Ambrose selected works 20114
20114 Nothing escapes God’s knowledge. This is proved by the witness of the Scriptures and the analogy of the sun, which, although created, yet by its light or heat enters into all things.
51). Next comes the answer to the question, whether God, not having failed to show care for His work, now fails to have knowledge of it? Thus it is written: “He that planted the ear, shall He not hear? He that made the eye, shall He not regard?”61
52. This false idea was not unknown to the holy prophets. David himself introduces men to speak whom pride has filled and claimed for its own. For what shows greater pride than when men who are living in sin think it unfit that other sinners should live, and say: “Lord, how long shall the ungodly, how long shall the ungodly triumph?”62 And later on: “And yet they say, the Lord shall not see: neither shall the God of Jacob regard it.”63 Whom the prophet answers, saying: “Take heed, ye unwise among the people: O ye fools, when will ye understand? He that planted the ear, shall He not hear? or He that made the eye, shall He not see? He that rebuketh the nations, shall He not punish?—He that teacheth man knowledge? The Lord knoweth the thoughts of man that they are vain.”64 Does He Who discerns whatsoever is vain not know what is holy, and is He ignorant of what He Himself has made? Can the workman be ignorant of his own work? This one is a man, yet he discerns what is hidden in his work; and God—shall He not know His own work? Is there more depth, then, in the work than in its author? Has He made something superior to Himself; the value of which, as its Author, He was ignorant of, and whose condition He knew not, though He was its Director? So much for these persons.
53. But we are satisfied with the witness of Him Who says: “I search out the heart and the reins.”65 In the Gospel, also, the Lord Jesus says: “Why think ye evil in your hearts? For He knew they were thinking evil.”66 The evangelist also witnesses to this, saying: “For Jesus knew their thoughts.”67
54. The idea of these people will not trouble us much if we look at their actions. They will not have Him to be judge over them, Whom nothing deceives; they will not grant to Him the knowledge of things hidden, for they are afraid their own hidden things may be brought to light. But the Lord, also, “knowing their works, has given them over unto darkness. In the night,” he says, “he will be as a thief, and the eye of the adulterer will watch for the darkness, saying, No eye shall see me; he hath covered up his face.”68 For every one that avoids the light loves darkness, seeking to be hid, though he cannot be hid from God, Who knows not only what is transacted, but also what will be thought of, both in the depths of space and in the minds of men. Thus, again, he who speaks in the book Ecclesiasticus says: “Who seeth me? The darkness hath covered me, and the walls have hidden me; whom do I fear?”69 But although lying on his bed he may think thus, he is caught where he never thought of it. “It shall be,” it says, “a shame to him because he knew not what the fear of the Lord was.”70
55. But what can be more foolish than to suppose that anything escapes God’s notice, when the sun which supplies the light enters even hidden spots, and the strength of its heat reaches to the foundations of a house and its inner chambers? Who can deny that the depths of the earth, which the winter’s ice has bound together, are warmed by the mildness of spring? Surely the very heart of a tree feels the force of heat or cold, to such an extent that its roots are either nipped with the cold or sprout forth in the warmth of the sun. In short, wherever the mildness of heaven smiles on the earth, there the earth produces in abundance fruits of different kinds.
56. If, then, the sun’s rays pour their light over all the earth and enter into its hidden spots; if they cannot be checked by iron bars or the barrier of heavy doors from getting within, how can it be impossible for the Glory of God, which is instinct with life, to enter into the thoughts and hearts of men that He Himself has created? And how shall it not see what He Himself has created? Did He make His works to be better and more powerful than He Himself is, Who made them (in this event) so as to escape the notice of their Creator whensoever they will? Did He implant such perfection and power in our mind that He Himself could not comprehend it when He wished?
20115 Those who are dissatisfied with the fact that the good receive evil, and the evil good, are shown by the example of Lazarus, and on the authority of Paul, that punishments and rewards are reserved for a future life.
