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.

Monday, March 15, 2010

St. Ambrose: The Natural Law Duty

AURELIUS AMBROSIUS, known to as St. Ambrose (ca. 337/40 - 397 A.D.), the redoubtable bishop of Milan (Mediolanensis), is the next ecclesiastical writer we turn to in this course of blog entries relating to the doctrine of the natural law in the early Church Fathers. Honored with a dual title by the Church he served, he is both a Father of the Church and a Doctor of the Church, the Pastoral Doctor. "An important thinker by any standard, and particularly important because of his influence upon natural law thinking, was Ambrose of Milan," Crowe states in his The Changing Profile of the Natural Law (p. 61). Crowe continues: "Like Tertullian he was a lawyer with a lawyer's sense of terminology. He was much influenced by Stoic thought; his Offices [de Officiis ("On Duties") or de Officiis Ministrorum] was modeled upon Cicero's work of the same name, (de Officiis) which, in its turn, depends upon Panaetius [the Stoic philosopher (ca. 185-ca. 110 B.C.) from Rhodes, who also wrote a word "On Duties," or in Greek, περὶ τοῦ καθήκοντος]. He also came under the influence of Philo's combination of Stoic and Biblical thinking." Crowe, 61. The reference to Philo by Crowe is apt; Ambrose's indebtedness to Philo especially with regard to the latter's interpretations of Old Testament figures is such that he has been called Philo Christianus, the Christian Philo.

Ambrose was born into an ancient patrician Roman family. His father, likewise named Ambrosius, was a highly-placed Roman official, the Prefect of Gallia, one of the four great prefectures of the Roman Empire, and accordingly, under the Emperor, ruled over the France, Britain, and Spain, and even portions of Africa. Ambrose was the youngest of three children. After the death of his father, Ambrose and his family moved to Rome, where the young Ambrose obtained an education which included Greek language and literature. He also studied rhetoric and law, and, after completing his studies, for a time handled cases at the court of the praetorian prefect, Ancius Probus. Eventually, Ambrose was appointed consular prefect or governor of Liguria and Aemilia, an office which took him to the city of Milan. One would have thought Ambrose destined to the life of the imperial court just like his father.

Icon of St. Ambrose

In 374, however, the death of the then-bishop of Milan, Auxentius, placed upon the shoulders of Ambrose the responsibility of maintaining public peace until the bishop's successor could be elected or appointed. (The selection or installation of bishops in those days, often including public participation, could be tumultuous occasions. And when the population was divided between rivals Arians and Niceans, as it was in this instance, the matter could be particularly testy.) From the evidence we have, it seems that both the clergy and people in unison demanded Ambrose as their bishop, spurred (says Paulinus the Deacon, Ambrose's secretary and first biographer) by the cries of an infant somewhere in a gathered crowd, "Ambrosium episcopum!" Ambrose, bishop!" The as-yet-unbaptized catechumen Ambrose was pressured to accept the office, relented, and with commendable zeal left the life of the tribunal for the life of the pulpit.

In one fell swoop, Ambrose entered into the highest office of the clerical state in his mid-30s, gave his money and property to the poor, adopted an ascetic life style, delved into the study of Scripture and the Fathers, and devoted his life and his talent to the health of his flock as bishop of Milan for the twenty three remaining years of his life. His episcopacy was a model one, and it was highlighted by several notable events: his eminent preaching which edified his flock, and led to the singular grace of the conversion of Augustine of Hippo; his availability to his flock, exemplified by his habit of leaving the door to his chamber open to the public; his battles against the Arian heresy using both persuasion, political, and legal means to advance the orthodox Catholic faith; his contribution to the Church's chant and hymnody, uniquely manifest in the Ambrosian chant and the so-called Ambrosiani, sacred hymns with strophes of four iambic dimeters (four lines of eight syllables each), and perhaps even writing the magnificent Te Deum; the chastening of, and demand of public penance from, the Emperor Theodosius the Great following his massacre of 7,000 Thessalonians (Imperator enim intra Ecclesiam, non supra Ecclesiam est--"For the emperor is in the Church, not over the Church" Sermo contra Auxentium de basilicis tradendis, 36); the discovery of the relics of the second-century twin martyrs and children of martyrs, Gervasius and Protasius; the laborious effort reflected in his writings: homilies, commentaries on Scripture, prayers and hymns, topical works on various subjects, including moral theology, virginity, the Sacraments, epistles, and hymns and prayers. What indefatigable labors! Ambrose was one of God's gifts to the Church, a Christian patriarch and pastor, and one that still continues giving if we but read his writings, sing his hymns, pray his prayers, or ask his heavenly intercession.

St. Ambrose in his Crypt

It would seem that in his capacity as teacher of his diocese, the bishop Ambrose would have had the opportunity of addressing the natural moral law. And so it was. As Crowe summarizes it: "Ambrose frequently refers to the natural law--to its universality, its innateness, its tendency to bring men closer together." Crowe, at 61.

