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The Learned Extremist: Juan de Mariana

Tags BiographiesEntrepreneurshipHistory of the Austrian School of Economics

01/20/2010Murray N. Rothbard

[This article is excerpted from Economic Thought Before Adam Smith.]

Juan de Mariana (1536–1624)

One of the last Spanish scholastics was a Jesuit but not a Salamancan. He was the "extremist" contemporary of Molina and Suarez, Juan de Mariana (1536–1624). Mariana was born near Toledo, of poor and humble parents. He entered the great University of Alcala in 1553, shone as a student, and a year later was received into the new Society of Jesus. After completing his studies at Alcala, Mariana went to the Jesuit College at Rome in 1561 to teach philosophy and theology, and after four years moved to Sicily to set up the theology program at the Jesuit college there. In 1569, Mariana moved to teach theology at the great University of Paris, at the remarkably young age of 33. After four years, ill health forced him to retire to live in Toledo; ill health, however, often does not necessarily mean a short life, and Mariana lived to the then phenomenally ripe old age of 88.

Fortunately, Mariana's "retirement" was an active one, and his great learning and erudition drew numerous persons, from private citizens to state and ecclesiastical authorities, to ask for his advice and guidance. He was able to published two great and influential books. One was a history of Spain, written first in Latin and then in Spanish, which went into many volumes and many editions in both languages. The Latin version was eventually published in 11 volumes, and the Spanish in 30. The Spanish edition has long been considered one of the classics of Spanish style, and it went into many editions until the mid-nineteenth century.

The other notable work of Mariana, De Rege (On Kingship), was published in 1599, written at the suggestion of King Philip II of Spain and dedicated to his successor Philip III. But monarchy did not fare well at the hands of the hard-hitting Mariana. A fervent opponent of the rising tide of absolutism in Europe, and of the doctrine of such as King James I of England that kings rule absolutely by divine right, Mariana converted the scholastic doctrine of tyranny from an abstract concept into a weapon with which to smite real monarchs of the past. He denounced such ancient rulers as Cyrus the Great, Alexander the Great, and Julius Caesar as tyrants, who acquired their power by injustice and robbery. Previous scholastics, including Suarez, believed that the people could ratify such unjust usurpation by their consent after the fact, and thereby make their rule legitimate. But Mariana was not so quick to concede the consent of the people. In contrast to other scholastics, who placed the "ownership" of power in the king, he stressed that the people have a right to reclaim their political power whenever the king should abuse it. Indeed Mariana held that, in transferring their original political power from a state of nature to the king, the people necessarily reserved important rights to themselves; in addition to the right to reclaim sovereignty, they retained such vital powers as taxation, the right to veto laws, and the right to determine succession if the king has no heir. It should already be clear that it was Mariana, rather than Suarez, who might be called the forebear of John Locke's theory of popular consent and the continuing superiority of the people to the government. Furthermore, Mariana also anticipated Locke in holding that men leave the state of nature to form governments in order to preserve their rights of private property. Mariana also went far beyond Suarez in postulating a state of nature, a society, previous to the institution of government.

"Mariana … might be called the forebear of John Locke's theory of popular consent and the continuing superiority of the people to the government."

But the most fascinating feature of the "extremism" of Mariana's political theory was his creative innovation in the scholastic theory of tyrannicide. That a tyrant might be justly killed by the people had long been standard doctrine; but Mariana broadened it greatly in two significant ways. First, he expanded the definition of tyranny: a tyrant was any ruler who violated the laws of religion, who imposed taxes without the people's consent, or who prevented a meeting of a democratic parliament. All the other scholastics, in contrast, had located the sole power to tax in the ruler. Even more spectacularly, to Mariana any individual citizen can justly assassinate a tyrant and may do so by any means necessary. Assassination did not require some sort of collective decision by the entire people. To be sure, Mariana did not think that an individual should engage in assassination lightly. First, he should try to assemble the people to make this crucial decision. But if that is impossible, he should at least consult some "erudite and grave men," unless the cry of the people against the tyrant is so starkly manifest that consultation becomes unnecessary.

Furthermore, Mariana added — in phrases anticipating Locke's and the Declaration of Independence's justification of the right of rebellion — that we need not worry about the public order being greatly disrupted by too many people taking up the practice of tyrannicide. For this is a dangerous enterprise, Mariana sensibly pointed out, and very few are ever ready to risk their lives in that way. On the contrary, most tyrants have not died a violent death, and tyrannicides have almost always been greeted by the populace as heroes. In contrast to the common objections to tyrannicide, he concluded, it would be salutary for rulers to fear the people, and to realize that a lapse into tyranny might cause the people to call them to account for their crimes.

