The Final Judgment of Michelangelo

A Sonnet by Michelangelo

The course of my life has already reached,                                                                                          Across a stormy sea in a fragile ship,                                                                                                    The common port, where we must give                                                                                                An account of our every evil act or good deed

The impassioned fantasy, which made                                                                                                Art an idol and idol over me,                                                                                                                  Was, I now realize, full of error,                                                                                                         Like all else that men desire against their will.


What will become of my amorous thoughts, once so vain and gay,                                              Now that I draw near to my double death?                                                                                        Of one death I am certain, and the other threatens me.

There is no painting nor sculpture now which quiets                                                                  The soul turned toward that divine love                                                                                          Which on the cross opened to take us in Its arms.

Source: The Italian Renaissance Reader, Eds. Conaway Bondella & Mark Musa (New York 1987), p. 379.

Posted in Christ, Michelangelo, Renaissance | Leave a comment

The Interrogation of Mercy

Augustine of Hippo (d. 430) teaches on John 1:16  “And of his fullness have all we received, and grace for grace.”

“What grace did we, in the first instance, receive?  Faith: walking in faith, we walk in grace.  How have we merited this? by what previous merits of ours?  Let not each one flatter himself, but let him return into his conscience, seek out the secret places of his own thoughts, recall the series of his deeds; let him not consider what he is if now he is something, but what he was that he might be something: he will find that he was not worthy of anything save punishment.  If, then, thou wast worthy of punishment, and He came not to punish sins, but to forgive sins, grace was given to thee, and not reward rendered.  Wherefore is it called grace? Because it is bestowed gratuitously.  For thou didst not, by previous merits, purchase that which thou didst receive.  This first grace, then, the sinner received, that his sins were forgiven.  What did he deserve? Let him interrogate justice, he finds punishment; let him interrogate mercy, he finds grace.  But God promised this also through the prophets; therefore, when He came to give what He had promised, He not only gave grace, but also truth.  How was truth exhibited? Because that was done which had been promised.” Augustine of Hippo, Tractates on John. III. 8.  Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, volume 7, p. 21. [Emphasis added]


Posted in Augustine of Hippo, grace | 2 Comments


“And whosoever shall exalt himself shall be humbled: and he that shall humble himself shall be exalted.” Matthew 23:12 (Douay-Rheims)

In my last post we saw how Augustine asserted that pride began as a perverse exaltation of the self above all else.  This vice characterized the sinful community of human beings (city of Man) Pride Goes Before Destruction.  Augustine pointed toward humility (given by the grace of God) as the foundation of virtue.  This idea became the basis of medieval religious belief and practice.  As pride actually abased those who exalt themselves through sin, humility exalts those who abase themselves through true humility.  Augustine explained:

“Thus, in a surprising way, there is something in humility to exalt the mind, and something in exaltation to abase it.  It certainly appears somewhat paradoxical that exaltation abases and humility exalts.  But devout humility makes the mind subject to what is superior.  Nothing is superior to God; and that is why humility exalts the mind by making it subject to God.” [Augustine, City of God 14. 13. trans. Henry Bettenson (London 1984), 572]

For this reason Augustine states that humility marks those who belong to the City of God and Christ, the ruler of that City.  In order to remedy the human sin of pride, Augustine explains that God abased himself through mercy and demonstrated grace through taking on human nature. [Augustine, On the Merits and Forgiveness of Sins 26. 17.]

Medieval monastic theologians focused on humility as the foundation of faith and virtue.  In his Rule, St Benedict depicted the monastic life as a ladder of humility with twelve steps: “Now the ladder erected is our life on earth, and if we humble our hearts the Lord will raise it to heaven.”  The monastic life revolved around self-abasement of body and soul in absolute obedience to another’s will.  [Rule of St Benedict chap. 7.]

