Tyranny of Wickedness

“Those lofty kings you see seated high on thrones,                                                                            Bright in their glowing purple, hedged in with bristling arms,                                                      Threatening with visage stern, and gasping in the frenzy of their hearts–                                  If a man strip from those proud kings the cloak of their empty splendour,                                At once he will see these lords within bear close-bound chains;                                                    For there, lust stirs their hearts with poisonous greed,                                                              There anger whips the mind as a whirlwind whips up  waves,                                                        And either close-confined sorrow plagues, or slippery hope torments.                                      Therefore since as you see one head so many tyrants bears,                                                          He does not do what he himself would do, by these harsh masters pressed.”

Boethius, Consolation of Philosophy IV. ii. Loeb Classical Library No. 74, trans. S.J. Tester. (Cambridge, MA: Harvard, 1918), 328-31. [Latin Text with English translation.]

Boethius wrote this work around 524 as he languished in prison accused of treason to King Theodoric of the Ostrogoths in northern Italy.  Every section contains a poem after a dialogue between Lady Philosophy and Boethius.  Here Boethius identified the futility of power and its deadly effects on those who yield it. Tyrants, driven by lust (libido), have poisoned souls.  A political tyrant is ruled internally by wicked vices.  These harsh masters rule the one who seek to be lords over others.

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Unlock the Hidden Places of Learning

“A certain wise man, when asked concerning the method and form of study, declared:

A humble mind, eagerness to inquire, a quiet life,                                                                           Silent scrutiny, poverty, a foreign soil.                                                                                                 These, for many, unlock the hidden places of learning.

He had heard, I should judge, the saying, ‘Morals equip learning.’ Therefore he joined the rules for living to rules for study, in order that the student might know both the standard of his life and the nature of his study.  Unpraiseworthy is learning stained by a shameless life.  Therefore, let him who would seek learning take care above all that he not neglect discipline.”  Hugh of St. Victor, Didascalicon Bk 3, Chap. 12. [Italics added]

Since Hugh led a community of canons regular in Paris, it is not surprising that he links learning with morality.  However, these principles of learning could apply to any school.  Humility, zeal to learn, a place to meditate on important ideas, and the lack of distractions allow any teacher or student to focus on acquiring knowledge and becoming wise.

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The Annunciation and Fishing

“On this holy day the Incarnation of Christ is announced through the angel, just as today is celebrated devoutly by the entire Church.  It is read that on that day and at the same hour at which the first man was created in Paradise, even on it the Son of God, the new man, was conceived in the womb of the Virgin.  Indeed, she was the paradise of pomegranates [Songs of Songs 4:13], the fountain of gardens [Song of Songs 4:15] since in her the tree of life arose and from her the fountain of wisdom flowed forth, and flowed to all delights, in whom all treasures of wisdom and knowledge were hidden (Colossians 2:3).  ”  Honorius Augustodunensis, “In annunciatione Sanctae Mariae,” Patrologia Latina 172:902. [My translation]

Honorius Augustodunensis, an early twelfth-century theologian and preacher, introduced his sermon on the Annunciation of our Lord to the Mary.  While Honorius joyfully honored and venerated the Blessed Virgin (he wrote a devotional treatise for her), he usually connected this devotion to the redemptive act of Mary’s Son through his Incarnation.  For instance, later in the same sermon he explained:

“The genealogy of this Virgin from the gospels is connected just as a line to a fishhook in whose end her Son as a fishhook is attached, for Jesus Christ is said to be born from her. God the Father fastened this line on the rod of the cross, on which His own Son hung as a fishhook.  Further, the bait of this fishhook was the flesh of Christ which in the holy Virgin as in fishing instrument was hidden.  God sent this fishhook into the sea of this work, and he removed leviathan from the hearts of the faithful.” PL 172:906 [My trans.]

