Monday, December 07, 2020

Known to the Whole World as Among the Best of Men

 Today is the feast of St. Aurelius Ambrosius of Milan, Doctor of the Church. (The description in the title is Augustine's description of him from the Confessions, Book V.) From his De officiis (Book I, Chapter 10):

A man wishing to undergo a warlike training daily exercises himself with his weapons. As though ready for action he rehearses his part in the fight and stands forth just as if the enemy were in position before him. Or, with a view to acquiring skill and strength in throwing the javelin, he either puts his own arms to the proof, or avoids the blows of his foes, and escapes them by his watchful attention. The man that desires to navigate a ship on the sea, or to row, tries first on a river. They who wish to acquire an agreeable style of singing and a beautiful voice begin by bringing out their voice gradually by singing. And they who seek to win the crown of victory by strength of body and in a regular wrestling match, harden their limbs by daily practice in the wrestling school, foster their endurance, and accustom themselves to hard work. 
Nature herself teaches us this in the case of infants. For they first exercise themselves in the sounds of speech and so learn to speak. Thus these sounds of speech are a kind of practice, and a school for the voice. Let those then who want to learn to take heed in speaking not refuse what is according to nature, but let them use all watchful care; just as those who are on a watchtower keep on the alert by watching, and not by going to sleep. For everything is made more perfect and strong by exercises proper and suitable to itself.

Officia are the responsibilities or duties that arise from exercising virtues in an appropriate way in a reasonable role. As Ambrose notes, his De officiis is in some ways modeled on Cicero (who himself was writing in the genres of a work by a Stoic, Panaetius, that was incomplete in Cicero's day and is now lost), although (as he also notes), Cicero was writing for his physical son and the roles he would have in this life while Ambrose is writing for his spiritual sons, the clergy of his diocese in particular, and with a view not to this life but to the next. Cicero had divided his work into the honestum or decorum (the noble/right/decorous/seemly), the utile (the expedient/useful/helpful/advantageous), and the union of the two. Ambrose also continues to see officia as consisting of honesta, utilia, and their union, but he is not trying to synthesize Ciceronianism and Christianity; he is very emphatic about the significant differences that come when you have a higher end in view: Christian officia are not and cannot be exactly the same as non-Christian officia. He only accepts from Cicero what he can give some reason from Scripture for accepting, he regularly contrasts pagan and Christian exemplars, and he argues that the honestum and the utile ultimately converge in light of the Christian aim at Christlikeness.

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