Non Angli sed Angeli–A Chestertonian View of the Two Kingdoms, or, Christian Egalitarianism

Sep 24th, 2010 | By | Category: Blog Posts

The title of this post comes from the famous pun of Pope St. Gregory the Great, which he made upon meeting children from England in the slave market at Rome, as recorded by the Venerable Bede in his Ecclesiastical History of England (Book II, Chapter I): “not Angles, but Angels.” This encounter, according to Bede, prompted the Pope to initiate an Apostolic Mission to Britain, for to convert the Anglo-Saxons. According to G. K. Chesterton, Gregory’s words, together with his evangelical actions, are an implicit critique of the social conditions in which these things took place.

The following selection is from A Short History of England, Chapter II, “The Province of Britain” (online edition). Chesterton here considers the institution of slavery within the context of the developing relationship between Church and State:

The Roman Empire necessarily became less Roman as it became more of an Empire; until not very long after Rome gave conquerors to Britain, Britain was giving emperors to Rome. Out of Britain, as the Britons boasted, came at length the great Empress Helena, who was the mother of Constantine. And it was Constantine, as all men know, who first nailed up that proclamation which all after generations have in truth been struggling either to protect or to tear down.

About that revolution no man has ever been able to be impartial. The present writer will make no idle pretence of being so. That it was the most revolutionary of all revolutions, since it identified the dead body on a servile gibbet with the fatherhood in the skies, has long been a commonplace without ceasing to be a paradox. But there is another historic element that must also be realized. Without saying anything more of its tremendous essence, it is very necessary to note why even pre-Christian Rome was regarded as something mystical for long afterwards by all European men. The extreme view of it was held, perhaps, by Dante; but it pervaded mediaevalism, and therefore still haunts modernity. Rome was regarded as Man, mighty, though fallen, because it was the utmost that Man had done. It was divinely necessary that the Roman Empire should succeed–if only that it might fail. Hence the school of Dante implied the paradox that the Roman soldiers killed Christ, not only by right, but even by divine right. That mere law might fail at its highest test it had to be real law, and not mere military lawlessness. Therefore God worked by Pilate as by Peter. Therefore the mediaeval poet is eager to show that Roman government was simply good government, and not a usurpation. For it was the whole point of the Christian revolution to maintain that in this, good government was as bad as bad. Even good government was not good enough to know God among the thieves. This is not only generally important as involving a colossal change in the conscience; the loss of the whole heathen repose in the complete sufficiency of the city or the state. It made a sort of eternal rule enclosing an eternal rebellion. It must be incessantly remembered through the first half of English history; for it is the whole meaning in the quarrel of the priests and kings.

The double rule of the civilization and the religion in one sense remained for centuries; and before its first misfortunes came it must be conceived as substantially the same everywhere. And however it began it largely ended in equality. Slavery certainly existed, as it had in the most democratic states of ancient times. Harsh officialism certainly existed, as it exists in the most democratic states of modern times. But there was nothing of what we mean in modern times by aristocracy, still less of what we mean by racial domination. In so far as any change was passing over that society with its two levels of equal citizens and equal slaves, it was only the slow growth of the power of the Church at the expense of the power of the Empire. Now it is important to grasp that the great exception to equality, the institution of Slavery, was slowly modified by both causes. It was weakened both by the weakening of the Empire and by the strengthening of the Church.

Slavery was for the Church not a difficulty of doctrine, but a strain on the imagination. Aristotle and the pagan sages who had defined the servile or “useful” arts, had regarded the slave as a tool, an axe to cut wood or whatever wanted cutting. The Church did not denounce the cutting; but she felt as if she was cutting glass with a diamond. She was haunted by the memory that the diamond is so much more precious than the glass. So Christianity could not settle down into the pagan simplicity that the man was made for the work, when the work was so much less immortally momentous than the man. At about this stage of a history of England there is generally told the anecdote of a pun of Gregory the Great; and this is perhaps the true point of it. By the Roman theory the barbarian bondmen were meant to be useful. The saint’s mysticism was moved at finding them ornamental; and “Non Angli sed Angeli” meant more nearly “Not slaves, but souls.” It is to the point, in passing, to note that in the modern country most collectively Christian, Russia, the serfs were always referred to as “souls”. The great Pope’s phrase, hackneyed as it is, is perhaps the first glimpse of the golden halos in the best Christian Art. Thus the Church, with whatever other faults, worked of her own nature towards greater social equality; and it is a historical error to suppose that the Church hierarchy worked with aristocracies, or was of a kind with them. It was an inversion of aristocracy; in the ideal of it, at least, the last were to be first. The Irish bull that “One man is as good as another and a great deal better” contains a truth, like many contradictions; a truth that was the link between Christianity and citizenship. Alone of all superiors, the saint does not depress the human dignity of others. He is not conscious of his superiority to them; but only more conscious of his inferiority than they are.



Leave a comment »

  1. Andrew:

    A fascinating passage. I focus on two of Chesterton’s points.

    Hence the school of Dante implied the paradox that the Roman soldiers killed Christ, not only by right, but even by divine right. That mere law might fail at its highest test it had to be real law, and not mere military lawlessness. Therefore God worked by Pilate as by Peter.

    The Jewish parallel to that has been argued here by J H H Weiler: I attended the 2010 Erasmus Lecture of which that paper is a slightly edited version.

    Slavery was for the Church not a difficulty of doctrine, but a strain on the imagination.

    It was certainly not experienced as a difficulty of doctrine for centuries, but in recent times it has become one. As late as 1866, the Holy Office denied that involuntary servitude, merely as such, is against the natural law. Technically that is correct; otherwise we’d have to say that forcing prisoners to work for their upkeep is intrinsically evil, and in any case we would have to explain the Bible’s failure to condemn slavery as such. But see CCC §2414:

    The seventh commandment forbids acts or enterprises that for any reason – selfish or ideological, commercial, or totalitarian – lead to the enslavement of human beings, to their being bought, sold and exchanged like merchandise, in disregard for their personal dignity. It is a sin against the dignity of persons and their fundamental rights to reduce them by violence to their productive value or to a source of profit. St. Paul directed a Christian master to treat his Christian slave “no longer as a slave but more than a slave, as a beloved brother, . . . both in the flesh and in the Lord.”

    This is clearly a doctrinal development.


  2. Hey Mike,

    GKC is always thought-provoking. I suppose that the qualifications in CCC 2414 (e.g., “in disregard for their personal dignity”) render that compatible with earlier teaching? St. Paul certainly seems to hold an egalitarian ethic (slaves are not slaves but brothers), as regards anthropology and covenant (“both in the flesh and in the Lord”) yet (as you point out) nowhere does he explicitly condemn slavery as a social / economic practice. As far as I know, same goes for Gregory the Great. Yet the seeds of such condemnation are present in the Tradition, as Chesterton so admirably illustrates.


  3. Do have an attribution credit for that beautiful picture in the middle of the post?

  4. Dean,

    Song of the Angels by Bouguereau (1825–1905).

    (I try to remember to place the attribution for the pictures in my posts in the tag line when uploading those pictures. To see this information, just hover the cursor over the picture.)


Leave Comment

Subscribe without commenting