The Monastic and Ecclesio-political Origins of Some Elements of our Modern Polities, Part 1 (Revision 4)

Two important features of all modern polities are (1) an emphasis on proper procedure and (2) a systematic ensurance of popular consent. Contrary to common expectation, these do not come directly from ancient or Enlightenment conceptions of political life, but first take on their later forms by way of Late Antique and Medieval monastic and ecclesiastical environments. 

In this set of posts we shall look at a trajectory from roughly Benedict of Nursia to Marsilius of Padua, looking over our shoulder, later on, at Aristotle and Cicero. 


For over a century, Edward Gibbon‘s (A.D. 1723-1792) massive multi-volume The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire set the tone for English-language historiography of the ancient world, especially for evaluating the period of the 3rd to the 5th centuries, particularly the effect of Christianization and the character of monasticism. In it, we find choice passages such as that

There is perhaps no phase in the moral history of mankind of a deeper or more painful interest than this ascetic epidemic. A hideous, distorted, and emaciated maniac, without knowledge, without patriotism, without natural affection, spending his life in a long routine of useless and atrocious self-torture, and quailing before the ghastly phantoms of his delirious brain, had become the ideal of nations which had known the writings of Plato and Cicero and the lives of Socrates and Cato. [Decline, ch.37]

Were one to explore the relevant primary texts on the basis of this passage in Gibbon, one would be rather confused at the way that extreme forms of asceticism were regularly forbidden within cenobitic monasteries, which did not trust visions and ecstatic experiences (such as passages in the Conferences of John Cassian), and which prized stability and long-term moderation (such as the Rule of Benedict of Nursia [see the Rule 48.9], or Basil of Caesarea, &c.), and were, often enough, founded by aristocrats or highly-educated men who knew their Plato and Cicero (e.g., Augustine of Hippo). Further, if one were to take Gibbon’s view, one would also find it difficult to register the enterprising venture of taming both nature and new frontiers that monasticism generated:

An ascetic ideal was the original stimulus in evolving a philosophy of man as a creator of new environments. The early saints purposefully retired from the world, and they fancied that by their clearings they were re-creating the earthly paradise, re-asserting the complete dominion over all life that existed before the Fall. The attractive force of these retirements, both to other monks and to the laity, and organized efforts at conversion, led to Christian activism, in which taming the wild was a part of the religious experience. [Clarence Glacken, Traces on the Rhodian Shore: Nature and Culture in Western Thought from Ancient Times to the End of the Eighteenth Century (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1967), 349]

This conquest of new environments also included a conquest of the self, a self-mastery that, in Benedictine monasticism, equalized both slave and high-born in the context of total obedience to the Rule of Benedict,to one’s fellow monks and, within the confines of the Rule, to the abbot of the monastery. Under Gibbon’s guidance, one would miss all of this.

If one were to take Gibbon’s caricature to heart, one would also find it difficult to see how in monasticism, more specifically Benedictine monasticism (which became the standard model of monasticism in the West from Charlemagne onwards until the rise of the Mendicant orders centuries later), highly democratic elements of total community participation were fostered together with what might be described as monarchic ones, both eventually being translated into secular models.


Benedictine monasticism takes its name from its author, Benedict of Nursia (ca. A.D. 480-547). Within Benedict’s Rule, there is something of a monarchical model in the person of the abbot. Priests –whether they’ve joined the community or have been ordained from within the community– are under the Rule and the abbot, who may be a layman, and say the Mass only at his blessing (60.4); they still keep rank in the normal way, “according to the date of their entry, the virtue of their lives, and the decision of the abbot” (63.1). The abbot’s supervision cannot be likened to an absolute monarchy, however: the abbot is subject to the precepts of Christ, and must model them; as he is also a monk in the monastery himself, he is also subject to the Rule of Benedict (both the letter and the spirit of the Rule extend to the abbot what it says of any monastery’s prior: “the more he is set above the rest, the more he should be concerned to keep what the rule commands” [R.B. 1980: The Rule of St Benedict in Latin and English with Notes ed. Timothy Fry, O.S.B. et al. (Collegeville, MN: The Liturgical Press, 1981), 287]). He is not spoken of as a king, however, but as a father and “wise physician” [R.B. 1980, 225 (28.2)] of souls, using “the medicine of divine scripture”, “the ointment of encouragement” and even, in extreme cases, “the cauterizing iron of excommunication and strokes of the rod” [R.B. 1980, 225 (28.3-4)]. Indeed, the abbot “has undertaken care of the sick, not tyranny over the healthy.” [R.B. 1980, 225, (27.6)]