Mariana has given us an eloquent description of the typical tyrant at his deadly work:

He seizes the property of individuals and squanders it, impelled as he is by the unkingly vices of lust, avarice, cruelty, and fraud…. Tyrants, indeed, try to injure and ruin everybody, but they direct their attack especially against rich and upright men throughout the realm. They consider the good more suspect than the evil; and the virtue which they themselves lack is most formidable to them… They expel the better men from the commonwealth on the principle that whatever is exalted in the kingdom should be laid low… They exhaust all the rest so that they can not unite by demanding new tributes from them daily, by stirring up quarrels among the citizens, and by joining war to war. They build huge works at the expense and by the suffering of the citizens. Whence the pyramids of Egypt were born… The tyrant necessarily fears that those whom he terrorizes and holds as slaves will attempt to overthrow him…. Thus he forbids the citizens to congregate together, to meet in assemblies, and to discuss the commonwealth altogether, taking from them by secret-police methods the opportunity of free speaking and freely listening so that they are not even allowed to complain freely….

This "erudite and grave man," Juan de Mariana, left no doubt what he thought of the most recent famous tyrannicide: that of the French King Henry III. In 1588, Henry III had been prepared to name as his successor Henry of Navarre, a Calvinist who would be ruling over a fiercely Catholic nation. Facing a rebellion by the Catholic nobles, headed by the duc de Guise, and backed by the devoted Catholic citizens of Paris, Henry III called the duke and his brother the cardinal to a peace parley into his camp, and then had the two assassinated. The following year, on the point of conquering the city of Paris, Henry III was assassinated in turn, by a young Dominican friar and member of the Catholic League, Jacques Clement. To Mariana, in this way "blood was expiated with blood" and the duc de Guise was "avenged with royal blood." "Thus perished Clement," concluded Mariana, "an eternal ornament of France." The assassination had similarly been hailed by Pope Sixtus V, and by the fiery Catholic preachers of Paris.

"In contrast to the common objections to tyrannicide, he concluded, it would be salutary for rulers to fear the people, and to realize that a lapse into tyranny might cause the people to call them to account for their crimes."

The French authorities were understandably edgy about Mariana's theories and at his book De Rege. Finally, in 1610, Henry IV (formerly Henry of Navarre, who had converted from Calvinism to the Catholic faith in order to become king of France), was assassinated by the Catholic resister Ravaillac, who despised the religious centrism and the state absolutism imposed by the king. At that point, France erupted in an orgy of indignation against Mariana, and the parlement of Paris had De Rege burned publicly by the hangman. Before executing Ravaillac, the assassin was questioned closely as to whether reading Mariana had driven him to murder, but he denied ever having heard of him. While the king of Spain refused to heed French pleas to suppress this subversive work, the general of the Jesuit Order issued a decree to his society, forbidding them to teach that it is lawful to kill tyrants. This truckling, however, did not prevent a successful smear campaign in France against the Jesuit Order, as well as its loss of political and theological influence.

Juan de Mariana possessed one of the most fascinating personalities in the history of political and economic thought. Honest, gutsy and fearless, Mariana was in hot water almost all of his long life, even for his economic writings. Turning his attention to monetary theory and practice, Mariana, in his brief treatise De Monetae Mutatione (On the Alteration of Money, 1609) denounced his sovereign, Philip III, for robbing the people and crippling commerce through the debasement of copper coinage. He pointed out that this debasement also added to Spain's chronic price inflation by increasing the quantity of money in the country. Philip had wiped out his public debt by debasing his copper coins by two-thirds, thereby tripling the supply of copper money.

Mariana noted that debasement and government tampering with the market value of money could only cause grave economic problems:

Only a fool would try to separate these values in such a way that the legal price should differ from the natural. Foolish, nay, wicked the ruler who orders that a thing the common people value, let us say, at five should be sold for ten. Men are guided in this matter by common estimation founded on considerations of the quality of things, and of their abundance or scarcity. It would be vain for a Prince to seek to undermine these principles of commerce. "Tis best to leave them intact instead of assailing them by force to the public detriment.

Mariana begins De Monetae with a charming and candid apologia for writing the book reminiscent of the great Swedish economist Knut Wicksell over two and a half centuries later: he knows that his criticism of the king courted great unpopularity, but everyone is now groaning under the hardships resulting from the debasement, and yet no one has had the courage to criticize the king's action publicly. Hence, justice requires that at least one man -Mariana — should move in to express the common grievance publicly. When a combination of fear and bribery conspire to silence critics, there should be at least one man in the country who knows the truth and has the courage to point it out to one and all.

Mariana then proceeds to demonstrate that debasement is a very heavy hidden tax on the private property of his subjects, and that, pace his political theory, no king has the right to impose taxes without the consent of the people. Since political power originated with the people, the king has no rights over the private property of his subjects, nor can he appropriate their wealth by his whim and will. Mariana notes the papal bull Coena Domini, which had decreed the excommunication of any ruler who imposes new taxes. Mariana reasons that any king who practices debasement should incur the same punishment, as should any legal monopoly imposed by the state without the consent of the people. Under such monopolies, the state itself, or its grantee, can sell a product to the public at a price higher than its market worth, and this is surely nothing but a tax.1

Mariana also set forth a history of debasement and its unfortunate effects; and he pointed out that governments are supposed to maintain all standards of weight and measure, not only of money, and that their record in adulterating those standards is most disgraceful. Castile, for example, had changed its measures of oil and wine, in order to levy a hidden tax, and this led to great confusion and popular unrest.

