Ockham's Political Writings

John Kilcullen

Republished with the permission of Cambridge University Press from P.V. Spade (ed.), The Cambridge Companion to Ockham (Cambridge, 1999). (See Catalogue, Order.)

In the year 1328 Ockham and certain leading members of the Franciscan order became convinced that the pope of the day, Pope John XXII, was a heretic and therefore no pope. From then until his death in 1347 Ockham wrote nothing more (or almost nothing) on logic, natural philosophy or speculative philosophy, but produced a large body of books and pamphlets, commonly called his "political" writings, advocating the deposition of John XXII and his successors, Benedict XII and Clement VI. [Note 1] The quarrel with these popes began when John XXII issued several documents attacking doctrines and practices of the Franciscan order on the subject of poverty, doctrines which the Franciscans believed to be based on the Bible and the accepted teaching of the Church. To understand Ockham's political writings, therefore, we must first consider Franciscan ideas about poverty.

Franciscan poverty

Most people today, including most Christians, see nothing ideal in poverty. God provides for us partly by giving us the intelligence to provide for ourselves, and intelligence suggests that we should take a reasonable amount of trouble now to acquire money and other property and rights useful for worthwhile purposes later. In the New Testament, however, many passages seem to idealise poverty and improvidence. Jesus himself was poor: "Foxes have holes, and birds of the air have nests; but the Son of Man [i.e. Jesus] has nowhere to lay his head" (Matthew, 8:20). [Note 2] He recommended poverty: "If you would be perfect, go, sell what you possess and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow me" (Matthew, 19:21). He discouraged concern for the future: "Look at the birds of the air; they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not of more value than they? Therefore I tell you, do not be anxious about your life, what you shall eat or what you shall drink, nor about your body, what you shall put on... your heavenly Father knows that you need [these things]. But seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things shall be yours as well. Therefore, do not be anxious about tomorrow" (Matthew, 6:24-34). By voluntary poverty medieval Christians hoped to humble themselves and do penance for sin, to acknowledge the superiority of spiritual over worldly values, to be set free from worldly cares to serve God, and to express trust in God's providence; for the Franciscans poverty was also a way of identifying with the poor to whom they preached the gospel.

St Francis of Assisi, the founder of the Franciscans, [Note 3] was the son of a rich merchant who renounced his inheritance to follow Christ. At Mass one day he was struck by the words of the Gospel in which Jesus addresses the disciples he is sending out to preach: "Take no gold, nor silver, nor copper in your belts, no bag for your journey, nor two tunics, nor sandals, nor a staff; for the labourer deserves his food" (Matthew, 10:9). [Note 4] Francis took this text as the charter of the Order of Lesser Brothers; they were to be itinerant preachers without money or possessions, depending for the necessities of life on gifts made by the people they preached to. Looking back at the end of his life, Francis wrote in his "Testament": "Those who embraced this life gave everything they had to the poor. They were satisfied with one habit [i.e. tunic] which was patched inside and outside, and a cord, and trousers. We refused to have anything more". [Note 5] But even before Francis died, controversies had begun, both within the Order and between the Franciscans and others, about the theory and practice of poverty.

In matters of poverty, Francis was an extremist. He did make prudent provision for the needs of sick brothers and for possession of basic clothing, but these were about all the concessions he made. Theologians at the time drew a distinction between duties incumbent on all and "counsels of perfection" not binding on all: "If you would be perfect, go, sell what you possess and give to the poor"--but we are allowed to choose not to aspire to this degree of perfection. Francis seemed to want his Brothers to bind themselves by vow to observe the counsels of perfection. In particular, he wanted his order to exemplify the highest poverty. "The friars should be delighted to follow the lowliness and poverty of our Lord Jesus Christ, remembering that of the whole world we must own nothing; 'but having food and sufficient clothing, with these let us be content' (1 Tim. 6:8), as St Paul says. They should be glad to live among social outcasts, among the poor and helpless, the sick and the lepers, and those who beg by the wayside." [Note 6] "The friars are to appropriate nothing for themselves, neither a house, nor a place, nor anything else. As 'strangers and pilgrims' (1 Pet. 2:11) in this world, who serve God in poverty and humility, they should beg alms trustingly." [Note 7] Once when he and his companions were living in an old shed, a peasant who wanted to use the shed but expected to be repulsed sent his donkey into it; Francis and his companions simply moved out of the shed and left it to him. [Note 8] "No matter where they are, in hermitages or elsewhere, the friars must be careful not to claim the ownership of any place, or try to hold it against someone else." [Note 9] "They should give to every man who asks, and if a man takes what is theirs, they should not ask him to restore it." [Note 10] Francis was especially opposed to the use of money. "All the friars, no matter where they are or where they go, are forbidden to take or accept money in any way or under any form, or have it accepted for them, for clothing or books, or as wages, or in any other necessity, except to provide for the urgent needs of those who are ill." [Note 11] When they went begging, it was for food and things they needed, not for money to buy them.

