The Holiness of Gregory


James J. O'Donnell

Who was Gregory the Great? And why 'Great'? Few historical figures pass through the pages of modern scholarship and history carrying such unambiguous epithets. In Charlemagne's case, the epithet has become part of the name, and the Venerable Bede and Ivan the Terrible are exceptions that prove the rule. In the case of Gregory it is emphatically not the case that the nomenclature reflects a simple monovalent reading of his life and work, tranquilly uncontested.[[2]] At the same time, it is also remarkable that the modern attention devoted to his work has been by and large remarkably complacent and forgiving. This essay will examine the sources of our respect for Gregory, as far as possible on his own terms, in the hope of making a contribution to the circumspection and the precision of our encounters with Gregory

A rough typology would suggest that there are at least four Gregories in circulation. One is the master of an early medieval Volkskatholizismus, a teller of miracle stories. This Gregory wrote the Dialogi, had relics sent to pious friends, and embodied beliefs in the life unseen now and at the end of time that are for the most part rebarbative to our age.[[3]] It is this Gregory that a scholar, liberal, Romish, and of a certain age, rejected so instinctively and so vigorously that he laid up a mountain of misplaced, and thus undeservedly neglected, erudition to try to prove that the Gregory we admire could not have written those Dialogi.[[4]] Against that dismissal, we can read the pre- emptive defense of Gregorian authorship by a scholar employing the characteristically British argument that reference to the 'culture' of late antiquity will suffice to explain differences and render the author accessible to us without diluting his remoteness.[[5]]

But few would disavow the second Gregory. This one is a master of the spiritual life, and if not profoundly original (though it is not quite clear why he would care to be profoundly original), yet possessed of deep insight into the workings of the human personality. He is near the head of the line of those who offer an anatomy of the soul open to diagnosis and cure by the Christian pastor. He emphatically differs from Augustine in precisely this, for all that every page of his writing respires Augustine when it does not echo Cassian. The two best and most important books about Gregory in recent times offer compelling and complementary views of this Gregory.[[6]] Even when, as usually, this Gregory invokes a view of the human personality that we cannot share, many of us read him the way we read Zen masters, not exactly convinced but almost wishing we could be, and quite sure that we could believe it if only we found ourselves in the right circumstances. This is the most alluring and thus at the same time the most perilous Gregory, who evokes from us the loyalty of disciples, or rather the special loyalty of disciples fainéants who have never actually had to endure the master's scrutiny!

A third Gregory, to continue this typology, is Gregory the Roman bureaucrat and administrator. Histories of the early papacy are pulled between two poles, Ullmann and anti-Ullmann, where the predominance of, respectively, the ideological and the pragmatic elements in papal activity and self-understanding offers the interpretive key. In Gregory's case, the pragmatic tends to prevail, if only because the hundreds of surviving letters in the Register allow us to trace the minutiae of the activity of the papal chancery by the month, and sometimes almost by the day. So the most recent biography,[[7]] to be sure a thinly veiled anti- Ullmann polemic in form, confines itself through 260 pages to a study of Gregory the administrator (not surprisingly, the Gregory who emerges is depicted throughout as the embodiment of Christianitas and Romanitas[[8]]) and the author of the Moralia, the Dialogi, and the other exegetical works is given short shrift in a chapter on his 'legacy'. The biography of Gregory in the present edition of the Encyclopedia Britannica shows a similar bent. There is a small ideological point made by such an approach, of course, in that Gregory the workaday administrator was occasionally cited as a model of a restrained type of papacy as recently as the 1960s, when some seemed to recall seeing his works prominently displayed around the desk of Pope John XXIII.[[9]]

I will finally posit, for the purpose of argument, a fourth Gregory the Great whom I have only seen briefly, for the most fleeting of moments, but whose absence surprises me. Where is the debunked Gregory? Where is the Gregory whose alliance with imperial power, whose heavy disciplinary hand (as in the case of the church of Salona), and whose willingness to bend with the winds of political fortune have found their righteous foe? Where is the Gregory whose ascetical excesses, which destroyed his health, certainly limited his effectiveness as pope, and probably shortened his life, have been reduced to their psychogenetic explanation. It is not that I particularly want to believe such interpretations, but it is striking nonetheless that they are so little ready to hand. Few bishops of Rome of such eminence, few such self- revealing proponents of Christian sexual asceticism, few such pragmatic administrators have escaped revisionism. With other figures, we come to expect that the debunked figure will take his place alongside the venerated one, and in the resulting stereoscopy we will descry a synthesis.[[10]] Gregory largely escapes. Jeffrey Richards is perhaps typical in that he cannot absolve Gregory of a certain bloodied pragmatism in his exultant response to the murder of Maurice and the exaltation of Phocas,[[11]] but passes the episode by in a single sentence. The field that might lay open here for a dauntless commentator is perhaps suggested by the striking epithet applied to Gregory by a sometime Regius Professor of Modern History, who instanced him in passing and without further explanation as 'the Stalin of the early church'.[[12]]

But wherein lies the Greatness? It may not have escaped attention that every modern book on Gregory cited in the foregoing notes includes the epithet in its title or subtitle.[[13]] This Greatness to which we remain attached is partly just a rhetorical convenience: it distinguishes him from Gregories of Nyssa and Nazianzen, and is thus a kind of fossil of something that once meant more than it does now. But I suggest, and this is the point of departure for my principal remarks, that we continue to accept this epithet because Gregory supplies for us the model of a kind of sainthood that we have not much thought about and would not, perhaps, always in cold prose retain, but that still speaks for us in our unexamined places. Our reverence for the master of the spiritual life, our respect for his administrative skills, our willingness to make excuses for his credulity and his cooperation in cruelty, all are part of a process of interpretation that makes him something for us that he was not necessarily for himself.

