JMC : Philosophy of Literature / by Brother Azarias


Claudian represents the decline of the pagan world of letters; Prudentius represents the growing vigor of the Christian world, upon which a new era was then dawning. Among the primitive fathers, the golden-mouthed John, the Gregories, Nazeanzen and Nyssa, Basil, Jerome, and Ambrose -- all of whom flourished between A. D. 340 and 420 -- men all of them of edifying lives, of genius imbued with learning, eloquence, and zeal for religion -- explained the doctrines of Christianity, fought heresy, lessened and prevented scandals, weakened paganism, spread the gospel, and profoundly impressed the people at large.{1} To-day the sermon is taken as a matter of course. It is considered a something to be endured, seldom enjoyed, and then simply as an intellectual treat. But in those early days it was measured by a different standard. Then it was new, and was looked upon with admiration and enthusiasm; and its novelty and power caused it to exercise a strong influence for good. Sacred eloquence is a power unknown in pagan literature. It is the creature of Christianity. The pagan was accustomed to offer his sacrifice, say the prescribed prayer, and go his way. There are times when man is better disposed to listen to good counsel. Christianity, which has at all times a word for all classes, chose that the most opportune to speak, and impress her sublime doctrine on his heart. And, therefore, in the temple of religion, when the clash and clamor of man's worldly occupations are hushed before the Divinity, when the prayerful disposition of his soul disposes him to think on the spiritual world of which the ceremonies remind him, and he feels that there is a higher and better life after which he ought to strive -- at that solemn moment the Christian minister, in the name of tho God whom man worships, strengthens the feelings then possessing his heart, addresses him with a conviction that only religious zeal knows, and appeals to passions -- not of national honor, not of mere personal integrity, not of self-interest -- but awakens passions never before addressed in assembly; rather creates a passion in which all others are absorbed -- a passion that elevates man above the natural plane of his dignity, makes him superior to himself, and equal to deeds from which human nature unassisted would shrink in fear and horror; that of loving, serving, imitating his Lord and Redeemer, the Crucified One. This is the sublime origin of sacred eloquence. These early fathers knew and felt their indebtedness, among human agencies, to the ancient classics and the ancient philosophy for the effective language of which they were masters, and they esteemed and cherished them accordingly. Thus St. Jerome teaches them in Bethlehem, and in reply to Magnus, who accuses him of being too fond of the pagan authors, pleads their cause with eloquence. He speaks of "the sacredness of antiquity," shows that St Paul quoted Aratus, Epimenides, and Menander, and in allusion to the Jewish law of purifying captives and admitting them as Israelites, he adds: "What wonder, then, that I, struck by the science of the age in the beauty of its features and the grace of its discourses, should wish to transform it from the slave it now is into an Israelite.{2} Origen (185-253) had previously made use of the same figure: "Whatever we find that is well and rationally said in the works of our enemies, if we read anything that is said wisely and according to knowledge, we ought to cleanse it, and from that knowledge which they possess to remove and cut off all that is dead and useless."{3} St. Basil likewise becomes the advocate of the classics against those who would be for their total destruction: "As dyers," says this doctor of broad views, "dispose by certain preparations the tissue which is destined for the dye, and then steep it in the purple, so, in order that the idea of good may be traced ineffaceably in our souls, we shall first initiate them in the outer knowledge, and then will listen to the hallowed teaching of the mysteries."{4} Love for classic literature grew to a passion. St. Jerome blamed the clergy of his day for devoting too much time to the study of pagan authors, to the palpable and the baneful neglect of sacred learning. "They read comedies," he says, "had Vergil unceasingly in their hands, recited tender verses from the bucolics of this poet, and made a criminal pleasure of what had been a necessary occupation of their youth."{5} What was true among the Latin clergy at this period, was equally applicable to the Greek clergy. About A. D. 390, Heliodorus, Bishop of Tricca, wrote his AEthiopica, a novel of great merit, and which was very popular with the youth of that day.{6} The book is saturated with expressions borrowed from Homer and the dramatic poets. Theogenes and Chariclea are nominally pagans, but the heroine has all the fortitude and virtue of a Christian soul. Paganism is already so much a thing of the past, that Heliodorus finds it of interest to his readers to describe ceremonies that accompanied a sacrificial offering in a pagan temple.{7} Well and graphically has he pictured them.

