The Learned Extremist: Juan de Mariana

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This article
is excerpted from Economic
Thought Before Adam Smith

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.

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
(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.

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.

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

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

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.

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

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.


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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.

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]

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.”


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

Quoted by John Laures, S.J., The
Political Economy of Juan de Mariana
(New York: Fordham
University Press, 1928), p. 18.

This appeared

N. Rothbard
(1926–1995) dean of the Austrian School
and the founder of modern libertarianism – was the
author of Man,
Economy, and State
, Conceived
in Liberty
, What
Has Government Done to Our Money
, For
a New Liberty
, and many other books and articles.
He was academic vice president of the Mises
and editor — with Lew Rockwell — of The
Rothbard-Rockwell Report
, and appointed Lew as his
literary executor.

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