Excerpt #9 — Gregory the Great on the Ends of Political Power

In order to write responsibly the Fifth and final entry in the series “The Flags of the Dead and the Promise of the Future”, I have been forced to return to a number of books I have not read in some time (e.g., the political and religious works of the magnificent John Locke), and many that I have not read ever (e.g., The Institutes of Gaius).

Some of both of these are by the late Walter Ullmann (d.1983), who is treated at length by any responsible historian of the Medieval period. Ullmann is known most chiefly for his thesis that there are two competing sources of political power in the Middle Ages, one from God to the king (who then delegates what power and authority he wishes to officers who have no right to it, and from whom the king can –so Ullmann says– recall it at a moment’s notice), another from the People; this model is largely concerned with the efficient causes of political power, rather than their end, their teleology.

One of Ullmann’s many appreciative critics, Joseph Canning, notes that, when the teleology of monarchical power in the Middle Ages is properly attended to, the whole profile of medieval models of kingly power changes from Ullmann’s sketch of exclusive and absolute willful authority –with the people having no right of resistance– to something else. The Late Antique figure of Gregory the Great (or Gregory I), Pope of Rome (ca. A.D.540–604), who was massively influential on the culture of the Middle Ages, wrote an early text, the Moralia in Job (or “Morals on the Book of Job”), composed and delivered to a group of like-minded ascetics in an initial form in 578, while Gregory was a deacon, a papal legate to the court of the Roman Emperor in Constantinople, and completed years later, after Gregory had already become the Roman Pope. It is almost obscenely large, and I know of only one person who has attempted to read all of it through from cover to cover; it is also rather unanimously regarded as his magnum opus, and one section of it contains, as Canning suggests, a picture of royal power that is at odds with Ullmann’s thesis, and shows the proper ends of worldly power in general, shows that it had a strong teleological thrust. 

I here offer the one section of Gregory’s Moralia cited by Canning as relevant to Ullmann’s thesis, together with parts of the section leading into it, and the section following it, with no massive amounts of commentary for now beyond a few notes at the end.

Gregory, Moralia in Job 26.xxvi.44-46; 44 is the prelude, 45 the main text I would draw the reader’s attention to, and 46 follows helpfully:

26.xxvi.44. Some things in the course of this mortal life are hurtful in themselves, some are such from circumstances. Some are hurtful of themselves; as sins and wickednesses. But some things are, now and then, hurtful from circumstances, as temporal power […]. […] While that then which is not hurtful is retained, something hurtful is commonly committed from attendant circumstances: as frequently we journey along a straight and clear road, and yet we are entangled by our clothes in briars which grow by its side. We do not stumble in a clear road, but something grows by the side to wound us. For great is that temporal power, which, from being well administered, has its special reward from God: and yet sometimes from being preeminent over others, it swells with pride of thought. And while all things for its use are at its service, while its commands are speedily fulfilled, according to its wish, while all its subjects praise its good deeds, if there are any, but do not oppose its evil doings with any authority, while they too commonly praise, even that which they ought to blame; the mind, being led astray by those things that are beneath it, is raised above itself, and while it is encircled with unbounded applause without, is bereft of truth within. And, forgetting itself, it scatters itself after others’ speech, and believes itself to be really such, as it is spoken of without, and not such as it ought to see itself to be within. It despises those beneath it, and does not acknowledge them to be its equals in order of nature, and believes that it has exceeded those also in the merits of its life, whom it has surpassed by the accident of rank. It considers that it is far wiser than all those, than whom it sees itself greater in power. For it places itself in truth on a lofty eminence, in its own opinion, and, he that is confined within the same natural condition as others, scorns to look on them as his equals, and is in this way led even to resemble [Satan]. […] By a marvellous judgment, then, it finds the depth of downfall within, whilst it raises itself without, in loftiness of power. For a man is in truth made like an apostate angel, when he disdains to be like his fellow men. Thus Saul grew up, from meritorious humility, into swelling pride, by his height of power. He was in truth raised up in consequence of his humility, and rejected through his pride: as the Lord bears witness, Who says, When thou wast little in thine own eyes, did not I make thee the head of the tribes of Israel? [1 Sam. 15, 17] Before he attained to power he had seen that he was little, but supported by temporal authority he no longer saw himself to be so. For preferring himself, in comparison with others, he counted himself great in his own judgment. But marvellously, when little in his own sight, he was great in the sight of the Lord, and when great in his own sight, in the Lord’s sight he was little. The Lord forbids us, by His Prophet, to be great in our own sight, saying, Woe unto you that are wise in your own eyes, and prudent in your own sight. [Is. 5, 21] And Paul admonishes us not to be great in our own opinions, saying, Be not wise in your own conceits. [Rom. 12, 16] While the mind then is puffed up, through the number of those that are subject to it, it falls into the lust of pride, the very height of its power pandering to it.