57). We have fully discussed two questions; and this discussion, as we think, has not turned out quite unfavourably for us. A third question yet remains; it is this: Why do sinners have abundance of wealth and riches, and fare sumptuously, and have no grief or sorrow; whilst the upright are in want, and are punished by the loss of wives or children? Now, that parable in the Gospel ought to satisfy persons like these;71 for the rich man was clothed in purple and fine linen, and dined sumptuously every day; but the beggar, full of sores, used to gather the crumbs of his table. After the death of the two, however, the beggar was in Abraham’s bosom in rest; the rich man was in torment. Is it not plain from this that rewards and punishments according to deserts await one after death?
58. And surely this is but right. For in a contest there is much labour needed—and after the contest victory falls to some, to others disgrace. Is the palm ever given or the crown granted before the course is finished? Paul writes well; He says: “I have fought a good fight, I have finished my course, I have kept the faith; henceforth there is laid up for me a crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous judge, shall give me at that day; and not to me only, but unto all them also that love His appearing.”72 “In that day,” he says, He will give it—not here. Here he fought, in labours, in dangers, in shipwrecks, like a good wrestler; for he knew how that “through much tribulation we must enter into the kingdom of God.”73 Therefore no one can receive a reward, unless he has striven lawfully; nor is the victory a glorious one, unless the contest also has been toilsome.
20116 To confirm what has been said above about rewards and punishments, he adds that it is not strange if there is no reward reserved for some in the future; for they do not labour here nor struggle. He goes on to say also that for this reason temporal goods are granted to these persons, so that they may have no excuse whatever.
59. Is not he unjust who gives the reward before the end of the contest? Therefore the Lord says in the Gospel: “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.”74 He said not: “Blessed are the rich,” but “the poor.” By the divine judgment blessedness begins there whence human misery is supposed to spring. “Blessed are they that hunger, for they shall be filled; Blessed are they that mourn, for they shall be comforted; Blessed are the merciful, for God will have mercy on them; Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God; Blessed are they that are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven; Blessed are ye when men shall revile you, and persecute you, and shall say all manner of evil against you for righteousness’ sake. Rejoice and be exceeding glad, for plentiful is your reward in heaven.”75 A reward future and not present,—in heaven, not on earth,—has He promised shall be given. What further dost thou expect? What further is due? Why dost thou demand the crown with so much haste, before thou dost conquer? Why dost thou desire to shake off the dust and to rest? Why dost thou long to sit at the feast before the course is finished? As yet the people are looking on, the athletes are in the arena, and thou—dost thou already look for ease?
60. Perhaps thou sayest: Why are the wicked joyous? why do they live in luxury? why do they not toil with me? It is because they who have not put down their names to strive for the crown are not bound to undergo the labours of the contest. They who have not gone down into the race-course do not anoint themselves with oil nor get covered with dust. For those whom glory awaits trouble is at hand. The perfumed spectators are wont to look on, not to join in the struggle, nor to endure the sun, the hear, the dust, and the showers. Let the athletes say to them: Come, strive with us. The spectators will but answer: We sit here now to decide about you, but you, if you conquer, will gain the glory of the crown and we shall not.
61. They, then, who have devoted themselves to pleasures, luxury, robbery, gain, or honours are spectators rather than combatants. They have the profit of labour, but not the fruits of virtue. They love their ease; by cunning and wickedness they heap up riches; but they will pay the penalty of their iniquity, though it be late. Their rest will be in hell, thine in heaven; their home in the grave, thine in paradise. Whence Job said beautifully that they watch in the tomb,76 for they cannot have the calm of quiet rest which he enjoys who shall rise again.
62. Do not, therefore, understand, or speak, or think as a child; nor as a child claim those things now which belong to a future time. The crown belongs to the perfect. Wait till that which is perfect is come, when thou mayest know—not through a glass as in a riddle, but face to face77 —the very form of truth made clear. Then will be made known why that person was rich who was wicked and a robber of other men’s goods, why another was powerful, why a third had many children, and yet a fourth was loaded with honours.