My method in untangling this riddle of his identity will begin by assuming that the ill-formed, half-consciously received category of 'holiness' is indeed useful, if not for what it will tell us about Gregory, then for what it will tell us about our reading of Gregory. What sense does it makes to speak of the holiness that Gregory believed in, the holiness that he exemplified?

It would be tempting simply to plug Gregory into one or another received modern discussion of holiness and holy men in late antiquity. It is a topic that comes and goes, and is found among students of both Christian and non-Christian antiquity. The notion owes much to twentieth twentieth century cultural anthropology and comparative religion. In English, you cannot mention the topic without hearing echoes of Walter Otto's The Idea of the Holy -- which has a very different ring, for all that it is the same book, from the German title, Das Heilige. Ludwig Bieler's Theios Aner almost sixty years ago is regularly cited, though one wonders how often attentively read: it is too convenient to be missed, too dense to be influential. I cite both those classic studies here by way of saying that on approaching Gregory's holiness today, neither furnished a point d'appui of any sufficiency.

But the great modern student of the holy man in late antiquity is of course Peter Brown. On recurring to Brown's oeuvre to pursue the image, what strikes the eye is diversity. His original study of the rise and function of the holy man in late antiquity is a deserved classic,[[14]] but it proves on examination to have had a particularity that partly explains its brilliance and partly lessens its utility as a model. The terrain on which Brown made that first exploration turns out to be not all of the late antique Mediterranean world, nor yet all of the Greek late antique world, but specifically the Syrian world, where the holy man could be depicted as mediator, lubricating the functioning of society for the perpetually struggling provincials. In later studies, Brown pursued 'the holy' through other venues. Only in retrospect (as when it appears in his collected essays of the 1970s) is it clear how much his study of the iconoclastic controversy has to do with the way 'holiness' in someplaces and at some times inhered in holy pictures, and inhered in them in a way that excited stern resistance.[[15]] In a little book of lectures a few years later, another material manifestation preoccupied him: the relics of saints in the Latin west.[[16]] He ventured the general observation that in the places and times there treated (Gregory of Tours is a primary focus), holiness had moved from the land of the living to the land of the blessed dead, and the very bodies of the dead were the vehicles of that holiness.[[17]]

But Brown has never been a scholar to settle in one place for long. In a remarkable, and so far unanthologized, retractatio, he recurred to his original study a dozen years after it first appeared.[[18]] There Brown situated the original article in the intellectual and social trajectory of the time and place in which he had written it, and discovered that if he had it to do over again (a perilous thought experiment always), he would be more inclined to stress the function of the holy man as 'exemplar' rather than 'mediator'. Since that time, Brown has published a large and in many ways quite conventional study of one aspect of the practices of holiness in late antiquity,[[19]] but in his freshest and most original work in years has now taken quite a different tack: the bishops who appear in his new Power and Persuasion in Late Antiquity: Towards a Christian Empire,[[20]] are leaders well-rooted in the traditional social matrices of the Roman empire.[[21]]

The models proposed do not exhaust the possibilities. I think it is fair to discern a certain unease on the part of Robert Markus in The End of Ancient Christianity.[[22]] His contribution lies in accepting that the boundary between 'sacred' and 'secular' is anything but fixed, and often vigorously resistent to attempts to give it a particular location and value, and he has chosen a chronological field of study over whose course it is possible, as he argues to my taste cogently, to see the boundary itself disappearing.[[23]] He describes what he chronicles as 'the absorption of the "secular" in the "sacred"', though it might be fair to wonder whether even there modern conceptions do not prevail. Is the 'sacred' or the 'secular' the zero-degree value? I think we assume the 'secular' plays that role, but it may be argued that for many societies it is the 'secular' that is the artificial construction separating itself from the normal experience of humankind, and the disappearance of that conception may be seen, as it almost certainly was seen in late late antiquity, as the reassertion of an essential unity to replace an artificially divided state of society. When Markus comes to review the contribution of Brown (in a short excursus at pp. 25-6), he cautiously and characteristically chooses to see the location of the holy not in individuals but in the community, and to see 'holy men' as foci of what is widely present, not as alien intrusions into the secularity of their world.

I have reviewed these issues in order to induce greater caution in approaching Gregory's own case, and in order to suggest that a different approach may usefully complement what has gone before. Though the historian may easily be preoccupied by the material realities of ancient holiness and its expression, he should never forget that what we know and think of such phenomena is entirely dependent on the texts in which we see them constructed for us. The process is not without its artifices. I do not see that it has ever received sufficient attention that late antique Christian monasticism was even in its origins heavily dependent on the manipulation of the movement's 'image' through texts.

