Monday, January 13, 2014

Malleus Arianorum

Today is the feast of St. Hilary of Poitiers, Doctor of the Church, Hammer of the Arians, Athanasius of the West, Most Greek of the Latin Fathers. From his book on the Trinity (1.2-3):

I believe that the mass of mankind have spurned from themselves and censured in others this acquiescence in a thoughtless, animal life, for no other reason than that nature herself has taught them that it is unworthy of humanity to hold themselves born only to gratify their greed and their sloth, and ushered into life for no high aim of glorious deed or fair accomplishment, and that this very life was granted without the power of progress towards immortality; a life, indeed, which then we should confidently assert did not deserve to be regarded as a gift of God, since, racked by pain and laden with trouble, it wastes itself upon itself from the blank mind of infancy to the wanderings of age. I believe that men, prompted by nature herself, have raised themselves through teaching and practice to the virtues which we name patience and temperance and forbearance, under the conviction that right living means right action and right thought, and that Immortal God has not given life only to end in death; for none can believe that the Giver of good has bestowed the pleasant sense of life in order that it may be overcast by the gloomy fear of dying.

And yet, though I could not tax with folly and uselessness this counsel of theirs to keep the soul free from blame, and evade by foresight or elude by skill or endure with patience the troubles of life, still I could not regard these men as guides competent to lead me to the good and happy Life. Their precepts were platitudes, on the mere level of human impulse; animal instinct could not fail to comprehend them, and he who understood but disobeyed would have fallen into an insanity baser than animal unreason. Moreover, my soul was eager not merely to do the things, neglect of which brings shame and suffering, but to know the God and Father Who had given this great gift, to Whom, it felt, it owed its whole self, Whose service was its true honour, on Whom all its hopes were fixed, in Whose lovingkindness, as in a safe home and haven, it could rest amid all the troubles of this anxious life. It was inflamed with a passionate desire to apprehend Him or to know Him.

St. Hilary was a highly educated Neoplatonist pagan who converted to Christianity; the above passage is part of his discussion of how he became Christian (the rest of the account is quite interesting). He was a married man and had a daughter -- we don't know her name, but traditionally she is called Saint Abra -- who converted with him. When the episcopacy of Poitiers came open, the people insisted that he be elected bishop despite being married. He immediately went about with a firm hand opposing Arianism, which got him into trouble with the imperial court and sentenced to exile in Phrygia.

His most famous work is the De Trinitate, which has the distinction of being the first serious defense and exposition in Latin of the theology of the First Council of Nicaea, which had occurred about three decades before. Hilary's theology is highly Alexandrian in flavor -- his major influences were Athanasius and Origen -- but he is quite innovative in some of the ways he approaches the topic. He wrote a number of other works while in exile, including a work attacking the Emperor Constantius as the Antichrist. This was perhaps a dangerous gambit, but Hilary ended up annoying the powers that be so much -- he kept insisting on public debates to prove the rightness of his cause -- that they sent him back to Poitiers to get rid of him. When there, he continued his opposition to Arianism, not always very successfully. He died about AD 367.

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