A Preface to Walter Ullmann, Part 1 of 2

I mentioned Ullmann in a post about the ends of political power in Gregory the Great (Pope Gregory I) just over a month ago; I then addressed him more directly in a post about an experience of reading one of his books last week. I said that I was going to cover mostly the secondary literature on Ullmann, and this mostly by Ullmann’s students, to get a profile of the man mostly from those who knew him; originally I had intended not to look at Ullmann’s own writings much for this exercise, despite knowing that this is bad academic practice — not far from journalism.

I broke my rule, however, and looked at some of the man’s own writings. I found this passage in one of his works, describing one class of people who research “the institutional machinery of the papacy” in a way that makes their research dismissable:

remaining as they do on the surface, untouched as they are by contact with the sources, and relying as they do on secondary literature, they have little else but their own purely subjective-moral evaluations with which their presentation is interleaved. When one knows no sources, except perhaps those conveniently selected in well-known compendia, one virtually must take refuge in moralising judgements; how else is one to paint a picture? [1]

Perhaps it was a reader-response reaction, but I felt like the man was talking about me, to me. Below, after an initial overview, we shall survey what I have been able to uncover about Ullmann’s life, then cover the contours of his personality as it is revealed in what people have written about him.

In the next (second and final) post, we shall review the general outline of the better-known elements in the schema of Ullmann’s thought, and then review the criticisms that have been leveled against him.

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Excerpt #11 — Plato’s “Ship Of State”

No matter how well-intentioned, public speech from candidates on the campaign trail –or elected officials who are already in office– cannot ever be entirely sincere, but is something between being either a technology entirely for the purpose of securing political power (an anecdotal exhibit B of this here) or else is in some sense caught up into the gravity well of such a game, no matter how honest and authentic the politicians wish to be. (Even the honesty and “authenticity” of any given politician, insofar as these makes such a candidate attractive to an electing populace, become tools, instruments, means to gain power as soon as they enter into the political game. [1] Anyone watching recent popular TV shows recognizes this.) The game holds sway over what can and must be said in order to be successful, for success means persuasion and even domination according to the rules of the game, rather than the communication of truth. For Plato’s Socrates, however, true speech is not about control.

For Socrates, a philosopher should be always concerned with truth. Those who are interested in power are at a distance from this ideal, for they cannot be entirely so interested in truth: their pursuit of political office means that, to the degree that they as politicians are interested in truth, it must aid in their acquisition of, or retention of, power. Within a democratic polity, a principled and consistent concern with truth on the part of those in power will, at least at times, fight against the interests of those who are in power. Continue reading

A Prelude to a Preface to Walter Ullmann

In the middle of the summer of 2016, I was plowing through books on Marsilius of Padua (ca. A.D. 1275–ca. 1342) and the figures and the history leading up to him. One professor I spoke with suggested that I look into the history of Roman law –rather than to principles found in Benedictine monasticism— to explain some of the cultural features that would make sense out of some of the positions characteristic of Marsilius.

So I started to tear through books on Roman law. I read through Stein, and acquired many of the primary sources found in the end-of-chapter bibliographies; I bought Harries, and picked up Jolowicz. I began carefully to read my way through several sections of Justinian’s InstitutesStein I was reading together with CanningKing, and Black, among others; in Canning’s and King’s works, in some of the choicest footnoted section, I kept running across references to a work titled Law and Politics in the Middle Ages by Walter Ullmann. Ullmann taught several of the members of Monty Python, Nederman wrote, and several ideas of his (again, so I was told) are expressed in their movies, and in their radio and TV shows — so he must be fascinating and entertaining! Ergo, I picked up a copy of Ullmann’s Law and Politics, and started reading through it.  Continue reading

Excerpt #10 — Augustine on (What We Would Call) The State

We have earlier summarized what is perhaps the best book in English on Augustine’s politics (may this excerpt illuminate what is found there, and vice versa), began a summary of Book 19 of his City of God (part one here; pingbacks at the bottom for all other current and future parts), and offered an excerpt of Peter Brown writing about Augustine’s understanding of the Libido Dominandi; here I offer one excellent quote to summarize Augustine’s political vision. Continue reading

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.

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