Angilbert (fl. ca. 840/50), On the Battle Which was Fought at Fontenoy

The Law of Christians is broken,
Blood by the hands of hell profusely shed like rain,
And the throat of Cerberus bellows songs of joy.

Angelbertus, Versus de Bella que fuit acta Fontaneto

Fracta est lex christianorum
Sanguinis proluvio, unde manus inferorum,
gaudet gula Cerberi.

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

St. Ambrose and the Cardinal Virtues

SAINT AMBROSE, THE REDOUBTABLE bishop of Milan, is the first of the sancti that we will look at in the issue of virtues.  St. Ambrose is particularly notable for his moral teachings.  With regard to virtues in particular, he is to be regarded as the one who "invented the term 'cardinal virtues' because he was an inveterately allegorical thinker."  Houser, 32.  As Peter Lombard put it in his Sentences: primus autem qui eas cardinales vocat est Ambrosius.  "The first therefore who called them [the four principle virtues] cardinal was Ambrose."  (2:188, n.3).*

An example of St. Ambrose's allegorical style is his On Paradise, written circa 377 A.D.  As Houser summarizes it:

[T]he fertile land of paradise is like a fertile soul; Adam is like its intellect and Eve like its senses. The four rivers in Eden are in reality the four great rivers of the earth. These rivers in turn are analogous to the four Platonic virtues within the soul, because each is 'principal' within its own realm.  Platonic analogy turned into Christian allegory when Ambrose connected the two sides of the comparison--the four rivers with the four virtues--through a common point of reference, namely, through God, who is at once the cosmic artisan who created the rivers of paradise, and, in the person of Jesus Christ, the wisdom producing virtue in individual men.

Houser, 32 (citing to De par. 3.18)

We have a similar allegorical notion of the four virtues in St. Ambrose's funeral oration for his brother Satyrus (ca. 378).  In this funeral oration--where St. Ambrose first appears to have applied the term "cardinal virtues"--St. Ambrose praised his brother for having lived the four-Platonic virtues, but in a manner which exceeded the limits placed upon these virtues by the philosophi.  After recalling emotionally past rememberances of life with his brother and regarding him as a true friend, an "other self," Ambrose launches into an analysis of his brother's life by framing it within the four cardinal virtues.

After handling prudence, courage, and temperance, St. Ambrose addresses justice:
What remains, in order to complete the cardinal virtues, is that we also show the parts of justice in him [referring to Satyrus]. For even though the virtues are born together and perfected together, nevertheless one desires to know the form and outline of each one of them, and especially of justice.

Superest, ut ad conclusionem cardinalium virtutum etiam partes in eo debeamus advertere. Nam etsi cognatur sint inter se concretaeque virtutes, tamen singularum aquedam form et expression desideraturs maximeque iustitiae.
Houser, 3 (quoting De excessu fratris Satyri 1.57).

The Four Virtues

St. Ambrose tied the cardinal virtues to his brother's life and its culmination in his death.  It was these four cardinal virtues that helped his brother Satyrus face death, and, in particular, that great confrontation after death of judgment.  This is the "cardinal" moment of one's life, and it is the "cardinal" virtues that are aimed at not only living life well here on earth, but preparing for the ultimate "crisis" of one's life: one's judgment before God.  For St. Ambrose, therefore, the cardinal virtues are directly tied to God, to a life that is consecrated to God, to a life which is lived with an eye to the summum bonum, the Almighty God of Jesus Christ.

Ambrose turned to Plato to explain his brother's life, not his death, because Plato's four virtues are designed for living, for living the whole of life with an eye to the good. Ambrose simply replaced the abstract Platonic good with the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, and in so doing he gave Plato's four virtues a more concrete end than the philosophers ever had. This teleological orientation toward God would always be maintained by Ambrose's patristic and medieval descendants.

Houser, 35.  "In Ambrose's conception," Houser summarizes, "three features make the four virtues 'cardinal': they  involve death, judgment, and orientation toward God."  It was in this manner that St. Ambrose effectively transformed the four Platonic virtues that had already been developed by the Stoics into something entirely different.  As Professor Colish puts it in her book, The Stoic Tradition, "Ambrose seeks to bring the Stoic sage into the fullness of being through Christian redemption."  Houser, 35 n. 70.

St. Ambrose therefore transformed the virtues from philosophical concepts to theological concepts, from natural virtues to virtues that were engraced.  They become Christian virtues; indeed, they become the principal virtues of the Christian life.  Et omnes quidem virtutes ad spiritum pertinent, sed istae quasi cardinales sunt, quasi principales.  De off. min., 1.29.142.  After St. Ambrose treats of the philosophical virtues, they become baptized, and they arise from the water as if reborn into the cardinal virtues.  They thus become something that is intrinsically part of life in the Holy Spirit.

*In Latin, of course, the term cardo (pl., cardines; the adjectival form is cardinalis) or term "cardinal" is most frequently said to mean hinge-like.  In light of St. Ambrose's allegorical viewpoint, we can see the cardinal virtues as being the four hinges upon which the doors of the moral life swing.  However, the term cardo also can mean the tenon and mortise which dovetail to form a door's frame.  In Roman surveying, the term cardo mean the baseline or datum for the surveyor's measurement of the field.  The terms was also extended to include more comprehensively an entire geographical district, region, or boundary.  Houser, 33-34.  The term cardo was used by numerous Latin authors (Varro, Pliny, Cicero, Ovid, Statius, and Seneca) to refer to the poles of the earth or the points of a compass.  It was used by Pliny to refer to those days when the seasons would change.  Quintilian used the term to refer to the points on an ecliptic.  Servius, who was a contemporary of St. Ambrose, used the word to refer to the four winds.  Houser, 34 n. 67.  The allegorical possibilities of the word cardo are therefore quite rich.  As Houser summarizes it: "These meanings, however, are not haphazard but are united by he notion of something which is extraordinarily important, in no small part because it is a point of transition."  Indeed, Seneca used the term cardo to refer to that very important transition, death.

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