For it would seem that monks would be ideal people in the ancient world to escape our knowledge altogether. To hear their ideological proclamations, they wanted nothing to do with the wicked wide world. They fled to the wastelands to lead lives remote and chaste, cut off from the world. But the world went with them in texts. The Psalms they sang to themselves, to each other, or to God, may have seemed to reflect a simplicity of long lost pastoral society, but they could not have memorized those words had they not been mediated through skilled, urban translators in some of the most sophisticated cultural centers of the ancient world. Christianity as a whole was a product of sophisticated textual manipulations, and established and maintained its identity as a single, in principle homogeneous, religious movement through the common scriptural texts, through common liturgies already reduced to textual form at a surprisingly early date, and through credal formulas worked out by the most textually sophisticated of bishops at church councils.

But more than that, monks (or at least the monks whose activities and thoughts characterized the movement to their contemporaries and to us) made precious sure that they would be present to the world through their texts. The first great monastic founder, Anthony, lived for late antiquity as he lives for us, through the pages of a text importantly ascribed (whether correctly or not is of little consequence here) to Athanasius, the master of an urban, textual, imperial model of Christianity. The lives and thoughts of the desert fathers pressed in on genial, latitudinarian urban Christians through texts of every kind. When in the fourth, fifth, and sixth centuries, the 'Library of the Fathers' began to take definite shape,[[24]] the private thoughts of monks who had cut themselves off from the world regularly found their way back to the wider world.

To try to trace all the textual influences of the monks of these centuries on even a single writer like Gregory is an impossibly complex task. For the moment, we can be satisfied with seeing some of the ways in which the 'image' of the monks themselves was mediated and deployed. Gregory himself is heir of two important traditionns at least. First, his Dialogi could not have taken the shape and form they did without the anterior model of Sulpicius Severus' Dialogi and his life of Martin of Tours.[[25]] The Tendenz of the two works is strikingly similar: in a world in which the tales of monastic heroism from the East have spread far and wide, both make the vigorous claim that whatever excellences may be found elsewhere, a quite similar form of holiness is found here, in fourth century Gaul or in sixth century Italy, in the most unprepossessing places. Gregory indeed takes the argument one implicit step further: though Benedict dominates the second book of the Dialogi, what strikes the reader most is the diversity and humility of the 'role models' presented, and even how remarkable things happen through the agency of unremarkable people. The holy man for Gregory may well be (this should be no surprise to readers of the Moralia) a man of limited strength and confined virtues. It is the power of God that works the wonder. The biblical models that run through Gregory's work implicitly shaping individual episodes have the same effect. What happened then happens again here and now, in Italy.[[26]]

Thus some of the power Gregory's texts has come precisely from his ability to universalize his own situation. An Augustine or a Jerome will see the world in terms of specific local needs and controversies, and much of what they wrote will lose power over time as the relevance of the context fades. One cannot argue that the issues and needs of Rome of the 590s are somehow dramatically closer to us than those of two centuries earlier, but Gregory's way of writing finds in Job his own story, and implicitly that of his readers, in a way that dramatizes a vision of the human condition and its remedies that loses little by the lapse of time. The difficulty we have in getting a sense of Gregory's audiences is the other side of this coin, for his works reach across their original audiences quickly precisely in order to speak to us so vividly.[[27]]

One way to approach and appreciate the mechanics of Gregory's style is to look again at the Dialogi. In surprising ways, the work bears comparison for structure and purpose with the most widely read Latin text of the sixth century, Boethius' Consolation. Consider the similarities: Both are dialogues, in which the author appears as the central character with a single interlocutor. Both texts begin with that author in a state of distress and move him toward reconciliation with his situation.

But the parallels make the contrasts instantly visible. For Boethius, the misery into which he has fallen is utterly wrong for him, a fully-merited punishment for errors of thought and understanding. Philosophical debate will liberate him from that darkness. The dialogue moves him from inarticulate self-pity to articulate and rational full partnership in the dialogue with a figure who embodies the full perfection of wisdom and self- control.[[28]]

Gregory, on the other hand, appears in a setting in which the misery he suffers has a healthy and redeeming name: 'compunction'. Where Boethius had fallen from worldly success to a state of isolation and confinement, Gregory had moved from a chosen state of confined isolation in the monastery to an unwelcome brand of worldly success. Though both have lost their bearings, at least somewhat, the conditions are entirely different.

The prescriptions are different as well. Philosophy detaches Boethius from his own life and his own worldly situation by contemplation of general truths. The consolation he obtains liberates him from the here and now (the prison cell from which he will be shortly taken out to death) into a serene Platonic world of ideas. Ostrogothic Italy appears in the Consolation only in the self-pitying accounts of Boethius' career. It is the world of old philosophers and venerable myths in which Boethius (author of and character in the dialogue) finds rest. Gregory's sources of authority, scripture, offers a range of models scarcely less remote in time and place than did Boethius'. But Gregory uses them to bring himself and his interlocutor, the deacon Peter, back to the here and now, back to the real, Lombard- and plague-ridden Italy of his own time, and to see in its midst the presence of the same holiness and the same promise of well-being that the biblical texts hold out. Job on his dung heap and Gregory in his vividly-realized Italy are as close to Gregory's God as any neo-Platonic visionary could every hope to be close to the One.