The elements of corporal punishment are as alarming to us as they are rare in the text. Modern Benedictines have a hard time with them (see the helpful discussions of this in R.B. 1980, 430-431, esp. 435-436, where the author notes that “excommunication and blows find little acceptance or appreciation in modern monasticism” [436], citing another author who calls these features of the Rule “without a doubt the most outmoded”. [435]). On the one hand, the Rule makes it clear that such corporal punishments are to be used to heal, even though it is difficult for us Americans in the early 21st century to imagine this (it was more widespread in the ancient world — p.431 of R.B. 1980 lists synodal Western canons from the 6th century, roughly contemporary with Benedict and his Rule, in which clerics can be beaten for some serious infractions). On the other hand, this striking is not expected to create an atmosphere of domination and fear: against Machiavelli, the abbot is to “strive to be loved rather than feared.” [R.B. 1980, 283 (64.15)] There is discipline in the monastery, but the monastery is not supposed to be a place of discipline, but of healing (despite the grave reservations we moderns have about corporal elements, however rare or infrequent); all disciplinary measures are situated within a context of care and the furthering of perfection, salvation, via humility and love.

In this vein, the notion of satisfaction should be briefly mentioned. Satisfaction (satisfactio, satisfacere) is a word that appears later in the Carolingian period, with the spread of the penitential handbooks. It also appears here. Here, “satisfaction” is a word that describes the external acts that either foster internal amendments of spirit or external reparations within the community, the result of which is healing for the spirit and the relationships among the group, “pardon” between brothers. (24.7) Coupling a juridical model to the medical metaphor for the abbot above, satisfaction has, as its goal, “correction”. (46.3-4)

While it is true that the abbot “hold[s] the place of Christ in the monastery” it is also true that he “should avoid all favoritism” [R.B. 1980, 173 (2.2), 175 (2.16)]. Nobles and slaves are to enter the monastery on equal footing, and any assignments made to them can have no regard for their former status in the world. The abbot is also to “accommodate and adapt himself to each one’s character and intelligence”. [R.B. 1980, 177 (2.32)] Finally, submission is not made to the abbot exclusively: the abbot’s authority, and the authority of older monks, are a check on the otherwise anarchic character of submission and obedience that all of the monks are to show towards one another: “Obedience is a blessing to be shown by all, not only to the abbot but also to one another as brothers, since we know that it is by this way of obedience that we go to God.” [R.B. 1980, 293 (71.1-2)] Indeed, the monks “should each try to be the first to show respect to the other (Rom 12:10), supporting with the greatest patience on another’s weaknesses of body or behavior, and earnestly competing in obedience to one another.” [R.B. 1980, 295 (72.4-6)] Obedience is not there for the sake of discipline, but for the sake of humility, which Benedict holds out as the path to returning to God.

