The Monastic Roots of Western Democracy

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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.

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