Political philosophy, history of

DOI: 10.4324/9780415249126-S043-1
Version: v1,  Published online: 1998
Retrieved April 20, 2021, from

4. Medieval

The supervention of the Germanic kingdoms on an already fragmented Roman Empire and the subsequent centuries of only sporadic order did not terminate Roman political discourse or the periodic aspiration to reinstitute the universal Christianized Roman Empire. It did result, however, in the temporary loss of important works which might have sustained it (Aristotle’s Politics; Cicero’s On the Republic; Justinian’s Corpus), and it did largely end systematic political philosophy. For many centuries the known ‘texts’ of political philosophy have been largely the practices, oaths, institutions and proclamations of political actors, and as we have come to recognize linguistic acts we have, conversely, also recognized the textual qualities of acts.

While kingship was a characteristically Germanic institution, marginalized – at least in philosophical treatises – by the republican traditions of Greece and (republican) Rome, it became enmeshed in the language and concepts of Roman law, Christianity and universal empire, almost as soon as it appeared. The persistence of a diversity of rulers within Christendom, and the existence of a Church claiming universal spiritual jurisdiction, provided the parameters within which this language had to be redefined. Despite the subsequent myths of elective councils and of constitutional and popular kingship, early Germanic kings, especially those who seemed capable of restoring a Holy Roman Empire, often continued to claim, or had bestowed upon them, Roman imperial authority. Sometimes the language of imperial kingship itself was ascribed to the Church: Isidore of Seville saw the existence of a universal church as the body of Christ the King as nevertheless quite compatible with the existence of a diversity of secular kingdoms. The rulers of such kingdoms were, however, all to be thought of as providentially appointed, and were obliged to pursue Christian ends; where they did not, they were seen as just instruments of God’s wrath.

Philosophy, in medieval education, was in the service of and subordinated to theology. It attempted to establish coherence by synthesizing the deliverances of eminent authorities on disputed questions. The most striking achievement of this kind lay in the work of Thomas Aquinas. He synthesized not only much of the elaborate and diverse Christian tradition but also sought to incorporate into it the potentially threatening naturalistic political philosophy of Aristotle, newly recovered from the world of Arabic scholarship and translated by William of Moerbeke. Aquinas’ agreement with Aristotle’s claim that man had a natural end or Telos in political or social life – however qualified by the further end in God to which only the Church could minister – marked a different and much more congenial view of the relationship between politics and Christian belief, and between man’s natural and religious ends, than Augustine’s. For Aquinas, ‘grace does not abolish nature but perfects it’. Aquinas offered an influential account of a nesting hierarchy of laws governing the world – eternal, divine, natural and human – and of the kind of reason governing each and their method of promulgation. Such a hierarchy held the potential, present in all juristic thought, for a critical appraisal of positive law, yet Aquinas, while expressing a prudentially grounded preference for a limited monarchy, tended, like many medieval thinkers, to look to local positive law in defining legitimate political institutions.

Within the language – and the practice – of law, a major tension existed between the Roman law doctrine locating the law in the will of the prince and both natural-jurisprudential and Germanic customary doctrine which implied the duty of the prince to legislate according to pre-existing universal, natural or customary standards, a tension which influenced much of the language of sovereignty and constitutionalism (see Roman law; Common law). This was expressed in two contrasting medieval beliefs about the source of political authority, which (to simplify) might be seen as ascending from the people or as descending from God (Ullman 1966). The fourteenth-century Jurist Bartolus of Sassoferrato and his pupil Baldus elaborated a justification of the popular source of sovereignty in city-states. Natural reason, whether through custom or the active consent of citizens, was, according to them, adequate to create an autonomous and self-sufficient commonwealth. Each thinker applied the Roman law terminology of corporations to both city-states and kingdoms. Political entities could thus be conceived of as personae fictae, with a continuous identity, distinct from the natural persons comprising them or their ruler. An even more strikingly methodologically individualist – even anarchistic – position was advanced by the nominalist William of Ockham.

Another language, deriving not from Roman law but from Germanic custom – the language of community – provided a variant of the view that power ascended. Medieval communities of various kinds were customary collectivities without necessarily being legally personae. Thus there was another language through which the idea of a collective unity could be articulated. Here, and in certain feudal structures, we find the origins of the idea of political representation.

The Church was also a collective entity, on one description a corpus mysticum identified with the body of Christ. Yet just as the kingdom had a transcendent identity as well as a physical one, so the Church needed a legal and political identity as well as a religious one. Conciliarist thinkers, notably Nicholas of Cusa, developed a view of the Church as superior to the pope and capable of representation through its council. Some, such as Pierre d’Ailly and Jean Gerson, drew a parallel between the secular model of the mixed constitution – king, aristocracy and demos or people – and the structure of the Church, comprising pope, cardinals and council. (See Black 1970.)

Citing this article:
Hampsher-Monk, Iain. Medieval. Political philosophy, history of, 1998, doi:10.4324/9780415249126-S043-1. Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Taylor and Francis,
Copyright © 1998-2021 Routledge.

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