63. Perhaps all this happens that the question may be asked of the robber: Thou wast rich, wherefore didst thou seize on the goods of others? Need did not force thee, poverty did not drive thee to it. Did I not make thee rich, that thou mightest have no excuse? So, too, it may be said to a person of power: Why didst thou not aid the widow, the orphans also, when enduring wrong? Wast thou powerless? Couldst thou not help? I made thee for this purpose, not that thou mightest do wrong, but that thou mightest check it. Is it not written for thee “Save him that endureth wrong?”78 Is it not written for thee: “Deliver the poor and needy out of the hand of the sinner”?79 It may be said also to the man who has abundance of good things: I have blessed thee with children and honours; I have granted thee health of body; why didst thou not follow my commands? My servant, what have I done to thee, or how have I grieved thee? Was it not I that gave thee children, bestowed honours, granted health to thee? Why didst thou deny me? Why didst thou suppose that thy actions would not come to my knowledge? Why didst thou accept my gifts, yet despise my commands?
64. We can gather the same from the example of the traitor Judas. He was chosen among the Twelve Apostles, and had charge of the money bag, to lay it out upon the poor,80 that it might not seem as though he had betrayed the Lord because he was unhonoured or in want. Wherefore the Lord granted him this office, that He might also be justified in him; he would be guilty of a greater fault, not as one driven to it by wrong done to him, but as one misusing grace.
20117 The duties of youth, and examples suitable to that age, are next put forth.
65). Since it has been made sufficiently plain that there will be punishment for wickedness and reward for virtue, let us proceed to speak of the duties which have to be borne in mind from our youth up,81 that they may grow with our years.82 A good youth ought to have a fear of God, to be subject to his parents, to give honour to his elders, to preserve his purity; he ought not to despise humility, but should love forbearance and modesty. All these are an ornament to youthful years. For as seriousness is the true grace of an old man, and ardour of a young man, so also is modesty, as though by some gift of nature, well set off in a youth.
66. Isaac feared the Lord, as was indeed but natural in the son of Abraham; being subject also to his father to such an extent that he would not avoid death in opposition to his father’s will.83 Joseph also, though he dreamed that sun and moon and stars made obeisance to him, yet was subject to his father’s will with ready obedience.84 So chaste was he, he would not hear even a word unless it were pure; humble was he even to doing the work of a slave, modest, even to taking flight, enduring, even to bearing imprisonment, so forgiving of wrong as even to repay it with good. Whose modesty was such, that, when seized by a woman, he preferred to leave his garment in her hands in flight, rather than to lay aside his modesty.85 Moses,86 also, and Jeremiah,87 chosen by the Lord to declare the words of God to the people, were for avoiding, through modesty, that which through grace they could do.
20118 On the different functions of modesty. How it should qualify both speech and silence, accompany chastity, commend our prayers to God, govern our bodily motions; on which last point reference is made to two clerics in language by no means unsuited to its object. Further he proceeds to say that one’s gait should be in accordance with that same virtue, and how careful one must be that nothing immodest come forth from one’s mouth, or be noticed in one’s body. All these points are illustrated with very appropriate examples.
67). Lovely, then, is the virtue of modesty, and sweet is its grace! It is seen not only in actions, but even in our words,88 so that we may not go beyond due measure in speech, and that our words may not have an unbecoming sound. The mirror of our mind often enough reflects its image in our words. Sobriety weighs out the sound even of our voice, for fear that too loud a voice should offend the ear of any one. Nay, in singing itself the first rule is modesty, and the same is true in every kind of speech, too, so that a man may gradually learn to praise God, or to sing songs, or even to speak, in that the principles of modesty grace his advance.
68. Silence, again, wherein all the other virtues rest, is the chief act of modesty. Only, if it is supposed to be a sign of a childish or proud spirit, it is accounted a reproach; if a sign of modesty, it is reckoned for praise. Susanna was silent in danger,89 and thought the loss of modesty was worse than loss of life. She did not consider that her safety should be guarded at the risk of her chastity. To God alone she spoke, to Whom she could speak out in true modesty. She avoided looking on the face of men. For there is also modesty in the glance of the eye, which makes a woman unwilling to look upon men, or to be seen by them.
