Eunomia · Defensor Pacis

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Note: The debut today of the first of several occasional columns for Eunomia, Defensor Pacis, will be the beginning of combining the shorter, more immediate responses to daily news items and commentary that have been typical of this blog and longer, more developed discussions contained in thematic treatments of various contemporary questions. Defensor Pacis will aim to address principally the questions surrounding the proper role and function of government, legitimate authority and the appropriate goals of good government. Naturally, while Marsilio of Padua’s treatise is the inspiration for the name and some of the general conceptions of the work, this column will not always be applying his arguments to contemporary affairs, but will be taking his understanding of government and, by extension, Aristotle’s, as a guide.

The purpose of government is to restrain the wicked, ensure the administration of justice, defend domestic tranquility, repel foreign invaders and secure the lives and property of the people. Good government requires that the prescriptive rights and customary practices of a people be respected by those in authority, and that those subject to legitimate authority cooperate with the authorities for the common good. Free men are not hostile to obedience within limits, and obedience is a political virtue when the political authority remains within its proper limits and fulfills it proper role.

When the authorities fail in their responsibilities, or those who have seized their place fail in fulfilling them, respect for authority will be vitiated, hubris will increase, order will collapse and the blessings of tranquility depart from the land. The failure to execute the duties of legitimate authority deprives it of a great deal of its legitimacy, and it is a matter of practical fact (whether or not it is a so-called ‘right’) that people, who normally desire only these most basic functions of government, will cease to obey and support an authority that has effectively abandoned them. They will fall back upon natural bonds of kinship and the more profound affinities of a common land or a common faith. These are their primary loyalties, and political authority possesses any of this loyalty only upon completion of its duties.

Naturally, a servile nation will fail to reject an authority even long after it has abandoned any pretense to fulfilling its proper role and has worked mightily to sever their natural loyalties. Such a nation will be inordinately preoccupied with the idea of freedom, perhaps in proportion to the degree to which they themselves lack such freedom, and will be obsessed with liberating other nations (however, in the course of things, this liberation has come to mean nothing other than making the others like themselves).
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