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Treatise on the Love of God
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CHAPTER X.

A DIGRESSION UPON THE IMPERFECTION OF THE VIRTUES OF THE PAGANS.

Those ancient sages of the world long ago made glorious discourses in honour of the moral virtues, yea, even in behalf of religion: but what Plutarch observes of the Stoics suits still better the rest of the pagans. We see ships, says he, which bear the grandest titles: some are called the Victory, others the Valour, others the Sun; yet, for all that, they remain dependent on the winds and waves: so the Stoics boast of being exempt from passions, without fear, without grief, without anger, unchanging and unchangeable, yet are they in fact subject to trouble, disquiet, impetuosity, and other follies.

I earnestly ask you, Theotimus, what virtues could those people have, who voluntarily, and of set purpose, overthrew all the laws of religion. Seneca wrote a book against superstitions, wherein he very freely reprehends pagan impiety. "Now this freedom," says S. Augustine, "was found in his writings, but not in his life; since he even advised that a man should reject superstition in his heart but should practise it in his actions; for these are his words: Which superstitions the sage shall observe, as being commanded by the law, not as being grateful to the gods." How could they be virtuous, who, as S. Augustine relates, were of opinion that the wise man ought to kill himself, when he could not or would not longer endure the calamities of this life, and yet were not willing to acknowledge that calamities were miseries or miseries calamities, but maintained that the wise man was ever fortunate and his life happy? "O what a happy life," says S. Augustine, "to avoid which one has even recourse to death? If it be happy, why do you not remain in it?" Wherefore, that Stoic and commander who, for having killed himself in Utica to avoid a calamity which he considered it unworthy to survive, has been so praised by the worldly-minded, did this action with so little true virtue that, as S. Augustine says, he did not exhibit a high courage that wished to avoid dishonour, but a weak soul which had not the strength of mind to await adversity. For if he reputed it a dishonourable thing to live under victorious Cæsar, why did he tell others to trust to the clemency of Cæsar? Why did he not advise his son to die with him, if death were better and more honourable than life? He killed himself, then, either because he envied Cæsar the glory he would have gained by sparing his life, or because he feared the shame of living under a victor whom he hated: wherein he may have the praise of having a stout, perhaps a great heart, but not of being a wise, virtuous and constant soul. The cruelty which is exercised without emotion and in cold blood, is the most cruel of all. It is the same with despair; for the most slow, deliberate, and determined is the least excusable and the most desperate. And as for Lucretia (that we may not forget the valour of the less courageous sex), either she was chaste under the violence of the son of Tarquin, or she was not. If Lucretia were not chaste, why is her chastity so praised? If she were chaste and innocent on that occasion, was not Lucretia wicked to murder the innocent Lucretia? If unchaste why so much praised, if honest why was she slain? But she dreaded reproach and shame on the part of such as might have thought that the treatment she had suffered through violence while she was in life had been undergone voluntarily, if after it she had remained in life. She feared to have been considered an accomplice in the sin, if what was done to her wickedly were borne by her patiently. But are we then to oppress the innocent, and kill the just in order to avoid the shame and reproach which depends upon the opinion of men? Must we maintain honour at the cost of virtue, and reputation at the hazard of justice? Such were the virtues of the most virtuous pagans towards God and towards themselves.

As to the virtues that refer to our neighbour, they trod under foot, and most shamefully, by their very laws, the chief of them, which is piety.529529That is, the mutual love of parents and children—pietas (Tr.) For Aristotle, the greatest intellect amongst them, pronounced this horrible and most pitiless sentence. "As to the question of exposing, that is, abandoning children, or of bringing them up, let this be the law: that nothing is to be kept that is deprived of any member. And as to other children, if the laws and customs of the city do not allow the abandoning of them, and the number of any one's children so increase on him that he has more by half than he can keep, he is to be beforehand, and procure abortion." Seneca, so praised as a wise man, says: "We kill monsters:—and if our children are defective, weakly, imperfect, or monstrous, we cast them off, and abandon them." So that it is not without cause that Tertullian reproaches the Romans with exposing their children to the mercy of the waters, to cold, to famine, to dogs; and this not by the force of poverty; for as he says, the very chief men and magistrates practised this cruelty. Good God! Theotimus, what kind of virtuous men were these? And what was their wisdom, who taught a wisdom so cruel and brutal? Alas! said the great Apostle, professing themselves to be wise they became fools, and their foolish heart was darkened,530530Rom. i. 22, 21. and delivered up to a reprobate sense. Ah! what horrible counsels that great philosopher Aristotle gives! and how greatly is he reproached for them by Tertullian and the great S. Ambrose.

