THE MAN WE CALL St. Benedict lived at one of the break points in history, where the current of human affairs seems to accelerate and compress great change into an individual lifetime.
Benedict was born in Nursia about 490 during the reign of Odovacar, who deposed the last Roman Emperor; in his boyhood he witnessed the victories of Theodoric; in his manhood he enjoyed the peace of the Ostrogoth kingdom; and in his old age he saw the destruction of the Gothic Wars and the descent into the Dark Ages.
Benedict's upbringing was in many ways classically Roman. He was sent to Rome for schooling when the city was still the jewel of antiquity. Alaric and Gaiseric had left their marks, but great buildings like the Forum were still in use, the aqueducts had not yet been cut, and the populace still enjoyed the thermæ. Boethius and the last pagan philosophers still illuminated the City of Light, and the Roman Imperial bureaucracy still administered.
Yet Roman political and cultural power was clearly waning. Not only did the old Imperial bureaucracy serve barbarian conquerors, but foreign cultural attributes jostled shoulder to shoulder with their traditional counterparts. Many eastern cults such as the ancient Egyptian one dedicated to the worship of Serapis at Memphis spread to Rome, while Christianity replaced the pagan cults as the state religion.
There is some suggestion that Benedict, who was “of goodish birth,” may have begun studying law in Rome as a young man. He quickly became alarmed at the degeneracy of the city, however, “and drew back the foot which he had set on the threshold of life.” Instead Benedict chose to follow the path of the religious anchorite and cenobite, “singing Psalms, studying, fasting, praying, rejoicing in the hope of the life to come.”
St. Athanasius is often credited with introducing monasticism to the West, but actually the movement was the work of unknown thousands. As the Roman flame began to sputter and fail, many ardent souls concluded that it was impossible to live in the world without being contaminated by its wickedness. So men and woman both began to seek out remote spots where they could lead holy lives, in the hope they might be among the few worthy souls chosen for eternal life at the hand of God.
A glimpse of this wave of societal auto-revulsion can be seen in the monastic population explosion in France during the early Middle Ages. There were eleven French monasteries founded during the fourth century, sixty in the fifth century, and two hundred eighty in the sixth century. Certain broad tendencies had begun to emerge in Christian monasticism by the fourth century when St. Basil first instituted the vow, but every cell still had its own rule, and hence there were as many rules as there were monasteries.
The History of the Corporation
Astonisher.com is pleased to present The History of the Corporation, Volume One by Bruce Brown.
Here is the Table of Contents for excerpts from the entire book, which covers 1,000 years from the birth of the first modern corporation through the the First Dominion of the corporation.
About the Author: Bruce Brown is the author of eight books, including Mountain in the Clouds, an environmental classic, and The Windows 95 Bug Collection, which was put on display in the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, DC.
He has done investigative reporting for the New York Times (the Karen Silkwood story), foreign correspondence for Atlantic Monthly (baseball in Cuba), and book reviews for the Washington Post Book World, as well as script-writing for PBS-TV (The Miracle Planet).
He is also a successful businessman and CEO, having created BugNet and built it into the world’s largest supplier of PC bug fixes before it was acquired by a Fortune 500 company at the height of the dot com boom.
Benedict became intimately familiar with several of these during his early years as a saint in training. After leaving Rome, he went first to the town on Enfide, and then to a wild ravine along the Anio, which was impounded into two lakes behind dams built by Emperor Claudius. With the great pleasure palaces in ruin, the lakes of Subiaco presented a striking spot to contemplate the transient nature of earthly power. Here Benedict lived as a hermit and practiced disfiguring acts of sexual mortification which helped him win him a local reputation for holiness.
Soon Benedict was asked to become abbot of a nearby monastery, Vicovaro. The monks, whose previous abbot had died, hoped that Benedict could bring them some of his ardor, but it appears that they got far more than they bargained for. In his first religious command, Benedict proved a harsh master. “He was no complacent ruler,” wrote Pope Gregory, “who would suffer those under his charge to live as they liked, but rebuked severely such as he found indulging in practices which were inconsistent with their vocation.”
An uproar among the monks resulted, and Benedict was forced to move on to the old Roman town of Casinum on the Latin Way about 80 miles south of Rome, where he founded his own monastery, Monte Cassino. Ancient pagan rites were still practiced on the wooded hillside when Benedict arrived, but he smashed the idols and burned the sacred grove. As his final act of possession, he built an oratory to St. John where the altar of Apollo had stood.
It was at Monte Cassino that Benedict codified the insights of a lifetime seeking his God. The result was the most popular manual for corporate success ever written, the Benedictine Rule. “[T]his little rule for beginners” hanc minimam inchoationis regulam as Benedict called it, drew heavily from the writings of others, including St. Basil, St. Pachomius, St. Macarius, St. Orsiesius and Abbot John Cassian of Marseilles. His greatest debt, however, was to the anonymous The Rule of the Master, from which he took his celebrated chapters on the grades of humility verbatim.
