John of Salisbury on Virtue and Happiness

“That purpose towards which all rational creatures turn is true happiness.  For in fact there is no one who does not wish to be happy; but those who desire this do not all advance along a single path.  A single route is laid out for all but it branches into many paths like a king’s highway.  This highway is virtue; for no one advances towards happiness except by way of virtue.  Perhaps one who lacks the works of virtue and is no doubt without works at all is attracted to happiness, but one never advances towards it except along the track of the virtues.  Virtue is, therefore, deserved of happiness; happiness rewards virtue.  And these are the greatest goods (summa bona): the one of the journey, the other of the homecoming.  For nothing surpasses virtue so long as the exile is a foreigner to God; nothing is better than happiness so long as the citizen is ruled by and rejoices with the Lord.” John of Salisbury, Policraticus VII. 8., ed. and trans. Cary J. Nederman (Cambridge 1990), p. 157.

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Exaltation of the Cross

“God, who deigned to redeem the human race through the precious blood of Thy only-begotten Son, Our Lord Jesus Christ, graciously grant that whoever approaches to adore the life-giving cross, may be freed from the bonds of their sins.” [My translation] The Sarum Missal, Ed. J. Wickham Legg, (Oxford: Clarendon, 1916), p. 320.

This is the collect recorded in one of the more famous medieval liturgies.  By the twelfth century the feast for the Exaltation of the Cross was a well-established date on the liturgical calendar.  Numerous medieval sermon collections contain homilies for this feast. Here is one example from the early twelfth century:

“This Holy Cross should be venerated by angels and adored by human beings.  Certainly, through the Cross the devil was taken captive, the world was freed, and hell plundered, [while] paradise rejoiced.  All Christian people throughout the world have been invited to the heavenly kingdom.  The celestial homeland exults over the triumph of the Cross, the Church rejoices, [while] the Jewish perfidy falls apart.  Death is laid low by the victory of the Holy Cross….the Holy Cross has become for us the key to heaven [and] the powerful destruction of hell.” [My translation] Honorius Augustodunensis, De exaltatione sanctae crucis [On the Exaltation of the Holy Cross], Patrologia Latina 172: 1001-02.


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Reading Needs Memory

“Reading needs the aid of memory, and even if memory is sluggish, it is sharpened by frequent meditation, and recovered by assiduous reading.  Often a prolix reading will overwhelm the memory with its length, but if it is short, and if one reconsiders its meaning in the mind, with the book put aside, then it may be read without effort, and the things which one has read, once recollected in memory, will not be lost.” Isidore of Seville, Sentences 3. 14. 7-8 (PL 83:689) translated in Duncan Robertson, Lectio Divina: The Medieval Experience of Reading (Collegeville, MN: 2011), p. 99.

Early Christian and medieval monastic writers understood the relationship between memory and reading.  Their technique, usually referred to as lectio divina (sacred reading), was a form of prayerful, meditative reading.  They did so to store God’s Word and other spiritual texts in their hearts.  Thereby, true meditation could take place.  Memory played an a significant role in their spirituality because of relative scarcity of texts.  However, they also sought to transform their souls through intentional memorization of religious texts.

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Swine for the Slaughter

“God gives the ungodly mighty kingdoms, riches, lands and houses, making them to enjoy greatness and abundance.  But when swine are fed and fat, the question of bacon and sausage introduces a struggle.  A slaughterer–a sausage-maker–appears, perchance, to slaughter the swine in their sty; one comes desolating the country, overthrowing the kingdom, destroying people and all: for desiring to be but swine, the people must be destroyed like swine.  Even though the world have [sic] personal knowledge of such, it continues its course so long as possible–until the slaughterer comes.  Swine remains swine; they are capable of standing ever unmoved by their trough, one perfectly indifferent if another be struck dead before its eyes.” Martin Luther, “Sermon for Tenth Sunday After Trinity,” in Sermons of Martin Luther, ed. and trans. John Nicholas Lenker, vol. 8 (Minneapolis: The Luther Press, 1909), p. 217.

