Prudentius’ Psychomachia turned up at church today!

The death of Superbia, British Library, Cotton Cleoopatra C VIII (10th century)

Unexpectedly, in a sermon that quoted John Piper (of all people) and Martyn Lloyd Jones, my minister closed the preaching with a brief discussion of the Psychomachia of Prudentius from around 405. Now, Geoff isn’t afraid of the Fathers — he’s prayed prayers from St Irenaeus before, and cited Cassian and Evagrius at length. He doesn’t even shy away from the Middle Ages, being an evident fan of St Anselm and unafraid of that great ox, St Thomas Aquinas.

Nevertheless, rarely in a sermon of any sort does later Latin poetry emerge!

So I was tickled pink.

If you’ve never read the Psychomachia, you should read it pronto. Drop whatever you are doing. Read it. Here it is in the original Latin. There is one English translation here, and another here.

Pause while you read Prudentius…

This is a short epic poem (approximately 916 lines; I guess it’s an epyllion?) written in dactylic hexameters, the meter of classical Latin and Greek epic. Beyond the technicalities of Latin verse, this poem is written in the poetic style of Virgil but is one of the first personification allegories. The theme is the battle for the human soul (indeed, the old Loeb translates the title as ‘The Battle for Mansoul’, although ‘Soulbattle’ would be closer). The characters are the virtues and the vices doing battle against each other; although each set of characters numbers seven, they are not the two lists you know:

  • Fides – Faith, vs ‘Worship-of-the-Old-Gods’
  • Pudicitia – Chastity, vs Lust
  • Patientia – Patience, vs Wrath
  • Mens Humilis – Humility, vs Pride
  • Sobrietas – Sobriety, vs Indulgence
  • Operatio – Thrift, vs Greed
  • Concordia – Concord, vs Discord/Heresy

Each of the virtues comes out victorious, of course. My favourite moment, and one that my former office mate also enjoys, is Patience (Long-Suffering in the Loeb) standing still, doing nothing, and defeating Wrath, who ends up killing herself. I quote the Loeb Classical Library translation:

Standing unmoved by the javelin while the monster that shot it rages in ungoverned frenzy, she waits for Wrath to perish by reason of her own violence. And when the barbarous warrior had spent with fuming the strength of her unconquerable arms and by showering javelins tired out her right hand with no success till it was useless, since her missiles, having no force in their flight, fell ineffectual, and the shafts, all idly cast, lay broken on the ground, her ruthless hand turned to her sword-hilt. Putting all its strength into a blow with the flashing blade, it rises high above her right ear and then, launching its stroke, smites her foe’s head in the very middle. But the helmet of forged bronze only resounds under the blow; the blade rebounds with blunted edge, so hard it is; the unyielding metal breaks the steel that smites it, unflinchingly receives the vain attack, and stands up to the striker without hurt. Seeing her blade shivered in pieces and how the sword has scattered away in rattling fragments while her hand still grasps the hilt after it has lost its weight of steel, Wrath is beside herself and casts away the luckless ivory that has been false to her, the token of honour turned to shame. Afar she flings that unwelcome reminder, and wild passion fires her to slay herself. One of the many missiles that she had scattered without effect she picks up from the dust of the field, for an unnatural use. The smooth shaft she fixes in the ground and with the upturned point stabs herself, piercing her breast with a burning wound. Standing over her, Long-Suffering cries: “We have overcome a proud Vice with our wonted virtue, with no danger to blood or life. This is the kind of warfare that is our rule, to wipe out the fiends of passion and all their army of evils and their savage strength by bearing their attack. Fury is its own enemy; fiery Wrath in her frenzy slays herself and dies by her own weapons.”

My minister noted that the poem can be bloodthirsty, yet is well worth the read. We do not spend enough time thinking about the battle raging in our own souls. This lack of watchfulness (a virtue not in Prudentius but recommended by Christ: ‘Watch and pray’ [Mt 26:41]) is dangerous for our spiritual health. Thus, Prudentius can be good devotional reading. (I admit to not having read the Psychomachia devotionally before.)

The important thing, though, is that we are not merely victors because we are virtuous. Rather, we are virtuous because we are victors. Or, rather, we are more than conquerors (Ro 8:37). Prudentius knows this, as the close of the poem makes clear:

The opposing winds of light and dark are at war and we, body and spirit, have desires that are at odds with one another until Christ, our Lord, comes to help. He places the jewels of the virtues in their proper places and in the place of sin builds the courts of his temple; he makes for the soul ornaments from its dark past to delight Wisdom as she reigns forever on her glorious throne.

The Prologue (a very important piece of programmatic poetry in Late Antiquity) also points us to Christ:

Christ himself, who is the only true Priest, the Son of one whose name cannot be said, will feed the victor and enter his heart to let it entertain the Trinity. The Spirit will embrace the childless soul and make it fertile with eternal seed; late in her life, this richly endowed soul will be a mother and produce an heir.

Christ, you have always been revered because you have always had compassion on the misery of man; you are always revered for the powers you share with the Father – it is one power for it is only one God yet it is not merely one God that we worship since you too are also God born of the Father. Tell us, great King, how the soul is endowed with strength to fight and expel our sins from our hearts; when our thoughts are scattered and when strife rises within us, when evil desires rebel, tell us how to guard the liberty of the soul; tell us about our defenses against the fiend.

For you, good leader, have not left us here helpless before the onslaught of vice without the virtues to help us in battle and renew our courage; you yourself are in command of legions that fight this battle where the attack is worst. You yourself can arm the spirit with precious skills which permit it to resist and fight for you, conquer for you. The path to victory is there before your eyes. We must study the features of the virtues and the dark monsters waiting there to challenge their strength.

Here we have a magnificent piece of literature from the flowering of Latin literature in Late Antiquity, bound together with the realities of Christ empowering us to fight the vices. Well worth a read.

Advertisements

2 thoughts on “Prudentius’ Psychomachia turned up at church today!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.