Excerpt #25 — Isidore of Seville on Secular Rule and Rulers

A remarkably long excerpt from Isidore of Seville (A.D. 560-636) on Christian kingship, further to flesh-out the nature of one of the objections delivered against Walter Ullmann (by Joseph Canning) — and, perhaps, in the end, to qualify, or even judge, one of these objections. 

In a previous post, part 2b of 2 on Walter Ullmann, Joseph Canning listed a number of Objections to Walter Ullmann’s description of what Ullmann called “the theocratic principle”. I will cite Canning’s objection again, then offer a long excerpt from Isidore of Seville (which I was led to through Canning’s footnote), and then conclude by re-opening a line of investigation that I had closed years ago.

This all seems right, as I intend to generate a post with hyperlinks to all of the Preface-to-Ullmann posts, for easier reference.

1

First, the relevant excerpt from part 2b:

When theocratic kingship is seen in terms of its purpose the seemingly absolute nature of such monarchy appears modified. Precisely because rulership was understood to have been instituted by God it was considered to exist for a divinely willed end. Kingship was viewed as an office existing within a Christian normative structure: there was no place for the arbitrary exercise of the monarch’s will. The king’s role was that of Christian service for the common good of his people. As St. Paul said, ‘The state is there to serve God for your benefit … The authorities are there to serve God … All government officials are God’s officers.’ [Rom 13:4-6] Gregory the Great, whose works were fundamental to the development of medieval thought, writing in the late sixth century, classically described this royal role in terms of the established theme of Christian ministry [Moralia 26.26.45], a formulation which was to have a determining influence on medieval conceptions of kingship. The king in performing this function was to observe a characteristically Christian humilitas [Gregory, Pastoral Care 2.6], a notion alien to Greek or Roman political thought. Isidore of Seville, writing in the Visigothic kingdom of Spain in the first part of the seventh [p.20] century, also made this idea of ministry a fundamental part of his treatment of kingship. Not only were Isidore’s works the most important literary products of Visigothic Spain, the most culturally precocious of the barbarian kingdoms, but many of his statements exerted a disproportionate effect on the development of thought in the Middle Ages themselves. This is particularly true of his ideas concerning kingship and political life. This is not to claim any originality or great depth for his thought; it is just that his formulations proved peculiarly long lived. Indeed, many of the basic concepts of medieval theocratic kingship are to be found in his works. [1] The moral purpose of kingship is summed up in Isidore’s retailing of the ancient axiom, ‘You will be a king if you act rightly, if you do not, you will not be’, based on a play on the words rex and recte (rightly), a trite but effective observation which for him assumed a Christian value-system. [Etymologies 9.3.4 English transl. here] He stressed the king’s duty to aim at justice (iustitia), the virtue which in the Middle Ages was to come to encapsulate the duties of a Christian ruler. Similarly, the king should observe clemency, humility and patience, and in general serve the Christian religion which characterized the community which he governed. [2] In sum the king must rule for his subjects’ benefit and was answerable to God for the way in which he ruled them, an idea which echoed Hebrews 13:17, ‘Obey your leaders and do as they tell you, because they must give an account of the way they look after your souls.’ Isidore was attempting to integrate Roman, biblical and patristic moral criteria into his theory of kingship, thus illustrating that according to both Greco-Roman and Judaeo-Christian political ideas rulership should have the moral aim of achieving the common good. Indeed, this shared teleological orientation facilitated the fusion of ancient and Christian ideas throughout the Middle Ages.

That’s Canning. I will note that Isidore, below, not only knew Gregory personally, but cites his Moralia explicitly in his discussion on Christian kingship, making Gregory’s treatment of this topic not only a note to be played in chronological sequence of “things random Christian writers said about secular rulers over the centuries”, but a relationship between writers that is undoubtedly to be cast in terms of direct influence.

2

Now, to St. Isidore, patron saint of the internet. This comes from his Sentences, Book III.48-53 [see Isidore of Seville, Sententiae transl. Thomas L. Knoebel (Mahwah, NJ: Newman Press, 2018)]