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Grant What You Command

“My entire hope is exclusively in your very great mercy.  Grant what you command, and command what you will.  You require continence.  A certain writer has said (Wisd. 8. 21): ‘As I knew that no one can be continent except God grants it, and this very thing is part of wisdom, to know whose gift this is.’  By continence we are collected together and brought to the unity from which we disintegrated into multiplicity.  He loves you less who together with you loves something which he does not love for your sake.  O love, you ever burn and are never extinguished.  O charity, my God, set me on fire.  You command continence; grant what you command, and command what you will.” Augustine of Hippo, Confessions, trans. Henry Chadwick (Oxford 1991), p. 202. [Emphasis added]

These famous words demonstrate Augustine’s understanding of the gift of God’s mercy and grace.  He realized that self control and the love of God were gifts that no sinner could generate from their own souls.  Therefore, he asked God to grant the gift of obedience to His divine commands.  Augustine knew God’s gift was necessary in order to fulfill God’s command.  This gift is grace.



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Melanchthon Laments Rejection of Classical Literature

“I consider in my mind these admirable gifts of God, namely the study of literature and of the humanities—and apart from the Gospel of Christ this world holds nothing more splendid nor more divine and I also consider, on the other hand, by what blindness the minds of men are enveloped in unnatural and Cimmerian* darkness; they spurn these true and greatest gifts, and with great effort they pursue means for their wishes and desires that are not only inferior but also ruinous and destructive to themselves.  When I weigh these things in my heart, I am violently moved, for it comes to my mind by what dense darkness and, so to speak, black night the hearts of men are surrounded.  I am not further astonished, if men are blind in things that are divine and beyond human understanding, when I see them thus treading under foot these their own and personal goods for which they are intended by divine providence, and which they could have comprehended and cherished.” Philip Melanchthon, “Preface to Homer,” in in The Great Tradition: Classic Readings on What It Means to Be An Educated Human Being, ed. Richard M. Gamble. Wilmington 2007, pp. 420-21.

*Cimmerian refers to a mythical place of darkness in Homer’s Odyssey.

Philip Melanchthon delivered this oration around 1538 as he began to teach Homer’s famous works (the Illiad and the Odyssey).   While he was a significant theologian, as a Renaissance humanist Melanchthon inspired the study of ancient Greek and the Latin classics through his curricular reforms at Wittenberg.  He also promoted similar reforms at other German universities in the sixteenth century.  In this work he explained the significance of the study of Homer and the classics.  In brilliant rhetorical style Melanchthon lamented those who rejected these significant texts:

“We disdain….the study of the classics, by which the part of us that alone deserves the name ‘man,’ that is made in the image of God and for the possession of true and everlasting happiness, was meant to be refined and roused.  Instead of these, we pursue with mad and blind effort I know not what illusions held out by Satan, and worthless shadows, and hitherto have not had the reverence to look at the sun.” Ibid., p. 421.

Melanchthon understood great literature as that which refines and rouses the image of God in human beings.  He exhorted his hearers to turn away from demonic illusions and shadows and look toward the sun of true knowledge and understanding.  However, most people seek to learn for economic advantage and even seek to suppress true learning.

“Each one rushes towards the mean and gainful arts, they are slaves to their detestable desires and to their stomachs, and they know no god besides these.  Only very few take care to refine and honour [sic] their minds, the better and more the divine part of them.  Just as in a noisy and drunken banquet men talk nonsense, laugh, bawl and make loud noise while some famous musician is playing, and they neither pay attention nor receive in their ears and hearts the sweetness of the music, nor enjoy it thoroughly, so at times, as if intoxicated and frantic with their desires, neither listen to the voices of the Muses nor pay attention to them.  Those who by their authority and efforts should have eminently fostered and honoured [sic] these studies, the majority being barbarians and without education, greatly desire rather to see them oppressed and annihilated.” Ibid.