One other difference between the two proves to be of central importance. For the reader of the Consolation, the figure of Boethius, moving from silence to speech, from self-pity to reason and self-control, is the focus of attention. The willing reader who uses this text as it was meant to be used will presumably emulate that 'Boethius'. The figure who emerges implicitly, the 'consoled' reader, is very much an ancient student of philosophy and rhetoric, restored to the active life by study.

In the Dialogi, on the other hand, the central figure is undoubtedly Gregory, but the interlocutor is of scarcely less importance. Peter the Deacon brings to the table concerns and questions that the reader reasonably shares, and between his figure and that of the character portrayed as Gregory, we are led to see models of contemplation rather than action, or rather of active figures still rooted in contemplation. The twin movements of the reader in the Dialogi are from self-depreciating concern with other places and other times to the here and now, and from excessive concern with acting in the world to accepting and recognizing the action of God in the world.

What is valorized in the end in the Dialogi is now no longer the holiness of the saints depicted: Benedict aside, they are not a memorable collection of individuals for the most part, and the best of them are every bit as humble as they should be. Nor is it the holiness of the characters in the dialogue: it is not their holiness that is at question, but rather their discovery that they have a place in a world that is quite adequately holy already, if they will but accept it. It is rather a question of the holiness - - and here the word is not quite the right one -- of the readers of the Dialogi. In emulating Gregory and Peter, they become themselves not saints, not warrior heroes of the soul: but they acquire the 'discernment' (that monastic discretio that so dominates Gregory's catalogues of the virtues[[29]]) to be undistracted by the world and its temptations and to emerge from that world relatively unscathed.

Properly read, then, Gregory's work valorizes not Gregory's holiness but that of his reader. It speaks against the tendency to situate the charisma in other times, in other places, or in special people. If to us, reading the Dialogi at a distance, it seems otherwise, that is our loss, but it is not something the first readers of the text would have felt. It is curious to see a text turning into the opposite of what it set out to be by the mere fact of surviving and being read with enthusiasm, but I think there are other examples one could cite.

One other aspect of this dialectic of holiness deserves to be called to attention. It is a holiness that the Christian reader of Gregory's text learns to acquire through a text. Augustine had to go and hear Ambrose preach in order to receive his message: no private gnosis in a select reading circle for him.[[30]] But now, Gregory the bishop is careful to depict himself precisely as a private teacher and to present himself in a text that underscored that privacy. Even if read aloud in church (there is no evidence such a thing was thought of for this text), the Dialogi compel the reader to leave the four walls, the altar, and the liturgy, at least in imagination, to encounter the bishop, pope, and minister of the eucharist in a very different setting; and then to acquire what he has to teach through the special kind of skill that goes with reading a written text. Here again we see the impact the 'Library of the Fathers' made on the way Christianity could be lived.

In substance, of course, Gregory's rejection of heroic models and heroic times for Christian holiness is no surprise, though we may have to be forced to listen to what he has to say. The Dialogi themselves deny 'miracle' a central place very early on: Dial. 1.1.6, 'mens autem quae divino spiritu impletur habet evidentissime signa sua, virtutes scilicet et humilitatem'. We might pass over that easily, if we did not have the more substantial discussion of miracle at Mor. 6.15.18, in which the power of God in creation is emphasized as more remarkable than any of the feats of wonderworkers. Most strikingly, even overt miracle can happen invisibly in a way that defeats the ability of those who benefit from them to know where the power comes from: Hom. Ev. 2.37, 'hinc ergo, fratres carissimi, hinc certa consideratione colligite, oblata a nobis hostia sacra quantum in nobis soluere ualeat ligaturam cordis, si oblata ab altero potuit in altero soluere uincula corporis.' In short, the most 'popular' of Gregory's works, the Dialogi and the homilies on the gospels, leave the reader in a world, that is to say a text, where holiness is breaking through everywhere, uncontrollably. To see and experience it requires no heroic virtue, no special grace offered only to the few: surrender to an all-embracing grace, the grace of contemplation, will suffice.[[31]]

There is another kind of holiness in the here and now that is implicit throughout Gregory, and explicit surprisingly more often than we are wont to remember.[[32]] I mean the holiness that is physically present through the eucharist. Though eucharistic liturgy was increasingly dependent on texts in Gregory's age,[[33]] it was still then (and in many ways is still now) a venue for holiness that resists reduction to text and narrative. The correlation of the stories of the Dialogi with the liturgical life of the church is, however, clear and consistent, and a reinforcement of the quiet insistence that I am imputing to Gregory on the accessibility and the ubiquity of the holiness that he knows.

But no reader of Gregory will fail to sense that what he is at most pains to write about is a holiness that is not merely present in church, or flooding the countryside around him, but whose essential location is to be found deep inside. 'Interiority' is a persistent theme of every modern study of Gregory's thought, and rightly so. The inner person, the self inside a besieged citadel of the mind, is the true center of the spiritual combat for Gregory.[[34]] How far to link this emergence of the interiorization of Christianity with the textual asceticism necessary to read and digest that 'Library of the Fathers' is a large question I cannot undertake to answer here, but the fact requires us to add an element to the dimensions of Gregory's placements of the charismatic. Holiness is everywhere, holiness is at the altar, and holiness is deep inside the individual.

