Saturday, December 07, 2019

Ambrosius Episcopus

Today is the feast of St. Ambrose of Milan, Doctor of the Church, who is notable among other things for having been baptized, confirmed, ordained, and consecrated bishop all in one week. Tensions were high over Arianism and the see of Mediolanum, or Milan, the second most important see in the West, was empty. Ambrose went to the cathedral to calm the crowd, because he was the Roman governor at the time, but as he was trying to do so, the crowd starting chanting, "Ambrosius Episcopus!" until he fled. It was too late, though; everyone started treating him as the bishop elect and even the Emperor, when he heard about it, assumed that Ambrose was resigning his governorship and sent congratulations to the people of Milan on their excellent choice. Since he was only a catechumen, he had to catch up on his sacraments. He was also the mentor of St. Augustine and quite a few others. From his De officiis (Book I, Chapter 9), the Cicero-inspired handbook he wrote as a guide for the behavior of his clergy:

The philosophers considered that duties were derived from what is virtuous and what is useful, and that from these two one should choose the better. Then, they say, it may happen that two virtuous or two useful things will clash together, and the question is, which is the more virtuous, and which the more useful? First, therefore, "duty" is divided into three sections: what is virtuous, what is useful, and what is the better of two. Then, again, these three are divided into five classes; that is, two that are virtuous, two that are useful, and, lastly, the right judgment as to the choice between them. The first they say has to do with the moral dignity and integrity of life; the second with the conveniences of life, with wealth, resources, opportunities; while a right judgment must underlie the choice of any of them. This is what the philosophers say.

But we measure nothing at all but that which is fitting and virtuous, and that by the rule of things future rather than of things present; and we state nothing to be useful but what will help us to the blessing of eternal life; certainly not that which will help us enjoy merely the present time. Nor do we recognize any advantages in opportunities and in the wealth of earthly goods, but consider them as disadvantages if not put aside, and to be looked on as a burden, when we have them, rather than as a loss when expended.

(The first paragraph is also a good summary of the standard Ciceronian position on officia, often translated 'duties', a position that, despite being historically important and influential, has tended to be lost in most recent virtue ethics; it plays an important role in Hutcheson's argument against Hume's account of virtue, but other than that discussions of it are almost nonexistent in modern versions of virtue ethics.)