48.1. A just man either avoids all worldly power or, if he is invested with some power, he is not so bowed under it that he becomes puffed up with pride, but he subjects it to himself so that he might become known as more humble. This is shown by the example of the Apostle (cf. 1 Thess. 2:6), who made use of the power given to himself not for that which was allowed, but, when he was able to use it, said no to the licit things for himself so that he showed himself as a little child in the midst of the people over whom he was placed.
[…]
48.3. To the extent that one is elevated higher in the dignity of worldly honor, to that extent he is more heavily burdened by the weights of his cares, and is greatly subjected in his mind and thought to the things over which he is placed by his rank. For as one of the fathers says, “Every eminent position is more affected by griefs than it pleases with its honors.” [Gregory the Great, Moralia 32.20.38 [3]]
[…]
48.5a. Every badge of power is not immediately beneficial, but it is certainly helpful if it is carried well; and it is well carried when it benefits the subjects over whom the worldly honors are placed.
48.5b. Power is good when, given by God, it is used so that it binds up evil by fear, and not so that it commits evil rashly. For nothing is worse than to have the freedom to sin through one’s power, and nothing is more miserable than doing evil happily.
[…]
48.7. Kings are called to act justly. Therefore the title of king is maintained by doing what is right and lost by sinning. Thus also holy men are called kings in the sacred writings because of the fact that they do what is right, and they rule well their own senses and their resisting impulses and they conduct themselves with the discretion of their rational mind. Correctly, then, are these called kings who, ruling well, know how to moderate themselves as well as their subjects.
48.8. Some pervert this title of governance into a savagery of cruelty and when they have come to the height of their power, they quickly fall into apostasy, and they extoll themselves with such a pride of the heart that they regard all their subjects as inferior to themselves and they do not recognize anyone as being their equal. About these, it is rightly said, “If they make you master of the feast, do not exalt yourself; be among them as one of their number” (Sir 32:1).
[…]
48.10. Although the Apostle says, “There is no authority except from God” (Rom 13:1), how does the Lord say through the prophet about those who are rulers, “They made kings, but not through me” (Hos 8:4), unless he had meant not pleasing to me, but even angering me? Thus he says later through the same prophet, “I gave you a king in my anger” (Hos 13:11). By this saying it is made more clear that both good and evil power are ordained by God, but he is pleased to ordain the good power, and he ordains the evil power in anger.
48.11. When there are good kings, it is because of the gift of God, but when they are bad, it is because of the sin of the people. […]

49.1. The one who justly uses the power of his rule ought to distinguish himself in the sight of all in such a way that, the more brightly he shines due to the degree of his honor, the more he should humble himself in his mind, placing before himself the example of the humility of David, who was not puffed up because of his merits but, lowering himself humbly, said, “It was before the LORD, who chose me…that I have danced…I will make myself yet more contemptible than this” (2 Sam 6:21-22)
49.2. The one who justly uses the power of his rule puts the pattern of justice into place more by his deeds than by his words. He is not made proud by prosperity, he is not shaken by adversity; he relies not on his own powers, but his heart rests in the Lord (cf. Jer 17:5); the dignity of his rule presides over a humble heart. Wickedness does not delight him, lust does not inflame him; he produces wealth without defrauding anything from the poor and, because in his just power he was able to extort things from the people, he often gives to the poor out of mercy.
49.3. God gave the governance to princes for the ruling of the peoples, and God willed to elevate over all of the people those who share with them the same condition of being born and dying. Therefore the office of ruling ought to profit the people and not to harm them, not to press on them by lording it over them but to consult with them by condescending to them, so that this badge of power might truly be beneficial and they might use this gift of God for the protection of the members of Christ. Indeed, the faithful people are the members of Christ, and, when the princes rule them well by that power that they receive, they return to God the good that he has given them in the sense of an exchange. [4]
[…]

[…]
50.3. To return evil for evil is an exchange of justice, but the one who adds mercy to justice does not return evil for the evil of the guilty one but bestows good for the evil of the offender (cf. Rom 12:17)
50.4. It is difficult for a ruler to return to that which is better if he has been involved in sin. People who sin fear a judge and they are restrained from their sin by laws. Kings, however, are restrained only by the fear of God and the dread of hell, and they rush forward freely over the precipice and, through the precipitousness of their freedom, they fall into all manner of sin.
[…]
50.6. Rulers easily either edify or subvert the life of their subjects by their own behavior, and therefore it is not right that a ruler should sin, lest by the unpunished license of his sin he establish a pattern of sinning. […]
50.7. Just as some of the good people imitate the deeds of their rulers that are pleasing to God, so also many are easily led astray by their evil deeds. However, many people who live under wicked rulers are evil by necessity rather than by desire when they obey their decrees. […]
50.8. [Good rulers who repent of their evil predecessors are complicit in that evil if they retain what is plundered by them.]
[…]

51.1. It is just that a ruler be subject to his own laws. For, when even he pays reverence to them, he should be of the opinion that all his laws must be kept by all the people.
51.2. Rulers are subject to their own laws, and they are not capable of disregarding for themselves the laws that they set up for their subjects. For the authority of their proclaiming these laws is just, if they do not permit to allow for themselves that which they prohibit for the people. [5]
51.3. Secular rulers are subject to the discipline of religion; and although they are endowed with the fullness of their reign, still they are held bound by the bond of faith, in order that they might preach the faith of Christ in their laws, and they might preserve that preaching of the faith in their good ways of life.

Isidore goes on to talk about the role of princes within the churches, about how the presence of wicked judges is the ruler’s fault, not that of the people, the importance of impartiality in judging, the wickedness of bribes, and the importance of care for the poor. It is interesting that the rulers have similar responsibilities to the people that the bishops have (as enumerated earlier), and that their only notable difference, other than not celebrating the divine services, is that the bishops alone teach, and move the people towards God through teaching, whereas the princes alone are to inspire fear in the wicked, which prevents the spread of wickedness (and can protect the Church from wicked men through that same fear, which the bishops cannot do).

