John Kilcullen and George Knysh

Copyright © 1995, 2002, The British Academy

The best way of becoming acquainted with William of Ockham would be to read A.S. McGrade's "Introduction", "Principal Dates in Ockham's Life", and "Suggestions for Further Reading" in --

William of Ockham, A Short Discourse on the Tyrannical Government... usurped by some who are called Highest Pontiffs, ed. A.S. McGrade (Cambridge University Press, 1992),

or the corresponding material in --

William of Ockham, A Letter to the Friars Minor and Other Writings, ed. A.S. McGrade and John Kilcullen (Cambridge University Press, 1995).

For a detailed interpretation of Ockham's Dialogue see George Knysh's Fragments of Ockham Hermeneutics (Winnipeg, 1997), and pp. 237-240 of his Political Ockhamism (see below).

The following is a brief introduction for readers altogether unacquainted with Ockham.

Ockham and Pope John XXII

William of Ockham was a medieval English philosopher and theologian who lived about a generation before Chaucer (he was born about 1285, perhaps as late as 1288, and died in 1347 or 1348). In his earlier years he wrote many influential works in logic, philosophy and philosophical theology. For a study of these works see Marilyn McCord Adams, William Ockham (Notre Dame, 1987), or, for a brief account, Paul Spade's article "William of Ockham" in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy.

In 1328 Ockham turned away from "pure" philosophy and theology to polemic. From that year until the end of his life he worked to overthrow what he saw as the tyranny of Pope John XXII (1316-1334) and of his successors Popes Benedict XII (1334-1342) and Clement VI (1342-1352). This campaign led him into questions of ecclesiology (the study of the nature and structure of the Christian Church, e.g. of the functions and powers of the pope) and political philosophy. His writings on these topics are of great interest to students of the history of religious thought and of the history of political philosophy.

It is difficult to sum up his political thinking briefly. (For an essay-length account see "Ockham's Political Writings".) Despite its occasionally radical formulations, his thinking was in many ways conservative, or at least traditional (see George Knysh, Political Ockhamism (Winnipeg, 1996)). He wrote in defence of various theories and practices traditional in the Church before the stronger assertion of papal authority made by Pope Innocent III and other thirteenth and fourteenth century popes. But the older traditions could be described, though at the risk of anachronism, as liberal (see Brian Tierney, The Foundations of Conciliar Theory (Cambridge, 1995; new edition 1997)). Liberal thinking in modern times builds on certain earlier ancient and medieval political ideas, which Ockham reasserted, defended and helped to perpetuate. Thus there are elements in his ecclesiology and political philosophy that anticipate the views of Locke, Mill and other modern liberals. For example, he argued:

Ockham was a member of the Franciscan Order (officially called "The Order of Friars Minor", i.e. "of lesser brothers"), which had been founded by Francis of Assisi. Francis and his first companions had gone from place to place repairing churches and talking informally to people, but after a while they formed an organised body which undertook preaching and other pastoral duties. Seeking education to improve their preaching, Franciscans entered the universities, and some of them became university teachers in the schools of theology. The Order also had its own network of schools, some of which were of university standard. Until 1328 Ockham lived the life of a student and teacher of theology and philosophy in the Franciscan schools (including for a time their school at Oxford university).

Francis had wished his brothers to live by begging, without claiming property rights or any other legal rights, but this proved difficult in practice when the order became large and its activities complex. Gradually the Franciscans adopted various indirect ways of holding property and of litigating. This led to allegations of abuse and to controversy. One party within the Order, the "Spirituals" or "Zealots", wanted to reinstate Francis's original ideal of strict poverty. The majority party, the "conventuals" (to the moderate wing of which Ockham himself belonged), held that the currently approved practices were in fact consistent with Francis's ideal. Critics outside the order attacked not only the practice but also the ideal, arguing that there was from a religious point of view nothing virtuous in owning nothing, refusing to exercise legal rights and begging.