Francis and his first companions had been laymen. Soon, however, priests joined the Order, and before long most of its members were priests. The approach to preaching and priestly ministry became more professional. Brothers became students, eventually there were Franciscan schools of theology in the universities, there were Franciscan convents, churches and other buildings. Attitudes began to change. It seemed to some in the Order that more thought needed to be taken for tomorrow, that a somewhat more assured access to material means might be required, that it might be useful to gain and exercise some legal rights (at least indirectly, through agents). Changing attitudes led to conflict among the Franciscans between those who modelled themselves most closely on Francis (notably those who had been his closest companions at the end of his life, when he was no longer the head of the Order) and those who made plans for the morrow. The zealots told stories about Francis illustrating the authentic Franciscan attitudes: "He ordered the friar who did the cooking for the brothers, when he wanted to give them vegetables to eat, not to put them in hot water in the evening ready for the following day, as is usually done, so that they might obey that saying of the holy Gospel, 'Take no thought for the morrow'". [Note 12] When the citizens of Assisi (with an eye to the tourist dollar already?) built a house for the brothers coming to a general chapter of the order, Francis started to tear it down: "He got up on the roof and with strong hands tore off the slates and tiles. He also commanded the brothers to come up and to tear down this monstrous thing contrary to poverty... He therefore would have destroyed the house to its very foundations, except that a knight who was standing by cooled the ardour of his spirit when he said that the house belonged to the commune and not to the brothers." [Note 13]

This last story implies the compromise that the majority of the Order (the "conventual" party) adopted: the Franciscans themselves owned nothing (they had no dominium, i.e. "lordship", or proprietas), but they had the use (usus) of things that always remained the property of the donors. The zealots (or "spirituals") seem to have accepted this theory but emphasised that Franciscans should practise "poor use", i.e. not use an abundance of good things made available by donors but be content with poor houses, simple food, and short and patched habits. The "minister general" who did much to stabilise the Order, Bonaventure, defined evangelical (i.e. "gospel") poverty as follows: "Since there are two things to be considered with regard to the possession of temporal goods, dominium and usus, and usus is necessarily annexed to the present life; it is the nature of evangelical poverty to renounce earthly possessions in respect of dominium and proprietas, and, not to reject usus utterly, but to restrain it". [Note 14] The members of every religious order took a vow of poverty. What distinguished the poverty of the Franciscans was, they claimed, that not only individual members of the Order, but also the Order itself as a body, had no lordship over any thing--no property either individually or in common. Everything the brothers used belonged to someone else, either the original donors or the pope. According to the Franciscans, Jesus and the Apostles had also been poor in this sense: that is, they owned nothing, either individually or as a group, but made use of things that others made available to them. The theory of poverty elaborated by Bonaventure was endorsed in the constitution Exiit qui seminat, issued by Pope Nicholas III in 1279. [Note 15]

John XXII's attack on Franciscan poverty

In the years 1322 and 1323, after much intervening controversy, [Note 16] Pope John XXII acted to repudiate the Franciscan theory. In his constitution Ad conditorem (December 1332; second version January 1323) [Note 17] he decreed that in future (with the exception of church buildings, vestments, and other things used in divine worship) the Papacy would not accept ownership of things given to the Franciscans; the Franciscan Order would be the owners themselves. This destroyed in practice their claim that as a body they held no property. He also rejected their theory. The idea that the papacy can own something of which the Franciscans permanently have the use is incompatible with the Roman law principle that ownership and usufruct cannot be separated permanently. Ownership permanently separated from use would be "simple" or "bare" and useless, and the Franciscans' lack of it would not constitute poverty. In respect of things consumed by use (such as food), there can be no separation, even temporary, between ownership and use: in the technical sense the word had in the Roman law, "use" is a right to use something without destroying its substance; but the use of things consumed by use destroys their substance; to give the use of a consumable thing is therefore to give ownership. Simple use of fact without any right to use would be unjust, since just use of a thing requires a right to use it. In the everyday "factual" sense of "use", it is impossible for an owner to grant use to another person, since the act of using is already necessarily the act of the person using; the owner merely gives the other a right to perform that person's own act (e.g. riding) upon the owner's thing (e.g. his horse). In another constitution, Cum inter nonnullos (November 1323), John rejected the doctrine that Jesus and the Apostles had nothing either individually or as a group. In a third constitution, Quia quorundam (November, 1324), he defended Ad conditorem and Cum inter against critics who alleged that it was beyond his power to contradict the teachings of Nicholas III in the decretal Exiit (which John did not admit that he was doing). On the topic of property, he once again argued that no one can justly use things without some right of use.