69. Let no one suppose that this praise belongs to chastity alone. For modesty is the companion of purity, in company with which chastity itself is safer. Shame, again, is good as a companion and guide of chastity, inasmuch as it does not suffer purity to be defiled in approaching even the outskirts of danger. This it is that, at the very outset of her recognition, commends the Mother of the Lord to those who read the Scriptures, and, as a credible witness, declares her worthy to be chosen to such an office. For when in her chamber, alone, she is saluted by the angel, she is silent, and is disturbed at his entrance,90 and the Virgin’s face is troubled at the strange appearance of a man’s form. And so, though she was humble, yet it was not because of this, but on account of her modesty, that she did not return his salutation, nor give him any answer, except to ask, when she had learnt that she should conceive the Lord, how this should be. She certainly did not speak merely for the sake of making a reply.
70. In our very prayers, too, modesty is most pleasing, and gains us much grace from our God. Was it not this that exalted the publican, and commended him, when he dared not raise even his eyes to heaven?91 So he was justified by the judgment of the Lord rather than the Pharisee, whom overweening pride made so hideous. “Therefore let us pray in the incorruptibility of a meek and quiet spirit, which is in the sight of God of great price,”92 as St. Peter says. A noble thing, then, is modesty, which, though giving up its rights, seizing on nothing for itself, laying claim to nothing, and in some ways somewhat retiring within the sphere of its own powers, yet is rich in the sight of God, in Whose sight no man is rich. Rich is modesty, for it is the portion of God. Paul also bids that prayer be offered up with modesty and sobriety.93 He desires that this should be first, and, as it were, lead the way of prayers to come, so that the sinner’s prayer may not be boastful, but veiled, as it were, with the blush of shame, may merit a far greater degree of grace, in giving way to modesty at the remembrance of its fault.
71. Modesty must further be guarded in our very movements and gestures and gait.94 For the condition of the mind is often seen in the attitude of the body. For this reason the hidden man of our heart (our inner self) is considered to be either frivolous, boastful, or boisterous, or, on the other hand, steady, firm, pure, and dependable. Thus the movement of the body is a sort of voice of the soul.
72. Ye remember, my children, that a friend of ours who seemed to recommend himself by his assiduity in his duties, yet was not admitted by me into the number of the clergy, because his gestures were too unseemly. Also that I bade one, whom I found already among the clergy, never to go in front of me, because he actually pained me by the seeming arrogance of his gait. That is what I said when he returned to his duty after an offence committed. This alone I would not allow, nor did my mind deceive me. For both have left the Church. What their gait betrayed them to be, such were they proved to be by the faithlessness of their hearts. The one forsook his faith at the time of the Arian troubles; the other, through love of money, denied that he belonged to us, so that he might not have to undergo sentence at the hands of the Church. In their gait was discernible the semblance of fickleness, the appearance, as it were, of wandering buffoons.
73. Some there are who in walking perceptibly copy the gestures of actors,95 and act as though they were bearers in the processions, and had the motions of nodding statues, to such an extent that they seem to keep a sort of time, as often as they change their step.
74. Nor do I think it becoming to walk hurriedly, except when a case of some danger demands it, or a real necessity. For we often see those who hurry come up panting, and with features distorted. But if there is no reason for the need of such hurry, it gives cause for just offence. I am not, however, talking of those who have to hurry now and then for some particular reason, but of those to whom, by the yoke of constant habit, it has become a second nature. In the case of the former I cannot approve of their slow solemn movements, which remind one of the forms of phantoms. Nor do I care for the others with their headlong speed, for they put one in mind of the ruin of outcasts.
75. A suitable gait is that wherein there is an appearance of authority and weight and dignity, and which has a calm collected bearing. But it must be of such a character that all effort and conceit may be wanting, and that it be simple and plain. Nothing counterfeit is pleasing. Let nature train our movements. If indeed there is any fault in our nature, let us mend it with diligence. And, that artifice may be wanting, let not amendment be wanting.
76. But if we pay so much attention to things like these, how much more careful ought we to be to let nothing shameful proceed out of our mouth, for that defiles a man terribly. It is not food that defiles, but unjust disparagement of others and foul words.96 These things are openly shameful. In our office indeed must no word be let fall at all unseemly, nor one that may give offence to modesty. But not only ought we to say nothing unbecoming to ourselves, but we ought not even to lend our ears to words of this sort. Thus Joseph fled and left his garment, that he might hear nothing inconsistent with his modesty.97 For he who delights to listen, urges the other on to speak.
