follows them, to do things contrary to what is laid down by law. For this reason the prince is, in these actions, rendered subject to measurement by something else that has the authority to measure or regulate him (or those actions of his which transgress the law) according to the law; for otherwise any principate would become tyrannical, and the life of the citizens slavish and insufficient … [1.18.3]

Basing on this principle, then, our approach to the doubts in question, let us say that an excess on the part of the prince is either serious or slight; again, it is either one of those things that can happen often, or that can happen only rarely; still further, it is either something defined by law or not. If the prince’s offence is serious — for example against the republic or an important person or indeed any other person, where failure to bring him to account would be likely to cause scandal or popular commotion — then in this case the prince should be corrected for it, whether it is something that happens often or only rarely. For if it remained unpunished, popular commotion and the disturbance and destruction of the polity could be possible. If it is defined by law, then he should be corrected according to the law; if it is not, then according to the sentence of the legislator… . [1.18.3]

Now if an excess on the part of the prince is slight, then either it is one of those things that happen only rarely, and is only rarely committed by the prince, or it is one of those things that can occur often and is often committed by the prince. If it is or is capable of being committed by the prince only rarely, then one should turn a blind eye rather than have the prince corrected for it. Because if the prince were corrected for any minor excess that rarely happens, he would be rendered an object of contempt; and this does no small damage to the community in that the citizens as a result show less reverence and obedience to the law and to the prince. And again because if the prince were unwilling to submit to arraignment for every tiny offence, since this would diminish him in repute, a serious scandal would arise. But nothing of this kind — which cannot yield any evident utility, but only harm — should be aggravated in communities. [1.18.5]

However, if the excess on the part of the prince is slight but with the possibility of happening often, then it should be defined in law, and a prince who is frequently delinquent in respect of it should be constrained by an appropriate penalty. For however slight, an offence of this type will do significant damage to the polity if it is committed often… . [1.18.7]