Thus it was that taste for secular literature among the clergy had swung to the extreme of even reproducing exclusively secular books. Surely, in presence of these indications of excessive devotedness to the pagan classics, it were folly to accuse the Church as inimical to such studies. Religion is not opposed to literature so far as it is the expression of the true, the good, and the beautiful. It is only when it becomes the vehicle of falsehood and immorality that she condemns it. One of the greatest intellects within the gift of humanity, and one of the most brilliant ornaments of religion, rose to saintship in the path of literary pursuits. Literature was the natural mould in which St Augustine (354-420) was stamped.

Schooled in the philosophies of the East and the the West, after an eager search through the fogs of Manichaeism and the mazes of Neo-Platonism for the fountain of truth, at which alone his boundless aspirations could be slaked, he at last arrives in the broad daylight of Catholicity, and in her doctrines and sacraments satisfies his hitherto insatiable craving for truth. He is the epitome of his age. He followed all its leading phantoms until he rose above his times into the regions of holiness, whither they never followed His Confessions is a sublime hymn of praise to God for having led him out of error -- a profound, philosophic essay on the supremely good and beautiful, in which, in the vagaries of his own life, are the practical illustrations of the vanities of the systems through which he passed. "Neither is this done by the words of the flesh and outward sounds, but by the words of the soul, and the loud cry of the thought which is known to Thy ear."{8} The book proves that neither Pagan, Platonist, nor Manichaean has the due to the enigma of life; but that in Christianity alone is this to be found. The central idea is that God alone is true, is beautiful, is good, is great, and worthy of our love: "Thou hast wounded my heart with Thy word, and I fell in love with Thee."{9} In consideration of that love he would throw himself away, and make choice of God; and therefore it is that he confesses his sins: "That so I may be ashamed of myself, and may throw away myself, and may make choice of Thee."{10} And this idea is also fundamental in his great work, The City of God; for he characterizes the two cities, the earthly and the heavenly, according to the nature of the loves by which they have been formed: "Accordingly, two cities have been formed by two loves -- the earthly by the love of self, even to the contempt of God; the heavenly by the love of God, even to the contempt of self. The former, in a word, glories in itself; the latter in the Lord."{11} This work is the first instalment of the philosophy of history, which was afterwards developed by Bossuet and Schlegel. Augustine witnessed the crash of the Roman empire under the blows of Alaric. The greatest power that ever ruled the world had fallen. Sophists raised a hue and cry against Christianity as the primal cause of all the evils that befell. "No wonder," they said, "that Rome should fall; her altars were deserted, her gods despised, and Christians were plotting her ruin." To answer these objections, St Augustine writes this, his master-piece, and "the encyclopaedia of the fifth century."{12} He investigates the causes of the rise and progress of Rome, shows the secret of her strength, and points out the reason of her decline and fall, with a masterly hand, and upon principles that no historian can ignore.{13} He then examines the theological and philosophical systems of paganism, and proves in them there is much error, and that whatever truth they possess is realized in Christianity.{14} The rest of the work is devoted to the consideration of the two cities, the heavenly and the earthly, and their origin and destiny. There are those who smile when they read that the two cities began with the good and the bad angels. But when we translate the idea into modern phraseology, we find in it an incontestable truth. By the two cities he means, first, aggregate of God-loving, God-serving, and God-fearing persons on the earth -- all true and faithful Christians; secondly, the aggregate of God-despising, self-loving and self-seeking persons -- the worldly minded, who look but to the present. Now, evidently, the different spirits that animated the good and bad angels are the same that live in these classes. We all are guided by one or the other. After showing where truth and stability are alone to be found, this great genius ends where all his works end, from the time he first exclaimed, "Do we love anything but the fair and beautiful?"{15} to the hour he breathed his last -- in God. St. Augustine was cherished in the Middle Ages, was not forgotten at the Renaissance, and is still a favorite with the thoughtful among moderns. In endeavoring to grasp the expression of his genius, one image recurs to the mind -- that of the ocean, first tossed and lashed about by storm, then calm and clear, the wreck of previous tempest floating on its bosom. Throughout his writings float the wrecks of shattered systems and fragments of dead issues, but beneath their surface are the solid gems of truth.{16} About a century later (470-524) Boëthius lives, is persecuted, suffers, and writes his beautiful work De Consolatione Philosophiae. It was a favorite in the Middle Ages, and it still has admirers. Alfred the Great translated it into Old English, and Chaucer into Middle English. The work is not only the product of superior talent highly cultivated; it is also the inspiration of a noble and beautiful soul conscious of its innate greatness. He who knows but the sunshine of life, lives in ignorance of the world and himself. Man's worth is tested in the crucible of persecution and suffering. The Consolations would, in all probability, have remained unwritten had Boëtius ended his days while basking in the smiles of his sovereign; but in the chill shadow of the prison his soul expanded and rose above adversity, and he wrote the thought that endeared his name to posterity, -- that in self-knowledge is strength; that the blessings of fortune are fleeting and unsatisfactory; that in virtue alone is true happiness to be found; and that in reality, adversity is superior to prosperity.{17} This thought is the burden of the work; therefore it is that Dante speaks of the author as