As we saw in the previous post on pride, Bernard of Clairvaux (d.1153) adopted Benedict’s ladder imagery to examine the vices of pride and the virtues of humility.  In opposition to pride, he defined humility as the virtue of having a low opinion of one’s self based on self-knowledge and the contempt of one’s own excellence. [Bernard, The Steps of Humility and Pride 1. 2; 4. 14, trans. M. Ambrose Conway OCSO. Kalamazoo 1989, 30, 42]

Munich, BSB Clm 14519, 5r

Genuine humility rests in the truth, results in mercy, and it leads to love (caritas).  All of these virtues come from the incarnate Christ through faith and are practiced by monks through imitation.  This is the manner by which monks (or Christians) may fulfill the commandment to love their neighbors as themselves.  As Bernard wrote:

“You will never have real mercy for the failings of another until you know and realize that you have the same failings in your soul.  Our Savior has given us the example.  He willed to suffer so that he might know compassion; to learn mercy he shared our misery.” [Steps 3. 6, p. 35]

The depiction to the right reads: “the pride of the devil is conquered by the humility of the cross of Christ.”  If you would like to see the original go here: BSB Clm 14159





Posted in Augustine of Hippo, Bernard of Clairvaux | Tagged , , | Leave a comment

Pride Goes Before Destruction

“Pride goeth before destruction and the spirit is lifted up before a fall.” Proverbs 16:18 (Douay-Rheims)

Pride (superbia) was the foundation of all sin in medieval piety and theology.  A concept well-established on the Bible and the Church Fathers, pride was the devil’s original sin. Augustine of Hippo explained that pride was the original sin of human beings and led to The Fall and its horrible consequences. Citing Ecclesiasticus 10:14-15  to demonstrate this theological teaching, he asserted that pride led the devil to tempt humanity out of envy. He appealed to humanity’s pride through the lie that they would be like gods. [Augustine, On Nature and Grace 33.29. Idem, City of God 12. 6.]

Augustine defined pride as the evil will from which the rebellious action against God’s commandment arose.  Pride, defined as the love of one’s own excellence, began as a voluntary choice to move away from the changeless Good (i.e., God) and to perversely exalt the self.   Augustine identified this self-centered exaltation as the main character trait of the community of sinful human beings.   [Augustine City of God 14. 13. Idem, De Genesi ad litteram 11. 14. 18]

Twelfth-century monastic theologians particularly focused on pride as the source of the soul’s demise.(See John of Salisbury’s Description of Pride)  In fact, as we read in the Rule of St Benedict the entire monastic way of life rested on self-denial as the means to humble one’s sinful pride.  Bernard of Clairvaux integrated the Augustinian theological tradition with Benedict’s practice.  His first published work was a devotional exposition of Benedict’s description of the monastic life as a ladder of humility.  In this work, Bernard explained the twelve steps of humility and pride.  He followed Augustine’s definition of pride as the love of one’s own excellence. According to Bernard, pride reaches its culmination in the habit of sinning driven by cupidity (cupiditas) [Bernard of Clairvaux, The Steps of Humility and Pride 4. 14, 21. 51, trans. M. Ambrose Conway OCSO. Kalamazoo 1989, 42, 77-78.]

My next post will discuss humility (humilitas).



Posted in Augustine of Hippo, Bernard of Clairvaux, medieval, pride | 2 Comments

Melanchthon on Slavery and Natural Law

“Also in civil law, as they call it, there are many things that reflect human affections instead of natural laws.  For what it more foreign to the law of nature than slavery?….a good man will fashion civil constitutions according to a just and good rule, that is, with both divine and natural laws.  And whatever is instituted against these laws can be nothing but unjust.” Philip Melanchthon, Commonplaces: Loci Communes 1521, trans. Christian Preus (St Louis: CPH, 2014), p. 66. [Emphasis added]

Philip Melanchthon (1497-1560) was Martin Luther’s most significant colleague in Wittenberg.   As the primary author of the Augsburg Confession and the Apology of the Augsburg Confession, he played a major role in the establishment of the intellectual foundations of Lutheran theology.  If the Reformation had never occurred, Melanchthon most likely would have been a well-known classical humanist and scholar from the sixteenth century.

In the quote above, Melanchthon uses the existence of slavery as a legal institution as an example of how civil law sometimes contradicts natural law.  It’s clear that Melanchthon understood slavery to be against the law of nature and, therefore, immoral and unwise.

Posted in government, nature, Philip Melanchthon | Leave a comment

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.

Posted in Boethius | Leave a comment

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.

Posted in Hugh of St Victor, Learning, liberal arts, teaching | Leave a comment

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.]

Posted in Christ, Honorius Augustodunensis, Mary, medieval, theology | Leave a comment

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.*.html

Posted in Julius Caesar, Plutarch, Rome | Leave a comment

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.

Posted in Augustine of Hippo, justice, virtue, war | Leave a comment