77. To have full knowledge of what is foul is in the highest degree shameful. To see anything of this sort, if by chance it should happen, how dreadful that is! What, therefore, is displeasing to us in others, can that be pleasing in ourselves? Is not nature herself our teacher, who has formed to perfection every part of our body, so as to provide for what is necessary and to beautify and grace its form? However she has left plain and open to the sight those parts which are beautiful to look upon; among which, the head, set as it were above all, and the pleasant lines of the figure, and the appearance of the face are prominent, whilst their usefulness for work is ready to hand. But those parts in which there is a compliance with the necessities of nature, she has partly put away and hidden in the body itself, lest they should present a disgusting appearance, and partly, too, she has taught and persuaded us to cover them.98
78. Is not nature herself then a teacher of modesty? Following her example, the modesty of men, which I suppose99 is so called from the mode of knowing what is seemly,100 has covered and veiled what it has found hid in the frame of our body; like that door which Noah was bidden to make in the side of the ark;101 wherein we find a figure of the Church, and also of the human body, for through that door the remnants of food were cast out. Thus the Maker of our nature so thought of our modesty, and so guarded what was seemly and virtuous in our body, as to place what is unseemly behind, and to put it out of the sight of our eyes. Of this the Apostle says well: “Those members of the body which seem to be more feeble are necessary, and those members of the body which we think to be less honourable, upon these we bestow more abundant honour, and our uncomely parts have more abundant comeliness.”102 Truly, by following the guidance of nature, diligent care has added to the grace of the body. In another place103 I have gone more fully into this subject, and said that not only do we hide those parts which have been given us to hide, but also that we think it unseemly to mention by name their description, and the use of those members.
79. And if these parts are exposed to view by chance, modesty is violated; but if on purpose, it is reckoned as utter shamelessness. Wherefore Ham, Noah’s son, brought disgrace upon himself; for he laughed when he saw his father naked, but they who covered their father received the gift of a blessing.104 For which cause, also, it was an ancient custom in Rome, and in many other states as well, that grown-up sons should not bathe with their parents, or sons-in-law with their fathers-in-law,105 in order that the great duty of reverence for parents should not be weakened. Many, however, cover themselves so far as they can in the baths, so that, where the whole body is bare, that part of it at least may be covered.
80. The priests, also, under the old law, as we read in Exodus, wore breeches, as it was told Moses by the Lord: “And thou shalt make them linen breeches to cover their shame: from the loins even to the thighs they shall reach, and Aaron and his sons shall wear them, when they enter into the tabernacle of witness, and when they come unto the altar of the holy place to offer sacrifice, that they lay not sin upon themselves and die.”106 Some of us are said still to observe this, but most explain it spiritually, and suppose it was said with a view to guarding modesty and preserving chastity.
20119 How should seemliness be represented by a speaker? Does beauty add anything to virtue, and, if so, how much? Lastly, what care should we take that nothing conceited or effeminate be seen in us?
81). It has given me pleasure to dwell somewhat at length on the various functions of modesty; for I speak to you who either can recognize the good that is in it in your own cases, or at least do not know its loss. Fitted as it is for all ages, persons, times, and places, yet it most beseems youthful and childish years.
82. But at every age we must take care that all we do is seemly and becoming, and that the course of our life forms one harmonious and complete whole. Wherefore Cicero107 thinks that a certain order ought to be observed in what is seemly. He says that this lies in beauty, order, and in appointment fitted for action. This, as he says, it is difficult to explain in words, yet it can be quite sufficiently understood.
83. Why Cicero should have introduced beauty, I do not quite understand; though it is true he also speaks in praise of the powers of the body. We certainly do not locate virtue in the beauty of the body, though, on the other hand, we do recognize a certain grace, as when modesty is wont to cover the face with a blush of shame, and to make it more pleasing. For as a workman is wont to work better the more suitable his materials are, so modesty is more conspicuous in the comeliness of the body. Only the comeliness of the body should not be assumed; it should be natural and artless, unstudied rather than elaborated, not heightened by costly and glistening garments, but just clad in ordinary clothing. One must see that nothing is wanting that one’s credit or necessity demands, whilst nothing must be added for the sake of splendour.