"The saintly soul, that shows
The world's deceitfulness to all who hear him."{18}

{1} Leo XII. thus speaks of "the great Basil and the two Gregories:" "From Athens, then the home of the highest culture, they went forth equipped with the panoply of philosophy. Having acquired all their riches of learning by most ardent study, they used them to refute the heretic, and to build up the faithful." -- Encyclical. AEterni Patris, 1879.

{2} S. Hieron. Ep. lxxxiii ad Magnum.

{3} In Levit. Hon., vii. See Maitland's "Dark Ages," No. xi. Dark Age View of Profane Learning, p. 574.

{4} Ozanam, Civilization in the Fifth Century, vol. i, p. 220.

{5} Ep. 146, ad Damascam.

{6} Nicephorus, lib. xii., cap. 34. We accept the testimony of Nicephorus as regards the popularity of the hook, but we incline to the opinions of Bayle and Huet in rejecting the rest of his story.

{7} AEthiopica, lib. iii. -- Raphael painted the first meeting of Theogenes and Chariclea at the altar, from this description. Tasso pictured the early life of Clorinda (Jerusalem Delivered, xii.) after Heliodorus's description of the infancy of Chariclea, and from the AEthiopica Guarini borrowed several scenes in his Pastor Fido.

{8} Conf., lib. x., cap. ii.

{9} Ibid., cap. vi.

{10} Conf., lib. x., cap. ii.

{11} City of God, bk. xvi. 28.

{12} Poujoulat, Vie de S. Augustine.

{13} Bks. i, ii., iii., iv., v. The fifth is especially noteworthy.

{14} Bks. vi, vii, viii, ix., x. Bk. viii. is especially noteworthy.

{15} Conf. lib., iv., cap. xiii.

{16} Let us here quote the splendid eulogy of Leo XIII. on St. Augustine: "But it is Augustine who seems to have borne away the palm from all. With a towering intellect, and a mind full to overflowing of sacred and profane learning, he fought resolutely against all the errors of his age, with the greatest faith and equal knowledge. What teaching of philosophy did he pass over? Nay, what was there into which he did not search thoroughly? Did he not do this when he was explaining to believers the deepest mysteries of the faith, and defending them against the furious attacks of the adversaries? or when, after destroying the fictions of Academics and Manichaeans, he made safe the foundations of human knowledge and their certainty, searching out also to the furthest point the reason and origin and causes of those evils by which man is oppressed? With what copiousness and with what subtlety did he write about the angels and the soul and the human mind; about the will and free will; about religion and the blessed life about time and eternity; about the nature of all changeable bodies!" -- Encyl. AEterni Patris, 1879.

{17} "Etenim plus hominibus reor adversam quam prosperam prodesse fortunam.,, -- De Consol., lib. ii., prosa, viii.

{18} "L'anima santa, che il mondo fallace Fa manifesto a chi di lei ben ode." -- Paradiso, canto x., 125, 126.

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