Benedict also owed an obvious debt to secular Roman culture. This is particularly evident in his attitudes and assumptions about the social order. The Benedictine Rule is rife with concepts and language borrowed from Imperial Rome, including the fundamental idea of the corporation, which can be traced back to guilds of artisans and merchants under Numa Pompilius, the legendary king of Rome and successor to Romulus in the eighth century BC.
Called corpora or collegia, they were also employed by the ancient Romans for many civic tasks. Collegia fabrorum were fire fighting brigades, which sometimes bargained for the highest possible price before commencing their efforts. By the consulate of Cicero, they functioned in myriad forms, from social clubs to small trade guilds, which became nearly ubiquitous, and were licensed by the state from Emperor Augustus onwards. There are even records of substantial, semi capitalistic undertakings, like the Asiani (or Asia) Company with capital holding large enough to lend the government roughly $24 million in modern funds.
Such instances of large-scale corporate endeavor were relatively rare, however. Traditionally, Roman wealth and status were based on agriculture, which in the process of evolving from small free yeoman into large slave-driven latifundia, continued to produce the bulk of Roman revenues into the sixth century. As long as Roman cultural forces remained dominant within the empire, the evolution of the corporation was blocked, as was that of monasticism, which the worldly Roman sensibility found repugnant. As the Roman grip weakened, though, new possibilities arose, as St. Benedict of Nursia soon showed.
Like so many successful corporate men in the millennia since, St. Benedict was a synthesizer rather than an originator. He brought together disparate elements from the debris of classical culture, and fashioned from them something vital and new. Both corporations and monasteries were well known to the ancient world, of course, but it took Benedict of Nursia to successfully cross the two. One might compare the Roman use of corporations for social purposes to the Chinese use of gunpowder for fireworks. Actually, though, Benedict brought much more than a new application. He brought a small but revolutionary intellectual leap.
Again, all the raw materials were at hand long before the combination was discovered. By Benedict's time, the Catholic Church had long accepted the idea that the holy spirit could be embodied in physical objects. Christian liturgy was full of vessels of the holy spirit (the wafer, the wine, the monstrance, etc.). Benedict took this idea one step further. His vessel was not an object, but a group of people actively working the will of God in the world. In other words, he created vessel for God which was conceptual rather than physical, and active rather than inanimate.
More than that, he showed anyone who could read exactly how to achieve the same ends. The Benedictine Rule is a blueprint for incorporating the spirit of God. Hundreds of rules had been written before, but Benedict was the one who got it right. He was the first to craft a tolerable yoke for the corporation's human attendants and effectively harness their energies toward a collective goal. Before Benedict, the ideal of Christian asceticism was probably best expressed by St. Simeon Stylites, who spent 35 years living alone at the top of a narrow pillar. Benedict vanquished this ideal forever, and replaced it with the ideal of physical moderation and coordinated labor.
Written in clear but hardly classical Latin, the Benedictine Rule reveals its author to be fanatical yet clear headed, intolerant yet compassionate, and deeply fearful of personal freedom. Considering its lofty aim and overall martial tone, it is surprising how much shrewd humor the Rule contains. Concerning the doorkeepers, for instance, Benedict wrote that “at the door of the monastery shall be placed a wise old man who shall know how to receive a reply and return one,” adding that this should be a person “whose ripeness of age will not permit him to gossip.” The saint's wry voice can also be heard in the command that his monks “be instant in prayer... and not to wish to be called holy before being so.”
Inside the monastery, Benedict established the daily routine down to the smallest detail, even specifying that “no one shall be excused from kitchen work.” Judging that “idleness is the enemy of the soul,” Benedict filled his monks' time with prayer, manual labor, and study, each at determined hours. The basic task of monastic life was common prayer, which Benedict called the Opus Dei, or Work of God. The monks' day of worship began in the early morning darkness, around 2 a.m. in the winter, and around 3 a.m. in the summer, with the singing of the Office of Vigils or Nocturnes (later called Matins). Lauds was sung at the first flush of light in the eastern sky, and the day was closed with Compline.
