Marsilius of Padua: Natural Law not Law Because Not Coercive

by Jonathan McIntosh

Stephen Neff credits Marsilius of Padua (1275-1342) with being the medieval thinker to go the furthest in helping displace natural law from the foundation of international law. Why? Because natural law is not a true law because it isn’t back by coercive force. Neff writes:

More than any other medieval writer, Marsilius dispensed with the idea of natural law. He did not reject the concept in principle, but he recognized it only as “the science or doctrine of right” and not as actual law. Law in the proper sense, he insisted, is “a command coercive through punishment or reward . . . in the present world.” The fundamental source of law, accordingly, is not reason but the will of the party promulgating it. Moreover, an indispensable sign of law is the omnipresent exposure to a sanction or pun- ishment for its violation—just what natural law lacked. This is the clearest expression in the medieval era of what would later be termed the positivist conception of law. (Stephen Neff, Justice Among the Nations, 79)

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