Tag Archives: tome of leo

What makes Leo Great?

Me at Leo’s tomb, St Peter’s

Today is the feast of Pope Leo the Great. Since his letters and the transmission are the major concern of my research, it is worth taking a moment to explain why he is Leo ‘the Great’ (and not just because he’s the first bishop of Rome named ‘Leo’).

There may be a temptation to weigh Leo’s greatness by our own scales — what is truly, timelessly, great about Leo? His rhetoric? His theology? His historical impact? His rulings in canon law? His preaching? A grand mixture of all of the above? While interesting, this would certainly not tell us why he is Leo ‘the Great’, since the only other pope universally called ‘the Great’ is Gregory I (590-604) — not everyone thinks of Nicholas I (858-867) in this regard, so I am unsure whether we have three ‘Great’ popes or only two.

Susan Wessel rightly rejected this approach in Leo the Great and the Spiritual Rebuilding of a Universal Rome. Unfortunately, she still answered the question in terms of what Leo’s intrinsic greatness may have been — only situating this greatness as people in his own era would have perceived it. The argument still has to do with seeking a unified answer in his corpus of writings and actions.

Neither of these approaches actually tells us why Leo is ‘the Great’.

Leo is one of the first — if not the first — articulate theologians of papal primacy. This is not why he is ‘the Great’.

Leo wrote more letters destined to be sources for canon law in the succeeding generations than any predecessor. This is not why he is ‘the Great’.

Leo wrote more surviving letters than any bishop of Rome before Gregory the Great. This is not why he is  ‘the Great’.

Leo helped dissuade Attila the Hun from passing down into central Italy. This is not why he is ‘the Great’.

Leo left behind the first surviving corpus of sermons preached by a bishop of Rome. This is not why he is ‘the Great’.

Leo was the first bishop of Rome buried at St Peter’s. This is not why he is ‘the Great’.

Leo was very heavily involved in the geo-ecclesiology of his day, East and West, and he he helped organise the Council of Chalcedon in 451. This, too, is not why he is ‘the Great’.

Chalcedon gets us close, though.

Pope Leo I is called Leo Magnus, Leo the Great, because of his two-nature Christology as outlined in his letter to Flavian of Constantinople of 448 (the ‘Tome’, epistle 28 in the 1753 edition of the Ballerini, repr. Patrologia Latina vol. 54). In 451, Leo succeeded in having this Christology enshrined as the official dogma of the imperial church at the Council of Chalcedon, of which he was a chief player (although the Emperor Marcian was even more so), and he did his best after Marcian’s death, from 457 to his own in 461, to see that it was approved throughout the Empire and that various bishoprics were filled with Chalcedonian bishops.

He expounded it more carefully and more fully in his 124th letter to the monks of Palestine, which he re-used in his 165th letter to the Emperor Leo. This Christology was essentially the traditional Christology of the Latin West, with roots in Augustine of Hippo (who died in 430) and Hilary of Poitiers (who died in 368), and people had schisms over it in the decades after Leo died.

A lot could be said about what Leo’s contribution to theology was and how that contribution was interpreted and received by the imperial church in the century to come — and what would be said would be interesting, and it would highlight why those who loved Leo loved him greatly.

And this is why Leo is ‘the Great’ — theology.

(And how do I know this? Our earliest references to him as magnus, as cited in a 1911 article of C H Turner, are in relation to his status as a theologian of the person of Christ.)

An allusion to Leo the Great in Anselm of Canterbury

Anselm; image from Wikipedia

Today I found a convergence between my current reading and my Ph.D. (plus my 2016 article in Studia Patristica). Anselm of Canterbury, in his philosophical discussion of the ‘supreme essence’, and shortly before attempting to use logic to prove the Trinity (a dubious task at best), writes:

Videtur ergo consequi ex praecedentibus quod iste spiritus, qui sic suo quodam mirabiliter singulari et singulariter mirabili modo est, quadam ratione solus sit, alia vero quaecumque videntur esse, huic collata non sint. (Monologion 28)

Therefore, it seems to follow from the preceding that that spirit, who exists in a certain marvellously singular and singularly marvellous way, for some reason, exists alone; although everything else seems to exists, it does not exist compared to it [that is, the supreme essence].