Regarding the “democratic” elements, there is this in the Rule:

As often as anything important is to be done in the monastery, the abbot shall call the whole community together and himself explain what the business is; and after hearing the advice of the brothers, let him ponder it and follow what he judges the wiser course. The reason why we have said all should be called for counsel is that the Lord often reveals what is better to the [181] younger. The brothers, for their part, are to express their opinions with all humility, and not presume to defend their own views obstinately. The decision is rather the abbot’s to make, so that when he has determined what is more prudent, all may obey. Nevertheless, just as it is proper for disciples to obey their master, so it is becoming for the master on his part to settle everything with foresight and fairness. [R.B. 1980, 179, 181]

Even the youngest and seemingly simplest of the brothers at the monastery must speak, so as to release what the Spirit might say in that one. The abbot has a great deal of authority within the monastery, and the democratic model is in some sense a counterweight to this. More fundamentally, humility for both monks and abbot is reflected in the democratic features of the Rule (as it is found in many precepts of the Rule) as a counter-weight to the libido dominandi, the desire for mastery, hubris: even the goods that monk-artisans sell are to be sold below market value, because “[t]he evil of avarice must have no part” in the monk’s heart. [R.B. 1980, 267 (57.7)]

Then there is the issue of consent that is raised in this passage, without the word being used. It should be mentioned that everyone at the monastery is there voluntarily: it is the only community in the Western world made up entirely of voluntary members, even if some of the members have been volunteered by their families at a very young age. (This is shocking to us, even though it is no different than marriages being contracted via family arrangements. Still, the presence of young boys is the exception that proves the rule: when these boys come of age, they would certainly be free to leave the monastery at their bidding, without any legal consequence, though the departing youth might be fending for himself in the world apart from the communal support of either the monastery or his family.) The vast majority of individuals do not choose to be members of a family, for nearly all are born into one. Typically one does not choose to be a citizen of a city, one is simply born there (usually). The issue of consent becomes crucial within the cauldron of a spiritual family community that is entered into voluntarily, and wherein the “way of acting should be different from the world’s way”. [R.B. 1980, 183 (4.20)]

A brief note on vows: the monks are to bind themselves to no oath, “lest it prove false”. [R.B. 1980, 183 (4.27-28)] The monks do, however, profess to “serve” (militare, which carries strong military overtones, and so overtones of the martyrs from the springtime of the Church) under the “law” of the Rule. [R.B. 1980, 267 (58.10)] They promise stability (i.e., not wandering, but perseverance in remaining in one community until death, according to the Rule), conversion of their way of life (i.e., ἄσκησις), and obedience. Further, this “promise [is stated] in a document drawn up in the name of the saints whose relics are there”, is drawn up on the altar. [R.B. 1980, 271 (58.29)] In the case of children who are “too young” (59.1), “the parents draw up the document”. (These themes appear later in the Carolingian period, and in secular contexts.) It should be stressed that, at this time, “[m]onastic profession […] was an act of the monk, not a sacramental rite or act of the Church.” [R.B. 1980, 454] (In the West, it would not be mentioned as sacramental until the late 7th century.) Indeed, even “the very nature of a vow was still unclear at this time”, and did not become clear until the 13th century, particularly with regard to whatever legal or juridical character a vow had. [R.B. 1980, 457]

Because consent is so important, procedure is also important. Benedictines agree to abide by the Rule and to submit to the supervision of the abbot. When the latter dies, what previous voluntary commitment might guarantee their consent to being under the care of the next abbot? It is their commitment to the Rule itself, which makes provision for the proper election of abbots. Those who profess themselves are now under “the law of the [Rule]”, and are “no longer free”, having taken on “the yoke of the [Rule]” while he was still “free either to reject or to accept” it. [R.B. 1980, 269 (58.15-16)] (Here, we can see distant echoes of the 17th and 18th century Liberal consent-based theorists for government, and those echoes only become louder the further into the Middle Ages we travel.)

In choosing an abbot, the guiding principle should always be that the man placed in office be the one selected either by the whole community acting unanimously in the fear of God, or by some part of the community, no matter how small, which possesses sounder judgment. Goodness of life and wisdom in teaching must be the criteria for choosing the one to be made abbot, even if he is the last in community rank. […]

Once in office, the abbot must keep constantly in mind the [283] nature of the burden he has received, and remember to whom he will have to give an account of his stewardship (Luke 16:2). Let him recognize that his goal must be profit for the monks, not preeminence for himself. He ought, therefore, to be learned in divine law, so that he has a treasury of knowledge from which he can bring out what is new and what is old (Matt. 13:52). He must be chaste, temperate and merciful. He should always let mercy triumph over judgment (Jas 2:13) so that he too may win mercy. […]