The question that demands to be answered next is whether Gregory achieved an integrated and integrating religious praxis for living in the midst of these possibilities. If he is a teacher, does what he teaches transmit itself successfully to disciples? Whatever he manages to see and live, can others share it?

If we consider Gregory's biography for an answer to that question, I think it is clear that he would have thought he found such a praxis in monasticism. The interplay of inner and outer experience for the contemplative monastic existence is a subject on which few are as eloquent as he. The permeability of the personality by the words of the sacred text, especially through the ceaseless psalmody of the community, certainly offered one such praxis. Gregory's surviving works are all unstinting in praise of such a life, especially when he feels himself shut off from it by the burdens of his office. His own choice to espouse that life, and then his later choice to try to impose that life on the clergy of Rome, are unequivocal votes for the style. It was not yet an idea whose time had come, as the ferocious resistance to Gregory's personal style among the traditional city clergy of Rome shows, but his earthly afterlife gave the idea classical expression: for better or worse, it is a dominant theme of after Latin centuries.

It is in this light that we should view his shortest book, the Regula pastoralis. That is where, if anywhere, he reduces his praxis to words that others can not only apply to themselves but pass on again to others -- and that is probably the best test of a teaching, not whether it can be inculcated in disciples, but whether they can inculcate it in turn in others. If the Regula pastoralis is a success, then Gregory is a success. Certainly his intention is to say things of central importance. He could not be less ambiguous, it would seem: Regula pastoralis 1.1, 'ars est artium regimen animarum'. If indeed the prescriptions that follow in the four short books achieve the delineation of that praxis, then a great thing has been accomplished.

But a textual history needs to be kept in mind, for those words are familiar ones. We find a minor character in Macrobius' Saturnalia 7.15.14, 'philosophiam artem esse artium et disciplinam disciplinarum', but he is echoing authoritative words of Praetextatus ('disciplina disciplinarum' at Sat. 1.24.21), and the phrase recurs in Cassiodorus' digest written in Gregory's lifetime: Cassiodorus Institutiones 2.3.5, 'aliter, philosophia est ars artium et disciplina disciplinarum'. So far, so good for Gregory: if indeed philosophy was as much a praxis than a theoria for hellenistic antiquity,[[35]] then Gregory's unacknowledged echo here lays claim to very high ground for the pastoral art.

But we must not assume that such a claim is valid merely because it is stated. The slippery slope on which Gregory stood is illuminated when we consider that a very similar expression occurs in the fourteenth century, in the alien but congruent pages of Nicephorus the Solitary, collected in the Philokalia, who says roughly, 'Monastic life is called the art of arts and the science of sciences.' But monastic life, whatever Gregory's optimism for it, and whatever success it had in the eastern church, never became quite the unifying and integral praxis of Christianity for the Latin church.

For in the end for the Latin west, both in its Latin medieval avatar and for the Reformation and post-Christian modernity that followed, it is the textual praxis that prevails. It is the triumph of one form of textual praxis that gives the later middle ages their characteristic association with 'scholasticism', but it is no less in Protestantism that we find the same assumption of salvation through a text: 'sola scriptura' and all its most anti- scholastic variants down to contemporary American fundamentalisms are pre-eminently praxeis dependent on a text -- the express casting aside or subordination of the liturgical ritual in radical Protestantism is a profoundly 'medieval' gesture for just that reason. If Gregory and the Latin church of those late late antique centuries had a success in creating and propagating a praxis, it was here above all.

Was that enough? Is the holiness of Gregory what he sought to make it? Is that even a fair question? For in pressing the question, we canonize Gregory anew and reveal much about our own need to see in him an authority. What he seeks not to be and urges his followers not to be, that we have unconsciously become. And as we pass, perhaps, with whatever reluctance, into the grim dawn of postmodernism, it is noteworthy that we hear now sudden surprised observations that our scholarly and intellectual practices are still pervaded by an ethic that owes much to the asceses of late antiquity, howbeit confined to the disciplines of the text.[[36]] The construction of our views of 'Christianity', 'religion', and 'the holy' that lie behind our scholarly investigations turns out, in just that proto-postmodern moment, to be the most interesting thing of all. It is perhaps the message of our time that as we have labored in all the modern age of textually ascetic philological scholarship to find out the truth about other times and other cultures, only to be chagrined to see how much of ourselves we project on to those other ages (which we notice mainly by noticing how much our predecessors have projected themselves), -- it is perhaps the message for our time that we need to find out the truth about ourselves. I began this paper by asking who was Gregory? I end it by suggesting that we cannot answer that question unless we first ask, who are we?
James J. O'Donnell
University of Pennsylvania


[[1.]] To put this essay in final form evoked with clarity and warmth the memorable weekend of the symposium to which it was first presented. It is daunting to realize that I have admired the learning and the wisdom, and known first-hand the generosity, of Robert Markus for over half my life now, and it is a pleasure to try to give formulation to a few thoughts about Gregory in a setting that honors him. The one qualm I have is that the atmosphere of that symposium was so rich, so collegial, and so shot through with insights offered from all directions, that I have more than once had the feeling, in putting down a particularly well- formed idea (as it seemed to me) in these pages, that I was actually taking the liberty of writing down something someone else had said that weekend in South Bend. The printed record of the other talks may very well offer the evidence necessary to convict me of something between plagiarism and discipleship!