Mariana's book attacking the king's debasement of the currency led the monarch to haul the aged (73-year-old) scholar into prison, charging him with the high crime of lèse-majesté. The judges convicted Mariana of this crime against the king, but the pope refused to punish him, and Mariana was finally released from prison after four months on the condition that he would cut out the offensive passages in his work, and that he would be more careful in the future.

"An individualist unafraid to think for himself, Mariana clearly took little stock in the Jesuit ideal of the society as a tightly disciplined military-like body."

King Philip and his minions, however, did not leave the fate of the book to an eventual change of heart on the part of Mariana. Instead, the king ordered his officials to buy up every published copy of De Monetae Mutatione they could get their hands on and to destroy them. Not only that; after Mariana's death, the Spanish Inquisition expurgated the remaining copies, deleted many sentences and smeared entire pages with ink. All non-expurgated copies were put on the Spanish Index, and these in turn were expurgated during the seventeenth century. As a result of this savage campaign of censorship, the existence of the Latin text of this important booklet remained unknown for 250 years, and was only rediscovered because the Spanish text was incorporated into a nineteenth century collection of classical Spanish essays. Hence, few complete copies of the booklet survive, of which the only one in the United States is in the Boston Public Library.

The venerable Mariana was apparently not in enough trouble; after he was jailed by the king, the authorities seized his notes and papers, and found there a manuscript attacking the existing governing powers in the Society of Jesus. An individualist unafraid to think for himself, Mariana clearly took little stock in the Jesuit ideal of the society as a tightly disciplined military-like body. In this booklet, Discurso de las Enfermedades de la Compañia, Molina smote the Jesuit Order fore and aft, its administration and its training of novices, and he judged his superiors in the Jesuit Order unfit to rule. Above all, Mariana criticized the military-like hierarchy; the general, he concluded, has too much power, and the provincials and other Jesuits too little. Jesuits, he asserted, should at least have a voice in the selection of their immediate superiors.

When the Jesuit general, Claudius Aquaviva, found that copies of Mariana's work were circulating in a kind of underground samizdat both inside and outside the order, he ordered Mariana to apologize for the scandal. The feisty and principled Mariana, however, refused to do so, and Aquaviva did not press the issue. As soon as Mariana died, the legion of enemies of the Jesuit Order published the Discurso simultaneously in French, Latin and Italian. As in the case of all bureaucratic organizations, the Jesuits then and since were more concerned about the scandal and not washing dirty linen in public than in fostering freedom of inquiry, self-criticism, or correcting any evils that Mariana might have uncovered.

The Jesuit Order never expelled their eminent member nor did he ever leave. Still he was all his life regarded as a feisty trouble-maker, and as unwilling to bow to orders or peer pressure. Father Antonio Astrain, in his history of the Jesuit Order, notes that "above all we must bear in mind that his [Mariana's] character was very rough and unmortified."2

Personally, in a manner similar to the Italian Franciscan saints San Bernardino and Sant'Antonino of the fifteenth century, Mariana was ascetic and austere. He never attended the theatre and he held that priests and monks should never degrade their sacred character by listening to actors. He also denounced the popular Spanish sport of bull-fighting, which was also not calculated to increase his popularity. Gloomily, Mariana would often stress that life was short, precarious, and full of vexation. Yet, despite his austerity, Father Juan de Mariana possessed a sparkling, almost Menckenesque, wit. Thus his one-liner on marriage: "Some one cleverly said that the first and the last day of marriage are desirable, but that the rest are terrible."

But probably his wittiest remark concerned bull-fighting. His attack on that sport met with the objection that some theologians had defended the validity of bull-fighting. Denouncing theologians who palliated crimes by inventing explanations to please the masses, Mariana delivered a line closely anticipating a favorite remark by Ludwig von Mises on economists over three and a half centuries later: "there is nothing howsoever absurd which is not defended by some theologian."

  • 1. The form of Philip's debasement, as Mariana pointed out, was either to double the face value of recoined copper while keeping the same weight, so that the increased value went as profit to the royal treasury; or to keep the face value of silver/copper coins, take out the silver and reduce the copper weight, which gave the treasury a two-thirds profit.
  • 2. Quoted by John Laures, S.J., The Political Economy of Juan de Mariana (New York: Fordham University Press, 1928), p. 18.

Murray N. Rothbard

Murray N. Rothbard made major contributions to economics, history, political philosophy, and legal theory. He combined Austrian economics with a fervent commitment to individual liberty.