Saturday, February 27, 2016

Jerome and Ambrose on Epicurus

In the fourth century (perhaps even beginning in the third century), the common ascetic practices of the Christian community became the target of significant criticisms. One of the critics about whom we know the most, although almost entirely indirect, was a man named Jovinian. A former monk himself, he repudiated his monastic status and began writing works and preaching arguing that consecrated virginity was not any better than marriage and that fasting was no better than eating with thanksgiving. (It's perhaps worth noting that this indifferentism toward ascetic practice was combined with the view that all sins were equal and that no one baptized with the Holy Spirit could possibly sin.) He came to the attention of Rome, and Pope St. Siricius had his works condemned in synod. St. Ambrose in Milan followed suit with his own synod condemning him. Jerome, who had good connections to the papal curia in Rome, would shortly afterward write an intensely polemical book (so polemical that it was an embarrassment in Rome), Adversus Jovinianum, attacking his views in some detail -- and it is Jerome's work from which we get the most information about Jovinian himself. Jerome calls him "the Epicurus of Christianity."

But Jovinian was by no means alone. We have a letter from Ambrose to the Christian church in Vercellae, probably written not more than a few years after the condemnation of Jovinian, in which he mentions two other monks, Barbatianus and Sarmatio, who seem to have been advocating something very similar, and who were very likely disciples of Jovinian himself. Ambrose summarizes what he has heard of their teaching as saying that "there is no merit in abstinence, no grace in a frugal life, none in virginity, that all are valued at one price, that they are mad who chasten their flesh with fastings". Since the community of Vercellae had been having severe difficulty in choosing a bishop due to divisions in the community, it is sometimes speculated that they may have arrived in town to try to influence the choice. Notably, Ambrose also links their views to Epicureanism, and seems to suggest that they regarded themselves as philosophers. It's unclear whether they themselves affirmed the link between their views and those of Epicurus; both Jerome and Ambrose say things that can be taken either way.

Jerome and Ambrose both argue that Epicureanism is an odious philosophy, but one of the things that they also both do is argue that the views of these hedonistic ex-monks are in fact much more piggish than those of pagan Epicureans. Jerome, for instance, notes that Epicurus never refers to anything other than simple foods, fruits and vegetables, bread and water, and that he actually recommends that people not marry.

Ambrose says a number of interesting things in his development of this argument. For instance, at one point he says:

Epicurus himself also, whom these persons think they should follow rather than the apostles, the advocate of pleasure, although he denies that pleasure brings in evil, does not deny that certain things result from it from which evils are generated; and asserts in fine that the life of the luxurious which is filled with pleasures does not seem to be reprehensible, unless it be disturbed by the fear either of pain or of death. But how far he is from the truth is perceived even from this, that he asserts that pleasure was originally created in man by God its author, as Philomarus his follower argues in his Epitomæ, asserting that the Stoics are the authors of this opinion.

Nobody knows who Philomarus is, and in fact it's even possible that the name is a corruption of another name. The Epitomae sound like they were probably a digest of Epicurean arguments against the Stoics, although Ambrose's reference is a bit unclear.

A bit further on, he says:

But as to that Epicurus himself, the defender of pleasure, of whom, therefore, we have made frequent mention in order to prove that these men are either disciples of the heathen and followers of the Epicurean sect or himself, whom the very philosophers exclude from their company as the patron of luxury, what if we prove him to be more tolerable than these men? He declares, as Demarchus asserts, that neither drinking, nor banquets, nor offspring, nor embraces of women, nor abundance of fish, and other such like things which are prepared for the service of a sumptuous banquet, make life sweet, but sober discussion. Lastly, he added that those who do not use the banquets of society in excess, use them with moderation. He who willingly makes use of the juices of plants alone together with bread and water, despises feasts on delicacies, for many inconveniences arise from them. In another place they also say: It is not excessive banquets, nor drinking which give rise to the enjoyment of pleasure, but a life of temperance.

'Demarchus' is also unknown, although, since the name itself might be a corruption of another name, some have suggested it should read 'Hermarchus'. If so, that would be quite interesting, since Hermarchus was the immediate successor of Epicurus himself: after Epicurus's death, he became the head of the Garden and continued to maintain the school. None of his writings have survived, although we have a few quotations and summaries. The claim made is very similar to that made by Jerome (Book II, section 11), but Jerome does not seem to be directly quoting anyone, as Ambrose does.

In any case, it's notable that the views of the Epicureans in both cases are presented as insisting on simplicity of life: instead of fine foods and banquets, which are more trouble than they are worth, bread and water, vegetables and fruits, sufficient to satisfy need and no more. And they are in both cases presented as seeking wisdom, at least of the sort that you can get in "sober discussion". This is confirmed by other sources we have. Particularly interesting is Ambrose's possible quotation from whomever-it-was, "It is not excessive banquets, nor drinking, which give rise to the enjoyment of pleasure, but a life of temperance."

Both Jerome and Ambrose do not leave it at that, of course, and argue quite vociferously for the excellence of both consecrated virginity and fasting, and their arguments, of course, would be widely copied and distributed. In part by their efforts, the importance of ascetic practices would be maintained throughout the Church. But it is interesting to see the Epicureans pop up in this way.

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