[[2.]] I do not see that there is a study of when, where, and why Gregory became "Great"; in private consultation, Robert Markus speculates that the eleventh century might be a good place to look, at a time when the epithet might be a way of distinguishing him from a more ambitious pope of the same name (for similar rhetorical use of Gregory, see note 9 below)

[[3.]] There is by now a ritual obligation to quote Harnack's famous footnote somewhere in a volume devoted to Gregory: A. Harnack, History of Dogma (New York 1961, reprinting ed. of c. 1900) 5.262: 'The doctrine of grace taught by Pope Gregory the Great ... shows how little Augustinianism was understood in Rome, and how confused theological thought had become in the course of the sixth century. A more motley farrago of Augustinian formulas and crude work-religion (ergismus) could hardly be conceived. Gregory has nowhere uttered an original thought; he has rather at all points preserved, while emasculating, the traditional system of doctrine, reduced the spiritual to the level of a coarsely material intelligence, changed dogmatic, so far as it suited, into technical directions for the clergy, and associated it with popular religion of the second rank. All his institutions were wise and well considered, and yet they sprang from an almost naif monastic soul, which laboured with faithful anxiety at the education of uncivilised peoples, and the training of his clergy, ever adopting what was calculated by turns to disquiet and soothe, and thus to rule the lay world with the mechanism of religion. ... he sanctioned as religion an external legality, as suited to train young nations, as it was adapted to the Epigones of ancient civilisation, who had lost fineness of feeling and thought, were sunk in superstition and magic, and did homage to the stupid ideals of asceticism. Gregory created the vulgar type of medieval Catholicism by the way he accented the various traditional doctrines and Church usages, and the tone to which he tuned Christian souls is the key we hear echoed by Catholicism down to the present day.' Harnack's footnotes to that passage have important concessions: that 'after reading Gregory's abundant correspondence, we gain a high respect for the wisdom, charity, tolerance, and energy of the Pope'; and 'side by side with this external legality there are not wanting traits of Gospel liberty; see the letters to Augustine.'

[[4.]] Francis Clark, The Pseudo-Gregorian dialogues (Leiden 1987).

[[5.]] Joan M. Petersen, The Dialogues of Gregory the Great in their Late Antique Cultural Background (Toronto 1984). The logic of the argument is identical to that of Averil Cameron, Procopius and the sixth century (Berkeley and London 1985). I do not mean to minimize the value of such 'contextualizations' (ut nostrates aiunt), only to observe the consistency of a style of argument and to recall that even when a 'culture' is generously limned, we have only succeeded in explaining the individual by appeal to a large number of similar individuals; the fundamental altereity of the other culture remains untouched.

[[6.]] Claude Dagens, Saint Gregoire le Grand : culture et experience chrétiennes (Paris 1977); Carole Straw, Gregory the Great : perfection in imperfection (Berkeley 1988).

[[7.]] J. Richards, Consul of God: The Life and Times of Gregory the Great (London 1980); when Ullman came to write a study of a single pope's career, by contrast, it was the more ideological Gelasius (see his Gelasius I. (492-493) (Stuttgart 1981).

[[8.]] The former is a word Gregory uses sparingly and not specially in the author's sense, the latter a word he and the other Latin fathers never use.

[[9.]] Hans Kung, The Church (New York 1967) 598-600; see on the roots, surprisingly deep, of this rhetorical use of Gregory against the self-understanding of the modern papacy Dagens 15, citing P. Meyvaert, 'Gregory the Great and the Theme of authority', Spode House Review (1966) 3-12, accessible as item V with retained page numbering in Meyvaert's Benedict, Gregory, Bede and Others (London 1977) -- Calvin called him 'the last bishop of Rome' and others since used him in advancing Lutheran and Gallican claims against Rome.

[[10.]] Augustine and Luther and lately Paul have been especially well-served, among Christian opinion-shapers, in this vein, but perhaps most interesting for our present purposes is the recent history of Thomas More. He was canonized in 1935, and an Academy Award winning film made him a secular saint a generation ago, but since then the tide has rather turned: Jasper Ridley, Statesman and Saint (London 1983), made Wolsey the pragmatist and More the fanatic; and a similar reservation, with great circumspection and some evident regret, runs through Richard Marius, Thomas More : a biography (New York 1984) -- Marius had begun his career working on the 'More Project' at Yale with all the enthusiasm imaginable, but had gradually grown estranged from the man he saw persecuting innocent believers. The dialogue continues, with another eminent and aged Yale man, Louis Martz, returning to the defense in Thomas More : the search for the inner man (New Haven 1990).

[[11.]] Reg. ep. 13.32-39; see Richards 227, 'under those circumstances, the papal glee can only be described as unworthy and misplaced, a very definite blot on his record.'

