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.
Ramsay MacMullen begins his essay “What Difference did Christianity Make?” by citing a question from E. A. Judge:
“What difference did it make to Rome to have been converted?” Self-evident changes like basilica-building or people’s attendance at churches instead of temples are surely not what the question is getting at. The point (or at any rate my point) is rather to discover how broad patterns of secular life changed as a result of the population being now believers. Inquiry promises interesting results because Christianity is known to us as a religion, along with Judaism and certain others, that offers powerful prescriptions for living this secular life. There is a Christian morality, in short; and the introduction of the new faith should thus have had historical impact. [“What Difference did Christianity Make?”, Historia, 35 (1986), 322]
MacMullen looks at the period from A.D. 312 to about A.D. 410 for evidence to marshal in the answering of this question, as he suggests that Christian influence upon society, to be relevant to Judge’s question, must be visible prior to the religion’s becoming a majority, when there is no longer something else it can easily be said to resist and change.
The sources themselves are too often “bookish” (such as Clement of Alexandria), drawing much on pagan themes, while we have no idea to what degree said authors (and preachers) influenced their hearers and readers. If influence on action cannot be demonstrated, moral literature reduces “to the compass of a pastime.” [“Difference”, 323]
Doing, and not just talking, and doing “in some opposition to evidently accepted standards”, is the litmus test of difference. ‘Without opposition [Christianization] cannot have produced any difference.” The standards for what constitutes difference must come from this time. [“Difference”, 324] MacMullen looks at five areas of potential change: (1) Slavery, (2) Attitudes to Sex, (3) Theatrical and Gladiatorial Shows, (4) Judicial Savagery, and (5) Corruption.