On murmuring as a clue to the problem of authority

In Chapter 40 of the Rule of Life, the guidebook that has served as a basis for Christian monastic life for the past 1500 years, St. Benedict discusses how much wine is to be apportioned to each member of the monastic community. Perhaps a “half-measure of wine every day should suffice,” he says, but then he concedes that circumstances may vary such that it becomes “impossible to provide the amount of wine we have suggested above.” He concludes, “Those who live in such a locality [where wine has become scarce] should praise God and avoid any murmuring. Above all else I urge there should be no murmuring in the community.”

Above all else? With these words, Benedict implies that murmuring is not a topic of secondary or tertiary importance; it is a matter of ultimate concern.

In Chapter 34, “Fair Provisions for the Needs of All,” Benedict sounds, as ever, Aristotelian in his understanding of the “more or less”: some members will require more food, others less. Give each his due, in effect. Yet, he cautions, “Above all the evil of murmuring must not for any reason at all be shown by any word or gesture. Anyone found indulging in such a fault must be subjected to really severe discipline.” Here, we espy the “above all” yet again, and here we also see that murmuring apparently merits “really severe discipline.”

To our modern ears, Benedict’s stress on the “evil of murmuring,” evidenced in more passages than the two I cited above, is redolent of Jacobinism. At the peak of the French Revolution, Jacobins maintained a communal life of virtue by making common reference to the guillotine glistening resplendently in the morning sun. In the 21st C., the horrors consequent upon policing a life of virtue have led many sober minds to conclude that value pluralism is the public philosophy for us crooked timber. For philosophers like Isaiah Berlin, there is no getting past our knots and twigs, so we might as well grant this and muddle through as best we can.

However, before we infer that Benedict was a Victorian schoolmaster in disguise, let’s take a second look. No doubt attuned to the tininess of Benedict’s stern words, the editors of Patrick Barry’s lucid modern translation of Benedict’s Rule devote an extensive footnote–only part of which have I excerpted below–to Benedict’s harsh attitude toward murmuring. They write that the Latin murmuratio defies translation into modern English but explain,

In monastic life obedience and love are so intimately bound together that each becomes an expression of the other. Nothing is so corrosive of that ideal as the sort of constant complaining Saint Benedict has in mind when he writes about “murmuring” and “murmurers” in a Benedictine community. The damage is done not by the fact that there is a complaint. There are always procedures for legitimate complaints, which are healthy in a monastic community provided they are not destructive and are honestly brought forward in a spirit which is open and ready to accept a decision. Murmuring is not like that; it is underhanded and quickly becomes part of the “underside” of a community. Thus it destroys confidence and is incompatible with the monastic ideals….

I began this post with Benedict’s warnings about murmuring because I believe his ear is very well attuned to the problem of authority. I think he is trying to give a name to a pervasive mood of dissatisfaction that, in the words of The Rule of Life of the Community of Jesus, “tear[s] at the fabric of community life” (13). For the editors of Benedict’s Rule and for the anonymous writers at the Community of Jesus, murmuring is said to resemble gossiping and secrets except that it is much more instinctual, lying as it does much deeper in the throat. The reason we should cue into murmuring, that guttural, primitive form of disobedience, is that it is an early indicator that there is something the matter with any group, organization, or institution whatever. Its presence implies one of three things:

  1. The member who is murmuring has not been properly educated. Hence, his murmuring is unfounded and without reason.
  2. Suppose the murmuring is justified and that it is “directed at” or “addressed to” a figure of authority. This “claim” reveals that the addressee lacks legitimate authority. Hence, the murmuring should lead to admonition, reform of conduct, or an inquiry into the possibility of finding a suitable replacement.
  3. Suppose the murmuring is justified but that it is “directed at” the group. It follows that the organization to which the murmuring member belongs either does not have a legitimate ultimate aim (telos) or does not have the means (techne) to reach that ultimate aim. In either case, murmuring suggests the early stirrings of dissensus.

I examine these three cases in the following posts.


Day 1“Why We Need Good Authority.” I describe the structure and quality of good authority and good obedience. As the title suggests, I also make the case that we can’t do without good authority if we want our lives to go well.

Day 2: On Murmuring as a Clue to the Problem of Authority.” I cue into murmuring as a primal urge of dissafection and alienation. I then lay out 3 possible explanations for someone’s murmuring.

Day 3: “On Murmuring, Education, and Love.” I examine the first case. A person’s murmuring stems from her improper education. What does good education look like?

Day 4: “On Murmuring, Bad Authority, and the Abdication of Responsibility.” I explore the second case. A person’s murmuring is a sign that the authority figure is not exercising legitimate authority.

Day 5: “On Murmuring, Alienation, and Institutional Failures.” I discuss the third case. A person’s murmuring implies that an institution isn’t working.

One thought on “On murmuring as a clue to the problem of authority

  1. I’m happy that you’re able to see a place in life for the exercise of good authority. I’m afraid that the left has rejected authority out of hand (smash all the idols, let the kids run the schools, get rid of curricula, topple all institutions, and on and on and on) while the right has appealed too forcefully at time to tradition (well, that’s just the way we do things here or that’s just the way things are). There’s also a convergence among leftists and rightists about the illegitimacy of the state, though for very different reasons. At the moment, I don’t want to evaluate these claims or weigh in on them. I only want to point out that the conclusion, “All authority is illegitimate and unnecessary,” does not follow from the premise, “This form of authority isn’t working.”

    About all this, I feel a great sense of sadness.

    The truth is that (a) we can’t get rid of the idea of authority in social life, (b) we need good authority in order to flourish, and (c) we need that authority to be “nurturant” and, yes, also sustainable.

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