In 1328 Ockham studied these three documents "at the command of a superior", perhaps the head of the Order, Michael of Cesena. He found in them "a great many things that were heretical, erroneous, silly, ridiculous, fantastic, insane and defamatory, contrary... to orthodox faith, good morals, natural reason, certain experience, and fraternal charity". [Note 18] After Michael and several companions, including Ockham, broke with the pope and left Avignon, Michael published an Appeal in which he subjected John's constitutions to close criticism. [Note 19] In another constitution, Quia vir reprobus (1329), John replied to these criticisms, quoting them extensively. (What modern church or political leader would give a critic so much publicity, or undertake to answer in detail?) In three months early in 1332 Ockham wrote The Work of Ninety Days to answer John's answer to Michael's criticisms. [Note 20]

The Work of Ninety Days is a "recitative" work; others include the Dialogue and Eight Questions. The Work of Ninety Days reports ("recites") the arguments of "the attackers" without any assertion by Ockham himself on the matters in dispute. Ockham was one of the dissident group, so presumably his own opinions are included; but since "the attackers" disagreed among themselves on some points, [Note 21] there is a problem about ascribing its arguments to Ockham. However, believing that Christians have a duty to speak out plainly in defence of the truth, [Note 22] he also wrote "assertive" works, including Short Discourse, De imperatorum et pontificum potestate, and Contra Benedictum, which can guide our interpretation of the recitative works. Thus the restatement in the Short Discourse of the main elements of the theory of property in The Work of Ninety Days justifies ascribing it to Ockham (though not as original to him). Even within the recitative works themselves there are clues to the author's opinions, such as repetition, especial subtlety of thought, or some emphasis in presentation--for example, in the Dialogue the Student sometimes expresses surprise or disbelief and asks for a thorough explanation. [Note 23] The recitative works are in a sense academic, offering an objective treatment of the issues and leaving readers to decide on the weight of evidence. Books written in that way would be more likely to circulate and be read, and no doubt Ockham was sure that what he regarded as the truth would prevail in argument. He wanted readers to forget personalities and focus on the arguments. We are interested in the personalities, however, and it seems reasonable to attribute to Ockham himself opinions found in the recitative works, especially when there are clues such as those mentioned above, if they are not refuted elsewhere, if they are consistent with opinions expressed in assertive writings, and if they support purposes pursued in those works.

Property in The Work of Ninety Days

Pope John had made two main points: (1) no one can justly use a thing without having some right in it, at least a right of using; and (2) no one can justly "use" a thing consumed by use (i.e. consume it) without having a particular right in it, namely property. According to John, property existed as soon as human beings began to consume; Adam, even before Eve was created, had property in the Garden of Eden, granted to him by God. Property is essential to human existence, and it exists by positive divine law.

The answer given by "the attackers" to John's first point [Note 24] is based on a distinction between iura fori and iura poli, respectively rights under human law and rights under natural law--in modern terms legal and moral rights. [Note 25] To use things justly a legal right is not required, a moral right is enough. There were no legal rights in the Garden of Eden; originally everyone had a moral right to use anything at all. After Adam's sin the human race (not only Adam, but human beings collectively) acquired, by God's grant, the power to establish the institution of property, in view of its likely benefits in the new situation of human sinfulness. Once property was actually established by human custom or agreement ("human law"), the original natural right to use any thing at all was tied or restricted or impeded, because there is a moral duty to respect the legal rights of others. However, in situations of necessity the original moral right revives and overrides the owner's legal right to exclude use by others. The moral right can also be untied by the owner's permission. Permission sometimes confers a legal right, but not always; it may be what the civil law calls a precarium, and this is the kind of permission the Franciscans have. They do not claim or exercise any legal rights, either individually or as an order. They have a moral right to use things because the owners give them precarious permission, but if permission is withdrawn (for any reason, or none), the Franciscans have no right they can enforce in court. They have "simple use of fact" in the sense of "a licit power of using... to which there is not necessarily"--in the Franciscans' case, not actually--"annexed any right by which one might claim use in court". [Note 26]

