Sunday, December 10, 2006

Sulpicius Severus-Life of St. Martin- Preface

Now that the baby excitement has eased down and that the Patristics Carnival has been posted, it is time for me to get on with my promised series on Sulpicius Severus's Life of Saint Martin, Bishop and Confessor (Yes, that is the full title). Adrian Murdoch on Bread and Circuses has saved me the work of a detailed introduction to Severus, so I won't concentrate on this. A few brief words on the actual work, I think, are warranted.

The Life of St. Martin was probably written shortly before St. Martin's death around AD 397. This saint's life was considered, despite Sulpicius Severus' coy denials, a literary masterpiece and exercised a major influence on the Latin hagiograhic tradition. The subject, St. Martin, Bishop of Tours, is portrayed as being a true man of God, whose faith and holiness is demonstrated by his abundant miracles. Born in the 330s, he belonged a military family and was compelled to serve in the Roman army until AD 356. As bishop and monk, St. Martin found himself heavily involved in promoting monasticism in the West, evangelizing the countryside around Tours and involving himself in the ecclesiastical controversies in the West including Arianism (as a protege of St. Hilary of Poitiers) and the Priscillianist controversy.

The first installment of my translation will be the preface to the whole work. My general procedure will be to post the translation and, then, a brief informal commentary on the passage. Please feel free to criticize or comment on either translation or commentary.

Preface: Severus, to his very dear brother, Desiderius

Truly, my like-minded brother, I had decided to conceal in its own pages this little book which I wrote about the life of Saint Martin and to confine it within my domestic walls. Since I am very weak by nature, I was trying to avoid human judgement so that, as is likely, my rather uncouth style should not displease my readers and I should not be judged worthy of everyone’s reproach because I rashly took up material which ought to have been in justice reserved for skilled writers. But, I cannot deny anything you often ask for. For what is there that I would not bestow on you for the sake of your love, even at cost of my disgrace? (2) Nevertheless, I give this book to you because of your promise on the clear understanding that I think it ought not be shown to anyone Yet, I fear that you will serve as a door for it and what was sent out once cannot be called back. (3) If it should happen that you see it is read by other people, you will demand indulgence from its readers so that they should ponder the subject matter rather than the words and bear it calmly, if its defective style should perhaps injure their ears. (4) After all, the Kingdom of God does not depend on eloquence, but on faith. Let them even recall that salvation for the world was not foretold by orators, but by fishermen, since, if oratory had been useful, certainly our Lord could have excelled in it. (5) For, when I first applied my mind to writing, I considered it a sin to conceal the virtues of so great a man, so I decided in my own mind that I should not blush at my grammatical errors. I had never attained great skill in these matters and, even if I had perhaps once tasted these studies, I would have lost all of my skill through long neglect. (6) But, nevertheless, not to linger on so painful a defence, if it seems good to you, let this book be published with the name suppressed. Erase the title on the front as much as you can so that the page may be silent. It is enough to let it speak to the subject matter, not to the author.


To start with, I should note that I haven't had a chance to nail down who the addressee, Desiderius. I'm not even sure we know, but a search of the PLRE (Prosopography of the Later Roman Empire) might turn something up.

I think the noticable thing here is the very commonly used pretence of literary incompetance which characterizes this preface. In itself, this is not an uncommon introduction to a literary work, partly because, even among pagan writers, excessive eloquence was viewed as being slightly suspect. This connects to the distrust we find in philosophy (especially) to the sophists, who were, among other things, rhetoricians whose concern with the manner of speaking was seen as overriding their concern with truth. Plato's animosity to the sophists is only one example of this.

However, Christian writers are even more susceptible to this distrust of literary eloquence. Part of this is a distrust of pagan arts in general, but also the recognition, which Severus alludes to in section 4, that the earliest Christians were not among the literati, nor did they need to be. Many intellectuals even in the 4th century turned up their noses at the writing style of the New Testament (Augustine for one), but the reaction of many Christian writers to this cricismwas to take pride in and imitate their simple and, perhaps, uncouth (meaning non-literary) style. This is not true of all the Fathers, but this disavowal of literary skill remains an important trope in Christian writing in the age of the Fathers.

Of course, Severus is a better writer than he lets on, but his show of modesty is designed to focus attention away from himself and towards the text.

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