[[12.]] H. R. Trevor-Roper, Historical Essays (London 1957: American editions under the title Men and Events: Historical Essays) 15: 'Nobody can like the Church in those days. It was intolerant and obscurantist, and did not improve with time. St. Augustine read the classics -- like Marx, the Founding Father was himself a humanist: the old bigot could weep over Dido, and puritanism struggled in his soul with light. His contemporary St. Jerome with difficulty overcame his taste for Cicero. But he overcame it in the end, and once the insidious spirit of humanity had been beaten down, no quarter was shown: it was crushed. St. Augustine organised the rabble in Africa, reducing doctrine to rhythmical slogans wherewith to drown the voice of opposition. St. Cyril organised a blackshirt claque to applaud his oratory in Alexandria. St. Gregory, the Stalin of the early Church, banned all profane learning as offensive and abominable. Truly they were no saints, those terrible old ideologues, past whose history Mr. Dawson [C. Dawson, Religion and the Rise of Western Culture] so discreetly slides; and what was the solemn liturgy which he so extols but a narcotic formulary?' This savory morsel is perhaps better appreciated if we note that it was reprinted by Trevor-Roper from its first appearance, as an essay on Dawson's book, from the New Statesman of the early 1950s.

[[13.]] I will quibble that Clark's book on the Dialogi is not about Gregory but about someone else and so escapes the epithet in its title, but the first reference to the man in the printed text uses the full style 'Pope St Gregory the Great', and so often after.

[[14.]] 'The Rise and Function of the Holy Man in Late Antiquity', JRS 61(1971) 80-101, reprinted in his Society and the Holy in Late Antiquity (Berkeley 1982) 103-152.

[[15.]] 'A Dark Age Crisis: Aspects of the Iconoclastic Controversy', EHR 88(1973) 1-34; repr. in Society and the Holy 251-301.

[[16.]] The Cult of the Saints (Chicago 1981).

[[17.]] And what the dead had no speech for, when living,
They can tell you, being dead: the communication
Of the dead is tongued with fire beyond the language of the living.
Eliot, 'Little Gidding'

[[18.]] Students of late antiquity come to this article with some difficulty, though it appeared in what was then a radical and novel venue of what has since become almost an orthodoxy and certainly a respectable tradition, the 'New Historicism' associated with the Berkeley of Brown's years there: 'The Saint as Exemplar in Late Antiquity', representations 1(1983) 1-25.

[[19.]] The Body and Society: Men, Women and Sexual Renunciation in Early Christianity (New York 1988): I reviewed this in Envoi 2(1990) 43-7.

[[20.]] Madison, Wisc., 1992.

[[21.]] G. Fowden, 'The Pagan Holy Man in Late Antique Society', JHS 102(1982) 33-59, clearly means to invoke Brown's model as a way of addressing specifics of non-Christian thought and practice, but for all its erudition and interest the article must be judged a failure on its main points. There is no attempt to give location and extent to the category of the "holy" other to assume that the words and map well with the English (thus, originally Christian and then post-Christian anthropological) conceptions. If entirely true, this would be important, but it seems unlikely. Further, Fowden does not adequately confront the place of cult in 'pagan' holy behavior. He prefers, like many others before him, to think of the excellence of his holy men as inhering in their intellectual lives, not in their vulgar liturgical acts. There at least the student of the pagan holy man has something in common with the student of the Christian one! Brown's judicious criticism of the two-level view of higher and lower religious experience in The Cult of the Saints is apposite here.

[[22.]] Cambridge 1990.

[[23.]] Markus 1-17.

[[24.]] This is a theme to which I hope to return at some point. For the moment it suffices to say that it is a great change between the fourth and sixth centuries that when an Augustine writes of the principles of scriptural interpretation in de doctrina christiana he does not have a standing collection of the 'Fathers' to whom to have recourse for guidance, but when Cassiodorus returns to the same task in his institutiones, he does so with all the anxious bibliographical care of a Ph.D. candidate. I would submit that Christianity is an importantly different thing when the bishop and teacher is reading somebody else's commentaries on scripture, or perhaps cribbing somebody else's sermons, from what it was when it was the bishop's own charismatic authority on which the orthodoxy and salvation of the community depended. The boom in Christian literature in the fifth and sixth centuries, matched by a boom in Christian efforts to manage that boom (think of Dionysius collecting canons, Eugippius extracting Augustine, or 'pseudo- Gelasius' indexing the books you should and should not read) is one further measure of the 'end of ancient Christianity' in those decades. Isidore of Seville is a little later, but his repeated recurrence to the topos of the impossibility of reading a prolific author is in one way a statement of the triumph of the written word. On G., from his de vir ill. 40.56: 'Felix tamen et nimium felix qui omnia studiorum eius potuit cognoscere'.

[[25.]] Cf. A. de Vogue in his preface to the SC edition, SC 251.113-6.