Excitable, anxious, extreme, obstinate, jealous or oversuspicious he must not be. Such a man is never at rest. Instead, he must show forethought and consideration in his orders […]. Therefore, drawing on this and other examples of discretion, the mother of virtues, he must so arrange everything that the strong have something to yearn for and the weak nothing to run from. [285] He must, above all, keep the rule in every particular […]. [R.B. 1980, 281-285]

The provision for the election of the abbot straddles the principle of unanimity, on one side, and the priority of discernment, on the other.

As can be seen in the criterion for which members of the community ought to elect the abbot, as well as in the list of the virtues necessary for the abbot, discernment is key. The Rule must be obeyed, and the abbot is under the Rule with the other monks (just as all are under Christ), but the Rule does not ensure its own proper application in particular cases. For that, discernment is needed. Neither in discernment nor in the more democratic features of the monastery is there anything like an optimism about human nature. Nor is there an extreme pessimism — though it is imagined that things can go completely awry and become totally corrupt: “May God forbid that a whole community should conspire to elect a man [to be abbot] who goes along with its own evil ways.” [R.B. 1980, 281] Worthy here of note is that, should things become corrupted within the monastery, then those outside of the monastery must step in to correct the corruption, whether they are “the bishop of the diocese” or next “the abbots” and finally “Christians in the area”. [R.B. 1980, 281] Should these three categories “neglect to do so” it would be “sinful.”

In Benedict’s Rule, laws, more specifically “divine law” [R.B. 1980, 283 (64.9)], is a means by which the abbot corrects and heals the souls of others, and so he must know the text, so as to use it with discernment. Emphasis: the “divine law” is for healing, not crushing, not for punishing wrongdoers. The scriptures are medicine, as we saw above. (The “divine law” [53.9] is read to guests after they are washed, and after they pray with them, as though this law were one more washing and one more prayer.) It is divine therapy, even if the abbot alternates between being gentle with some and, in some cases, actually whacking others of a certain temperament (interestingly, it is the character of the souls of those under his care, the particular vices or virtues that they show, that determines the measures that the abbot is to take to heal them, rather than his responses being strictly procedural on the basis of the externals of the acts of those in his charge). Indeed, the abbot himself “should always let mercy triumph over judgment“. [R.B. 1980, 283 (64.10)] The Rule, however, is distinct from divine law, and is something one opts to submit to, as a means to the end of salvation. The Rule might be seen as an attempt to distill the positive content of the biblical text, which is “the truest of guides for human life”(rectissima norma vitae humanae) [R.B. 1980, 297 (73.3)]; the precepts of the Rule, for the most part, seem to be the precepts of the scriptural text binding on all Christians (thus, the Gospel itself is “our guide” [Prologue 21], and the monks seek to “run on the path of God’s commandments” [Prologue 49]; the abbot is to teach nothing that contradicts “the Lord’s instructions” [2.4]). The positive text of the Old and New Testaments are thus digested and translated into the regulations and principles of a way of life, but the principles are not then elevated above the positive content of the biblical text, even if the biblical text is never engaged with outside of the life of any of these communities, and even if the text itself is seen not as a set of positive legal principles or rules, but as a living voice:

Let us get up then, at long last, for the Scriptures rouse us when they say: It is high time for us to arise from sleep (Rom 13:11). Let us open our eyes to the light that comes from God, and our ears to the voice from heaven that every day calls out this charge: If you hear his voice today, do not harden your hearts (Ps 94 [95]:8). And again: You that have ears to hear, listen to what the Spirit says to teh churches (Rev 2:7). [R.B. 1980, 159 (Prologue 8-11)]

The text is not merely a text for Benedict, but a divine locution, even an oracle, an instrument or mouthpiece of the divine Spirit. (Much of this will be important later on, as questions about the various kinds of law become important in the 13th and 14th centuries leading into Marsilius.) In some ways, Indeed, at the end of the Rule, Benedict shows himself to be as eclectic as many of his contemporaries in constructing the principles comprising his own rule, familiar with a number of sources, and happy to improvise, heeding this voice in the text.

