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.

Continue reading

David Bentley Hart on Heidegger: Modernity-as-Nihilism

(Some scraps while I read and write away at several other, more substantial, pieces.)

Earlier I posted an excerpt from the later Heidegger; I have also posted thoughts from David Bentley Hart (on Marilynne Robinson, of Gilead fame). Wishing to combine the two, we might discover that Hart published an article on Heidegger in February of 2011 (ignore the venue of that link, if it bothers you: the article is worth reading). This is the last time I’ll be posting about Hart for the foreseeable future, though there is much about Heidegger I shall eventually get to here (barring death). Continue reading

David Bentley Hart on Marilynne Robinson

Several years ago, David Bentley Hart wrote a review (it was here) of Marilynne Robinson’s book Absence of Mind. He ventriloquizes Robinson, posing this question: Continue reading

Stars Down to Earth


In Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar, Act I, Scene 2, Cassius says to Brutus concerning Caesar:

Why, man, he [Caesar] doth bestride the narrow world
Like a Colossus, and we petty men
Walk under his huge legs and peep about
To find ourselves dishonorable graves.
Men at some time are masters of their fates.
The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars
But in ourselves, that we are underlings.

“The fault […] is not in our stars”, which stars are here connected to the “fates” of “men”. James Dunn notes, commenting on this passage, that

[…] the fear that the stars may indeed be involved has been a recurring suspicion or nightmare in all ages. And if not the stars, then supra-mundane forces of some sort or kind.
[James D.G. Dunn, The Theology of Paul the Apostle (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1998), 102]

These “supra-mundane forces” are typically the gods, or some sort of divine/angelic (or demonic) powers. The notion of fate that accompanies the above passage from Shakespeare is, arguably, even more intense, and sounds rather Homeric, as though:

[…] No one alive has ever escaped it,
neither brave man nor coward, I tell you —
it’s born with us the day that we are born.
[Iliad, VI.488-489 (lines 582-584 of Fagles’ transl., p.212)]

This fate is inescapable; yet it is not always, as is often thought, inflexible. It can be steered, and even in some cases escaped temporarily, though this fate will always catch up with the individual in the end. The Greek word for “fate” (“moira”, “moros” or even “aisa”) means portion or allotment: it is the lot that is assigned to one, as C3PO whines in Star Wars: A New Hope: “We seem to be made to suffer; it’s our lot in life.” This lot is what is simply “laid on us“, and includes what are the very ambiguous “gifts” (δωρα) of the gods —e.g., the loveliness of Helen of Troy; double edged gifts, if ever there were– that would not and cannot be chosen (“no one can have them by choosing” Iliad III.66); this lot includes, at its climax, death.

I suggested that the cup of this portion is, to some degree, flexible: Achilles in the Iliad has two fates he might fill up his allotment with [IX.410 ff., Fagles, 265], though some things are not flexible, because they are beyond one’s lot or portion, and pursuing them would bring about calamity for all. The fates are, it seems, above the Olympian gods such as Zeus, though he is the one who seems to distribute the portions, the limits of men — and as we see in the Iliad VIII.70 ff., where Zeus apportions different fates to the two different armies of the war in his “golden scale”, and in the Iliad XVI.400-550. [Fagles, 427], he can override the fates or portions of men, though the cost could be great, and would bring great turmoil and chaos even among the gods.

The historical-natural-cosmic and the theological are here one and the same. Here, there are no elemental powers that are not in some sense divine, and the difference between magic and religion, or between divination and naturalistic predictions, is unrecognized, moot. Continue reading