Select Letters of St Jerome

Select Letters (Loeb Classical Library)Select Letters by St. Jerome

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

St Jerome was a major figure in Latin Christianity in the late fourth and early fifth centuries. Besides revising the Latin Bible, his greatest influence lies in giving power to the rising monastic movement in the Latin world. He came from Dalmatia on the Adriatic, spent time as a hermit, then went to Rome before spending years as a monk in Bethlehem.

Although Jerome was a controversialist, little of his polemic is visible on the surface in this selection of letters. Occasionally, you can see him making oblique reference to people who might possibly criticise him for some things, and there is a devastating caricature of his erstwhile friend Rufinus in one letter as well. Furthermore, we read here Jerome’s version of the First Origenist Controversy.

For the most part, though, this selection is Jerome the ascetic, not Jerome the polemicist. We see his ideas about how to be a good monk, a good nun, a good widow, or a good clergyman set down. We see his instructions on how to educate a young girl in Christian discipline. Much is worth thinking on, chewing on, mulling over, and much is also quotable.

We also encounter Jerome here as a source for the Later Roman Empire. Basically, he reads in these letters as though the world were on the precipice, if not already falling into the abyss. Sometimes I know he is being hyperbolic, at other times it is a trope (‘She’s lucky death spared her seeing the world invaded by barbarians’), but at other times there is genuine feeling behind it. Jerome is keenly aware of the catastrophes of his age, but is this because they were that much more acute or because they serve his rhetoric well? I reckon that it is a bit of both.

This selection is well worth reading as an introduction to Jerome and his thought.

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Some Stoic wisdom from Seneca: We are but patients in the hospital discussing remedies

So-called 'Seneque mouriant' (it's not Seneca), 2nd-c Roman statue
So-called ‘Seneque mouriant’ (it’s not Seneca), 2nd-c Roman statue in the Louvre, Paris

As you know, I study Latin epistolography when I’m not blogging about everything else under the sun. This primarily comes in the form of the letters of Leo the Great and their manuscript tradition, but also involves placing Pope Leo within his literary tradition — papal as well as secular. And so I’ve been dabbling in a bit of Seneca today.

Lucius Annaeus Seneca (4 BC – AD 65) is a very interesting character — tutor of the Emperor Nero, wealthy landowner, tragedian, satirist, philosopher. If you’re in the mood for some interesting reading and are not easily provoked to vomition, I recommend his play Thyestes. Seneca was a Stoic. Some people call Stoicism the unofficial religion of the Romans; I’m not entirely convinced, given the Epicureanism of Lucretius and eclecticism of the Academic Cicero. Nevertheless, it was a popular philosophy amongst the educated classes of Rome, and includes the emperor Marcus Aurelius amongst its adherents.

Stoicism has high moral ethics and is, therefore, a somewhat appealing philosophy for Christian writers. Indeed, they even tried to baptise the late Seneca by forging correspondence between him and St Paul!

In Letter 27,* Seneca responds to the query from Lucilius, ‘Are you giving me advice? Have you already advised and corrected yourself? Is that why you are at leisure to set others straight?’ To this, the philosopher responds:

I am not so persistent that I will seek out cures while I am sick, but I will talk to you about our common suffering and share remedies as if I am lying in the same hospital. So listen to me as though I am talking to myself: I will let you into my intimate thoughts and reckon up with myself in your company. (trans. Fantham 2010)

Seneca is not the master. Indeed, later (Letter 33) Seneca will argue that there are no masters (domini) but only guides (duces) — and if one finds a quicker route, he should take it. Seneca and Lucilius are fellow-patients in the hospital, and Seneca is discussing with Lucilius the different remedies that he has tried to cure his ailment.

This is not unlike the classic saying, ‘Evangelism is one beggar telling another where to get bread.’ However, it brings in the image of the hospital. We are not merely hungry — we are diseased. And all of us are seeking the cure — this is what the ancients were looking for in Stoicism or Epicureanism or (Middle, Neo-)Platonism or Mithraism; it is what people are seeking in the philosophical appropriation of science or in Hinduism or Buddhism or Taoism or Confucianism or New Age or Kumaré or Islam or Christianity or Hegel or Nietzsche or Hare Krishna or Wicca or Judaism.

The human race has a sickness. We all want the cure. And those who believe they have found it want to help their fellow humans get well. It ties into the classic Eastern Christian image of the Church as a hospital and Christ as the chief Physician very well. Let’s gently bring our friends to this Physician — and let’s continue to drink His medicine every day.

*I am working from the assumption that Seneca and Lucilius actually exchanged letters. If not, then the fiction is that Lucilius has said certain things to his philosopher friend.