84. The voice, too, should not be languid, nor feeble, nor womanish in its tone,—such a tone of voice as many are in the habit of using, under the idea of seeming important. It should preserve a certain quality, and rhythm, and a manly vigour. For all to do what is best suited to their character and sex, that is to attain to beauty of life. This is the best order for movements, this the employment fitted for every action. But as I cannot approve of a soft or weak tone of voice, or an effeminate gesture of the body, so also I cannot approve of what is boorish and rustic. Let us follow nature. The imitation of her provides us with a principle of training, and gives us a pattern of virtue.
20120 If we are to preserve our modesty we must avoid fellowship with profligate men, also the banquets of strangers, and intercourse with women; our leisure time at home should be spent in pious and virtuous pursuits.
85). Modesty has indeed its rocks—not any that she brings with her, but those, I mean, which she often runs against, as when we associate with profligate men, who, under the form of pleasantry, administer poison to the good. And the latter, if they are very constant in their attendance at banquets and games, and often join in jests, enervate that manly gravity of theirs. Let us then take heed that, in wishing to relax our minds, we do not destroy all harmony, the blending as it were of all good works. For habit quickly bends nature in another direction.
86. For this reason I think that what ye wisely do is befitting to the duties of clerics, and especially to those of the priesthood—namely, that ye avoid the banquets of strangers, but so that ye are still hospitable to travellers, and give no occasion for reproach by reason of your great care in the matter. Banquets with strangers engross one’s attention, and soon produce a love for feasting. Tales, also, of the world and its pleasures often creep in. One cannot shut one’s ears; and to forbid them is looked on as a sign of haughtiness. One’s glass, too, even against one’s will, is filled time after time. It is better surely to excuse oneself once for all at one’s own home, than often at another’s. When one rises sober, at any rate one’s presence need not be condemned by the insolence of another.
87. There is no need for the younger clergy to go to the houses of widows or virgins, except for the sake of a definite visit, and in that case only with the elder clergy, that is, with the bishop, or, if the matter be somewhat important, with the priests. Why should we give room to the world to revile? What need is there for those frequent visits to give ground for rumours? What if one of those women should by chance fall? Why shouldst thou undergo the reproach of another’s fall? How many even strong men have been led away by their passions? How many are there who have not indeed yielded to sin, but have given ground for suspicion?
88. Why dost thou not spend the time which thou hast free from thy duties in the church in reading? Why dost thou not go back again to see Christ? Why dost thou not address Him, and hear His voice? We address Him when we pray, we hear Him when we read the sacred oracles of God. What have we to do with strange houses? There is one house which holds all. They who need us can come to us. What have we to do with tales and fables? An office to minister at the altar of Christ is what we have received; no duty to make ourselves agreeable to men has been laid upon us.
89. We ought to be humble, gentle, mild, serious, patient. We must keep the mean in all things, so that a calm countenance and quiet speech may show that there is no vice in our lives.
20121 We must guard against anger, before it arises; if it has already arisen we must check and calm it, and if we cannot do this either, at least we should keep our tongue from abuse, so that our passions may be like boys’ quarrels. He relates what Archites said, and shows that David led the way in this matter, both in his actions and in his writings.
90). Let anger be guarded against.108 If it cannot, however, be averted, let it be kept within bounds. For indignation is a terrible incentive to sin. It disorders the mind to such an extent as to leave no room for reason. The first thing, therefore, to aim at, if possible, is to make tranquillity of character our natural disposition by constant practice, by desire for better things, by fixed determination. But since passion is to a large extent implanted in our nature and character, so that it cannot be uprooted and avoided, it must be checked by reason, if, that is, it can be foreseen. And if the mind has already been filled with indignation before it could be foreseen or provided against in any way, we must consider how to conquer the passion of the mind, how to restrain our anger, that it may no more be so filled. Resist wrath, if possible; if not, give way, for it is written: “Give place to wrath.”109
91. Jacob dutifully gave way to his brother when angry, and to Rebecca; that is to say, taught by counsels of patience, he preferred to go away and live in foreign lands, rather than to arouse his brother’s anger; and then to return only when he thought his brother was appeased.110 Thus it was that he found such great grace with God. With what offers of willing service, with what gifts, did he reconcile his brother to himself again, so that he should not remember the blessing which had been taken away from him, but should only remember the reparation now offered?111
92. If, then, anger has got the start, and has already taken possession of thy mind, and mounted into thy heart, forsake not thy ground. Thy ground is patience, it is wisdom, it is reason, it is the allaying of indignation. And if the stubbornness of thy opponent rouses thee, and his perverseness drives thee to indignation: if thou canst not calm thy mind, check at least thy tongue. For so it is written: “Keep thy tongue from evil, and thy lips that they speak no guile. Seek peace and pursue it.”112 See the peace of holy Jacob, how great it was! First, then, calm thy mind. If thou canst not do this, put a restraint upon thy tongue. Lastly, omit not to seek for reconciliation. These ideas the speakers of the world have borrowed from us, and have set down in their writings. But he who said it first has the credit of understanding its meaning.
