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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A (Partial) Failure

I have been using several topoi  to investigate the trends from Benedict of Nursia to Marsilius of Padua (vi&., consent, participation, procedure, discernment, whether nature tends to any good, the application of law — i.e., judgment, the purpose of law, natural vs. positive law, and whether the ruler is under any law). By means of these topoi I have come to conclude that, although there are significant connections between Benedictine monasticism and the later forms of papal plenitude of power, my original thesis that extended this thread to Marsilius in fact overextended, and fails.

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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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