The phrase that catches the eye is, ‘mirabiliter singulari et singulariter mirabili‘, which I have translatedm ‘marvellously singular and singularly marvellous.‘ Although in the ablative, this is a direct quotation of Leo’s Tome (Ep. 28):

singulariter mirabilis et mirabiliter singularis

It’s a nice turn of phrase, a happy little chiasmus. The context of the phrase is different in Leo; he is talking about the Incarnation, that Christ’s birth was ‘singularly marvellous and marvellously singular’. Singularis could also be translated as unique.

Is the allusion conscious? I do not know. It is clear, however, that Leo’s most famous dogmatic letter is part of Anselm’s reading list. One of the points made by Jean Leclercq’s classic work, The Love of Learning and the Desire for God is the fact that monastic writers tend to make allusions to and quote classical and patristic authors almost unconsciously. Their formation as monks, their study of grammatica, was filled with those authors considered to be the best stylists by the medieval monks, both pagan and Christian: Vergil, Ovid, Horace, Cicero, Augustine, Jerome, Gregory the Great. Beauty is an attribute of God; therefore, even Ovid is worth reading because he is beautiful.

Anselm was the principal teacher at the monastery of Bec, 1063-1078. In 1078 he was made abbot. The Monologion whence comes the Leonine allusion under consideration was his first major work, published, he says, at the insistence of his students. His Proslogion would follow as well as De Grammatico. All of these works show the imprint of the school room and the necessity to teach grammar and literature to students and young monks.

As a result of his textual immersion in the ancient pagans and church fathers, Anselm’s mind was formed by more than just logic. It was shaped by Latin, by the art of teaching grammar. These texts would be imprinted on his mind and heart by constant reference to them, time and again. The Tome of Leo, I am given to understand, has often been monastic reading at Christmastide. I wonder if such was the case at Bec in the 1060s?

Anyway, Anselm is trying to demonstrate the logic of belief in God using pure reason. It is an almost impossible task, especially when you start to spot the Platonist assumptions that lie behind some of his premisses. Nonetheless, this naked approach to discussing God was not always well met by his contemporaries. His teacher Lanfranc, having moved on to the Archbishopric of Canterbury (a position Anselm would hold himself), criticised the Monologion for not making reference to Augustine of Hippo.

Yet I have no doubt it does, in the sense of allusion. It alludes to Leo the Great. Augustine is a much bigger source for medieval thought than Leo, although Leo is important for setting the boundaries of belief held by catholic churchmen.

What does the allusion to Leo mean? Obviously the Tome is Anselm’s intertext. That is easy. And no doubt throughout, his bare logic is interwoven with other intertexts I have not seen. For Leo, it is (to borrow a phrase from G.K. Chesterton, The Thing) the ‘stereoscopic vision of the two natures of Christ’ that holds his vision and guides his meditation. Leo does not necessarily work from logic; indeed, the chief complaint from Leo’s posthumous adversary, Severus of Antioch, is that Leo does not use logic well enough and falls into heresy. Leo’s argument is driven by rhetoric, by an innate sense of western catholic thought, by scriptural authority.

Anselm, on the other hand, is driven by logic. Moreover, this meditatio that he has produced is a sustained reflection on the nature of divinity and deducible by logic. Leo and Augustine intrude not as conscious sources but as unconscious guides. By transplanting the Leo quotation from the context of the Incarnation to the context of the divine essence, to the realm of logic and pure theology, Anselm has elevated the phrase to the highest heights of the seventh heaven, beyond even the primum mobile. His mind is not bound by the original use of the phrase, and he takes what is a lovely rhetorical device and deploys it in the midst of an exercise in logic that tires the modern mind.

This allusion to Leo’s Tome sets out for us precisely what sets Anselm apart. He is so thoroughly steeped in the classical-Christian Latin tradition of Bec’s school room that when he engages in the philosophy of religion and seeks to use logic alone to prove the core dogmas of catholic thought, he cannot help bringing with him these monastic and classical and, indeed, dogmatic intertexts. He is a man of two worlds; not yet a scholastic but strongly contrasted with the poetic monastic discourses of Bernard of Clairvaux in a few decades.