Indeed if the pagans practised some virtues, it was generally for the sake of worldly glory, and consequently they had nothing of virtue but the action, and not the motive and intention: now virtue is not true unless it has a right intention. "Human cupidity has produced the fortitude of pagans," says the Council of Orange, "and divine charity that of Christians." "The virtues of pagans," says S. Augustine, "were not true, but only resembled true ones, because they were not done for a proper end, but for transitory ends. Fabricius shall be less punished than Cataline, not because the former was good, but because the latter was worse; not because Fabricius had any true virtues, but because he was not so far off true virtues. So that the virtue of the pagans will, at the day of judgment, be a kind of defence to them; not such as that they can be saved thereby, but such as that they may be less condemned." One vice was neutralized by another amongst the pagans, vices making room for one another, without leaving space for any virtue: and for this one vice of vain glory they repressed avarice and many other vices. Yea sometimes through vanity, they despised vanity; whereupon one of the furthest removed from vanity, treading under his feet the rich bed of Plato,—What are you doing, Diogenes, said Plato to him? I trample underfoot Plato's pride, said he; it is true, replied Plato, but you trample it with another pride. Whether or no Seneca was vain may be gathered from his last words; for the end crowns the work, and the last hour judges all: what vanity, I pray you!—being at the point of death, he said to his friends that he had not been able until then sufficiently to thank them, and that therefore he would leave them a legacy of what he had most desirable and most beautiful; which, if they faithfully kept it, would bring them great praises; adding that this magnificent legacy was nothing else but the picture of his life. Do you see, Theotimus, how offensive was the vanity of the last breath of this man? It was not love of honest virtue, but love of honour which pricked forward those wise men of this world to the exercise of virtue; and similarly their virtues were as different from true virtues, as the love of right and of merit is different from the love of reward. Those who serve their prince for their own interest, ordinarily perform their duty with more eagerness, ardour, and outward show; but those who serve for love, do it more nobly, generously, and therefore more worthily.

Carbuncles and rubies are called by the Greeks two contrary names, for they name them pyropos and apyropos: that is, fiery and fireless, or inflamed and flameless. They call them fiery, burning, red coals, or carbuncles, because in light and splendour they resemble fire: but they call them fireless, or, so to say, uninflammable, because not only is their shining without any heat, but they are not even capable of heat, there being no fire that can heat them. So did our ancient Fathers term the pagan virtues, virtues and non-virtues both together; virtues, because they had the lustre and appearance of them, non-virtues, because they not only lacked the vital heat of the love of God, which alone could perfect them, but they were not even capable of it, because they were in persons without faith. "There being in those times," says S. Augustine, "two Romans great in virtue, Cæsar and Cato, Cato's virtue came much nearer to true virtue than Cæsar's did." And having said somewhere that the philosophers who were destitute of true piety had shone with the light of virtue, he unsays it in his book of Retractations, considering this to be too great praise for virtues so imperfect as those of the pagans were: which in truth are like to shining fire-worms, which only shine during the night, and day being come lose their light. For, even so, those pagan virtues are only virtues in comparison with vices, but in comparison with the virtues of true Christians, are quite unworthy of the name of virtues.

Yet whereas they contain some good, they may be compared to worm-eaten apples; for the colour of these, and such little substance as if left them, are as good as those of entire virtues, but the worm of vanity is in the core, and spoils them; and therefore he who would use them must separate the good from the bad. I grant, Theotimus, there was some firmness of heart in Cato, and that this firmness was praiseworthy, but he who would rightfully appeal to his example, must do so in a just and right matter, not inflicting death on himself, but suffering it when true virtue requires; not for the vanity of glory, but for the glory of truth: as was the case with our martyrs, who, with invincible hearts, performed so many miracles of constancy and resolution, that those of Cato, an Horatius, a Seneca, a Lucretia, an Arria, deserve no consideration in comparison with them. Witness a Laurence, a Vincent, a Vitalis, an Erasmus, a Eugenius, a Sebastian, an Agatha, an Agnes, a Catharine, a Perpetua, a Felicitas, a Symphorosa, a Natalia, and a thousand others, who make me ever wonder at the admirers of pagan virtues; not so much because they unreasonably admire the imperfect virtues of the pagans, as because they do not admire the most perfect virtues of Christians, virtues a hundred times more worthy of admiration, and alone worthy of imitation.

 

 


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