The answer to the second point--that permission to "use" a thing consumed by use, i.e. to consume it, transfers ownership--is made chiefly by examples. According to civil law a slave cannot acquire ownership, yet a master can permit or direct a slave to use consumables. Ownership implies a right to give or sell, but if a host invites guests to eat and drink, they do not thereby acquire a right to take away any of the food and give or sell it to anyone else. In other religious orders individuals must eat food the order owns, yet the individual monk has renounced property. [Note 27]

Ockham's thesis that property did not exist in the Garden of Eden and is an institution of human law was the standard view of theologians before John XXII (Thomas Aquinas included), and later theologians judged that in The Work of Ninety Days Ockham had got the better of the dispute with the pope. [Note 28] However, it must be said that the Michaelist theory of apostolic poverty was a little odd. On their account the poverty of the Franciscans, like the poverty of the Apostles, consisted in the fact that property in the things they used was not vested in them individually or as a body but in the larger body of which their body was a part, namely the Church. A Business School could just as well claim to be in absolute poverty because all its splendid facilities belong to the University. Poverty should have something to do with "poor use", about which the Michaelists had little to say.

Heresy and heretics

In the last two chapters of The Work of Ninety Days, Ockham explains why "the attackers" say that John XXII is a heretic. John's predecessors had defined doctrines on the poverty of Christ and the Apostles, matters within the scope of "faith and morals", and because their teachings had been accepted by the Universal Church they must be Catholic truth. Since John's teachings were inconsistent with this Catholic truth, they were heresies, and the fact that he attempted to define his teachings and impose them on all Catholics showed that he was pertinacious in his heresies and therefore a heretic.

Part I of the Dialogue Between Master and Student Concerning Matters Disputed Among Christians was a thorough discussion of questions about heresy and heretics. The Dialogue is a "recitative" work, but (to summarise boldly) Ockham seems to be intending to suggest the following. A heresy is a doctrine inconsistent with Catholic truth. [Note 29] Catholic truth includes anything taught in the Bible, anything at any time accepted as Catholic truth by all Catholics without dissent, and any new revelation attested by miracle. [Note 30] A heretic is not merely someone who believes a heresy, but someone who holds an heretical belief pertinaciously. There are various indices of pertinacity: for example, a person who tries to impose a heresy on others by threats is pertinacious. On the other hand, not to lay an heretical opinion aside at the mere behest of a prelate is not proof of pertinacity; anyone, including a lay person, is entitled to defend an heretical belief a thousand times, even in the court of the pope, until that person is shown that the belief is a heresy. Being shown that one's belief is heretical is what Ockham calls "legitimate correction"; someone who holds a heresy but is open to "legitimate correction" is not a heretic, but someone who believes a heresy and refuses to listen to attempts to show that it is a heresy is pertinacious and a heretic. [Note 31] Anyone can become a heretic--the pope and the cardinals, all the clergy, a general council, and so on of every part of the Church; no part of the Church is infallible. Christ's promise in Matthew 28:20, "I will be with you all days, until the end of the age", guarantees that it will never happen that all Catholics become heretics at the same time, but any Catholic may become a heretic at any time. [Note 32] If it is claimed that a man generally accepted as pope is in fact a heretic, many people will not know whether the claim is correct or not, and non-culpable ignorance will excuse them if they reject the claim when it is correct; but they are obliged to protect the accusers against coercion until it has become clear to them that the accusation is unjustified--no one can be non-culpably ignorant of the fact that the accusers, if they are indeed right, are obliged to campaign in defence of the Catholic faith and ought to get a hearing. [Note 33]

The practical outcome is that a pope who (like John) tries to impose a heresy on others by threats is a heretic, even if he claims to be ready to be corrected; and on the other hand those who (like the dissident Franciscans) merely argue in public without trying to coerce others are not heretics, even if their beliefs are in fact heresies, as long as they have not been "legitimately corrected", that is, as long as no one has answered their arguments and shown to them that their position is heretical. Meanwhile they should not be coerced, and faithful Catholics, even if they do not know whether their accusations against the pope are right, should protect them against coercion.

