Denis the Carthusian on rulers: Commentary on Wisdom 6:1-12

by Gerardus Maiella

In keeping with the theme of the recent election, we today present part of Denis the Carthusian’s Enarratio on the sixth chapter of the book of Wisdom, wherein the sacred author exhorts princes to wisdom. An unexpected but lovely tidbit is Denis’ brief reference to Gelasian dyarchy, on which the good Pater Edmund Waldstein’s essay is highly recommended.

Wisdom is better than strength, and a wise man is better than a strong man. Hear therefore, ye kings, and understand: learn, ye that are judges of the ends of the earth. Give ear, you that rule the people, and that please yourselves in multitudes of nations: For power is given you by the Lord, and strength by the most High, who will examine your works, and search out your thoughts: Because being ministers of his kingdom, you have not judged rightly, nor kept the law of justice, nor walked according to the will of God. Horribly and speedily will he appear to you: for a most severe judgment shall be for them that bear rule. For to him that is little, mercy is granted: but the mighty shall be mightily tormented. For God will not except any man’s person, neither will he stand in awe of any man’s greatness: for he made the little and the great, and he hath equally care of all. But a greater punishment is ready for the more mighty. To you, therefore, O kings, are these my words, that you may learn wisdom, and not fall from it. For they that have kept just things justly, shall be justified: and they that have learned these things, shall find what to answer. Covet ye therefore my words, and love them, and you shall have instruction.


Elucidation of the sixth Chapter: Hear therefore, ye kings, and understand.

The author here admonishes to the desire and love of wisdom: and because this is most of all necessary for those who rule, he addresses them first. Hear therefore, ye kings, and understand: that is, since so horrendous a condemnation threatens the wicked, wisdom is also better than corporeal power; therefore hear with the ears of the body, and understand what is heard with the ears of the mind; learn the things which I shall say, ye that are judges of the ends of the earth, that is, of men dwelling everywhere on the earth, that you might be able to teach others also. For each man is held to know, and most diligently ought to learn those things which pertain to his state and position: so far as according to the exigence of his vocation, he may walk worthily for God; and he who is constituted in some office, let him carry that out in a satisfactory manner. Give ear, that is, of the heart and the body, through diligent listening, you that rule [continetis], that is, you who hold subjects to yourselves, and preserve them in one polity, law, or observance, or restrain them from transgressions, multitudes of men. Indeed, those who are subjected to the same superior, by comparison to it are one body, one collection, one community, and they are compared to it as members to head. And you that please yourselves in multitudes of nations, that is, you who have pleasure in your primacy or presidency over the crowds of subjects. But to be thus pleased is something of elation, ambition, insipience, and vainglory, since Gregory says: “Howsoever many times any ruler is pleased to be placed over men, so many times does he fall into the sin of apostasy.” And indeed, such a one thinks his office to be of the highest rank, and the dignity and elevation of himself, and not as a burden and a servitude: neither does he ponder the severity of the divine judgment, nor his own insufficiency. But to be delighted in the fruit of the office, or the worthy execution thereof, or in the office on account of fruits of this sort, and this only in the Lord, reckoning every good to Him with humble thanks, is not illicit.

Finally, in these words, by “kings,” “judges,” and “princes,” are to be understood the primates of both laws; namely, governors so much spiritual as secular; indeed, and chiefly those who are spiritual, whose dignity is much greater, and who are obliged to greater perfection. These two laws, are the two swords, and two eyes, and two great luminaries in the very body of the Church; but as the sun is greater and more brilliant than the moon, so the more excellent and luminous is the spiritual power than the secular. And just as the sun illuminates the moon, so the spiritual has to teach and direct the secular, as the soul does the body.

And so, O ye who govern, hearken to these things, For power is given you by the Lord which is prelatical, presidential authority, and temporal dominion, and strength punitive and corrective of the guilty, from the most High: because “there is no power but from God,” as the Apostle attests, and as Christ also witnesses, who said to Pilate: “Thou shouldst not have any power against me, unless it were given thee from above.” Hence, secular princes too, according to the Apostle, are ministers and vicars of God. Nor does what the Lord speaks through Osee concerning vicious princes pose an obstacle: concerning whom the text here also treats, for a little later it is said, “Because being ministers of his kingdom, you have not judged rightly”: I say, that what the Lord spoke through Osee poses no obstacle: “They have reigned, but not by me: they have been princes, and I knew not.” From which words it seems to follow, that they did not receive their power from the Lord. And it should be responded, that the power is from God, but not the abuse of power, because of which they are said not to have ruled by God, except permissively: according as it is protested in the same Prophet: “I will give thee a king in my wrath.” Concerning which it is also asserted in the book of Job: “Who maketh a man that is a hypocrite to reign for the sins of the people.” Who will examine your works, that is, he will consider you for your acts, no indeed, and for your omissions of things to be done; and he will search out your thoughts, that is, he will perpend, judge, and discern not only your exterior deeds, but also your interior acts, namely your thoughts and affections.

Because being ministers of his kingdom, that is, servants and vicars of God in the rule of his people. Concerning which it is inquired, in what way might vicious rulers, even infidel ones, be called servants and ministers of God. It is responded, that they are servants of God not by a servitude of salutary charity and obedience, but by reason of general subjection, and regarding that which they do well, speaking of acting well in general. For thus do they serve God, even being ignorant, according to the Scripture: “For he is God’s minister: an avenger to execute wrath upon him that doth evil.” And through them does God work out the effects of his providence, as Paul again says in the same place: “For they are the ministers of God, serving unto this purpose.” You have not judged rightly your subjects, no indeed, neither yourselves: for if you had judged yourselves, you would have corrected your life; nor have you kept the law of justice, that is, the natural law: the renewal and restoration of which was the written law; but the law of the Gospel perfected both. Whence the Decalogue, whose precepts are of the works of justice, can be received through the law of justice. Nor have you walked according to the will of God, by observing the precepts, and conducting yourselves before your subjects in an exemplary manner, and passing sentence without preference of persons, and chastising sinners. For as Ambrose says: “The greatest crime in those who rule is, that they attend to persons, and not causes.”

