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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The Origins of Political Authority in Augustine of Hippo, City of God 19 (Part 2)

Continued from part one, which both introduced one or two themes from The City of God  and summarized the synopsis of classical thought with which Augustine opens Book 19.1-3 of the same. Here, we cover the first half of 19.4.

Having listed Varro’s summary of all possible philosophies, Augustine concurs with him that any possible philosophy ultimately reduces to one of  three positions. Happiness, the ultimate good of the human being (which is a body-soul unity), is had (A) for the sake of trained virtue, or (B) trained virtue is had for the sake of certain natural goods (vi&., the health of mind and body), or (C) both virtue and natural goods (i.e., health of mind and body) are desired together. Like Varro, Augustine opts for (C), conceding that the soul and its pleasures are greater than those of the body, but granting that both virtue and natural goods are desirable for their own sake. Varro also opines that the life of virtue should be pursued both for one’s own sake and that of others, that his positions are certain (against the Sceptics of the New Academy), and that the path to the final good entails both the active and the contemplative life. (Varro is indecisive on the matter of whether one should adopt the manners and lifestyle of the surrounding culture, of that of the Cynics.)

Augustine now gives “what response the City of God makes when questioned on each of” the points of Varro’s summary of classical thought. [XIX.4, Dyson, 918]  Continue reading

Peter Brown on Augustine on the Libido Dominandi

In his essay “Saint Augustine”, covering select features of Augustine of Hippo’s political thought, Peter Brown mentions Augustine’s presentation of the “harmonious order established by God”, and how it is “inverted” by sin. [“Saint Augustine” in Trends in Medieval Political Thought, ed. Beryl Smalley (Oxford: Blackwell & Mott, 1965), 9] Given that the harmonies emerge from God, and are dependent on him, Augustine saw “dependence” as “the most basic relationship in the divine order” [Ibid., 9], as the goods constitutive for oneself are received. When this order is “dislocat[ed]” the “most basic symptom” is “domination — the need to secure the dependence of others.” [Ibid., 10] [See The Literal Meaning of Genesis viii, vi, 12; xi, xv, 20] 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 I — History: Sacred and Secular

Robert A. Markus died of cancer in 2010, at the age of 86. Together with Peter Brown (who cites Markus often in his own works, and contributed the Epilogue to Markus’ Festschrift), Markus was responsible for fleshing-out the territory of the study of Late Antiquity — generously speaking, between Imperial Rome in the third century A.D. and Charlemagne.

Of Romanian Jewish parents (who left Romania in 1939, settling eventually in England), yet later a convert to Catholicism, Markus studied medieval philosophy at Manchester University together with figures like Alasdair MacIntyre, had a stint as a Dominican, and then settled down to marry. He taught at Liverpool, then at Nottingham, taking early (though quite active) retirement.

Saeculum: History and Society in the Theology of St. Augustine, Revised Edition (New York: Cambridge, 2007) was his first significant book (a helpful list of Markus’ publications can be found here). Originally published in 1970, it was eventually revised for a second edition. Markus’ thesis in Saeculum is only slightly slippery: whether we claim (with Thomas M. Parker) that its center is found in “Augustine’s conception of the relation between sacred and secular history”, or in “Augustine’s secularization of political institutions” and his “views on the nature and purpose of human society” (John Dillon), we still come very close to the heart of the book. (The subtitle “History and Society” should suggest as much, since the pair is related, but not totally unified.) In a manner, these senses may be reconciled in Gerard A. Reed’s review, where the book’s heart is to be found in “Augustine consider[ing] [that] Christian society [is] eschatological rather than terrestrial, rejecting any socio-political notions which denied the non-temporal, trans-historical dimensions of his City of God”, though, despite this eschatological acknowledgement, the crux of the book is in the way that Augustine secularized conceptions of history, society (including the “state”), and the Church, by evaluating them all through this-worldly terms and/or ends. The chapters that follow flesh this out. Continue reading