Ockham's argument amounts to a defence of a limited right of freedom of thought and discussion. [Note 34] The limitation is that Ockham is defending the rights of true Catholics; he is not advocating freedom of speech for atheists, heretics, Jews, or Muslims. His argument is that Catholics should not punish, silence or coerce people who merely argue for a certain interpretation of the Catholic faith, even if their beliefs are in fact heresies, unless they persist after that fact has been shown to them.

The Papacy

In the first stage of Ockham's campaign against John XXII his general line of argument was that since John is a heretic he is not pope and should be removed from office; the main premise is that a pope who becomes a heretic automatically ceases to be pope. In later writings he began to use a second main line of argument: that since John is a tyrant who threatens the rights of others, including emperors, kings and other lay persons, he is therefore a grave sinner and should be removed from the papacy; the main premise is that grave sin justifies deposition of a pope even if he has not automatically ceased to be pope by becoming a heretic. [Note 35] The two lines of argument were brought together in Ockham's opposition to a certain concept of papal "fullness of power". Strong doctrines of papal power were in the air. Without knowing Plato's Republic, theologians were moving toward a position that made the pope a kind of "theologian king", a super-expert on the matters most important to human existence--not normally occupied with the details of secular government but able to intervene at any time by superior right untrammelled by man-made laws. [Note 36] In opposition to this development and in defence of the older medieval idea that the world is ruled by two powers, [Note 37] Ockham laboured to define and limit the power of the pope. [Note 38]

Ockham does not deny that the pope has "fullness of power" in some sense of the term. The conception that he attacks is that the pope has fullness of power in the sense that he can do anything not contrary to natural law or divine positive law. The main argument for attributing such "fullness of power" to the pope was formulated by Pope Innocent III: "The Lord said to Peter, and in Peter to his successors, 'Whatever you bind on earth will be bound also in heaven' [Matthew 16:19], truly making no exceptions--'whatever you bind'". [Note 39] Ockham answers that even if Christ mentioned no exceptions, there must be exceptions. General statements are not always to be taken generally. This is true even of statements found in the Bible: Paul says, "Children, obey your parents in all things", "Slaves, obey your lords in the flesh in all things", "As the Church is subject to Christ, so also are women to men in all things"--yet "in many things children are not bound to obey their parents, since they are not slaves but free, or wives their husbands, since they are not maidservants but are judged to be entitled to equality in many things..., and slaves are not bound to obey their masters in all things without any exception". [Note 40] The main exceptions that Ockham wants to assert are that popes must respect liberties as well as rights, including liberties and rights under human law (which included the "law of nations" and the civil law, that is, laws or customs made or observed by a particular people) and other rights acquired by agreement--provided, of course, those rights are consistent with natural and divine positive law. His main argument against "fullness of power" in the sense he rejects is that if Christ had given so much power to the pope, Christians would be the pope's slaves. It is clear from the Bible that Christ meant the gospel law to be a "law of liberty", less burdensome than the Old Law had been. It is also clear from the Bible and from the writings of the Fathers of the Church that Christ recognised rights existing under human law, including rights of unbelievers, and that (though as God he could have done so) he did not in fact abolish or abridge the rights and liberties that rulers and others legitimately had before the time of Christ. These rights included the right of an independent people to establish rulers for themselves and the already-established rights of the Roman Empire, which Christ himself recognised as legitimate.

So from the power of the pope "there must be excepted the legitimate rights of emperors, kings and the rest, believers or non-believers, which do not conflict with good morals, God's honour and the observance of the gospel law". This is not a blanket endorsement of existing rights: the pope must respect the "legitimate rights... which do not conflict with good morals" etc. This might seem to open a wide door to papal intervention. But the passage continues: "according as... Christ, the evangelists, and the apostles have more fully taught and more clearly explained" somewhere in the Bible: that is, those who wish to argue that the pope may interfere because the rights in question are not legitimate must prove that they are not legitimate from the Bible. [Note 41] And the pope must respect not only the rights but also "the liberties granted to mortals by God and nature"; "in the things he can do by right... the Roman pontiff should not exceed due measure"--that is, even within his sphere of authority, the pope must not impose unnecessary burdens. [Note 42]

