Peter of Auvergne, pupil of Thomas Aquinas and collaborator on his unfinished works, has long been thought indistinguishable from his teacher on philosophical questions political and otherwise. However, his individual works, as well as his completion of Thomas's commentary on Aristotle's Politics, reveal a radically progressive split with his teacher and predecessors over their conception of the citizen body and wider political society. While Thomas Aquinas insisted only on the practical role of the 'multitude' to ensure contentment in a populace governed by a monarch, his student's reading of Aristotle allows for the distinction of a multitude that is not only capable of providing the power for a government's virtue, but that carries the expectation of political engagement by the common person. Peter's more liberal view of the role of popular elements in the medieval mixed constitution anticipates democratic ideas in the body politic centuries before Enlightenment modernism, through simultaneous promotion of popular power and responsibility within pre-democratic Christian political philosophy.
Peter was a student at the University of Paris and most likely attended the lectures of Thomas Aquinas, but never joined his teacher's Dominican order, instead becoming a secular master and eventually rector.(1) He was nevertheless known for his singular dedication to Thomas's work and teaching, even referred to by Ptolemy of Lucca as Thomas's 'most faithful disciple'. In evidence of such, he was responsible for completion of many of Thomas's unfinished works, including the acclaimed Commentary on Aristotle's Politics.(2) Such commentaries, common to much medieval study of classical philosophy, had as their stated goal the accessibility of older and seminal works on subjects at hand to the scholars of the time - but also allowed the commentator to examine the matters at hand from his own point of view, and relate that point of view to others who would study Aristotle or other respected authorities in the future with commentaries as their aid. Often, such commentaries would become the locus of differing interpretations of the classics that were the foundation for philosophical argument of the day. (The commentaries on Aristotle written by the Muslim philosopher Averroes, through the 'Averroism' maintained by rival scholars in the days of Thomas and Peter, helped spur their own work as Aristotlean Christians.)
Many scholars find little to no difference in Peter and Thomas's method or conclusions in the Commentary on the Politics because of Peter's noted dedication to his predecessor. Peter's conclusion of the work, including key questions of law and governance by 'the multitude' in Book III, has been considered by many to be nothing more than the logical continuation of a 'single political outlook' when it came to both medieval politics and Aristotle proper.(3) Blythe notes that some scholars 'go so far as to consciously use Peter's part of the commentary in discussing Thomas Aquinas's political theory', and that for much of the two previous centuries, Peter was thought (untenably) to have merely transcribed the notes that Thomas used for his lectures on the topic.(4) The real distinction between Thomas and Peter becomes key when one addresses the topic of the 'multitude' in the Politics and its role in the 'mixed constitution' suggested in various forms throughout medieval political works - especially from the point of view of a modern society where democratic and republican ideas are held to be both the apotheosis of Western thought and the product of a non-, and perhaps anti-medieval Enlightenment. To mark distinction between Thomas and Peter on these issues, one must first examine the basic ideas in Thomas to which Peter offers alternatives.
