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Ideal Government and the Mixed Constitution in the Middle Ages

Ideal Government and the Mixed Constitution in the Middle Ages

by James M. Blythe


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Ancient Greeks and Romans often wrote that the best form of government consists of a mixture of monarchy, aristocracy, and democracy. Political writers in the early modern period applied this idea to government in England, Venice, and Florence, and Americans used it in designing their constitution. In this history of political thought James Blythe investigates what happened to the concept of mixed constitution during the Middle Ages, when the work of the Greek historian Polybius, the source of many of the formal elements of early modern theory, was unknown in Latin. Although it is generally argued that Renaissance and early modern theories of mixed constitution derived from the revival of classical Polybian models, Blythe demonstrates the pervasiveness of such ideas in high and late medieval thought. The author traces medieval Aristotelian theories concerning the best form of government and concludes that most endorsed a limited monarchy sharing many features with the mixed constitution. He also shows that the major early modern ideas of mixed constitutionalism stemmed from medieval and Aristotelian thought, which partially explains the enthusiastic reception of Polybius in the sixteenth century.

Originally published in 1992.

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780691602974
Publisher: Princeton University Press
Publication date: 07/14/2014
Series: Princeton Legacy Library , #184
Pages: 362
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 9.10(h) x 1.00(d)

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Ideal Government and the Mixed Constitution in the Middle Ages

By James M. Blythe


Copyright © 1992 Princeton University Press
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-691-03167-5



There has rarely if ever been a government absolute in practice. A ruler or ruling group has always to consider the interests and actions of the ruled, if only to repress them, and generally it must limit its own desires in order to survive for long. Yet the history of civilization has been the history of the domination of one class or another over those with no direct power. From this reality, and from the observation that allowing one group to prevail most often leads to oppression, or that every group has something to offer society or has a right to participate, has come the idea of the mixed constitution, which in its most common form combines the rule of a king, the aristocrats, and the common people. It is an idea midway between Marxism, which finds no tolerable basis for class collaboration, and the dominant Western form of capitalism, which pretends that class distinctions do not exist and has so managed to inculcate this view in its native subjects that it is able to rule for the moment under cover of "democracy."

This idea of the mixed constitution has enjoyed a long and varied career. In its widest sense it can be found in the written records of political activity in practically every period of Western history. Its earliest intimations may be discerned in the works of Homer, the poet of a Greece barely emerging from the post-Mycenean "Dark Ages"; its lineaments were sketched by several of the early Greek writers: Tyrtaeus, Solon, Thucydides, and Isocrates; its details were elaborated and the theory brought to its full fruition in Greece by Plato and Aristotle. Much later, the Greek hostage Polybius carried the theory to Rome where he saw the confirmation of its virtues in the success and prosperity of that city. Cicero represents the culmination of this tradition, and its last significant theoretician in the classical period. Then the death of the Republic and the triumph of a new autocracy stifled for a time expressions of political participation. Likewise, neither the well-known indifference of the early Christians to the form of any government not representing the direct and personal rule of the messiah, nor the transformation of this attitude for a slightly later generation into gleeful support of the Empire's power to purify the earthly kingdom by the elimination of heretics was conducive to interest in theories of mixed government.

During the early Middle Ages none of the important classical texts was available in Latin, and although the comments of several writers and a number of Germanic and feudal customs and institutions seem compatible with mixed government, no theoretical development or independent statement of the theory took place. Later, the theory of the mixed constitution became a central fixture of early modern political thought. Fifteenth- and sixteenth-century Florentines, for example, wrote about Venice as a mixed constitution, and reformed their government to imitate it. By the sixteenth century many educated Englishmen, parliamentarians in particular, came to think of their government in the same way—with a monarchic king, an aristocratic House of Lords, and a democratic House of Commons. This process culminated in the formal acceptance of the mixed constitutional model by Charles I in 1642—even though his move was only a desperate and unsuccessful attempt to avert a civil war. The United States Constitution was consciously modeled after the mixed constitution described by Polybius and was to include a monarchical president, an aristocratic Senate, and a democratic House of Representatives, each of which was to act as a check for the other two. J.G.A. Pocock writes of the tradition of thought on the citizen and the republic growing ultimately from the thought of Aristotle and says that it "can almost be called the tradition of mixed government." "Almost," Pocock writes, because he intends not only the development of the idea of the mixed constitution, but also the unfolding of the whole complex of concepts clustered about the natural involvement of the citizen as a political and social animal in the affairs of the community and the perception of this community and an active civil life as having value beyond their Augustinian role in the repression of vice and the promotion of order. Although the mixed constitution per se and the active participation of the citizen are at most complementary conceptions, they are inexorably bound in Pocock's mind because he perceives the necessity of implementing participation with due regard for all the various legitimate claims of groups to rule, such as number, wealth, virtue, and power—that is, something quite like Aristotle's conception of distributive justice.