Such are the limitations on the pope's power. What power does he actually have, then? Ockham distinguishes between power the pope has from Christ and other powers that he may have by human law (for example, his powers as temporal ruler of certain regions of Italy). As for the power he has from Christ, Ockham distinguishes between the pope's "regular" power and the powers he may have "on occasion". [Note 43] In spiritual matters (i.e. matters relating to eternal salvation and peculiar to the Christian religion) that are of necessity (as distinct from those which are supererogatory or merely useful), the pope regularly has over Christian believers (not over unbelievers) full authority on earth. In temporal matters he regularly has no authority at all (though he is entitled by divine law to a reasonable supply of temporal goods, not necessarily in the form of property, [Note 44] for his sustenance and for carrying out his duties). On occasion, however, "in a situation of necessity, or of utility tantamount to necessity", both in temporal matters and in spiritual matters that are not normally necessary for salvation, the pope may do whatever is necessary (for example, to ward off some imminent danger to the Christian community or to the faith), if it is not being done by whoever is normally responsible (and, in the case of temporal matters, if the laity will not do it). The legitimate conception of "fullness of power" is that the pope can do all of the above, either "regularly" or "on occasion". Ockham never found a neat formula to sum up the pope's "occasional" powers. "It is not easy to give a particular description of all the cases in which he can do these things, or some of them. And perhaps no universal doctrine can be given about them by which it may be known with certainty and without error, especially by the simple, when the pope can do such things and when he cannot". [Note 45]

It should be noted that Ockham is not an opponent of the papacy as such, only of certain pseudo-popes and of a certain conception of papal power. Besides opposing the extreme doctrine of fullness of power, Ockham also opposed a doctrine that attributed to the pope very little power indeed, that of Marsilius of Padua. According to Marsilius, Christ did not make Peter head over the other apostles and gave him no more power than he gave the others; the papacy is a purely human creation. [Note 46] In Tract 1 of Part III of the Dialogus Ockham worked out his own view of the power of Peter and his successors, and his view of the authority of tradition in the interpretation of the Bible, in particular opposition to Marsilius. [Note 47] After a discussion in Book 1 of various opinions about papal power, including that of Marsilius, Book 2 discusses whether it is more beneficial for the Church to be ruled by one or by many. Most of the commonplace arguments for rule by one [Note 48] are in fact arguments for unified government, whether by one person or by a committee. The main advantages specific to monarchy are that it is easier for subjects to get access to one person than to many, a single bad ruler is more easily removed, the ruler need not wait for colleagues to concur before taking action, he can manage the process of deliberation more flexibly, and there is less likely to be conflict within the rulership. [Note 49] The main objections come from three points made by Aristotle: (1) monarchy is unjust unless the monarch is clearly superior in virtue and wisdom; (2) decisions made by many consulting together are wiser than decisions made by one person; and (3) a community should be able to adapt its form of government to circumstances. [Note 50] The answer to the first is that rule by one ruler who is good and wise enough but not outstanding is just if his equals and betters consent, as they should do if monarchy is otherwise best for the community. [Note 51] The answer to the second is that provided the ruler is willing to take wise advice, it is better to have one sufficiently good and wise ruler than many good and wise rulers obliged to act together. [Note 52] The difficulty in the third point is that if the papal monarchy was established by Christ, the Christian community cannot go against his command. The answer is that Christ can be assumed to intend (except when he explicitly says otherwise) that exceptions can be made to his commands when necessity or great utility requires. [Note 53] If Christ did establish a monarchy in the Church, it will nevertheless be possible, when necessity demands, to have several popes jointly in office at the same time, or to have no pope but independent patriarchs ruling separately in different parts of the world; but a single pope must be elected as soon as circumstances permit. [Note 54]

Whether monarchy is more advantageous or not, the question remains: Did Christ in fact establish monarchy in the Church? Book 3 discusses the preliminary question of what counts as evidence of Christ's intentions. Marsilius held that no Christian is obliged to believe anything except the Bible and General Councils of the Church. [Note 55] The Master presents arguments against the infallibility of General Councils and also arguments to show that the testimony of even fallible writers on factual matters within their knowledge must be presumed to be true unless there is some specific reason for disbelief. [Note 56] In Book 4 we reach the main question. The Master presents Marsilius' arguments against belief in Peter's headship and the traditional arguments in favour. Since (as the argument of Book 3 implies) we must accept the testimony of early Christian writers as to the meaning of Christ's words, the traditional belief that Christ meant Peter to be head of the Church is vindicated. [Note 57] Although Christians can on occasion suspend or modify it for a time, the papacy exists not by the choice of Christians, still less by the choice of the secular ruler, but by divine institution.