There is a somewhat-clear inside and outside to this community: the community under the Rule seems to have a clear boundary. This is true geographically: in a sense, the world outside is quite clearly a place of danger for the monks, but not a place to be hated. The porter of the monastery who is housed by the door, and is mentioned immediately prior to the need for the monastery to be self-sufficient (66.6-7), is, on the one hand, one who is not to be given to roaming about, and who knows how to take and give messages, assuming that the doors are not simply open, but well-guarded. On the other hand, he is to give thanks to God and to ask for the blessing of those outsiders who knock at the monastery’s doors (66.3). The element of danger is clear in that monks are not to drink or eat while out of the monastery. Nonetheless, the monastery exists in symbiosis with the outside world, and more with the world of the laity than with the clergy, which offers children to the monastery (59). Still, it seems clear that those who have promised themselves to the monastery, though they are said to no longer be free, but under the yoke of the Rule, these are able to leave: their clothes they wore at their profession are kept for them in a closet, so that should they chose to leave days or decades later, they can. Ambiguating this sense of danger is the Rule‘s clear impression that the world outside the monastery is a world full of Christ: the porter is to address those who come to the monastery “with all the gentleness that comes from the fear of God” and with “the warmth of love”. [R.B. 1980, 289 (66.4)] When a guest comes, even if he is not from among the “household of faith”, he is to be greeted with reverence, as though receiving God himself, for “[b]y a bow of the head or by a complete prostration of the body, Christ is to be adored because he is indeed welcomed in them.” [R.B 1980, 257 (53.7)] After the guest’s hands are washed by the abbot, and feet by the brethren, the brothers recite: “God, we have received your mercy in the midst of your temple (Ps 47 [48]:10).” [R.B 1980, 259 (53.14)] The Rule does not mention exceptional treatment for wealthy or noble guests. The poor, however, do receive special attention:

Great care and concern are to be shown in receiving poor people and pilgrims, because in them more particularly Christ is received (53.15)

The poor have less chains than do the wealthy to hold them back from the path of humility, the path of returning to God. When wealthy families offer children to the monastery, they must “make a sworn promise” (59.3) in writing that the boy offered will never receive anything of theirs or from them, and that any gifts they give to the monastery with the boy belong to the monastery. This is important, as Benedict has “learned from experience” that these options, left open, “could deceive and ruin” the boy. [R.B. 1980, 273 (59.6)]


Gibbon’s ghost has a long reach. It is true that there are some colorful examples of monasticism and asceticism in the Late Antique world. Engagement with the evidence of monasticism, however, will find it nigh impossible to see the period as characterized the way that Gibbon did, and the way that it was seen by those generations influenced by the sentiments Gibbon’s writings gave voice to.

This should lead us, who wish to see history clearly, to be careful about our own affections and pathos, lest we be unfaithful to our task, and fail to redeem truth from the jaws of time.

7 thoughts on “The Monastic and Ecclesio-political Origins of Some Elements of our Modern Polities, Part 1 (Revision 4)

  1. Very nice. I’ll be watching for the rest of this series.

    It’s interesting that Benedictine opposition to vows and oath-swearing did not prevail in Europe, but satisfaction as a key aspect of justice did…and that in many ways the two (oaths and satisfaction) fused into one.

    Liked by 1 person

    • –and thank you for your kind words! Please excuse me for the overly-short reply before: I was on a canoe on the Charles River with three other people, and I was at the back, steering.

      I write because I love to write, and find it personally profitable; I also write because I hope that others will benefit from it. Glad to hear you’ve found it helpful!

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Pingback: The Monastic and Ecclesio-political Origins of Some Elements of our Modern Polities, Part 2a | Into the Clarities

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