Saturday, December 23, 2006

Sulpicius Severus, Life of Martin, 1

Here is the second installment of the Life of Martin. In this section, Severus gives us a second introduction to the work. That may strike some readers as odd, but it seems the preface may have been a letter to Desiderius as part of the package including the manuscript. It certainly is written in a epistolary style.
(1)The majority of mortals, vainly dedicated to zeal for worldly glory, seek what they believe will be the eternal memory of their name, if they elucidate the lives of famous men in their writing. (2) In any case, although these things do not bring eternal fruit, they do bring the trifling fruit of the hope they conceived. They preserve their own memory, but to no purpose, since their readers are roused in a great degree to emulate the examples of the great men placed before them. Nevertheless, this concern of theirs in no way pertains to the blessed, eternal life. (3) In what way does the glory of their own writings which will die with the world benefit them? What reward did posterity bring to one who read about Hector fighting and Socrates philosophizing, since it would not only be stupid to imitate them, but madness not to attack them zealously? In truth, those who think that human life depends on present actions give their hopes to fables and their souls to the grave. (4) They believe that they must preserve themselves in the memory of men alone, although it is the duty of people to seek eternal life rather than eternal memory, not by writing or fighting or philosophizing, but by living piously, in a holy manner and religiously. (5) Indeed, that human error which is handed down in literature is so powerful that one would assuredly find many imitators of that useless philosophy or that stupid virtue. (6) Hence, I think I will win the reward for my work, if I write fully about the life of that most blessed man who will certainly become an example to others so that those reading this will surely be aroused to true wisdom, heavenly service and divine virtue. We also make plans for our benefit so that we will not wait for the useless memorials of people, but rather the eternal reward by God. Although we did not live in such a way that we were able to be an example to others, nevertheless, we gave this work so that the person who should be imitated was not concealed. (7) In this way, I shall begin to write about the life of Saint Martin; both what he did before he became bishop and what he did during his episcopacy, even if I was unable to discover everything about him. Those things which he alone knew are not known because he did not seek praise from people, but, as much as he could, he had wished to hide all his virtues. (8) We also omitted many things which we discovered about him because we believed we said enough, if we just noted his superiority. . At the same time, we had to consider our readers so as not to put them off with the mass of details. (9) But I beg those who about to read this book believe what is said and don’t think that I wrote anything unless I researched and proved it. Otherwise, I would have preferred to be silent than to speak lies.


This passage moves away from the self-effacement of the previous passage, but continues to explore the ideas around fame that Severus already alluded to. The contrast between worldly fame and heavenly glory is, of course, a standard one in patristic writers. The reason for that is that they are reacting to the desire of pagan authors for eternal fame which we can see in Thucydides (whose history of the Peloponnesian War (5th century BC) was designed to last forever) for one. Eternal fame belongs, as Severus points out, to the world, so is not a sufficient motivation for doing anything, much less writing.

Severus also nods to the biographical tradition which flourished throughout the Roman period. Biography, of course, emerges as a genre in the course of the Hellenistic Age (c. 330s BC), partly because of the movement to more autocratic political systems and partly because of the greater interest in character engendered by Plato and Aristotle (especially the latter). The genre is relentlessly didactic and moral, even in its pagan form. The intention is serve as a moral example to the presence by highlighting the good, the bad and the ugly in the lives of famous men. The biographies of Plutarch in Greek, and Cornelius Nepos and Suetonius (most of which are lost), are excellent examples of this genre.

Yet, there is something fundamentally different about hagiography (the Christianized version of biography). The didactic tone is retained, clearly, but the values are fundamentally different. There is no longer concern with the 'civic' virtues or the lure of fame, but rather the focus is on the Christian virtues and holy living. The culture clash between Christian and pagan culture can be seen here, especially in Severus' disavowal of worldly values in favour of heavenly ones in his account of Saint Martin.

Yet, despite the bad name that hagiography has received in the last few hundred years, Severus is careful to enunciate his historical principles. He asserts that he has researched his subject and that he has done is level best to make sure that what he has included is based on reliable evidence. A cynical person might say that these protestations are formulaic and perhaps Severus protesteth too much. Yet, we do have to remember that Severus is slightly younger contemporary of Saint Martin, who knew Martin and those who knew Martin intimately. He, certainly, had access to information. That isn't a guarantee for Severus' reliability, but it should cause pause for the cynic.

This is an openly didactic work. Saint Martin is meant to be an example to us of a life of Christian virtue. We'll see how that begins to play out in the next installment in a couple of weeks.


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