Virgil and St Benedict

labor omnia uicit improbus et duris – Geor. I,145-146

In Spe Salvi, no. 15 the Holy Father notes that Christian Monasticism inherited its teaching on the nobility of work from Judaism. That may be, but St Benedict’s doctrine of manual labor is also influenced by Virgil’s Georgics. At least that is what Theodor Haecker claims in his book Virgil: Father of the West:

The First Monks of the West had St Benedict as their spiritual father, but their worldly father was Virgil. They did not scruple to bring Virgil’s Georgics with them – along with the Holy Scriptures and the Rule. They set out for the North as sons of St Benedict to clear the “forests” of wild souls and to cultivate them for the reception of the word of God, and this they did through their orare through their prayer; but they also set out as sons of Virgil to clear the forests of the wild lands and to cultivate them for the reception of grain and vine, and this they achieved through their laborare, through work ‘in the sweat of their brow’ – a biblical expression which is still the best translation for the Virgilian labor improbus. They were Benedictines according the order of grace, Virgilians according the order of nature.

Through the magic of google books I find someone  has made a close comparison of the Holy Rule with the Georgics:

In its emphasis upon regulation, [Renaissance georgic] literature has much in common with the spiritual “georgic” of St. Benedict, the Rule. Benedict’s Rule is founded in the “Roman” idea that common profit should take precedence over individual. He consequently seeks to create a rule that can be internalized by each member of the order. He addresses the reader as “son,” recommending that his spiritual son welcome the “labor of obedience” in order to help create the Lord’s community. He describes the “instrumenta bonorum operum” that the monk will need to build this community as love of God, humility, obedience, self-command, and patience. He divides the day and the year into cycles of spiritual labor (the “opus dei”). He insists upon daily manual labor, saying that idleness (“otiositas”) is inimical to the soul. Labor (as opposed to idleness), the common good (as opposed to individual satisfaction or sorrow), order taken into the soul and then imposed on the cycles of nature: these are the themes of the literature of the household, whether that household is a Roman villa [or] a Christian monastery [… and these themes are] georgic. (Lynn Staley)

Haecker, on the next page from the above text, makes a stab at showing the Georgics as the foundation of Western “culture”:

 The word “culture”, which today preoccupies and moves all minds of the West, does not come from the Greeks, who otherwise gave us almost all catholic words, but it is rather the gift of Roman farmers and signifies the essence and art of cultivating land. Culture is the inseparable unity of three things: [1] a given inanimate or animate matter, which man does not make, but from which he is himself made, of which he is himself a part; on which [2] the mediating labor improbus of man must necessarily be imposed; and from the union of these two – the first of which the first of which is gratuitous the second has the charachter of meritorious works – comes [3] the perfection of the fruit […]

He goes on at great length. The passage seems to have influenced T.S. Eliot, who read Haecker carefully:

There is I think no precedent for the spirit of the Georgics, and the attitude towards the soil, and the labour of the soil, which is there expressed, is something that we ought to find particularly intelligible now, when urban agglomeration, the flight from the land, the pillage of the earth and the squandering of natural resources are beginning to attract attention. It was the Greeks who taught us the dignity of leisure; it is from them that we inherit the perception that the highest life is the life of contemplation. But this respect for leisure, with the Greeks, was accompanied by a contempt for the banausic occupations. Virgil perceived that agriculture is fundamental to civilization, and he affirmed the dignity of manual labour. (“Virgil and the Christian World” – helpfully posted by laudator temporis acti)

3 thoughts on “Virgil and St Benedict

  1. Pingback: Europe Hope Child Abandonment Virgil St. Benedict | Big Pulpit

  2. Pingback: French Nationalism, The Karlskirche, the Empire, and the Meaning of Europe | Sancrucensis

  3. Reminds me of one of Eliot’s most impassioned passages, from the end of ‘Notes towards a definition of culture’: “I do not believe the culture of Europe could survive the complete disappearance of the Christian Faith. And I am convinced of that, not merely because I am a Christian myself, but as a student of social biology. If Christianity goes, the whole of our culture goes. Then you must start painfully again, and you cannot put on a new culture ready made. You must wait for the grass to grow to feed the sheep to give the wool out of which your new coat will be made. You must pass through many centuries of barbarism. We should not live to see the new culture, nor would our great-great-great-grandchildren: and if we did, not one of us would be happy in it.”


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.