Spheres of Power

Authored by: Stephen Lahey

The Routledge Companion to Medieval Philosophy

Print publication date:  January  2021
Online publication date:  January  2021

Print ISBN: 9780415658270
eBook ISBN: 9781315709604
Adobe ISBN:


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It is impossible to avoid the almost constant tension between secular and sacred authority when reading medieval European history. But it is inaccurate to assume that secular and sacred nobles were simply in a constant state of jockeying for power, grappling blindly with one another as do the damned in Dante’s Inferno. In fact, the seemingly ongoing conflict between secular and sacred authority defines the evolution of Western political philosophy from a mere justification of the political status quo to an innovative exploration of the possible forms a society might use to define its authority. From the twelfth century onwards, theologians and philosophers struggled with the corporate nature of Christian society and its relation to a developing understanding of the possibilities for justice and governance open to an economically complex, diverse society. A nuanced understanding of this struggle makes the events of early Modernity, namely the birth of the nation state, mercantile capitalism, and the Protestant reformation, comprehensible. But it also provides a useful means of understanding the tumult and innovation that defined late medieval society. In what follows, I will introduce the basic source for the juxtaposition of sacred and secular authority— Augustine’s On the City of God —and briefly describe its defining force for the millennium that was to follow. Next, I will jump to the first important voice to enter into this discussion, John of Salisbury, a twelfth-century associate of Beckett, and a likely witness to his murder. John wrote before the re-introduction of Aristotelian political theory into European philosophy but shows a great interest in recovering the innovations of classical antiquity. In the century that was to follow, Thomas Aquinas was instrumental in setting the terms for describing the synthesis of Augustinian and Aristotelian conceptions of authority in the world. His student, Giles of Rome, moved from this Aristotelian model to one based in the hierarchical vision of heaven of Dionysius the Areopagite. Several other thinkers continued this dialogue between Aristotle and a Neoplatonist model for describing power, but in another venue, thinkers were reacting in a very different way to Aristotle’s vision of social justice. Dante’s De Monarchia shows his keen sense of the shortcomings of contemporary political practices, and Marsilius of Padua used Aristotle to explore the implications of completely separating the spheres of authority of church and state. William Ockham, whose philosophical approach allowed for an even wider distinction to be drawn between theology and natural philosophy, contributed to this dialogue in several important ways, not least by using canon law to delineate the concept of a natural right. Finally, I will discuss the beginnings of a redefinition of the spheres of authority in the first half of the fifteenth century, when Wyclif’s redefinition of the church clashed with a conciliar redefinition of ecclesiastical authority at the Council of Constance.

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