As it will be the subject of the bulk of this book and the remainder of the introduction, I have purposely left out of account in this brief summary the development of the theory in the High and late Middle Ages. As with so many other classical ideas, the common conception used to be that except for a brief and unimportant reference here and there, the mixed constitution was neglected until Renaissance luminaries rescued it from the oblivion imposed by rigid medieval people uninterested in "new" ideas. In this case, they say, the impetus was the translation of the sixth book of Polybius's Histories into Latin in the early sixteenth century.

But as all serious historians now realize, most Early Modern ideas have their roots in the Middle Ages—though in the case of each idea the old concept usually prevails until someone comes along and actually digs up these roots; and even then nonmedieval historians frequently lapse into their old world view.

The translations of Aristotle's Ethics and Rhetoric in the early thirteenth century and most forcefully and directly William of Moerbeke's Latin Politics, which appeared around 1260, introduced the ideas of the mixed constitution, of the citizen, and of participation in government, among many others, into the medieval world. This development stimulated a huge outpouring of commentaries and other treatises attempting to understand and assimilate Greek political thought. But most of the political ideas of Plato, Polybius, Cicero, and the minor classical writers remained unknown for several more centuries.

Aristotle's works were thrust upon a world that on the surface could scarcely differ more from ancient Greece. The one, everywhere but in Northern Italy, comprised several feudal and incipient national monarchies as well as two other monarchical institutions, the Roman Catholic Church and the Roman Empire, each of which claimed universal scope and authority. The other comprised a plethora of independent city-states governed only infrequently by a monarch. The one traditionally based itself on lordship as a proprietary arrangement; the other, in theory, on government as an expression of the aspirations of the citizens as a whole and existing for the common good of all. Consequently, the one confused office and person; the other stricdy separated them. The one perceived forms of government as fixed and God-given; the other, as mutable and subject to the desires of the citizens.

Yet the enthusiasm with which thirteenth-century philosophers and theologians greeted the Politics suggests that forces were already at work within medieval society that were more compatible with Aristotelian thought than is immediately apparent. During the twelfth and thirteenth centuries cities were reasserting their importance, in Northern Italy actually coming to resemble in some ways the Hellenic polis, or city-state, which gave its name to the general term used both by the Greek and medieval writers for a particular constitutional arrangement or a particular state—polity. At the same time representative bodies were emerging, although obviously not for the same purpose in the national monarchies as in the ancient ecclesiae. In addition, buttressed by the newly rejuvenated Roman Law, corporate bodies were redefining the relationship between head and members with implications for both Church and state and the unitary concept of a universal Church encompassing the two swords of spiritual and temporal power was beginning to crumble. Finally, feudal monarchy itself was not absolute, but based on a balance of power between the king and his vassals. By the early thirteenth century, before the translation of the Politics, notably in the writings of the English lawyer Bracton, and with respect to the Church in the works of the canonists, there were some remarkable formulations of the basis of monarchy which, while ignorant of the terminology of classical mixed constitutional theory, nevertheless display an affinity with it. In short, by the time the Politics became available, political reality in Europe no longer matched traditional political theory. And this was as true in the Northern monarchies as in the Italian city-republics. Aristotle provided a coherent body of political thought that enabled medieval writers to bring theory to the defense of the new realities.

The first few generations to address themselves to the problems posed by the Politics: represented first and foremost by Thomas Aquinas; then those influenced by him such as Giles of Rome, Peter of Auvergne, Ptolemy of Lucca, Engelbert of Admont, and John of Paris; and finally a number of fourteenth-century writers such as Marsilius of Padua, William of Ockham, Bartolus of Sassoferrato, Jean Buridan, and Nicole Oresme, faced the difficult yet intriguing problem of adapting Aristotle's ideas to their contemporary reality. They were not conscious of the contradictions—they asked not, "How can we twist Aristotle to our purposes?" but, "What can Aristotle have meant?"

It is my purpose to address the approach and thought of the first few generations toward the question of the best political arrangement, to see how they imposed their concerns and values on Aristotle, and, conversely, how Aristotle molded their modes of thought. It is the primary goal of this book to show that for the most part these writers came to accept a mixed constitution, usually involving a king limited by the body of citizens, as the best form of government, and that even those who did not go as far consciously or unconsciously incorporated elements of mixed constitutional theory into their ideal government. Their conclusions resulted from a complex interplay of factors: from their medieval world outlook, from their own political experience and observation, and from their assimilation of classical theory and medieval commentaries on it. On the one hand, they forced Aristotle into service to defend existing governments, on the other they squeezed existing governments into Aristotelian molds. This interplay perhaps explains why few writers actually used the words mixed constitution extensively. Supporting the national monarchies of the day, they were reluctant to use a new term and preferred rather to discuss restraints on a king's power.

