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The Ecole

Ambrose's De officiis

Ambrose's De officiis (often wrongly called De officiis ministrorum) is the earliest attempt at a systematic account of Christian ethics, and one of the most important texts of the Western patristic church. Written sometime during the period 388-390 CE, it is modelled on the famous De officiis of Cicero (106-43 BCE), which in turn is heavily indebted to a work by the Stoic philosopher Panaetius (c. 180-109 BCE).

Following Cicero, Ambrose explores the question of duty (or, as officium might be better rendered, "appropriate conduct") in three books. Of any proposed course of action, three basic questions must be asked. First, is it "honourable' or virtuous? Second, is it "advantageous" or expedient? Third, what should one do in cases where virtue and expediency appear to conflict? (1.27; 2.22; 3.8) Ambrose also mentions additional questions discussed by Cicero in his books 1 and 2 - namely, how to rank virtuous and expedient actions respectively (1.27, 252-259; 2.22, 28), but these supplementary issues are dealt with very sketchily. Like Cicero, Ambrose concludes that honourable and useful conduct can never actually be in tension, since if something is right in principle it is also beneficial to others and to self. Virtue can never be at odds with real expediency, only with the apparent advantage that is personal gain at the expense of another. In reality, the interests of the individual and the interests of the community converge, because both are governed by nature's law that binds all humanity together. For Cicero, that natural law is construed in Stoic terms; for Ambrose, the principle derives ultimately from the design of God as creator.

Cicero wrote his work for his son Marcus, and for a wider readership of young would-be political leaders living through the collapse of the Roman Republic. Ambrose addresses his treatise to his spiritual "sons", the clergy of Milan (and of the North Italian church as a whole) (1.24; cf. 1.1-2, 23, 72, 184; 2.25, 134, 149, 152-156; 3.132, 139), but he also intends it to be read by non-Christian intellectuals, for whom a virtuoso transformation of a standard classical textbook would have obvious appeal. He adopts Cicero's Stoic insistence that conduct must be "seemly" to onlookers (1.30, 221, 223-224): it must fit the age, gifts, and circumstances of the agent, and must be appropriate for society as a whole. He endeavours to authenticate Cicero's philosophical nomenclature in the Bible, a process which produces some decidedly contrived results (1.23-25, 30, 36-37, 221, 223-224; 2.23-27). He takes over the fourfold structure of honourable behaviour posited in the Ciceronian-Panaetian adoption of the Socratic cardinal virtues (which were first given this name by Ambrose himself elsewhere in his oeuvre) of prudence, justice, fortitude, and temperance (1.115ff.). For Ambrose, however, virtuous conduct begins with the fear of God, and the virtues which it entails are shaped by the reality of God's presence as creator, redeemer, witness, and judge. Ambrose's articulation of the four virtues in book 1 retains a good deal of Stoic colouring nonetheless, not least in the cases of fortitude (1.175-209) and temperance (1.210-251; cf. 1.65-114). In book 2, Ambrose argues that in order to be advantageous, actions need to relate ultimately to the winning of eternal life - both the acquiring of it for oneself and the commending of it to others. Self-denial and charitable altruism are essential to the message. In book 3, it follows that it is impossible for virtue and advantage to be in conflict: right behaviour and useful behaviour must amount to one and the same thing, because God's purpose determines both of them. Ambrose does not focus upon the "middle" duty to which the masses may attain, but upon the "perfect" duty that is achievable only by a spiritual and moral élite (1.36-37; 3.10-11). This duty, the vocation of a new class of sages, the church's hierarchy, is directed by divine revelation, fostered by a due awareness of divine transcendence, and orientated towards a final goal of divine reward.

Ambrose replaces Cicero's illustrations from Græco-Roman history and mythology with wide-ranging examples from the Scriptures (cf. 1.116; 3.139). He repeatedly contends that biblical narratives and moral principles are superior to classical ones (e.g. 1.204-207; 2.70-71, 136-143, 150-151; 3.45-52), and, like many early Christian apologists, he accuses pagan philosophers of plagiarizing their best ideas from the Hebrew Bible (1.31, 79-80, 92, 126, 132-135, 141, 180; cf. 2.43), whose insights are earlier and better (1.31, 43-44, 94, 118; 2.6, 48; 3.2, 80, 92). He sets up numerous antitheses between secular thought and the standards appropriate for a Christian élite, arguing that Christian morals go further and deeper than Ciceronian ones (e.g. 1.27-29, 82-83, 102, 116, 131, 185-186; 2.3-5, 124; 3.26-27, 97). Cicero is referred to by name only five times (1.24 [twice], 43, 82, 180); everywhere else, Ambrose evokes his Latin obliquely, expecting his classical text to be known to his readers (e.g. 1.27, 29, 92, 94, 102, 118, 122, 126, 130-132, 186, 207, 252; 2.30, 43; 3.8, 26-27, 29, 71, 80-81, 83, 87, 91, 97, 126). Ambrose's style, in consequence, amounts to an elaborate mosaic of biblical and Ciceronian words and phrases, drawn somewhat at random from memory of both sources. A number of scholars have argued that Ambrose's work is based upon sermons delivered to his clergy, but there is very little evidence to support this. Almost certainly De officiis was written as a book, to be read as a new version of Cicero's handbook for a new age (1.29).

Ambrose's intentions have been much discussed by modern scholars. Some have thought that he was seeking to build bridges with secular philosophy, or to show a pagan readership that there was a lot of common ground between Stoic ideals and Christian teaching. Others have imagined that he was trying to Christianize Cicero by baptizing classical paradigms into a new and nobler register. He has been accused of being everything from a creative genius to an unscrupulous plagiarist. In reality, the evidence suggests that Ambrose's aims were to convince both his disciples and his critics that the day of Cicero's textbook had passed: its cultural relevance had been swallowed up by the moral superiority of the message proclaimed by the Christian church. For his ecclesiastical readers, Ambrose sets out a pattern of conduct which is calculated to make an impact upon the eyes and ears of a discerning society, and to increase the church's social prestige by trading on many of the stereotypes of the gravitas, social finesse, inner resilience, and physical deportment deemed appropriate for the leading figures of a public élite. For his non-Christian readers, he also seeks to subvert core elements in the traditional portrait of a successful officialdom, and to show that the Christian leadership is better - in the ways it blesses its enemies, denies its own interests for the good of others, and practises not just restraint of appetites but a more comprehensive asceticism that involves fasting, self-abasement, and complete sexual renunciation. The work is a key part in Ambrose's larger strategy to demonstrate the social, intellectual, and moral triumph of the Christian church over the secular world, and to establish the ecclesiastical hierarchy as the new power-brokers and moral icons of a Christian empire.

Primary Sources:

Latin text in J. P. Migne (ed.), Patrologia Latina 16, 25-194; J. G. Krabinger (ed.), S. Ambrosii episcopi Mediolanensis de officiis ministrorum (Tübingen, 1857); new edition with French translation by M. Testard, Saint Ambroise: Les Devoirs (Paris, 1984-1992). English translation by H. de Romestin in H. Wace & P. Schaff (eds.) The Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers of the Church, 2nd series, 10 (Grand Rapids, MI, 1980). Italian translation and text by G. Banterle, Sant'Ambrogio: Opere morale I - I Doveri (Milan & Rome, 1977). New English translation, text, introduction, and commentary forthcoming by I. J. Davidson (2 Vols, Oxford).

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