During the thirteenth century several popes had intervened in these controversies, generally to support the Franciscans against their critics. Pope John XXII, however, intervened drastically on the other side. In several decretals issued between 1322 and 1324 he decreed that the Franciscans must themselves become the legal owners of the property they used and appeared to condemn as heresy the Franciscan doctrine that Christ and the Apostles had owned no property. Initially, Ockham steered away from active involvement in this conflict. But when ordered to read the relevant documents by his superiors in the Order, brother William came to the reluctant yet firm conclusion that John XXII had himself become a heretic. Most members of the Franciscan Order submitted to the Pope's decrees, but in 1328 the head of the Order (Michael of Cesena) and several others including William of Ockham broke with John XXII and eventually sought the protection of the "Roman Emperor", Ludwig of Bavaria, who was already in dispute with John XXII. (The pope claimed that no one could become Roman Emperor without the pope's approval and had excommunicated Ludwig for exercising imperial powers without approval; Ludwig had been elected by a majority of the Electors of the Empire and had defeated the other candidate in battle.) For most of the rest of his life Ockham lived in Munich (Ludwig's city), out of the pope's reach. There he produced various writings against John XXII and Benedict XII, including:

And there were others, notably the Dialogue, which will be discussed below.

Some of these works are "assertive", others "recitative": that is, in some of them Ockham directly asserts his own views, in others he "recites" or "reports" the opinions of the parties to the controversy without saying which opinion (if any) he supports himself. The Work of Ninety Days and Eight Questions are recitative, the others in the list above are assertive. The assertive writings were not widely disseminated. A book explicitly attacking the reigning pope might well not get copied or read. The advantage of the recitative mode was that the book would circulate. The disadvantage was that the author had to distance himself from the opinions he was reporting, which led in some of these works to some awkwardness of style.

The Dialogue

In the Dialogue Ockham solved the literary problem. The book purports to be a transcript made by a mature student of lengthy discussions between himself and a university master about the various opinions of the learned on the matters disputed between John XXII and the dissident Franciscans. The student is usually the initiator; he chooses the topics, asks most of the questions and decides when he has heard enough. The master is, so to speak, an expert witness whom the student examines. The situation is well illustrated by the frontispiece of the 1494 edition:

The left-hand figure is the Master, the other figure is the student. The Master stands near his lectern (the kind that pivots, so that two books can be on it at a time); other books lie on a sloping shelf -- medieval books made of parchment were not stiff enough to stand on end. The student sits at the desk writing the book of which this is the frontispiece.

Part 1

The Dialogue is in three parts. Part 1 (which we refer to as "1 Dial."), written apparently fairly soon after his break with the pope, is a thorough discussion of topics relating to heresy and heretics. The dissident Franciscans were accusing John XXII of teaching heresy and of having become a heretic, and the pope referred to their leader, Michael of Cesena, as "this heretic". So what is heresy, what is a heretic, and what is the proper way of dealing with heresy and heretics? And who can become a heretic? On this last question Ockham argues (or perhaps we should say that the Master reports that some people argue) that any member of the Church (e.g. the pope) may become a heretic, and all the members of any body within the Church (e.g. a General Council, the college of cardinals) may become heretics. But Christ will be with the Church always, in the sense that he will not allow every member of the Church to fall into heresy at once --- there will always be someone, perhaps not in any official position, who will defend Catholic truth. Thus Ockham rejects doctrines of papal and conciliar infallibility, but holds that the whole Church is infallible in the sense that not every member will fall into heresy at the same time.

Holding an heretical belief is not enough to make a person a heretic; in addition, he or she must hold the heretical belief "pertinaciously". Simplifying somewhat, pertinacity is a disposition not to change your mind even if someone shows you that your opinion is inconsistent with the Catholic faith; the opposite of pertinacity is readiness to be corrected. To decide whether people are heretics it is therefore necessary, generally, to enter into discussion with them to show them that their opinion is heretical and give them a chance to change their mind.

Sometimes, however, discussion is not necessary; for example, if a pope holds an heretical belief and tries to impose it on the Church as Catholic truth, pertinacity on his part can be assumed: if he is trying to impose this belief he is clearly not ready to accept correction. A pope who maintains some heretical opinion without trying to impose it is not a heretic, but a pope who tries to impose an heretical opinion is a heretic. How should Catholics act if critics accuse the pope of being a heretic? The accusers should be given a chance to prove their accusation and they should be protected against the pope's wrath until they have had that chance.