For these reasons, the new and varied political theory that emerged diverged from both Aristotelian and Christian Augustinian thought. Aristotle's ideas about politics, like those on philosophy and theology, clashed with traditional Christian beliefs. Paul and, especially, Augustine had presented government as a consequence of sin. If Adam had not fallen, they argued, dominion of one person over another would never have been necessary or desirable, but since people are now evil and sinful their evil actions must be forcibly repressed. God instituted kings for this purpose, they concluded, and even tyrannical rulers must be obeyed as instruments of God's will. In contrast, Aristotle confronted medieval thinkers with a systematic theory of the origin of political authority from the natural impulses of people to congregate and rule themselves on their own behalf. Further, he set as a primary task of his work the determination of the ideal government, something not an issue in the Early Medieval period, and to this end he proposed several classifications of rule in which monarchy played a limited role, at most equal to alternate forms.

It was Aristotle's classification and questioning of the forms of government combined with the volatile European political condition and the strained relationship between Church and state (which were still largely perceived as two aspects of the same Christian society) that forced a reconsideration of the purpose and form of government. The problem of the medieval political theorists was to combine and assimilate, refute, or smoothly ignore the varying viewpoints: government as coercive and imposed versus government arising from the conscious and cooperative activity of people, government as absolute and eternal versus government as a pragmatic solution to specific problems, government with no place for participation versus government based on the will and participation of the citizens. In trying to reformulate their understanding of medieval society in Aristotelian terms, thirteenth- and fourteenth-century thinkers reshaped the whole tradition of Western political theory.

My secondary purpose is to relate medieval political thought to the later flourishing of theories of the mixed constitution. There are actually two separate questions here, relating to two separate periods of development: What relationship do the thirteenth- and fourteenth-century theories have to the late fourteenth- and fifteenth-century ideas of those like Jean Gerson and Pierre d'Ailly who advocated a mixed constitution for the Church and John Fortescue who labeled the English system a "regal and political kingdom?" And, what relationship do they have to the early modern ideas of the mixed constitution in Italy, England, and the United States?

In the first case the influence can be clearly demonstrated, although the relevance to the mixed constitution is problematic because there is far from universal agreement that John Fortescue, for one, advocated anything resembling a mixed constitution. The second case is far more difficult and controversial, especially since the later theories are frequently couched in Polybian terminology. Many, perhaps most, of the modern students of this development are convinced that Polybius was the only significant source, that the Scholastic Aristotelian component was negligible, and that the purely Aristotelian elements were derived either from the works of Aristotle himself or his classical followers. In contrast, I argue that the rediscovery of Polybius spurred and shaped an already developing vital tradition but was in no way responsible for its existence.

Brian Tierney, who has discussed both the continuity of medieval and later political thought and the mutual influence of the ecclesiological and secular theorists, has analyzed the relationship between medieval mixed constitutional ideas and canonistic and corporate doctrine. Against Pocock, he argues convincingly that the theory of the mixed constitution developed as much in ecclesiastical as in secular writing. In particular, he shows that two biblical models for the mixed constitution—that of the Jews under Moses and the Apostolic Church—first developed by Thomas Aquinas and John of Paris, were influential with the conciliarists of the fifteenth century and with later secular mixed constitutional writers in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. Their theories, he writes, fuse the revived ancient mixed constitution with medieval ideas of corporate rule. The use of ancient sources by the later writers, he argues, obscures the actual medieval origin of their ideas. He stresses that the modern idea of the collegiate sovereignty of king, Lords, and Commons, or of pope, cardinals, and General Council had little to do with the ancient polis.


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Table of Contents



Pt. 1 The Mixed Constitution

Ch. 1 Introduction 3

Ch. 2 The Mixed Constitution in Antiquity and the Early Middle Ages 13

Pt. 2 Thomas Aquinas and His Successors

Ch. 3 Thomas Aquinas 39

Ch. 4 Giles of Rome 60

Ch. 5 Peter of Auvergne 77

Ch. 6 Ptolemy of Lucca 92

Ch. 7 Engelbert of Admont 118

Ch. 8 John of Paris 139

Pt. 3 The Fourteenth Century

Ch. 9 Aristotelian Political Thought In the Fourteenth Century 161

Ch. 10 Relativism and the Best Polity 165

Ch. 11 Kingship, Popular Sovereignty, and the Mixed Constitution 180

Ch. 12 Nicole Oresme and the Synthesis of Aristotelian Political Thought 203

Pt. 4 The Fifteenth Century and the Early Modern Period

Ch. 13 Conciliarism 243

Ch. 14 Later Theories of Mixed Government in England and Northern Europe 260

Ch. 15 The Mixed Constitution and Italian Republicanism 278

Ch. 16 Conclusion 301

Bibliography 309

Index 337

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