Thomas Aquinas was an Aristotlean, to be sure - but his distinction between 'regal' and 'political' in government structure came from Moerbeke's translation of a passage of Aristotle's politics: 'When one has precedence it is regal; when according to the rules of the discipline one is in part both ruling and subject it is political.' The words 'in part' can be literally translated from the Greek as 'in turn', but Moerbeke's Latin version suggested a moderation, rather than a rotation, of rule. Thomas thus ascribed the meaning of 'political' not to a prescribed change of rulers (as one might have by election) but to one ruler subject to external, existent laws, as opposed to 'regal' rule where the monarch's word is law.(5) Thomas's conception of a mixed constitution - a combination of monarchy, aristocracy, and democracy - left little doubt as to which of the three the political government's form was primarily designed to maintain. His On Kingship has as its second chapter the argument '(t)hat it is more useful that a multitude of human beings living together be ruled by one person rather than many.'(6)
Monarchy was, to Thomas, the political representation of natural and supernatural hierarchy: the patriarchal rule of the family, the soul's rule of the multitudinous parts of the body, and God's rule over heaven and earth. 'For provinces or cities which are not ruled by one person are troubled with differences of opinion and waver without peace. . .'(7) The role of aristocratic or democratic council for Thomas was thus to maintain order under a right kingship and aid it from becoming a tyranny - for as oligarchy and democracy are superior to tyranny, all are inferior to true and just monarchy in representing the will of the community. The relative successes of the Roman Republic and the judges of the Hebrews as opposed to the kings of their time are offered by Thomas, not as evidence promoting other systems of government, but as indication of how alternatives must be considered only in the face of tyranny - worse even than oligarchy or democracy.(8)
Thomas, however, never got the chance to attend to Book III of the Politics as Peter did; Peter's distinction between regal and political rule is not as definite, nor is his interpretation of Aristotle (the figure of the age, whose opinion was interpreted variously) as a monarchist as firm. Peter looks to show, at least in theory, that the rule of the multitude over itself was feasible, just, and served greater purpose than the mere consolidation of a just monarchy. His intepretation of Aristotle is perhaps more faithful to the writer's original attempt to weigh the value of forms of government without the bias of medieval monarchic attitudes, but is strikingly unorthodox for that very reason.
One must always be careful when studying possible precedent for modern ideas in medieval sources. Since republican and democratic thought would not arise as legitimate study of the ideal form of government (rather than of inferior forms helping to define the superior) again until the Enlightenment, difference between any two thinkers on this subject is one of degree and not strict delineation. However, the degree in this case is not only substantive, but striking, as Peter's work was so often taken for Thomas's own in the centuries that would follow. If Thomas has indisputably 'made the greatest mark on the world' of all medieval Christian philosophers(9), then the radical nature of Peter's own admission of a virtuous, self-governing multitude must be acknowledged as part of that heritage if only by reinforced error. The great minds of philosophical and political thought who viewed Aristotle through Thomas's lens necessarily saw the question of the multitude and its governance through that of Peter of Auvergne - and his subversive suggestion that the best theoretical rulers were the people themselves.
Peter's view can be best reconstructed directly from two works: his portion of the Commentary attending to Book III of Aristotle, and his secondary Questions on the Politics. Primary to the whole issue is Peter's ability, following the lead of Aristotle, to make a distinction between a 'vile', 'bestial' multitude and one that has the capacity to act together. Aristotle claims, 'if a multitude is not exceedingly vile, any member of it will be a worse judge than the knowledgeable men, but all gathered together will be better, or at least not worse.'(10) This divarication, and Peter's adherence to it notwithstanding his loyalty to Thomas, is what allows him to state the foundation of a working 'polity' - the positive state corresponding to the negative 'democracy' in Aristotlean parlance, as monarchy corresponds to tyranny.
First, Peter demands 'right reason' of a ruling multitude; this it may acquire through the varied nature of any given large group.(11) Neither Aristotle nor Peter are particularly naive about the inability of some members of the multitude to govern themselves. Of concern is the motivation of 'honors' in society in the form of status gained by right action, and the questionable ability of those with few honors (i.e., the worst of the multitude) to rule over those with many (i.e., the few virtuous men who would lead in an aristocracy). Peter, on examination of Aristotle, finds the solution in the nature of the masses to contain many with honors, and the popular fashion in which the weight of those honors will certainly outclass any few individuals. Peter warns against confusing legislative officials with the amassed members of the bodies they represent; this he draws directly from Aristotle's solution to the question of honors.(12) That is, measuring the honors of a council has less to do with how its elected speakers size up to unelected rulers, and more to do with the measure of its membership. Thus, Peter allows for Aristotle's aggregate multitude, consisting of 'the wise, the magnates, the prudent, the mediocre, and the populace'.(13) The people, while never individually as wise as possible aristocratic rulers, will nonetheless be guided by the wise among them and maintain their relative virtue by this means.