Ambrose did not weave his teaching on the natural law out of whole cloth, and he relied upon both philosophical and Christian sources to knit a concept of natural law which, like the patriarch Joseph's coat, was a coat of many colors. In her work, The Stoic Tradition from Antiquity to the Early Middle Ages (E.J. Brill, 1985), Professor Marcia Colish notes that Ambrose freely combined Platonic, Neoplatonic, Aristotelian, and Stoic, especially Ciceronian, ideas to the teachings of Scripture. Because of such eclectic borrowing, St. Ambrose "is massively inconsistent in his treatment of one of the major Stoic themes of which he was the transmitter, the doctrine of natural law." Colish, at 50. From the perspective of any of these schools of philosophy, he may be "massively inconsistent," but this is only because "Ambrose does not labor under the uncritical delusion that Stoicism," or for that matter any other philosophy, "is isomorophic with Christianity." Colish, at 50. Ambrose's principal authority is Scriptural, his analysis is Scriptural, his examples are Scriptural, and this is revealed both stylistically and substantively. Everything is studied in Christ, with Christ, and for Christ. Putting the new wine of the Gospel into the skins of Stoic philosophy so that neither the skin of reason burst nor wine of the Gospel spilled, Ambrose replaced "Cicero's this-wordly ethic with a Christian ethic, which revalues the Stoic themes that Ambrose uses by situating them in a framework of divine grace and human redemption viewed from the perspective of the life to come." Colish, at 51.
The assimilation of nature and natural law to the law of God is a theme that occurs repeatedly in Ambrose's exegetical and ethical works. He handles it very inconsistently in words large and small throughout his oeuvre. Sometimes he Biblicizes the idea of natural law, subordinating it radically to God's transcendent order and creative will. At other times he treats nature as a norm, accessible to man by reason, that counsels the equality of all men, the common sharing of property, the priority of the common good, and other Stoic desiderata. He develops both sides of this doctrine most fully in the De officiis ministrorum . . . .
Colish, at 52-53. And to St. Ambrose's De officiis we now turn.

St. Ambrose by Pierre Subleyras

Ambrose's De officiis is organized in three books. The first book attempts to define the virtuous (honestum or decorum). The second book discusses the expedient (utile). The third book compares and contrasts the virtues and the expedient, attempting to arrive at a synthesis of the virtuous and the useful sub specie aeternitatis. It is the third book that will hold our interest in the matter of the natural law.

Man, Ambrose insists, must "strive in everything to do not what is useful for himself, but what is useful for many." De offic., III, 3.15. We ought never to "deprive another, with whom we ought rather to suffer, of anything, or to act unfairly or injuriously towards one to whom we ought to give a share in our services." "This," St. Ambrose states, "is a true law of nature, which binds us to show all kindly feeling, so that we should all of us in turn help one another, as parts of one body, and should never think of depriving another of anything, seeing it is against the law of nature even to abstain from giving help." Haec utique lex naturae est, quae nos ad omnem astringit humanitatem, ut alter alteri tamquam unius partes corporis invicem deferamus. Nec detrahendum quidquam putemus, cum contra naturae legem sit non iuvare. De offic., III.3.19. The reasons are obvious: "If the whole body is injured in one member, so also is the whole community of the human race disturbed in one man." Id. This is a particular quality of man. "Wild beasts snatch away, men share with others." Ferae autem eripiunt, homines tribuunt. De offic., III.3.21. "What is so contrary to nature as to injure another for our own benefit?" St. Ambrose asks. Quid autem tam contra naturam, quam violare alterum tui commodi causa? De offic., III.3.23. The promptings of our heart urge otherwise. The promptings of our nature urge us to avoid injuring another, and the violation of such urges bring forth the pangs of conscience:
[W]e infer that a man who guides himself according to the ruling of nature, so as to be obedient to her, can never injure another. If he injures another he violates nature, nor will he think that what he has gained is so much an advantage as a disadvantage. And what punishment is worse than the wounds of conscience within? What judgment harder than that of our hearts, whereby each one stands convicted and accuses himself of the injury that he has wrongfully done against his brother?

Hinc ergo colligitur quod homo, qui secundum naturae formatus est directionem, ut obediat ei, nocere non possit alteri: quod si cui noceat, naturam violet: neque tantum esse commodi quod adipisci sese putet, quantum incommodi, quod ex eo sibi accidat. Quae enim poena gravior, quam interioris vulnus conscientiae? Quod severius iudicium, quam domesticum, quo unusquisque sibi est reus, seque ipse arguit quod iniuriam fratri indigne fecerit?
De offic., III.4.24. The promptings of reason, of the heart, of conscience all witness to the ineluctable fact:
that all must consider and hold that the advantage of the individual is the same as that of all, and that nothing must be considered advantageous except what is for the general good. For how can one be benefited alone? That which is useless to all is harmful. I certainly cannot think that he who is useless to all can be of use to himself.
De offic., III.4.25. This is a central feature of the natural moral law:
For if there is one law of nature for all, there is also one state of usefulness for all. And we are bound by the law of nature to act for the good of all. It is not, therefore, right for him who wishes the interests of another to be considered according to nature, to injure him against the law of nature.

Et enim si una lex naturae omnibus, una utique utilitas universorum, ad consulendum utique omnibus naturae leges constringimur. Non est ergo eius qui consultim velit alteri secundum naturam, nocere ei adversus legem naturae.
De offic., III, 4, 25 (PL 16:152). Thus, we find it offensive for men to cheat in a foot race. Christians, moreover, should go beyond this, and so will not fall into the trap of Carneades plank, or moral quid pro quos. They will recognize the fundamental equality of all men. They will recognize all men as brothers. And this all follows from the general principle:
For what is so contrary to nature as not to be content with what one has or to seek what is another’s, and to try to get it in shameful ways. For if a virtuous life is in accordance with nature—for God made all things very good—then shameful living must be opposed to it. A virtuous and a shameful life cannot go together, since they are absolutely severed by the law of nature.

Quid tam adversus naturam, quam non esse contentum eo quod habeas, aliena quaerere, ambire turpiter? Nam si honestas secundum naturam, omnia enim fecit Deus bona valde, turpitudo utique contraria est. Non potest ergo honestati convenire et turpitudini, cum haec inter se discreta naturae lege sint.
De offic., III, 4, 28 (PL 16:152).

St. Ambrose also addresses the issue of the natural law in some of his epistles. Particularly instructive is his Epistle 73 addressed to a correspondent called Irenaeus. That will be the subject of our next blog entry.

St. Ambrose by Claude Vignon

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