All this implies--and Ockham repeatedly underscores the point--that a pope's orthodoxy is as much open to scrutiny as that of any ordinary Christian, and a pope is not entitled to use the power of his office to evade such scrutiny. If the pope is in fact a heretic, he is already automatically excommunicated and by right has lost all spiritual and administrative authority, though he may still reign as pope de facto. There was no recognised procedure for trying a pope accused of heresy, but Ockham maintained that it was possible to find or improvise some forum to consider the evidence and reach a decision. Once it has been duly decided that the pope is a heretic, he must be removed from the papal office that he has already lost by right. Ockham's conservatism does not allow for a pell-mell procedure of impeachment and dismissal. His is a society with defined "estates" and "ranks". It is for cardinals, bishops, and other prelates to begin the process against a heretic pope, but if for whatever reason (e.g. ignorance, negligence, impotence, or malice) they fail to act, the duty devolves upon lay leaders (the emperor, kings, and other rulers). Justice must prevail at all costs, and no ruler's authority is sufficiently powerful to evade or subvert this requirement. Hence if Church and lay authorities fail to act, it might be up to ordinary members of the Church--Friars Minor, labourers, peasants, women--to save the Church from a pope who has become a heretic by resisting in whatever way they can.

Part 1 of the Dialogue is clearly Ockham’s master political work, both in terms of quantity and dialectical quality. It is of enormous length (exceeding the Work of Ninety Days by a considerable margin), and is the only segment of the Dialogue he seems to have completed in its entirety. It was more popular in the late Middle Ages than Part 3, and it is here that Ockham’s fundamental message of constitutional responsibility, as well as his sense of active inclusive citizenship, were most forcibly conveyed to his readers.

Part 2

Part 2 of the Dialogue (which we refer to as "2 Dial.) as we have it does not really belong to this work at all. It is not in dialogue form. It seems to be two short "assertive" works which someone (probably not Ockham) has inserted in place of a Part 2 that was either never written or lost. Its purpose is to show that John XXII held heretical doctrines concerning the Beatific Vision, attempted to impose them, and was therefore pertinacious and a heretic. This new issue had arisen in late 1331 and early 1332, as the result of some sermons where John had questioned the traditional view on this matter.

Part 3 Tract 1

Part 3 is divided into two "tracts". Ockham had in fact planned to compose as many as six additional "tracts" in this Part, outlining the deeds of all major participants in the conflict, himself included. None of these have yet come to light, if they were ever written. Tract 1 (On the power of the pope and clergy, which which we refer to as "3.1 Dial.") is about the rights of the pope and clergy, tract 2 (On the power and rights of the Roman empire, which we refer to as "3.2 Dial.") is about the rights of the Roman Emperor.

Tract 1, Books 1 and 2, discuss the constitution of the Church. What power does the pope have in the Church? The Master presents objections to the doctrine that the pope has "fullness of power" in the sense that he can do anything not against morality or against positive divine law (i.e. that he is not obliged to respect rights under human law or keep agreements); this is a doctrine Ockham attacks at length in the Short Discourse. Should the government of the Church be monarchical (the papacy), or should it be aristocratic or representative? Can the Christian community change its form of government -- at least temporarily, to meet the circumstances of the time? What qualities are needed in the head of the Church? If there is no one who has these qualities, should a pope be elected nevertheless?

Books 3 and 4 seem to be (at least in part) a reaction to the views of Marsilius of Padua. (Marsilius was also a refugee living in Munich at Ludwig's court.) In his Defensor Pacis Marsilius argued that the hierarchy of the Church is a purely human institution which the ruler of Christendom (who is the "Roman Emperor", not the pope) can change; thus the Emperor could abolish the papacy or change its powers. To the argument that Christ made Peter head of the Apostles and therefore implicitly established the headship of Peter's successors, the bishops of Rome (the popes), Marsilius replied that Christ gave Peter no more power than he gave to the other Apostles and that Peter never went to Rome. Marsilius attributed infallibility not to the pope, but to general councils of the Church (to be called by the Emperor). At the beginning of Book 3 the Student raises the question whether Christ made Peter head of the Church? Most of book 3 is about the sources from which the answers to this and other theological questions are to be drawn, and the question whether a general council of the Church is infallible. Book 4 discusses whether Peter was head of the Church. Most of the tract's remaining program as outlined in Book 1, chapter 1, was apparently never carried out.

