Friday, January 11, 2008

"One who has been instructed by the pagan examples"

The following section comes from a short work by the early church father, Basil the Great, addressed to young Christian men on the study of the classics of Greek Literature, , "Address to Young Men on the Right Use of Greek Literature". Although there are things in the work as a whole which one clearly need not agree with, much of what Basil writes is quite helpul and valuable food for thought, it seems to me, and illuminative of the consonance and continuity with Christian teaching through the centuries. I found little that I disagreed with in the following section (though I suspect Alexander's scorn of the women was for purely noble reasons) in which he discusses specific instances of ways in which Christians can benefit from heathen literature:

"VII. After this wise, then, are we to receive those words from the pagan authors which contain suggestions of the virtues. But since also the renowned deeds of the men of old either are preserved for us by tradition, or are cherished in the pages of poet or historian, we must not fail to profit by them. A fellow of the street rabble once kept taunting Pericles, but he, meanwhile, gave no heed; and they held out all day, the fellow deluging him with reproaches, but he, for his part, not caring. Then when it was evening and dusk, and the fellow still clung to him, Pericles escorted him with a light, in order that he might not fail in the 110 practice of philosophy.27 Again, a man in a passion threatened and vowed death to Euclid of Megara,28 but he in turn vowed that the man should surely be appeased, and cease from his hostility to him. How invaluable it is to have such examples in mind when a man is seized with anger! On the other hand, one must altogether ignore the tragedy which says in so many words : 'Anger arms the hand against the enemy;' 29 for it is much better not to give way to anger at all. But if such restraint is not easy, we shall at least curb our anger by reflection, so as not to give it too much rein. But let us bring our discussion back again to the examples of noble deeds. A certain man once kept striking Socrates, the son of Sophroniscus, in the face, yet he did not resent it, but allowed full play to the ruffian's anger, so that his face was swollen and bruised from the blows. Then when he stopped striking him, Socrates did nothing more than write on his forehead, as an artisan on a statue, who did it, and thus took out his revenge. Since these examples almost coincide with our teachings, I hold that such men are worthy of emulation. For this conduct of Socrates is akin to the precept that to him who smites you upon the one cheek, you shall turn the other also 30 — thus much may you be avenged; the conduct of Pericles and of Euclid also conforms to the precept: 'Submit to those who persecute you, and endure their wrath with meekness;' 31 and to the other: 'Pray for your enemies and curse them not.' 32 One who has been instructed in the pagan examples will no longer hold the Christian precepts impracticable. But I will not overlook the conduct of Alexander, who, on taking captive the daughters of Darius, who were reputed to be of surpassing beauty, would not even look at them, for he deemed it unworthy of one who was a conqueror of men 111 to be a slave to women.33 This is of a piece with the statement that he who looks upon a woman to lust after her, even though he does not commit the act of adultery, is not free from its guilt, since he has entertained impure thoughts.34 It is hard to believe that the action of Cleinias,35 one of the disciples of Pythagoras, was in accidental conformity to our teachings, and not designed imitation of them. What, then, was this act of his? By taking an oath he could have avoided a fine of three talents, yet rather than do so he paid the fine, though he could have sworn truthfully. I am inclined to think that he had heard of the precept which forbids us to swear.36"

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