Horribly and speedily will he appear to you, that is, terribly and rapidly shall he judge you, and through the effect of his justice, through examination and reprobation already made will he appear to you, not only in the general judgment, but also in the hour of your death through the particular judgment, as soon as the soul shall have been separated from the body, as the Apostle says to the Hebrews: “As it is appointed unto men once to die, and after this the judgment.” And thus it reads in James: “Behold the Judge standeth before the door.” For a most severe judgment shall be for them that bear rule: that is, the Judge will judge rulers most severely, and will punish them most bitterly if they should have conducted themselves in the manner mentioned before. For their sins, other things being equal, are graver; because the higher the position and dignity, so much greater and graver the fall; and the more worthy their office, the more virtuous they are obliged to be. What is more, their sins scandalize very many, and inflict the greatest injury to God: for by their scandals, negligences, and perversities do they draw many to damnation. They are also most of all unfaithful and ungrateful to God, whose place they hold and do not fulfill. In addition, while from their dignities and offices there follow gifts and honors from their subjects, yet they do not merit these by the worthy execution of their duties; when they do not devote to the subjects that which they are obliged to give to them, but rather scandalize them, and weigh them down with burdens, and lead them to ruin: is it not most just, that a most stern and severe judgment be for them? Hence James writes in his Canonical epistle: “Be ye not many masters, my brethren, knowing that you receive the greater judgment.” And thus, the more they avoid human judgments, the more horribly do they fall into divine ones; and he who through rulers now punishes the vices of subjects, soon after shall by himself punish the crimes of rulers; he who, as it is had in Job, says to the king, Thou art an apostate: who calleth rulers ungodly; who accepteth not the persons of princes; nor hath regarded the tyrant.

For to him that is little, mercy is granted, that is, to men destitute and of low state, these God more readily grants pardon, and he judges them more gently: for, other things being equal, their sins are lesser, that is, in this life they have very many difficulties, and they are corrupted by the greater. Thus speaks Isaias: “He will have mercy on his poor ones.” Such also commonly sin from infirmity or ignorance. But the mighty shall be mightily, that is, intensely and fiercely, tormented. This is not said of all the mighty, for it is written, “God doth not cast away the mighty, whereas he himself also is mighty.” But it is said of the mighty who are violent, proud, abusing the power granted to them: concerning whom the most glorious Virgin says, “He hath put down the mighty from their seat.”

For God, who is the ruler of all, will not except any man’s person: that is, no one howsoever small does he release or exclude from his providence and judgment, nor take away or remove from him in the hour of his judgment that which he has merited; neither will he stand in awe of any man’s greatness, since he is himself infinitely more mighty than all—he who says through Jeremias: “For who is like to me? and who shall abide me? and who is that shepherd that can withstand my countenance?” For he made the little and the great: but there is not comparison of creature to Creator, just as neither of the finite to the infinite; and he hath equally care of all men, namely of all the little and the great. Moreover, care in God is not some restless solicitude, but his most tranquil providence, which in him, the unchanging provider of all, is one and simple: and, speaking of men insofar as they are men, thus is there equally care of all in him, and he will have all men to be saved, nor in him is there respect of persons. Nevertheless, speaking in particular, according as some are elect, and some reprobate; and this, in manifold difference, seeing that some are more or less elect and just, but some are more or less unjust and reprobate: according to this, the omnipotent Lord has care and more or less especial providence concerning some. But for the more mighty abusing his fortitude detestably, there is a greater punishment ready.

To you, therefore, O kings, that is, those who govern in ecclesiastical or civil rule, are these my words: because you it is that I especially desire to inform, yet for the good of the subjects, for whom the good instruction of the great is very advantageous; that you may learn wisdom, and not fall from it, that is, may you not falter from the path of justice and the recognition of truth. For they that have kept just things justly, that is, they have remained in the truth and the observation of justice even unto the end, as the holy Job says: “Till I die I will not depart from my innocence. My justification, which I have begun to hold, I will not forsake”; they shall be judged justly. Certain it is, that the impious also shall be judged justly: thus, that phrase is to be understood of the judgment of approval and of the blessed reward, concerning which the Prophet says, “Judge me, O Lord, according to my justice, and according to my innocence in me.” And they that have learned [these] just things, that is, the divine precepts and laws, and the sapiential documents of holy Scripture, so that they do them, shall find what to answer, that is, in the judgment, they will be able to render a reason for themselves. To those also setting doubts before themselves, they shall give a true solution; and to those inquiring for a reason and explanation of those things which are of faith, they shall give a ready response. Wherefore the prince of the Apostles admonishes: “Being ready always to satisfy every one that asketh you a reason of that hope and faith which is in you.” Whence Paul also, speaking of the instruction of the bishop, says: “That he may be able to exhort in sound doctrine, and to convince the gainsayers.” Covet ye therefore, with intellectual longing: concerning which in the Psalm, “My soul longeth and fainteth for the courts of the Lord”; my words, and love them, and you shall have instruction, that is, knowledge received from the masters; you shall also receive correction gladly.