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Plutarch on the Ides of March

But destiny, it would seem, is not so much unexpected as it is unavoidable, since they say that amazing signs and apparitions were seen. Now, as for lights in the heavens, crashing sounds borne all about by night, and birds of omen coming down into the forum, it is perhaps not worth while to mention these precursors of so great an event; but Strabo the philosopher says that multitudes of men all on fire were seen rushing up, and a soldier’s slave threw from his hand a copious flame and seemed to the spectators to be burning, but when the flame ceased the man was uninjured he says, moreover, [p591] that when Caesar himself was sacrificing, the heart of the victim was not to be found, and the prodigy caused fear, since in the course of nature, certainly, an animal without a heart could not exist.  The following story, too, is told by many. A certain seer warned Caesar to be on his guard against a great peril on the day of the month of March which the Romans call the Ides; and when the day had come and Caesar was on his way to the senate-house, he greeted the seer with a jest and said: “Well, the Ides of March are come,” and the seer said to him softly: “Ay, they are come, but they are not gone.” Plutarch, Life of Caesar 63. Loeb Classical Library VII, pp. 589-591.  http://penelope.uchicago.edu/Thayer/e/roman/texts/plutarch/lives/caesar*.html

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Augustine on Just War

“What is the evil of war? Is it the death of some who will soon die in any case, that others may live in peaceful subjection? This is merely cowardly dislike, not any religious feeling.  The real evils in war are love of violence, revengeful cruelty, fierce and implacable enmity, wild resistance, and the lust of power, and such like; and it is generally to punish these things, when force is required to inflict the punishment, that, in obedience to God or some lawful authorities, good men undertake wars, when they find themselves in such a position as regards the conduct of human affairs, that right conduct requires them to act, or to make others act, in this way.” Augustine of Hippo, Reply to Faustus the Manichaean XXII. 74. Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, vol. 4, p. 301.

Augustine defended the proper use of force under certain circumstances.  This classic text laid the foundation for the later Christian understanding of just war.  Augustine recognized the basic fact that sometimes force must be used to stop the evils of human violence.  Later in this text Augustine wrote:

“A great deal depends on the causes for which men undertake wars, and on the authority they have for doing so; for the natural order which seeks the peace of mankind, ordains that the monarch should have the power of undertaking war if he thinks it advisable, and that the soldiers should perform their military duties in behalf of the peace and safety of the community.  When war is undertaken in obedience to God, who would rebuke, or humble, or crush the pride of man, it must be allowed to be righteous war; for even the wars which arise from human passion cannot harm the eternal well-being of god, nor even the saints.” Augustine, Reply to Faustus the Manichaean XXII. 75. NPNF 4p. 301.

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Playing the Tyrant

“The nobles had played the tyrant often enough in the past; but now the proletariat was on top and showed itself as arrogant as they had been.” Sallust, Chap. 5 in The Jugurthine War, trans. S. A. Handford (London: Penguin, 1963), p. 77.

Sallust often lamented the social divisions of the late Roman Republic.  This sentence summarized how various factions used power against the other.  Both arrogantly asserted their power by legally repressing their political opponents.  He believed these divisions emerged from Rome’s military victories and prosperity.  Sallust explained:

“The division of the Roman state into warring factions, with all its attendant vices, had originated some years before, as a result of peace and of that material prosperity which men regard as the greatest blessing.  Down to the destruction of Carthage the people and Senate shared the government peaceably and with due restraint, and the citizens did not compete for glory or power; fear of its enemies preserved the good morals of the state.  But when the people were relieved of this fear, the favourite [sic] vices of prosperity–licence [sic] and pride–appeared as a natural consequence.  Thus the peace and quiet which they had longed for in time of adversity proved, when they obtained it, to be even more grievous and bitter than the adversity.” Ibid.

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The Attack on Wisdom

“Do you think that this is the first time that Wisdom has been attacked and endangered by a wicked society?  Did I not often of old also, before Plato’s time, have to battle in mighty struggle with arrogant stupidity?  And in his day, was I not beside his teacher Socrates when he won the prize of a martyr’s death?  And after him the crowd of Epicureans and Stoics and the rest strove as far as they could to seize his legacy, carrying me off protesting and struggling, as if I were part of the booty, tearing my dress, which I wove with my own hands, and then went off with their torn-off shreds, thinking they possessed all of me.Boethius-Philosophia And because they seemed to be wearing certain bits of my dress some were ignorantly accepted as my servants, and were abused by the delusions of the uneducated mob.” Boethius, Consolation of Philosophy I. iii. Loeb Classical Library No. 74, trans. S.J. Tester. (Cambridge, MA: Harvard, 1918), p. 141-43. [Emphasis added]