What sets Benedict's rule apart from others, like The Rule of the Master, is his emphasis on work in general as a road to personal salvation. He especially extols work in the open air, laborare est orare, and physical work features in several of his miracles. Pope Gregory the Great described a how a Goth at the monastery lost the head off his ax in a lake. When Benedict heard of the accident, he took the handle and went to the lake shore. “Immediately the iron head rose from the bottom of the lake and attached itself again to the handle. Then Benedict returned the tool to the astonished Goth, with the encouraging words: 'there now, work on, and be sad no longer.'“
Benedict's monastery was a self-contained world with its own well, fields, mill, orchard, creek, fishpond, sheep stall, cow pasture, rabbitry and barns. The monks were forbidden to leave the monastery save on urgent business. Benedict wanted to isolate his monks in a Godly reverie, but he also wanted the monastery to provide certain services for the larger community, such as offering hospitality to all visitors and distributing alms to the poor. Interestingly, Benedict's sympathies extended to the businessman, as well. Gregory tells of man who came to Benedict needing 12 shillings to pay creditors. Benedict told him he did not have the money, but asked him to come back in two days. When the man did so, Benedict gave him thirteen, “saying that he might pay twelve, and have one to defray charges.”
The abbot the chief executive officer or CEO in modern corporate argot was the cornerstone of Benedict's monastic edifice. Elected for life by the members of the monastery, his power was virtually unlimited, except that it might not directly contradict the Rule. His selection was seen as the work of the Holy Spirit, expressly and fervently prayed for in the hymn, Veni, Creator Spiritus (“Come down, Creator Spirit”). His instructions came as from God, and he was regarded as the representative of Jesus within his monastery. Complete, immediate and unquestioning obedience was due him by all his monks. To ensure this obedience, Benedict devoted twelve chapters of his Rule to faults against monastic discipline and their punishment. These ranged from verbal rebuke to whipping, or “stripes.”
Benedict's fundamental aim was to destroy the independence, and with it the individuality, of the monks, so that they could be merged into the greater corporate persona. “Let no one presume to give or receive anything without leave of the abbot, or retain anything as his own. He should have nothing at all,” the Benedictine Rule reads. “For indeed it is not allowed to the monks to have bodies or wills in their own power. But for all things necessary they must look to the abbot of the monastery.” Typically, Benedict spelled out in detail how these ends were to be achieved. “The monks' beds must be often searched by the abbot for the sake of private possessions, lest such be found,” he wrote. “If in any man's bed anything be found which he has not received from the abbot, let him be subjected to the severest discipline.”
St. Benedict was not as harsh physically as St. Columbanus, however, whose rule decreed that “the chief part of the monk's rule is mortification.” Benedict did not want his monks wasting their health to prove their holiness. He even allowed them wine, providing they “drink temperately and not to satiety.” In other respects, Benedict's rule was actually more severe than its predecessors. For instance, much heavier penalties were enacted against monks who broke their vows. Where before a monk who married was censured, now he was to be separated by force from his wife, and might be forcibly returned to his monastery and subjected to additional punishment.
And what emerged from all this rule giving? By loosening here and tightening there, Benedict crafted a corporation with more control over its members than had ever been possible before. Bound by irrevocable vows, separated from their parents and siblings, prevented from marrying or having offspring, denied any personal possessions or even the simplest expression of individuality, Benedict's monks became agents of another will. They devoted themselves to God, their own salvation, and the glory of their order, which merged into a new trinity of complete conviction.
As a result, Benedict's monks could be marshaled in ways that were impossible with secular laborers. Benedictines could be worked harder at less expense than even slaves, who grew despondent under a regime of sack cloth, whipping and enforced chastity. In a world growing more violent, treacherous and fragmented, this gave the Benedictines a very real advantage over their competition.
A sense of this struggle emerges from Benedict's language, which bristles with military terminology. “We must create a schola for the Lord's service,” Benedict wrote in his preface. In Rome, the term schola had originally referred to the hall or meeting place of a corporation, but it came to be associated with elite elements of the army, including the Emperor's body guard.
Benedict's dark view of his own times is evident in his prophesy that Rome itself would completely collapse, “worn out by tempest, lightning, whirlwind and earthquake and will decay in itself.” Benedict even prophesied that the object of his life's work, the monastery of Monte Cassino, would be destroyed.
One can almost feel Benedict bending all his efforts to create a stable craft that could survive the buffeting he saw ahead. Perhaps the greatest measure of his success is the fact that the Benedictine Order is today over 1500 years old, and has survived more than twice as long as the Roman Empire.
In the first thousand years of its existence, the order that Benedict founded gave the Catholic Church at least a dozen saints, 24 popes, 200 cardinals, 7,000 archbishops and 15,000 bishops, along with countless missionaries, teachers, writers and priests.
And the Benedictine Order's impact outside the Catholic Church has been even greater, for it kindled a flame that has engulfed the entire world.
By comparison, who today remembers Totila?
"The History of the Corporation, Volume One" © Copyright 2003 Bruce Brown
Jacket illustration and design by Running Dog.
This is a free excerpt from The History of the Corporation by Bruce Brown.
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