[[26.]] There are other places
Which also are the world's end, some at the sea jaws,
Or over a dark lake, in a desert or a city --
But this is the nearest, in place and time,
Now and in England.
Eliot, 'Little Gidding'

[[27.]] I think it fair to say that most modern readers of these authors think they know a lot about the audience for Augustine's sermons, and are less sure what to say about Gregory's; that is probably a delusion, but it reflects something about the styles of the two. With Augustine we are able to link audience and context; Gregory's skill at uncoupling audience from context, and thus at creating a text that still seems capable of speaking long afterwards, makes it harder to be smugly complacent that we know who his hearers were and what they thought. The only sustained work on the important question of Gregory's audiences is the unpublished dissertation of Judith McClure, Gregory the Great: Exegesis and Audience (D. Phil. thesis, Oxford, 1979). Her general argument, that only the Homiliae in Evangelia looked to a 'lay' audience, is probably correct, but even that audience eludes our grasp. Her observation (at p. 174) that the bishops of Rome were not in the habit of popular preaching in the fifth and sixth centuries is quite just, but is balanced by her well-placed regret (at p. 157) for the loss of the traditions that did exist in that age of ambitious and successful sermon-giving among Latin bishops. The whole field homiletics and audience in the Latin church still needs further study, but R. Emmet McLaughlin, 'The Word Eclipsed? Preaching in the Early Middle Ages', Traditio 46(1991) 77-122, is excellent. We have been preoccupied by delineating the teachings of the great men of the age, but those teachings only had value in their reception by an audience, one that is less readily comprehended and pigeon-holed.

[[28.]] I have suggested such a reading in my commentary on the Consolation, Boethius, Consolatio Philosophiae (Bryn Mawr, 1984), passim.

[[29.]] For the virtue's place in the monastic literature, see Cassian conf. 2 passim, but nothing prepares the reader for its role in Gregory: see esp. Dagens 117-24.

[[30.]] See discussion of the famous passage of Ambrose's 'silent reading' at Conf. 6.3.3 in my commentary (Oxford 1992) ad loc. It is remarkable that just what Augustine says was not for him at Milan was what we assume others enjoyed in the 'circle of Milan' and through Ambrose's published books. At the moment of conversion, and then at the moment of reducing that conversion to narrative, it was not in Augustine's interest to call attention to that aspect of his new religion. In this way as in many others, Augustine is himself a creature of a Christianity more archaic than the one he lived to dominate.

[[31.]] The vexed question of Gregorian and patristic miracles remains open and troubling. I am tempted to suggest that interpretation along the line of that of P. Veyne, Did the Greeks Believe in Their Myths? (trans. Chicago 1988) could help us past the question. If we assume that narratives are a transparent screen through which to see past events, or if we believe that they should be and, with a little help from a critical reader, can become so, then it becomes an urgent question which historical accounts to believe and which not. But if on the other hand, we can recover a state of mind in which all texts spoke equally of an artistically shaped and fundamentally unreal, but true, world, then the anomalies of miracle are far less troubling.

[[32.]] In Straw, there are half a dozen references to eucharist that can be traced through the index; in Dagens, pp. 336-38 are his only extended discussion. I would not have seen the evidence so clearly without an interesting seminar paper by my student, Jane-Marie Pinzino, who illuminated for me the pervasiveness and the seriousness of the eucharistic undertone in the Dialogi.

[[33.]] Gregory of Tours, Historia Francorum 2.22, tells a (perhaps anachronistic, but if so more telling of the sixth than the fifth century) story of Sidonius Apollinaris using a 'libellus' (anglice, 'missalette') for the bishop's prayers at Mass; these booklets would form the basis for the sacramentaries whose traditional names ('Gregorian', 'Leonine', 'Gelasian') evoke the fifth and sixth centuries.

[[34.]] Mor. 35.20.49: 'Expleto itaque hoc opere, ad me mihi uideo esse redeundum.' In principle, words themselves are the enemies of the thought control that Gregory seeks. In that very confessional conclusion to the Moralia, after loosing half a million words on a single book of scripture, he sounds as though in writing he has been at much at risk as Thomas a Kempis will later find himself ta risk from going abroad in public: 'Multum quippe mens nostra etiam cum recte loqui conatur, extra semetipsam spargitur. Integritatem namque animi, dum cogitantur uerba qualiter proferantur, quia eum trahunt intrinsecus, minuunt. Igitur a publico locutionis redeundum est ad curiam cordis, ut quasi in quodam concilio consultationis ad meipsum discernendum conuocem cogitationes mentis, quatenus ibi uideam ne aut incaute mala, aut bona non bene dixerim.' (Compare, from hundreds of pages earlier, Mor. 10.2.2, 'Nec fallacem quidem Sophar sententiam protulit, quod vir verbosus iustificari nequaquam possit quia dum quisque per verba diffluit, perdita gravitate silentii, mentis custodiam amittit.')

[[35.]] See particularly P. Hadot, Exercices spirituels et philosophie antique (Paris 1981), with Hadot's concluding comments on the way the early articles collected there had brought him together with Michel Foucault at the time the latter was moving towards his own Le Souci de soi (Paris 1984); see also I. Hadot, Arts libéraux et philosophie dans la pensée antique (Paris, 1984).

[[36.]] I think particularly of G.G. Harpham, The Ascetic Imperative in Culture and Criticism (Chicago 1987), but there is also food for similar refleciton in David F. Noble, A World without Women: the Christian Clerical Culture of Western Science (New York 1992).