Boethius, the late Roman aristocrat, languished in prison for about a year before his execution at the command of the Ostrogothic king, Theodoric.  He wrote this famous work as a consolation to his soul.  It demonstrates the depth of his philosophical learning and his understanding of truth, knowledge, and ethics.  Here Lady Philosophy describes the history of her treatment at the hands of evil, delusional mob.  Clearly, Boethius places himself within the tradition of philosophical martyrs persecuted by the unenlightened.  After Lady Philosophy  identified a list of suffering philosophers including Socrates, Zeno, and Seneca; she explained to Boethius:

“The only cause of their deaths was that they were brought up in my ways, so that their behaviour and pursuits were seen to be utterly different from those of wicked men.  So it is no wonder if we are buffeted by storms blustering round us on the sea of this life, since we are especially bound to anger the wicked.  Though their forces are large, yet we should hold them in contempt, for they are leaderless and are simply carried hither and thither at random in their crazed ignorance.” Ibid., pp.142-43


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Seneca on Wisdom

“Now I will explain how you can recognize that you are not wise. The wise man is full of joy, cheerful and calm, undisturbed. He lives on equal terms with the gods.  Now examine yourself: if you are never sad, if no hope disturbs your mind with anticipation of the future, if by day and night the condition of your spirit is even and unvarying, alert and happy with itself, then you have reached the high point of human good.” Seneca, Letter 59 in Seneca: Selected Letters, trans. Elaine Fantham (Oxford 2010), p. 92.

Seneca’s statement reflects his Stoic philosophy:  Temporary emotions do not disturb wise persons, but rather they control their passions through the use of reason.  In this manner true happiness (not a temporary mood) rests in the human mind.


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Exchanging Tyrants

“This is clear at once to the dullest-witted man in Rome that, so far from having escaped from tyranny, they had only exchanged one tyrant for another.  As for the elder Marius, he had always had a savage character, and power had intensified, not altered his natural disposition.  Sulla, on the other hand, had used his good fortune moderately at first and had behaved like a normal person, he had acquired the reputation of being a leader who was both an aristocrat and a friend of the people; then too from his earliest days he had been one who loved laughter and one who, so far from disguising his tenderer feelings, would often burst into tears.  It was natural therefore that his behaviour should cast a certain suspicion on the very idea of high office and should make people think that these great powers bring about a change in the previous characters of their holders–a change in the direction of overexcitability, pomposity and inhumanity.  However, I should have to write another essay altogether to determine the point whether this is a real change and revolution in a man’s nature, brought about by fortune, or whether it is rather the case that when a man is in power the evil that has been latent in him reveals itself openly.” Plutarch, Fall of the Roman Empire trans. Rex Warner, Revised Ed. (New York, 2005), p. 96.

Here we read Plutarch’s account of Sulla’s victory over his enemies in a civil war.  Marius, who had died in 86 BC, had promoted an authoritarian government in Rome particularly against the aristocratic Senators.  Sulla championed the traditionalists’ cause and won in 82 BC.  The Senate declared him dictator of Rome.  He used this power to purge Rome of his political enemies through proscription.  Sulla made lists with powerful men’s names on it and declared them to be enemies of the Republic.  Anyone could kill them and make a claim to their property.  This included their slaves who could gain their freedom through this action.  Plutarch depicts Sulla as a brutal, savage dictator.  The moral lesson: Don’t exchange one tyrant for another.  The second one, she, may be worse than the first.

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A Glorious and Everlasting Possession

“Every man who wishes to rise superior to the lower animals should strive his hardest to avoid living all his days in silent obscurity, like the beasts of the field, creatures which go with their faces to the ground and are the slaves of their bellies.  We human beings have mental as well as physical powers; the mind, which we share with gods, is the ruling element in us, while the chief function of the body, which we have in common with the beasts, is to obey.  Surely, therefore, it is our intellectual rather than our physical powers that we should use in the pursuit of fame.  Since only a short span of life has been vouchsafed us, we must make ourselves remembered as long as may be by those who come after us.  Wealth and beauty can give only a fleeting perishable fame, but intellectual excellence is a glorious and everlasting possession.” Sallust, Chap. I in The Conspiracy of Catiline, trans. S. A. Handford (London 1963), p. 175.  [Emphasis added]

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