3

Gregory’s sourcing of his pastoral model of the bishop from the Benedictine abbot, his construction of the model of Christian kingship along the lines of his ideal of the pastor, and the direct line of influence from Gregory to Isidore with regard to the model of the pastor-king, strongly suggest to me that an argument I made for my sort-of-masters-thesis, and began to outline here, should be revisited.

______________________

[1]

The footnote here says “See M. Reydellet, Laroyauté dans la littérature latine de Sidonie Apollinaire à Isidore de Seville (Ecole française de Rome, 1981), pp. 554–606.”

[2]

The footnote here says “See Sententiae, 3.48–51, cols 718–24; Differentiae, 2.156 and 158, col. 95.”

[3]

See here; the full text of 32.xx.38 is

38. Another, neglecting to think of the weight of ecclesiastical distinction, ascends by bribes to a place of rule. But because every eminent position in this world is more affected by griefs, than delighted by its honours, when the heart is weighed down by tribulations, its fault is recalled to its memory: and a man laments that he has attained to a laborious post by wrong means, and he learns how wrong is his conduct, by being crushed by the very difficulty. Acknowledging, therefore, that he is guilty with the bribes he has expended, he wishes to abandon the lofty position he has gained: but he is afraid it should be a more grievous sin to have resigned the charge of the flock he had undertaken. He wishes to take care of the flock committed to him, but he is afraid it should be a greater fault to hold the authority of pastoral grace which he purchased. He perceives therefore that, through seeking for distinction, he is hampered by sin on every side. For he sees that neither course is without the imputation of guilt, if either the flock he has once taken charge of be abandoned, or again if a sacred office be retained, when purchased in a secular way. He is afraid in every direction, and is suspiciously fearful on every side, either lest remaining in his purchased office he should not properly bewail his not correcting his fault by even abandoning it, or certainly, lest, while endeavouring to lament one fault, by resigning his authority, he should again commit another, by this very forsaking of his flock. Because, therefore, this Behemoth binds with such entangled knots, that a mind, when brought into doubt, binds itself firmer in sin by the very means it attempts to free itself from sin, it is rightly said; The sinews of his stones are wrapped together. For the more the arguments of his machinations are loosened, as if to release us, the more are they entwined to hold us fast.38. Another, neglecting to think of the weight of ecclesiastical distinction, ascends by bribes to a place of rule. But because every eminent position in this world is more affected by griefs, than delighted by its honours, when the heart is weighed down by tribulations, its fault is recalled to its memory: and a man laments that he has attained to a laborious post by wrong means, and he learns how wrong is his conduct, by being crushed by the very difficulty. Acknowledging, therefore, that he is guilty with the bribes he has expended, he wishes to abandon the lofty position he has gained: but he is afraid it should be a more grievous sin to have resigned the charge of the flock he had undertaken. He wishes to take care of the flock committed to him, but he is afraid it should be a greater fault to hold the authority of pastoral grace which he purchased. He perceives therefore that, through seeking for distinction, he is hampered by sin on every side. For he sees that neither course is without the imputation of guilt, if either the flock he has once taken charge of be abandoned, or again if a sacred office be retained, when purchased in a secular way. He is afraid in every direction, and is suspiciously fearful on every side, either lest remaining in his purchased office he should not properly bewail his not correcting his fault by even abandoning it, or certainly, lest, while endeavouring to lament one fault, by resigning his authority, he should again commit another, by this very forsaking of his flock. Because, therefore, this Behemoth binds with such entangled knots, that a mind, when brought into doubt, binds itself firmer in sin by the very means it attempts to free itself from sin, it is rightly said; The sinews of his stones are wrapped together. For the more the arguments of his machinations are loosened, as if to release us, the more are they entwined to hold us fast.

[4]

The endnote here says that the wording to this is almost exactly the same as canon 75 of the Fourth Council of Toledo.

[5]

The endnote here mentions that this passage has been taken up into Gratian’s twelfth-century work the Decretum, distinction 9 c.2; I have consulted the English translation of distinctions 1-20 [Gratian, The Treatise on Laws with The Ordinary Gloss, translated by Augustine Thompson, O.P. [Treatise] & James Gordley [Gloss], Introduction by Katherine Christensen (Washington, D.C.: Catholic University of America Press, 1993)], and found this passage there translated thus:

It is just that the prince be restrained by his own ordinances. For then, when he himself shows them respect, he shows that ordinances should be respected by all. That princes are to be bound by their own enactments in itself prohibits them from infringing the ordinances they have imposed on their own subjects. So, the authority of their pronouncements is just if they do not allow to themselves what they prohibit to their people. [p. 29 of Thompson’s transl.]

There is no commentary on this Isidorean passage in The Ordinary Gloss (the standard set of commentaries that are encrusted around the main passage), however, and the notes say that this passage was sometimes omitted and sometimes joined to the preceding passage by Augustine of Hippo, which suggests that those who rebel against just ordinances that are “in favor of God’s truth” will be punished, but “[w]hoever refuses to obey imperial ordinances made contrary to God’s truth receives abundant reward”.

______________________

Header image found here; a Carolingian-era image of him, for those so interested, can be found here.

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