The Monastic Roots of Western Democracy

freshly-pressed-rectangle

Reading a 6th century text is probably not most people’s idea of a good time, but on this Feast of St. Benedict (480-547 A.D.) I want to encourage you, even if you are not Christian, to take a look at an extremely important document to the development of Western culture, the Rule of St. Benedict.  Although it was originally written for religious communities, to provide guidelines on how to live, work, and pray together, it had a tremendous impact on the formation of our Western democratic form of government.  Through the example provided by St. Benedict and those who tried to live under his precepts, his Rule is an often-overlooked  touchstone for the shift from oligarchic to republican rule in Western civilization.

Sometime between the year 529 A.D, when he founded the Monastery of Monte Cassino in Italy (which was famously nearly obliterated during World War II), and his death in 547 A.D., St. Benedict wrote down what would become known as his “Rule”, which you can read in its entirety here.  For the past 1500 years it has been the basis for many monasteries and convents around the world, both Catholic and Protestant.  The Rule of St. Benedict greatly resembles what we would call a constitution, and provides a set of guidelines on how to live and co-operate peacefully and productively in a Christian community.  Its importance to Western culture is sadly often overlooked today, but it gave rise to numerous, deeply important ideas which still shape the ways in which we live in civilized communities, as we shall see.

Around 500 A.D., St. Benedict had become concerned about the lawlessness and moral laxity he observed in Roman society, of which he as the son of an aristocratic family was a member.  The degree of immoral behavior which he observed, in which people behaved as they wished, ignoring the teachings of the Church but still claiming to be Christians – sound familiar? – was something which appalled him.  He decided to withdraw from that society to try to grow closer to God, and focus on spiritual development rather than hedonism and material pleasures.  It was a path fraught with difficulties, which you can read about here.

Rather than focus on his fascinating life, however, I want to draw the reader’s attention to two interesting aspects of St. Benedict’s thought process in writing his Rule, which will be familiar to those of us living in a republican democracy.  One of St. Benedict’s most important contributions to the later growth of representative democracy in Western Europe was the concept, albeit not stated as such, of one man, one vote.  The proper application of his Rule meant that no member of the community had any greater standing than any other member of the community in voting for a new leader or making some other community decision, for all were equal before God.  Thus, the vote of an older monk did not count for more than that of a younger monk, nor did the vote of a monk from an aristocratic family count for more than the vote of a monk from a merchant or laboring family.  Consider what a departure this was from a well-established class system which prevented people from moving up or down the social ladder, no matter how successful or unsuccessful they might be in life.

A second, equally important consideration was that St. Benedict thought the leadership of the community ought to come from the one best-suited to the job, who was not necessarily the one who had been there the longest or whose background was the most prestigious.  This, in an age of privilege and social standing as birthright, can be viewed in many respects as an astonishing concept for the time.  Moreover,  when offering suggestions on how the leader of the community should be selected, St. Benedict counseled that due consideration ought to be given to wisdom, age, and experience when examining the nominees, but that everyone in the community was eligible to be elected, “etiam si ultimus fuerit in ordine congregationis” [roughly, “even the most recent one to join the community.”]  Thus, one should not be automatically disqualified from office as a result of being a relatively new arrival, or being younger than the others in the community.   Again, this concept of finding the best man or woman for the job, based on ability rather than birth or seniority, is something that Western democracy would take some time to come to enshrine in its own laws.

We are often told that Western Europe at the end of the Roman Empire entered into the “Dark Ages”, when what we would view as civilization simply disappeared or retreated in many places.  Yet through the work of deeply devout men such as St. Benedict in his Rule, the foundation stones for our present-day representative democracies were established.  Much as we must thank the Ancient Greeks and Romans for their philosophical ideals regarding the rule of law and the nature of government, which more often than not they did not bother to put into practice, truthfully it is through Christian thinkers like St. Benedict who were able to move the idea of representative government away from being only a theory or the sole purview of the elites, to being a truly participatory and merit-based system.  For that reason, among so many, the Rule of St. Benedict ought to be far better-known among contemporary students of Western political theory.

Santo

St. Benedict Giving His Rule to the Monks (c. 1129)
Monastery of Saint-Gilles, Nîmes, France

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38 thoughts on “The Monastic Roots of Western Democracy

  1. A very insightful comparison. Many people already know about the crucial role of the monasteries in supporting secular civilization during the Dark Ages by teaching techniques of practical science in such areas as agriculture, animal husbandry, and various domestic trades. Not many realize how political science principles of the Benedictine Rule became foundational for civil law and governance. Interesting material for a thesis. God bless!

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  2. I have never thought about it from this perspective so thank you for eloquently writing about it. I do wish it were taught in schools, especially Catholic schools, because such important foundational moments in history are so often skimmed over or skipped entirely in favor of frivolous things. I went to a Jesuit university and would have much preferred taking a philosophy class on St. Benedict’s rule instead of the ones I had to take.

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  3. An extremely well noted article. The best man for the job not based on how long you have been in office but how well you preform your job. This alone should be the mantra of the Congress. To many of our legislative members think the job is due them because they have been there so long. Some have overstayed their welcome and should be replaced but alas they usually come from an area where the best is not the basics of the election. No, it is the connections, bribes or who knows whom, and worse affiliations which may not truly represent the people and their wishes.

