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 Monastic and Ecclesio-political Origins of Some Elements of our Modern Polities, Part 1 (Revision 4)

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 or Enlightenment conceptions of political life, but first take on their later forms by way of Late Antique and Medieval monastic and ecclesiastical environments. 

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. 

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The Origins of Political Authority in Augustine of Hippo, City of God 19 (Part 1)

Augustine of Hippo’s (A.D. 354-430) massive City of God Against the Pagans (New Advent online ed. here; the Dyson translation that I primarily use is available here) consists in twenty-two books, written in sections over the course of thirteen years, beginning in A.D. 413, three years after the famous sack of Rome in A.D. 410 under Alaric. There had been social and political tensions between pagans and Christians before this (though not always-and-everywhere). In a letter to Augustine dated to 408/409, the Christian Marcellinus reported several criticisms of a certain pagan Volusianus. Among the inventory of criticisms was the charge –a “common allegation”– that

Christ’s teaching and preaching must be incompatible with the ethics of citizenship. For he told us –it is agreed– to return to no one evil for evil [Rom 12.17; 1 Thess 5.15], to offer the other cheek to an assailant, to give our cloak to someone demanding a tunic, and to go twice the required distance with someone who wants to requisition us [Mt 5.39–41]. [Volusianus] alleges that all these commands are contrary to the ethics of citizenship. Who would allow an enemy to steal something from him? Who would be unwilling to inflict evil, in the form of a just war, as recompense for the ravaging of a Roman province? […] Volusianus thinks that […] it is obvious that under the Christian emperors the empire is in a very bad way, even though they have on the whole observed the Christian religion. [Augustine, Political Writings ed. Atkins & Dodaro (New York: Cambridge, 2001), 29]

“[P]agans” as Peter Brown notes, “had begun to fear that Christianity had proved itself incompatible with Roman statecraft.” [Peter Brown, “Saint Augustine”, in Trends in Medieval Political Thought, ed. Beryl Smalley (Oxford: Blackwell & Mott, 1965), 9] The sack of Rome brought this frequently-played note out, and sounded it loudly. Augustine’s City of God is a more developed response to this and other such claims; book 19 is quite “possibly the most studied part of” it. [Gerard O’Daly, Augustine’s City of God: A Reader’s Guide (New York: Oxford Clarendon, 1999), 196]

Prior to the City of God, and anticipating a few of its themes, Augustine replied to Volusianus’ charges by arguing that the heart of the command to return no one evil for evil is “to shrink from a passion for revenge” [Letter 138, Political Writings, 35], which restraint the best of the founders of pagan Rome observed, and the best writers –such as Sallust and Cicero– praised. A city, Augustine argues (following Cicero), is “a group of men united by a specific bond of peace” [Political Writings, 35]. Exhortations to peace, then, do not weaken the city, but strengthen it. It is not peace that began “the decline of the Roman commonwealth” [Political Writings, 38], as Roman writers themselves testified, but the lust for power, the libido dominandi, the corruption of simplicity through the “admiring” of lovely things, then the “stealing” of them, resulting in an appetite that knows no bounds, and which engages even in “robbing temples” — quite reminiscent of the movement of Genesis 3:6 (the Tree prohibited by the divine command — recognized as good for food, a delight to the eyes, and desirable for one’s own benefit, through an appetite that acknowledges no boundaries). According to earlier pagan writers, Roman poverty was part of Roman virtue, but Roman wealth led to the corruption of Roman character. [Political Writings, 39] Augustine claims that Volusianus’ emphasis on violence leads to factionalism, and that the quarrelling of the Roman gods, if imitated, would shatter the bonds of peace of the earthly city. [Political Writings, 35] Further, it is best if an evildoer is “won back to peace” by “patient goodwill” rather than by “force or violence”. [Political Writings, 36] Augustine thought that human beings were equal by nature, though in their brokenness they did not regard one another as such in the artificial conditions of fallen sociality. As a result, he saw the coercion between human beings as the unnatural result of the corruption of sin, and institutions of coercion (such as what we would call “the state”) as the voluntary and contingent creations of humans within this condition (rather than instituted by God). So in his Tractates on John (in the first batch of tractates, delivered in A.D. 406-407) he wrote:

Let your reflection now turn to the human soul to which God had granted intellect for discovering its creator, for discerning and distinguishing between good and evil, that is between the just and the unjust. How many things it does through the body! Observe the whole world organized in the human commonwealth itself. With what administrations, with what classifications of powers, constitutions of cities, laws, customs, arts? All this is accomplished by the soul and this power of the soul is not seen. (Tractate 8.2) [Augustine, Tractates on the Gospel of John 1-10 transl. John W. Rettig (Washington, DC: Catholic University of America Press, 1988), 181]

In his reply to Volusianus here, Augustine seems to claim that a redeemed (and natural) authority-as-care-and-service could be exercised within the bounds of institutions that were man-made. Since Augustine sees these institutions as characterized by a disfigured and disfiguring root of authority-as-coercion, which coercive drive infects human relations through the dislocations of sin, this is remarkably optimistic.  Moreover, even when exercising fallen and coercive political authority externally, these evangelical exhortations to peace can be observed, for they “are more relevant to the training of the heart within than to our external activity.” [Political Writings, 37] If these evangelical precepts are held to, “then even wars will be waged in a spirit of benevolence” [Political Writings, 38], with an eye to “taming unrestrained passions” and “destroying vices”, and not for vengeance against wrongdoers (which can only occur at the end of time, when all possibility for reform has expired), but for the reform and restoration of those who are in the wrong, and who have violated the bonds of peace. Augustine here diagnoses Roman ills and vices almost exclusively from Roman writings, and defends the evangelical precepts to peace as rather bolstering the health of the commonwealth, instead of leaving it vulnerable. He concludes, however, seemingly a bit at odds with some of what he just wrote, that if “those who want the commonwealth to remain with its vices unpunished” resist “reform”, “we should tolerate” them. [Political Writings, 40]

As mentioned, however, Augustine was not content to leave the matter alone from the time of his reply onward, and writes that he shall take up, point-by-point, Volusianus’ reply to his letter. As we have seen, the question of the legitimacy of coercive power wielded by a Christian –or rather, the question of whether a faithful Christian can wield coercive power in faithfulness to his or her commonwealth while simultaneously remaining faithful to the precepts of Christ– is part of Volusianus’ charge, as is the character of peace, and book 19 of The City of God addresses both topics: peace, and coercive power. 

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The Origins of Political Authority — Augustine of Hippo, City of God 19.14-15

I will be posting several pieces on Augustine in the future, one on Augustine and disenchantment, another on Augustine largely secularizing the origins of political authority. The latter I shall get to first.

In the next month I shall also begin looking closely at another phenomenon that one sees slivers of here already in these chapters — the logic, character and scope of religious intolerance in the (third,) fourth and early fifth centuries. The issue of slavery is one I’ll likely need to defer.

Here, however, are parallel translations of chapters 14 and 15 from book 19 of the City of God, which I’ll be referring to. (Apologies for the strange formatting on mobile devices — it looks fine on my desktop.)
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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