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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An Example of Historical Distance & Difference: Χάρις, Linguistic Singularity, and Confessional Projection

Translators are confronted with numerous choices when rendering ancient Greek words into English, and one of these is how to bridge the distance between the world of the text and the world of the reader.  This historical distance can be notoriously difficult to see when one engages with a text that has already been translated, and which arrives in the world of the innocent reader as pre-chewed food. (A recent post on the shift in words we translate as “happy” reminded me of the need to write something on this more specifically.) This highlights a central feature of the secularity of our modern world: historical distance, the autonomy of historical epochs and local worlds, and the seeming worldliness of every bridge or road we might build to traverse them. Continue reading

Ramsay MacMullen on Christianization, Part I: What Difference Did Christianity Make?

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.

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Peter Brown on Christianization, Part II: Narratives of Christianization

The previous post (very) briefly introduced the historian Peter Brown and offered a summary of a lecture by him on Constantine I and Eusebius of Caesarea. In it, Brown asked what the horizons of possibility were for the two men regarding Christianization. This sense of the horizons of possibility changed during the course of the fourth century. The fact that Brown felt he needed to clarify what was distinctive about the Constantinian age and its hopes indicates something about how later history and later narratives were afterwards projected onto earlier times within the same century, making it difficult to see the world of the early- and mid-fourth century for what it was apart from these narratives. What can be said about the history that resists being assimilated by the narrative of Christianization we have inherited today? Continue reading