This revolutionary idea for the role of the multitude in the mixed constitution is summed up by Blythe: to Peter, 'all good, legitimate government is mixed government.'(14) Polity itself is a mixture of aristocracy and Aristotle's own simple polity - the 'wise' among the multitude being the guiding light of the powerful force of the populace. Otherwise, polity would lead itself away from virtue through the faults Aristotle lists of democratic government: the tyrannic ability of the many who have little to rob from the few who have all. This concern may seem elitist and purely medieval, but would be echoed on the far temporal side of the modern mixed Constitution and the European parliamentary monarchies by James Madison in Federalist Paper No. 51:
If a majority be united by a common interest, the rights of the minority will be insecure. There are but two methods of providing against this evil: the one by creating a will in the community independent of the majority that is, of the society itself; the other, by comprehending in the society so many separate descriptions of citizens as will render an unjust combination of a majority of the whole very improbable, if not impracticable.(15)
Madison considered the former, the method of hereditary monarchy, to be most insecure; the latter, that of maintenance of stability by the varied makeup of the populace responsible for its own governance, was the solution he found present in the Constitution he wrote to support. To be sure, this Madisonian check on the ability of a majority to unjustly persecute a minority was lateral (based in the differing desires of a populace) rather than Peter's Aristotlean check by natural hierarchy (based in differing degrees of popular virtue), but had at its core the idea of a multitude, by virtue of variance, to govern better than an appointed or hereditary ruler. There is something eerily familiar in Aristotle's proclamation in Book III that in a multitude, 'it is difficult for everyone to be carried away at the same time and do wrong.'(16)
The reader must also recognize to whom both Peter and Madison's concern with 'minority' extends: the privileged few who without such checks might be subject to majority demands 'for paper money, for an abolition of debts, for an equal division of property' and other economically egalitarian measures.(17) The same Federalist Paper as presents these also addresses the idea of a representative 'aristocracy' as the perfect check on a multitude who, just as Thomas feared, is prone to all sorts of factious opinion and strife. The Constitution's bicameral legislature is one method of many of inserting 'the wise' or those rich 'with honors' (as Aristotle puts it) between the non-vile, self-governing multitude and the creation and exercise of the law ? something Madison acknowledges wholeheartedly as one Constitutional virtue. One might view Peter's mixed aristocracy and polity as a medieval condescension as regards the ability of the majority, but cannot do so without seeing the most influential practitioners of modern republicanism in the same light.
Peter of Auvergne's support for the rule of the multitude over itself cannot be said to be wholehearted by any means, any more than Aristotle's, and was specifically contingent on the pre-existing ability of the multitude to be 'better than beasts'. Some multitudes, Peter acknowledges along with 'the Philosopher', are simply unable to rule themselves - 'if the multitude is vile, in which no one is wise or prudent, it would not be expedient' for them to rule themselves.(18) But, then again, no good democratic or republican theorist - no matter their belief as to the best form of government - has ever discounted the possibility of savagery among those responsible for choosing their own rulers. To turn to the same modernist example as before, the schism between Federalist and Anti-Federalist in revolutionary America was predicated at least in part on varying degrees of faith in the ability of society to make civilization out of self-centered savagery.
Thomas Jefferson and other Anti-Federalists found the issue of education a linchpin in their particular theory: democracy was desirable because some sizeable measure of the politically active population could be made 'wise' by the proper training. These 'wise' members of the multitude, who would show themselves by acquiring 'honors' in public and private society, would, through an elected and representative 'aristocracy', form the preferred Jeffersonian government. Ironically, contemporary 'libertarianism' (the idea of a government which governs less governing better) was born out of such concepts as were advanced early on by Peter ' who was, like Thomas, primarily concerned with which government could more actively shape the unwise populace to the good and proper ends of the wise minority.