93. Let us then avoid or at any rate check anger, so that we may not lose our share of praise, nor yet add to our list of sins. It is no light thing to calm one’s anger. It is no less difficult a thing than it is not to be roused at all. The one is an act of our own will, the other is an effect of nature. So quarrels among boys are harmless, and have more of a pleasant than a bitter character about them. And if boys quickly come to quarrel one with the other, they are easily calmed down again, and quickly come together with even greater friendliness. They do not know how to act deceitfully and artfully. Do not condemn these children, of whom the Lord says: “Except ye be converted and become as this child, ye shall not enter into the kingdom of heaven.”113 So also the Lord Himself, Who is the Power of God, as a Boy, when He was reviled, reviled not again, when He was struck, struck not back.114 Set then thy mind on this—like a child never to keep an injury in mind, never to show malice, but that all things may be done blamelessly by thee. Regard not the return made thee by others. Hold thy ground. Guard the simplicity and purity of thy heart. Answer not an angry man according to his anger, nor a foolish man according to his folly. One fault quickly calls forth another. If stones are rubbed together, does not fire break forth?
94. The heathen—(they are wont to exaggerate everything in speaking)—make much of the saying of the philosopher Archites115 of Tarentum, which he spoke to his bailiff: “O you wretched man, how I would punish you, if I were not angry.” But David already before this had in his indignation held back his armed hand. How much greater a thing it is not to revile again, than not to avenge oneself! The warriors, too, prepared to take vengeance against Nabal, Abigail restrained by her prayers.116 From whence we perceive that we ought not only to yield to timely entreaties, but also to be pleased with them. So much was David pleased that he blessed her who intervened, because he was restrained from his desire for revenge.
95. Already before this he had said of his enemies: “For they cast iniquity upon me, and in their wrath they were grievous to me.”117 Let us hear what he said when overwhelmed in wrath: “Who will give me wings like a dove, and I will flee away and be at rest.”118 They kept provoking him to anger, but he sought quietness.
96. He had also said: “Be ye angry and sin not.”119 The moral teacher who knew that the natural disposition should rather be guided by a reasonable course of teaching, than be eradicated, teaches morals, and says: “Be angry where there is a fault against which ye ought to be angry.” For it is impossible not to be roused up by the baseness of many things;120 otherwise we might be accounted, not virtuous, but apathetic and neglectful. Be angry therefore, so that ye keep free from fault, or, in other words: If ye are angry, do not sin, but overcome wrath with reason. Or one might put it thus: If ye are angry, be angry with yourselves, because ye are roused, and ye will not sin. For he who is angry with himself, because he has been so easily roused, ceases to be angry with another. But he who wishes to prove his anger is righteous only gets the more inflamed, and quickly falls into sin. “Better is he,” as Solomon says, “that restraineth his anger, than he that taketh a city,”121 for anger leads astray even brave men.
97. We ought therefore to take care that we do not get into a flurry, before reason prepares our minds. For oftentimes anger or distress or fear of death almost deprives the soul of life, and beats it down by a sudden blow. It is therefore a good thing to anticipate this by reflection, and to exercise the mind by considering the matter. So the mind will not be roused by any sudden disturbance, but will grow calm, being held in by the yoke and reins of reason.
Ambrose selected works 20114