The Empire

When Michael of Cesena and his companions fled from Avignon, they went for protection to the court of the "Roman Emperor", Ludwig of Bavaria. [Note 58] Ludwig had been excommunicated by John XXII for exercising imperial rights without first obtaining the pope's approval of his election. According to advocates of papal supremacy in temporal matters, the emperor-elect needed papal approval because the Empire was subject to the Church, as had been demonstrated when Pope Leo III transferred the Empire from the Greeks to the Franks in the person of Charlemagne. The Michaelists, on the other hand, alleged that John's interference with the government of the Empire was an injustice, and that such injustices flowed from principles threatening not only the rights of the Empire (about which many people outside Germany would not have cared) but also the rights of all secular rulers and indeed of all mortals. Hence the second of the two lines of argument mentioned at the beginning of the last section, that even if he was not a heretic John should be deposed for serious and incorrigible sins of injustice.

In the Dialogus the Master recites the arguments for the opinion that the world should be ruled by one secular ruler, "not inappropriately called emperor". Mostly they are arguments for world government of some sort--perhaps no more than a United Nations and a World Court--that would keep the peace and restrain the wicked. [Note 59] The best arguments specifically for a world monarchy (or at least for a strong Secretary-General) are again in terms of the importance of flexibility in consultation and action. The answer to the argument that committee government is best because many are less likely to err than one, is that although advice is needed, it is useful for one person to control the process of deliberation. [Note 60] Monarchy is therefore regularly the best regime for the world, but under some circumstances--for example, if there are powerful groups who will not submit--the best regime should be suspended, perhaps for an extended period, [Note 61] though it could not be abolished or impaired permanently. [Note 62] The Empire need not be a unitary state. The emperor can establish parts of the Empire as independent kingdoms or dukedoms or grant exemptions to individuals or groups (for example, the pope and clergy), [Note 63] and such a grant gives the recipient a right which the emperor cannot revoke unless there is some fault on that person's part or some good reason in terms of the common good. [Note 64] No sovereignty is absolute; the emperor must be able on occasion to correct regularly independent governments or individuals, and conversely, on occasion others may need to correct or depose a bad emperor--one of the advantages of monarchy is that the one ruler is easier to remove if he rules badly. The ruler should therefore not have so much control that he can evade correction. It is unnecessary, indeed dangerous, for everyone in the state be subject regularly and in every case to the supreme ruler. [Note 65] Thus Ockham rejects the view of Marsilius [Note 66] (and Hobbes, and many others) that coercive power must be absolutely unified.

On Ockham's view world government has existed since ancient times in the form of the Roman Empire. Every people not already subject to a superior have a natural right to make laws for themselves and to establish a government for themselves. [Note 67] This is true also of unbelievers. [Note 68] Like other peoples, the pagan Romans established their own government, and in course of time it obtained power over other peoples. It may be that their rule over others was first established by unjust force, [Note 69] but by Christ's time it had become legitimate, as the New Testament proves. [Note 70] How it became legitimate Ockham does not know, but perhaps its originally unwilling subjects came to give consent, in view of the usefulness to the world of Roman rule. [Note 71] The world Empire belongs fundamentally to the peoples of the world, but by consenting to Roman rule they have entrusted it to the Romans, who therefore have a right to it that they cannot lose without some fault or for some other good reason, and there is no reason to think that they ever have lost it. [Note 72] The Romans in turn entrusted their government to one person, namely the first emperor, Augustus, with the right to provide for succession. As is appropriate to the highest level of government, succession is determined by the best method, namely election, in the sense of deliberate choice. The Empire has never been hereditary, though there have been times when the emperor chose his eldest son as his successor. In more recent times the successor has been elected by an electoral college, existing by the emperor's consent, consisting of certain German princes. [Note 73] Their election is enough to give the emperor-elect full right to administer the Empire, without waiting for papal confirmation or coronation. When a people establish a government, they can impose whatever conditions they think appropriate; they can provide that a successor should not take office until he has been approved by the pope or crowned, but if the people impose no such condition the monarch can determine the conditions under which his successor will assume administration of the government. Immediate power upon election has many advantages for the common good and is the practice the emperors have established in the Roman Empire. [Note 74]

Ockham's account of the Empire is developed mainly in opposition to the opinion that the emperor derives his power from the pope. [Note 75] According to Ockham, the power of the emperor comes from God, not through the pope but through the people. The Empire was established by the Roman people, and through any "transfer" it remained the same Empire: later emperors therefore succeeded in the same right as the first emperors, [Note 76] that is, as empowered by the Roman people. The pope does not have any regular power over the Empire, but on occasion popes may have intervened legitimately in the affairs of the Empire, either with the consent of the Romans, or to remedy the Romans' negligence or incapacity in situations of urgent necessity when the laity would not or could not act. [Note 77] Conversely, after the emperors became Christians, there have been cases when the emperor (not as emperor but as a leading Roman Christian) has legitimately intervened in Church affairs, either with the consent of the Catholic Romans, who by divine law have the right to choose the pope, or with the consent of some person or persons to whom the Romans have entrusted some right in Church affairs. [Note 78]