26.xxvi.45. But for this and that not to be good is one thing, for any not to know how to use the good aright is another. For power is good in its proper place, but it requires careful conduct in a ruler. He therefore exercises it aright, who has learned both how to retain, and how to overcome it. He exercises it aright, who knows how to raise himself, by its means, above his faults, and, with it, to keep himself down on a level with others. For the mind of man is frequently elated, even when not supported by any power. How much more then does it exalt itself, when power joins itself unto it? And yet it is prepared to correct the faults of others with due punishment. Whence also it is said by Paul, For he is the minister of God, a revenger to execute wrath upon him that doeth evil. When then the administration of temporal power is undertaken, a person must watch with the greatest care, in order to learn how to select from it what is of use, and to withstand its temptations, and to feel himself, even with it, on an equality with others, and yet, by his zeal for revenge, to set himself above those who do wrong. We gain a fuller knowledge of this discretion, if we look also at some instances of ecclesiastical power. Peter then, though holding the Chief power [‘principatum’] in the Church by Divine authority, refused to be reverenced unduly by Cornelius, who was a righteous man, and was prostrating himself before him, and acknowledged himself to be but his equal, saying, Arise, do it not, I myself am also a man.[Acts 10, 26] But on discovering the sin of Ananias and Sapphira, he soon displayed with what great power he had risen above others. [Acts 5, 1-11] For by a word he smote their life, which he detected by the searching of the Spirit; and called to mind that he held within the Church the chief power against sinners, which, when the honour had been violently thrust on him, he refused to acknowledge before his righteous brethren. In the one case holiness of conduct deserved a communion of equality, in the other his zeal for vengeance displayed his rightful power. Paul did not acknowledge that he was superior to his righteous brethren, when he said, Not for that we have dominion over your faith, but are helpers of your joy. [2 Cor. 1, 24] And he immediately added, For by faith ye stand. As if he were saying, We have not dominion over your faith, for this very reason, because ye stand by faith. For we are your equals, in a case where we know that you are standing firm. He seemed not to know that he was superior to his brethren when he said, We have made ourselves as little ones among you; [1 Thess. 2, 7] and again, And ourselves your servants through Jesus Christ. [2 Cor. 4, 5] But when he discovered a fault, which needed correction, he immediately remembered that he was their master, and said, What will ye? shall I come to you with a rod? [1 Cor. 4, 21]

26.xxvi.46. A high place is therefore rightly discharged, when a ruler exercises his authority rather over sins, than over his brethren. For nature has made us all equal; but that some are committed to others to rule over them, it is not nature, but their own fault which places them beneath. Rulers, therefore, ought to raise themselves above the vices, on account of which they are placed above others: and, when they correct offenders, they should attend carefully to smite their faults with discipline, by the right of their power, but, by guarding their humility, to acknowledge, that they are equal with those very brethren, who are corrected. Although it is frequently even right, that we should, in our secret thought, prefer those, whom we correct, to ourselves. For their faults are smitten, through us, with the vigour of discipline, but, in the faults we ourselves commit, we are not wounded by any one, with an attack of even a word. We are, therefore, the more indebted to the Lord, the more we sin without punishment from man. But our discipline the more exempts those under it from Divine punishment, the more it leaves not their faults unpunished here. We must maintain then both humility in our heart, and discipline in our work. And we must, meanwhile, keep careful watch, lest the rights of discipline should be relaxed, while the virtue of humility is unduly guarded, and lest, while a ruler humbles himself more than is becoming, he should be unable to bind beneath the bond of discipline the life of his subjects. Let us outwardly, then, keep up that office, which we undertake for others’ benefit. Let us keep, within, the estimate we entertain of ourselves. But yet even those committed to us may properly learn, by some evidences which break forth, that we are such to ourselves within, in order to see what to dread from our authority, and to learn what to imitate from our humility. Having maintained the authority of our office, let us return unceasingly to our heart, and assiduously consider, that we are created on an equality with others, not that we have been temporally placed above others. For the more eminent is our power outwardly, the more ought it to be kept down within, lest it should overpower our thought, lest it should hurry the mind to be delighted with it, and lest the mind should soon be unable to control that power, to which it submits itself from desire of authority.

Contra Ullmann’s schema: power and authority here serve very specific ends, and are not just hunkey-dorey and licit in whatever they opt to do: they serve the end of punishing and correcting what is evil, in supporting, nurturing and securing what is good, they place a heavy burden of self-examination and humility upon the ruler exercising them, who is to remember the functional nature of his authority, that his authority is for the sake of some divine purpose that he is to serve, and that the ruler is not different in nature from those he rules.

There are several themes here that are typical for all of Gregory — that all humanity is equal by nature, and that some people are subjected to others only by accident; the importance of humility for all people, but especially those in charge; the importance of dealing with others over whom one has authority as equals to oneself; a model of authority in which some are subjected to others via divine providence. (As a tangential matter of historical note: Gregory is projecting his own ecclesiastical situation onto that of the biblical texts, but ends up with a very profitable error: David Bentley Hart has recently written an excellent article about some related features of the earliest Christian attitude towards wealth that help explain what is going on in such passages as those in Acts.) Gregory’s notion of authority and political power is not strictly procedural, but moral-teleological, which is why the ruler must keep the strictest guard over himself, set himself as a moral example, and pound down his own pride in humility and love for those subject to him, who are his equals by nature.

Gregory, of course, differs greatly from Augustine on his model of power and authority as being something that can come from elsewhere than the libido dominandi, yet his model of divine providence, that God deals with people both as groups and as individuals, and subjects some to the authority of others in the course of providence so as to instruct, correct, and guide — this he shares with Augustine. He will also say, like Augustine, that God gives groups of people the ruler(s) they deserve, and will give rulers the people they deserve (Gregory sees a strong moral arc to providence, and largely thinks that if a bad ruler emerges, the people are to blame themselves and correct their lives).

10 thoughts on “Excerpt #9 — Gregory the Great on the Ends of Political Power

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