This active role of government was, in fact, something else to which popular rule lended itself well. Peter, in the Commentary, acknowledges polity's one major advantage: on the field of outright and immediate power to shape society, it outperformed both aristocracy and monarchy. '(B)y itself it has power,' as Peter puts it in the Questions.(19) The nature of a multitude is that of 'many', versus the few or one who must impose their will in some fashion in other forms of government. Whatever decisions are made by a polity will at least reflect the will of the governed and will be more easily instituted for that reason. This self-evident reasoning is, in fact, polity's strongest advantage for Aristotle and Peter - and thus the one that goes most unsaid, not for any ulterior motive, but simply because of the understanding of power in the rule of the multitude compared to the two alternatives presented.
Peter and other advocates of a mixed constitution would not have even thought a fully republican state feasible to create, much less maintain - it was the stuff of Latin histories. Nevertheless, the radical break between Peter and Thomas is apparent in how they perceive the rule of the multitude. The power of the wise multitude to shape its own destiny is proclaimed by Peter as, quite simply, a measure of social justice - not a means to stabilize a monarchy or aristocracy, not as an inevitable concession to temper the negative aspects of the rest of the institution, but as so: 'It should be maintained here that it is not advantageous for a vile and beastlike multitude to attain these (functions). Nevertheless, it is just for a mixed and ordered multitude to maintain them.?(20) Not exactly the rousing prose of Thomas Paine, or the grandiose republicanism of Thomas Jefferson - but far beyond the monarchism of Thomas Aquinas.
1. Blythe, James M. Ideal government and the mixed constitution in the Middle Ages. New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1992. P. 77.
2. Ibid., p. 77.
3. Blythe., p. 78.
4. Ibid., p. 78.
5. Blythe, p. 43.
6. Nederman, Cary J. and Kate Langdon Forhan. Medieval political theory - a reader. The quest for the body politic, 1100-1400. New York: Routledge, 1993. P. 103.
7. Ibid., p. 103.
8. Nederman, p. 107.
9. Hyman, Arthur and James J. Walsh, eds. Philosophy in the Middle Ages. Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing Co., 1973. P. 508.
10. Politics, 3.11.1282a.14f. Citation Blythe, p. 79.
11. Peter of Auvergne, In Libros Politicorum, 3.9.438. Citation Blythe, p. 79.
12. Peter of Auvergne, Commentary on Book III of the Politics, Chapter 9.12. McGrade, Stephen, John Kilcullen, Matthew Kempshall, eds. Ethics and political philosophy. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2001. P. 236.
13. Ibid., p. 236.
14. Blythe, p. 81.
16. Politics III 15, 1285b37-286b40, (A4b(iii))McGrade, p. 239.
18. Peter of Auvergne, In Libros Politicorum, 3.9.438. Citation Blythe, p. 79.
19. Peter of Auvergne, Questions on Book III of the Politics, Question 17. McGrade, p. 250.
20. Peter of Auvergne, Questions, Question 22. McGrade, p. 250.
Blythe, James M. Ideal government and the mixed constitution in the Middle Ages. New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1992.
Burns, J. H., ed. The Cambridge history of medieval political thought, c. 350 - c. 1450. Cambridge: Press Syndicate of the University of Cambridge, 1988.
Carlyle, R. W. and A. J. Carlyle. Mediaeval political theory in the West, Vol. VI. Political theory from 1300 to 1600. New York: Barnes and Noble, Inc., 1953.
Hyman, Arthur and James J. Walsh, eds. Philosophy in the Middle Ages. Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing Co., 1973.
Madison, James. "Federalist Paper #51". Library of Congress, acc. April 14, 2003. http://memory.loc.gov/const/fed/fed_51.html.
-- "Federalist Paper #10". Library of Congress, acc. April 14, 2003. http://memory.loc.gov/const/fed/fed_10.html.
McGrade, Stephen, John Kilcullen, Matthew Kempshall, eds. Ethics and political philosophy. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2001.
Nederman, Cary J. and Kate Langdon Forhan. Medieval political theory: a reader. The quest for the body politic, 1100-1400. New York: Routledge, 1993.
This paper was presented at the Seventh Annual Southern Applachian Conference in Philosophy on April 10, 2004.