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    • @awax1217..You said,…” No, it is the connections, bribes or who knows whom, and worse affiliations which may not truly represent the people and their wishes….” YOU said more than a mouthful! How far our country has veered from how it was supposed to be..How much money one has or can ACCUMULATE to back them; should not and does not equate to the best man/woman for the JOB. Never did nor will it ever serve the folks who its meant to serve. US..until we tire of self-serving folks(who get LIFE LONG benefits far better than even those of with excellent job benefits) it will remain the same. Nothing changes until something changes. …>>>@William Newton. Well written , insightful write…2 thumbs UP

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  4. A very well-written piece, and there’s no denying that St.Benedict’s rule played an important role in establishing the trappings of Western Democracy. That said, given the multitude of monastic movements that spawned from The Rule–the Cluniacs, the Cistercians, etc–and the fact that corruption or excess almost always plagued the various orders as they became more entrenched during the Middle Ages, I think you could also argue that monastic orders played a part in the hegemony of un-democratic elitism (which today we characterize as feudalism).

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  5. Here we are taught from an early age that ‘The Dark Ages’ was a time when practically nothing happened and then miraculously around the 13th century we suddenly knew how to build and be civilised – (just – we would have to wait till the 18th century to truly see the light)
    If history was taught properly we would learn that it was a time of great advancement in learning and why the church is a pillar of our modern state and it’s importance whether we believe or not.
    I thoroughly enjoyed reading your post and the further reading – it reminded me of history I have not had a chance to revisit for quite a while!

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  6. Politically, I’m a little hesitant about what was written, but the medievalist inside of me enjoyed this very much. I think my favorite monk was st. francis – obviously he came much later but his desire for reform was, I imagine, inherited from the Benedictine tradition. I also wonder if the propensity for exile (found in all the great monks?) is innate in the human condition – is it a universal quality where, at times, each of us need to be alone to contemplate our respective place on this mortal landscape? Interesting read!

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  7. William, this is well-written and so informative. I was a grad student in church history, and there was just too much to fit into my brain. But I like that I have the remainder of my life and personal academic pursuits to piece together this rich spiritual heritage of ours–and great articles like this one help so much with that. Cheers to you!

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  8. Love this. As a hobby historian, I am often scolding my friends when they use the term “dark ages”, for example. Western civilization owes quite a bit to the Church. Much to the chagrin of many and the joy of many more.

    Congrats on being Freshly Pressed!

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  9. I’ve been working at a Benedictine monastery for five years and have learned a lot about cooperation, serving and community from the monks at the Abbey. Happy Feast day, a few days later, and thanks for this insightful post on their contribution to the world.

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  10. Pingback: Brilliant Posts: on the roots of Western democracy | Writing from the twelfth house

  11. Nice…and it all goes even further back to the original writings for the Bible, and the establishment of the foundation for the above. Throughout the centuries the development of Western Civilization, Arts, Architecture and Faith have been focused around Christianity. Where did it go in Western Europe? Forgotten and in other countries it is possibly resurgent. A man of faith these days (person) seems hinged on belief in self. St. Benedict was ahead of his times. A very good article!

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  12. A very informative post. I appreciate the way you have highlighted the lasting role of religion in political institutions (despite the fact that many would like to enforce the idea that they exist separately).

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  13. Unfortunately, many universities do forget to include learning of St. Benedict’s Rule. We didn’t hear about it during our Medieval philosophy course. To read this post is such a great opportunity for students like me! Thank you so much. It is a pleasure to learn some new interesting moments from the past

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  14. This is a very interesting take on the origins of democracy. In my blog I’ve written about seven safeguards that societies have developed to protect against dangerous rulers: the rule of law, electoral democracy, the separation of church and state, social democracy, protection for human rights, pooled sovereignty, and cultures of tolerance. After reading this excellent post, I think it would be very interesting to look at how religion has contributed to each of these pillars of modern civilisation.

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  15. I think that the only true example of democracy is direct democracy, practiced by the ancient Greeks. What we have today is a “decorative” democracy. Democracy, in its original form, does not involve leadership, representatives, or any kind of elite. Actually, it is exactly the opposite – demos kratos -” the power of the people”. So many years have passed and we have forgotten the meaning of the word “democracy”. Elections for political parties or representatives are not a form of democracy. They are a form of shifting the power from the people (democracy) to the elite (autocracy). No matter if you have the right to choose him/her or not, an autocrat will rule over you, legally, for the given period of time, depriving you from your power. And there is nothing you can do…

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    • What we have as government is not democracy as you say. It is republicanism. The USA is a strong, centralist, federal republic. The European Union is a weak federal republic within which the subdivisions (nation states) are a mix of constitutional republics and constituional monarchies

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  16. Great to see the industrious Benedict get some good press. A true philosopher, he didn’t just ask the question, “How ought man to live?” But he also answered the question and followed the Rule.

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  17. So often, Americans believe that democracy began in 1776, so it’s good to be filled in on the other precursors. In reading A History of Venice, I learned that Venice took some extraordinary democratic steps even before 800 AD. The way they chose a doge, for example, was designed to make it impossible for anyone to accrue sufficient political power to create a dynasty. Certain doges attempted to circumvent those safeguards, but in the end, their system of random selection and democratic voting procedures saved the republic. I’d like to hear more about the roots of democracy, if you have the time.

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  18. Benedict wrote his rule in the sixth century. The Rule became so popular with religious orders that, by the ninth century, the Church was referred to as monastic. The best original copy of the Rule of St. Benedict manuscript we have today comes from the 9th century and is kept in St. Gall, Switzerland. St. Benedict’s greatest source for his Rule was an anonymous essay called “The Rule of the Master,” which was written two or three decades before he wrote his Rule. The Rule of St Benedict consists of 73 chapters and a prologue. Benedict tried to account for every happenstance of daily life that could occur within a community as he wrote. The abbot ruled as a monarch but he was bound to listen to the advice of the elders of the community and the community at large. Interestingly, St. Benedict did not require his followers to take a vow of poverty in his Rule. The individual monk was not to own anything but the community as a whole should be in the position to offer charity. In fact, the Benedictine order quickly became famous for its hospitality, a trait that continues to be honored by all Benedictine communities today.

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