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Gregorian scholars have been unable to reconcile widely differing views on Gregory the Great's 'political thought'. The trend has been to view him as either ambivalent towards secular authority or completely indifferent to it. This article aims to demonstrate that Gregory the Great's conception of an ordered and hierarchic universe not only encompassed both secular and ecclesiastical spheres but also allowed each a positive role in the work of salvation. His ideas, influenced by neo-Platonic thought, differed substantially from those of St Augustine and were vital to the development of an early medieval partnership between secular and ecclesiastical authority.
There is currently no consensus among scholars with regard to Gregory the Great's 'political thought'. While Gregory's views have been considered in relation to secular affairs by Gillet, Dagens, De VogUe', Meyvaert and Fiedrowicz among others, few have gone as far as Reydellet and Straw in suggesting that Gregory had a consistent approach to secular authority. (1) Robert Markus has argued that Gregory did not have such an approach and his recent work on Gregory, while acknowledging the views of Straw, clearly attempts to maintain the view that Gregory did not really consider secular institutions and government as separate from ecclesiastical order, and consequently gave them little thought. (2)
Markus questioned whether it was valid to speak of Gregory's 'political thought' at all. He asked:
is he [Gregory] prepared to recognize a difference in principle between ecclesiastical and secular office? We look in vain for a solution to this conundrum within his Commentary (on the first book of Kings). For any possibility of an answer we need to turn elsewhere, and with little optimism about the result. The Moralia ... exhibit the same exegetical procedures and give us little help. (3)
Markus concluded that 'Gregory's sheering away from any consideration of secular institutions does not tell us what he thought about them, for in a significant sense ... he did not think about them. (4) King, emperor, the bearers of secular authority, were the summit of a hierarchy within the Christian community: 'With the crumbling of secular institutions and of traditions of secular culture, lower secular officials receded in importance, and were even more drastically marginalised in the imaginative representation of the Christian community and its social ordering.' (5) Henceforth, the 'secular' could only be understood within a religious dimension. In his recent book on Gregory, Markus reiterated this idea:
The 'sacred' character of the Christian Empire and its emperor's status at its head were now ... deeply embedded in the Christian imagination ... . (6)
Gregory was no political theorist; to diagnose his attitudes we need to consider the political attitudes as revealed in his actions, and the stock representations of the Empire and the emperor that flowed instinctively from his pen. His language reveals the hold on his mind of the established cliches of Roman imperial ideology ... . Gregory spoke the language of a Christian version of Roman imperial ideology and used its political imagery. (7)
There is a fundamental difference between this view and that of Straw. According to Markus, Gregory 'never felt the need to assess secular power, the political order, and the institutions of government and society in a Christian perspective ... anything that could properly be called "secular" authority had to a very great extent drained out of Gregory's world'. Markus then quotes Straw: 'The fluid boundaries of Late Antiquity have all but vanished.' (8) In fact, the 'fluid boundaries' that have all but vanished according to Straw are not the boundaries between sacred and secular so much as the boundaries between visible and invisible, carnal and spiritual, human and divine. While Augustine lived in an antique world in which the brilliance and mystery of God were hardly accessible, in which God's omnipotence and transcendence were emphasised, Gregory's world saw the operations of God all around, in his mercy and his power, in adversity and in prosperity, controlling everything in hierarchy and harmony. (9)
When Markus wrote that 'Gregory was no political theorist', he drew attention to Straw's article 'Gregory's politics'. (10) What we find there is the argument that rather than allowing the sacred and the secular to merge Gregory believed that they had come together in a relationship both complementary and ambivalent: 'The two wisdoms and two realms remain distinct despite their similarity, for Gregory's complementarity expresses ambivalence: a dynamic tension alternates between continuity and opposition; similarity and difference.' (11) Straw draws out this tension between the two, showing that
The similarity and the difference between secular and spiritual authorities is again evident in Gregory's treatment of their power. The power each bears is carnal in the sense of being external, public, and soiled with the dust of the world. And both powers must be dispensed with similar discretion. (12)
The clearest statement Gregory makes about secular rule occurs in book XXXI of the Moralia, where he equates the temporal rule of the prince with the power and strength of the rhinoceros, whose task is to crush and break down the hard clods of earth in cultivated valleys. This rhinoceros stands for the power which crushes the wicked and enables the humility of the Church to flourish. (13) Straw was much taken with this passage and used it to demonstrate a fundamental feature of Gregory's thinking about Church and State:
the prince and the prelate are analogues: both possess wisdom, and both have temporal and spiritual aspects to their roles. The interrelationship is a yin and yang of complementarity. The prelate is the more spiritual and the less carnal, while the prince is more carnal and less spiritual. Through the offices of both, the church and the state can flourish. (14)
Straw certainly believes that it is possible to disentangle Gregory's views on secular rule: 'These passages along with shorter observations in his exegesis, in his Regula Pastoralis and in his letters allow us to reconstruct Gregory's views on church and state.' (15) The two powers are different. The potestas of the prince and the auctoritas of the prelate are on different planes. The prince is very much of this world, doing the hard, dirty work of the Church, while the …