The Monastic and Ecclesio-political Origins of Some Elements of our Modern Polities, Part 2a (Revision 1)

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 Greece, leapfrogging into the present, nor do they spring ex nihilo from later Enlightenment conceptions of political life. Rather, they first take on their later forms by way of Late Antique and Medieval monastic and ecclesiastical environments. While we should not wish to make history tidier than it is –the lines of influence are messy ones– this particular line is significant enough that, even if it is later joined by other tributaries, it deserves to be singled out.

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. At the end, we shall ask some questions about the meaning of the secular, secularism, and secularity, as illuminated by this history.

In the previous entry, we looked at the Rule of Benedict. Here, we look at the lead-up to a crucial stage in the secularization (i.e., an exportation into the saeculum) of features of the Rule in the writings and life of Gregory I, Roman Pope, also known as Gregory the Great, or (less fortunately) as Gregory the Dialogist.  

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R. A. Markus on Augustine on Signs

The third chapter in Augustine: A Collection of Critical Essays ed. R. A. Markus (New York: Doubleday, 1972) is titled “St. Augustine on Signs”, written by Markus himself (whom we introduced earlier, and whose book Saeculum we previously summarized).  Originally appearing in Phronesis in 1957, it is a curious blend of historical and constructive work — beginning with the historical, then eventually threading in the constructive strands (highlighting roads Augustine suggested, but neglected to travel — I will largely ignore these in this post). The De Magistro (“The Teacher”), De Doctrina Christiana (“On Christian Teaching”), and De Trinitate (“On the Trinity”) are the three works of Augustine’s focused on by Markus here. Continue reading

Peter Brown on Christianization, Part IV: The Death of the Gods and the Disenchantment of the World

One of the central features marking the transition to the modern world is disenchantment. What disenchantment entails is suggested already in the word “disenchantment” itself: the word as it was coined in German –“Entzauberung”– literally means “de-magic-ing”. For us moderns, the world, specifically nature, is no longer shot through with innate meanings and magical powers. We do not take seriously suggestions such as that the forests are filled with mischievous brownies, and that our children thus ought not play there. We would not think to eat walnuts because of a headache: the symmetry between the shape of walnuts and the shape of our brains is no longer thought to cause anything through formal affinity (except through placebo). When we come across a glade that stirs us to wonder and lofty feelings, we do not seriously, publicly think that this marks the presence of a god who dwells there — at least, we do not think this simply and without consciousness of alternative views on the glade; we do not say a god dwells there without awareness that to say so publicly is merely to advance one exotic and embattled option among others that are more common, and which are more plausible to the vast majority of our cohort. There are indeed irrational and mistaken ideas about nature floating around, but they (and we) all fall on this side of disenchantment, and so their character is different from any pre-modern notions and modes of engaging the world.

A relatively intense sense of disenchantment may mark the modern world, but the processes of disenchantment do not begin there. They begin, instead, with Christianization.  Continue reading

R. A. Markus, Saeculum: History and Society in the Theology of St. Augustine

As they work their way through the seminal figures of Western history, introductory courses on Philosophy continue to include Augustine of Hippo, sandwiching him between Aristotle and Thomas Aquinas, who each lived from seven-to-eight-hundred years from him in either chronological direction. One of the principal difficulties in engaging with Augustine on some of the classical loci of philosophy, however, is that he does not always have works dedicated to these topics. On these matters, one must glean his position from other works. Augustine’s position on political philosophy is one such subject. Thankfully, Robert A. Markus’ Saeculum: History and Society in the Theology of St. Augustine, Revised Edition (New York: Cambridge, 2007) goes a long way towards filling this vacuum.

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R. A. Markus, Saeculum IV — Ordinata Est Res Publica

Having earlier covered chapter one and chapter two  of Robert A. Markus’ book Saeculum, the previous post covered chapter three.

Today we cover chapter four.   Continue reading