Part 3, Tract 2

Tract 2 is about the rights of the Roman Empire. The Empire in question is what is these days called "The Holy Roman Empire"; after Ockham's time it came to be called "The Holy Roman Empire of the German People". According to the upholders of its rights, the Empire was the Roman Empire of Caesar Augustus, transferred by Constantine from Rome to Constantinople and then transferred to Germany. The "Roman Emperor" was elected for life by the German electoral princes; generally he travelled to Rome to be crowned by the Pope and then returned to Germany. The Emperors' attempts to exercise power in Rome and other parts of Italy were strongly resisted. This Roman Empire lasted in Germany, with very little power, until it was abolished by Napoleon in 1806.

During the thirteenth century the popes attempted to establish control over the Empire. On their view it was Pope Leo III who transferred the Empire from the Greeks to the Franks when he crowned Charlemagne at Christmas in AD 800, and they held that a pope could transfer it somewhere else or abolish it; they also claimed that each newly-elected emperor needed to be approved and crowned by the pope before he was really emperor. The emperor's supporters answered that in the transfer of the Empire Pope Leo had simply carried out the wishes of the Roman people and that participation by the pope and other clergy in coronations did not give them power over kings and emperors. There were plenty of arguments on both sides, which are explored in Tract 2.

Book 1 discusses whether it is advantageous to the human race for the whole world to be under one emperor or secular ruler in temporal matters. It also discusses what qualities such a ruler should have; whether the Roman Empire derives its powers from God, or from the pope, or from the Roman people; and whether it can be abolished or divided. One of the opinions explored (pretty clearly Ockham's own) is that world government is needed to keep the peace and that therefore there should generally be a world ruler, but not when opposition is so strong that the attempt to support an emperor would cause more strife than an emperor would be able to prevent.

Book 2 discusses the rights and powers of the Roman Emperor. It includes an attempt to define the difference between "spiritual" and "temporal" concerns, as a way of delimiting the spheres of Church and secular government. It discusses the doctrine that the emperor has "fullness of power" and overriding ownership of the property of subjects; the negative answers are strongly argued. Finally, there is a discussion of the papal claim that the candidate chosen by the Electoral Princes needs the pope's approval before he can exercise imperial power.

Book 3 discusses the question whether the emperor is capable of power in "spiritual" matters -- notably, whether the emperor can choose the pope (as emperors had sometimes done). The work breaks off in the middle of this discussion, leaving various other foreshadowed inquiries unattempted. This Book contains Ockham's most notable discussion of the natural law.

Although the Master does not say which he agrees with of the various opinions he presents, it is usually not difficult for us to guess which of them Ockham supported, since we know the exigencies of his situation and can consult the "assertive" works. But it is worth emphasising that the Dialogue gives a fair and strong account of a wide range of opinions. No doubt this is why it was circulated and (after the invention of printing) printed. It was valued for its presentation and criticism of theories and arguments even by readers who did not agree with Ockham's assessment of John XXII and Benedict XII. The author does not push the reader (at least, not too strongly) in the directions he favours; he states the various positions as well as he can and trusts that the better opinion will prevail in the reader's mind.

The project

The purpose of the present project is to restore the text of the Dialogue to the state in which it left the author's hands -- or, since this is not really possible, to bring it as close as we can to that state. To do this we will compare the text of the early printed editions (1476, 1494, 1614) with the surviving 14th and 15th century manuscripts (there are more than thirty). We intend also to produce a translation of the whole work to make it accessible to readers who do not read Latin. Ockham's Dialogue deserves a place beside Marsilius's Defensor Pacis, Hooker's Laws of Ecclesiastical Polity, Hobbes's Leviathan and Locke's Two Treatises, among the classics of political thought.

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