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Alexis de Tocqueville on Government and War

“I think that extreme centralization of government ultimately enervates society and thus, after a length of time, weakens the government itself; but I do not deny that a centralized social power may be able to execute great undertakings with facility in a given time and on a particular point.  This is more especially true of war, in which success depends much more on the means of transferring all the resources of a nation to one single point than on the extent of those resources.  Hence it is chiefly in war that nations desire, and frequently need, to increase the powers of the central government. All men of military genius are fond of centralization, which increases their strength; and all men of centralizing genius are fond of war, which compels nations to combine all their powers in the hands of government.  Thus the democratic tendency that leads men unceasingly to multiply the privileges of the state and to circumscribe the rights of private persons is much more rapid and constant among those democratic nations that are exposed by their position to great and frequent wars than among all others.” Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America, Vol. II, trans. Henry Reeve (New York, 1945), pp. 300-01. [Emphasis added]


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God Makes Rulers Mad

For God the Almighty has made our rulers mad; they actually think they can do–and order their subjects to do–whatever they please.  And the subjects made the mistake of believing that they, in turn, are bound to obey their rulers in everything.  It has gone so far that rulers have begun ordering the people to get rid of books, and to believe and conform to what the rulers prescribe.  They are thereby presumptuously setting themselves in God’s place, lording it over men’s consciences and faith, and schooling the Holy Spirit according to their own crackbrained [sic] ideas.” Martin Luther, Temporal Authority: To What Extent It Should Be Obeyed, in Luther’s Works, vol. 45, pp. 83-84.  [Italics added]

In this work (1523) Martin Luther explained the limits of the authority of worldly rulers. In 1522 Duke George of Saxony (cousin and rival to Luther’s own ruler, Frederick the Wise) had begun confiscating and destroying Luther’s books.  Dr. Luther explained his famous teaching on the two kingdoms (or governments) in this text also.  God has established a temporal government to rule the world and a spiritual government “by which the Holy Spirit produces Christians.” (Ibid., p. 91) While Luther certainly recognized that God had established temporal authority, he never hesitated from criticizing rulers publicly.  For example, here he rebukes rulers for their greed and lack of true ethics:

“…the temporal lords are supposed to govern lands and people outwardly.  This they leave undone.  They can do no more than strip and fleece, heap tax upon tax and tribute upon tribute, letting loose here a bear and there a wolf.  Besides this, there is no justice, integrity, or truth to be found among them.  They behave worse than any thief or scoundrel, and their temporal rule has sunk quite as low as that of the spiritual tyrants.  For this reason God so perverts their minds also, that they rush on into the absurdity of trying to exercise a spiritual rule over souls, just as their counterparts try to establish a temporal rule.  They blithely heap alien sins upon themselves and incur the hatred of God and man, until they come to ruin together with bishops, popes, monks, one scoundrel with the other.” Ibid., p. 109. [Italics added]

Notice how Luther describes God as working against sinful rulers.  In fact, he portrays the confusion of temporal and spiritual rule as God’s judgment on these rulers.  In this section of the work Luther also attacks bishops who act as worldly rulers and not shepherds of souls.  God’s judgment exposes the misuse of both governments.  In light of this judgment, did Luther believe temporal rulers could act justly?  For Luther it was unlikely.  At best rulers could keep social order and punish criminals.  Consider the following statement:

“You must know that since the beginning of the world a wise prince is a mighty rare bird, and an upright prince even rarer.  They are generally the biggest fools or the worst scoundrels on earth; therefore, one must constantly expect the worst from them and look for little good, especially in divine matters which concern the salvation of souls.  They are God’s executioners and hangmen; his divine wrath uses them to punish the wicked and to maintain outward peace.” Ibid., p. 113.