Ockham's account of the power of the emperor parallels his account of the power of the pope. Both are limited by the natural and civil rights of free subjects and by the requirement that whatever is imposed be for the common good. In Part 3 of the Dialogus there is a discussion of the question whether the emperor has "fullness of power". [Note 79] One opinion is that in temporal affairs the emperor can command anything not contrary to divine or natural law; this corresponds with the doctrine of papal "fullness of power" to which Ockham was so much opposed. Another opinion is that "his power is limited, so that, with respect to his free subjects and their property, he can do only the things that are useful to the common benefit". If he had more power than that, his subjects would be slaves, which would be incompatible with the character of the Empire as the best form of government. [Note 80] The emperor has his power from the people, and the people never had power to impose on anyone anything that is not necessary without that person's consent; the emperor's power has the same limit. According to this second opinion, the emperor is bound not only by natural and divine law but by the law of nations. On behalf of those who hold the second opinion the Master answers the famous "absolutist" texts of Roman law: That the emperor is "released from the laws" (a legibus solutus) is not true, because he is bound not only by natural and divine law but also by the law of nations (a branch of human positive law), according to which at least some are free and not slaves. "What pleases the prince has the force of law", but only when it is something reasonable and just for the sake of the common good and when this is manifestly expressed.


Ockham does not say much about women. What he says is consistent with the views of Aristotle and Augustine, according to whom women are naturally subordinate to men. But there are some qualifications. Like Aristotle, Ockham acknowledges that there are exceptions to the natural superiority of men over women. [Note 81] Even when the natural superiority does obtain, a husband does not have "fullness of power" over his wife "because she is not a maidservant, and in many things is judged to be entitled to equality". [Note 82] In the Garden of Eden God granted lordship not only to Adam, but to "Adam and his wife for themselves and all their posterity"; [Note 83] if (as John XXII claimed) Adam had lordship before Eve was made, he had no power to withhold it from Eve, and no act on Adam's part (for example, no grant) was necessary for Eve to acquire it. [Note 84] Matters of faith concern women as well as men, since "in the new man there is neither male nor female" (Galatians 3:28). Women should (when necessary) take part in general councils of the Church: "Where the wisdom, goodness or power of a woman is necessary to the discussion of the faith... the woman should not be excluded from the general council." [Note 85]


Ockham did not write "political" writings as a contribution to political philosophy; he wrote as a theologian engaged in a campaign to remove a pseudo-pope from office. His premises were drawn from traditional sources in theology, philosophy and law. In interpreting the Bible he acknowledged the authority of tradition. Many of his conclusions were traditional, but some were new justifications for a radical activity, the attempt to depose a pope. Even this activity had conservative aims: to preserve the Franciscan way of life, to reinstate the practices that had been observed in the Church before the late-medieval inflation of papal claims, to defend the ancient rights of the Roman Empire, and above all to preserve the Church from heresy.

However, there is a political philosophy in his "political writings", and in some ways it resembles nineteenth century liberalism. Ockham's Utilitarian theory of property, his defence of civil and (within limits) religious liberty, and his emphasis on the inevitability of exceptions to rules and the need to adapt institutions to changing circumstances, anticipate J.S. Mill. The connecting link is Aristotle; there is a certain analogy between Aristotle's criterion, the common good, and the Utilitarian criterion, the general happiness. That government is for the sake of the common good is the leading idea of Ockham's political philosophy. In combination with the belief that the world is pretty unpredictable, it leads to his characteristic formulation of Aristotle's idea of "equity", namely the contrast between what is "regularly" right and what is right "occasionally". Rules are needed, but since no humanly made rules can guarantee the common good in all the multifarious cases that will arise, individuals must be prepared on occasion to act without the rules or against the rules--a line of thought Mill would have endorsed. Although comparisons with other writers help place Ockham's political thought into a larger historical context, the real interest is in the details, in the thoroughness and subtlety with which he applied his leading ideas to the complexities of his own world. His theological arguments may be of little use to non-Christians (though we may find them interesting historically), but any reasonably persistent reader will come to respect the intelligence, seriousness, courage and moderation with which Ockham wrote about some of the major issues of his time.

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