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Petrarch on Copying Books

“Your Cicero has been in my possession four years and more.  There is a good reason, though, for so long a delay; namely, the scarcity of copyists who understand such work. It is a state of affairs that has resulted in an incredible loss to scholarship.  Books that by their nature are a little hard to understand are no longer multiplied, and have ceased to be generally intelligible, and so have sunk into utter neglect, and in the end have perished. This age of ours consequently has let fall, bit by bit, some of the richest and sweetest fruits that the tree of knowledge has yielded; has thrown away the results of the vigils and labours [sic] of the most illustrious men of genius, things of more value, I am almost tempted to say, than anything else in the whole world….” Petrarch, “To Lapo de Castiglionchio, 1355,” in  The Great Tradition: Classic Readings on What It Means to Be An Educated Human Being, ed. Richard M. Gamble. Wilmington 2007, p. 304.

In this letter Petrarch explained to his friend, Lapo da Castiglionchio, why he had not returned the copy of Cicero’s writing(s) to his friend for many years.  Petrarch lived before movable type printing existed in Europe.  This meant that books had to be copied by hand in order to make a new manuscript of the original text.

Petrarch lamented his ability to read while he copied the text.  He wrote to Lapo da Castiglionchio: “So the pen held back the eye, and the eye drove on the pen, and I covered page after page, delighting in my task, and committing many and many a passage to memory as I wrote.  For just in proportion as the writing is slower than the reading does the passage make a deep impression and cling to the mind.” Ibid., p. 305.

Is this not the same method that medieval monks called lectio divina? Copying, reading, and memorization transform the one who performs this task.  However, Petrarch will demonstrate the classical foundations of this practice.  How fitting for the father of Renaissance humanism!

“And yet I must confess that I did finally reach a point in my copying where I was overcome by weariness; not mental, for how unlikely that would be where Cicero was concerned, but the sort of fatigue that springs from excessive manual labour [sic].  I began to feel doubtful about this plan that I was following, and to regret having undertaken a task for which I had not been trained; when suddenly I came across a place where Cicero tells how he himself copied the orations of—someone or other; just who it was I do not know , but certainly no Tullius, for there is but one such man, one such voice, one such mind.” Ibid., p. 305.

Copying a book was difficult physical work.  Reading and remembering the text exercises the intellect.  Petrarch realized that Cicero himself copied texts to study them more closely and to avoid idleness.  Filled with shame, Petrarch now understood the importance of copying significant texts to study them more closely.  This fact inspired him to continue the arduous physical task of copying the text and the mental effort associated with reading them.


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The Power to Tax is the Power to Control

“This power, exercised without limitation, will introduce itself into every corner of the city, and country.—It will wait upon the ladies as their toilett [sic], and will not leave them in any of their domestic concerns; it will accompany them to the ball, the play, and the assembly; it will go with them when they visit, and will, on all occasions, sit beside them in their carriages, nor will it desert even at church; it will enter the house of every gentleman, watch over his cellar, wait upon his cook in the kitchen, follow the servants into the parlour [sic], preside over the table, and note down all he eats or drinks; it will attend him to his bedchamber, and watch him while he sleeps; it will take cognizance of the professional man in his office, or his study; it will watch the merchant in the counting-house, or in his store; it will follow the mechanic to his shop, and in his work, and will haunt him in his family, and in his bed; it will be a constant companion of the industrious farmer in all his labour [sic], it will be with him in the house, and in the field, observe the toil of his hands, and the sweat of his brow; it will light upon the head of every person in the United States.  To all these different classes of people, and in all these circumstance, in which it will attend them, the language in which it will address them, will be GIVE! GIVE!”  ‘Brutus,’ Essay VI (December 27, 1787) in The Anti-Federalist Papers and the Constitutional Debates, ed. Ralph Ketcham (New York, 2003), pp. 297-98.

This excerpt comes from the comments of an Anti-Federalist critic of the Constitution submitted to the States by the members of the Convention in Philadelphia.  The anonymous, ‘Brutus,’ was responding to those who promoted ratification of the new constitution by New York, that is, what is now called the Federalist Papers. Has the history of the United States since 1789 justified these predictions of ‘Brutus?’

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