St. Theonas on pagan literature

This selection is from a letter written by St. Theonas of Alexandria, Pope of Alexandria in 282-300, to a Christian named Lucianus, who, along with several other Christians, was a personal attendant of the Roman emperor (probably Diocletian, before the persecution under him began). The entirety of the short letter is fascinating and can be read online here. I am here reproducing this section of the letter because I believe its treatment of how a Christian librarian for the pagan Roman emperor should treat literature both pagan, Jewish, and Christian is interesting and illuminating in its reflection of the appreciation for early Christians, especially in the Alexandrian school of this period, for the knowledge and wisdom of Greece and Rome, an attitude that would carry on to make the Middle Ages, arguably and in spite of its several problems, the brightest period in the history of Western Civilization. St. Theonas also presents the attitude which Christians should, if we wish to continue in the spirit of our ancient forebears, continue to carry today toward the great works of literature both of pagan antiquity and of the non-Christian world more generally. In the sections preceding the quoted portion, St. Theonas has spoken about the responsibilities of the emperor’s treasurer, clothing-attendant, and cup-bearer, each of whom had charge over a vast wealth of gold, jewels, and apparel. He then begins:

The most responsible person, however, among you, and also the most careful, will be he who may be entrusted by the emperor with the custody of his library. He will himself select for this office a person of proved knowledge, a man grave and adapted to great affairs, and ready to reply to all applications for information, such a one as Philadelphus chose for this charge, and appointed to the superintendence of his most noble library—I mean Aristeus, his confidential chamberlain, whom he sent also as his legate to Eleazar, with most magnificent gifts, in recognition of the translation of the Sacred Scriptures; and this person also wrote the full history of the Seventy Interpreters. If, therefore, it should happen that a believer in Christ is called to this same office, he should not despise that secular literature and those Gentile intellects which please the emperor. To be praised are the poets for the greatness of their genius, the acuteness of their inventions, the aptness and lofty eloquence of their style. To be praised are the orators; to be praised also are the philosophers in their own class. To be praised, too, are the historians, who unfold to us the order of exploits, and the manners and institutions of our ancestors, and show us the rule of life from the proceedings of the ancients. On occasion also he will endeavour to laud the divine Scriptures, which, with marvellous care and most liberal expenditure, Ptolemy Philadelphus caused to be translated into our language; and sometimes, too, the Gospel and the Apostle will be lauded for their divine oracles; and there will be an opportunity for introducing the mention of Christ; and, little by little, His exclusive divinity will be explained; and all these things may happily come to pass by the help of Christ.

He ought, therefore, to know all the books which the emperor possesses; he should often turn them over, and arrange them neatly in their proper order by catalogue; if, however, he shall have to get new books, or old ones transcribed, he should be careful to obtain the most accurate copyists; and if that cannot be done, he should appoint learned men to the work of correction, and recompense them justly for their labours. He should also cause all manuscripts to be restored according to their need, and should embellish them, not so much with mere superstitious extravagance, as with useful adornment; and therefore he should not aim at having the whole manuscripts written on purple skins and in letters of gold, unless the emperor has specially required that. With the utmost submission, however, he should do every thing that is agreeable to Cæsar. As he is able, he should, with all modesty, suggest to the emperor that he should read, or hear read, those books which suit his rank and honour, and minister to good use rather than to mere pleasure. He should himself first be thoroughly familiar with those books, and he should often commend them in presence of the emperor, and set forth, in an appropriate fashion, the testimony and the weight of those who approve them, that he may not seem to lean to his own understanding only.


Tragedy is one of those words that we, especially Americans, tend to use haphazardly. It’s a pet peeve of mine, but it’s probably just my problem. Every plane crash is a tragedy, a car accident is a tragedy, we stub our toes and we call it tragic. A tragedy is something we ought to see through the Book of Job, we ought to see it through Shakespeare’s characters. We ought to see it — we ought to go back at least as far as Euripides and the Trojan women. What does Hekuba do in the Trojan women but sit in a ghastly scene of an utterly destroyed city? All of her men are dead and she sits wailing to the sky, on a stone, crying, “How can this be?” That’s tragedy. We should see tragedy through Hekuba, or all those women in Drew Faust’s book [Mothers of Invention]. Tragedy can be raw, it can be pointless, it can be utterly unbearable, it can be a dead-end with no exit. Sometimes it is just seemingly faded horror. But sometimes tragedy, throughout its literary history, and then therefore how we tend to use it, tragedy can also be affirmative. It can even be cathartic, and we sometimes can find ways to make it redemptive. It should never be treated with triumphalism. It requires a certain mood.

David W. Blight, Homefronts and Battlefronts: “Hard War” and the Social Impact of the Civil War

A Chinese Buddhist monk visits India under the Guptas

The people are numerous and happy; they have not to register their households, or attend to any magistrates and their rules; only those who cultivate the royal land have to pay (a portion of) the grain from it. If they want to go, they go; if they want to stay on, they stay. The king governs without decapitation or (other) corporal punishments. Criminals are simply fined, lightly or heavily, according to the circumstances (of each case). Even in cases of repeated attempts at wicked rebellion, they only have their right hands cut off. The king’s body-guards and attendants all have salaries. Throughout the whole country the people do not kill any living creature, nor drink intoxicating liquor, nor eat onions or garlic.

Faxian (circa 400-412), quoted in Susan Wise Bauer, The History of the Medieval World, p. 26

Review: Maximus the Confessor: Selected Writings

Maximus the Confessor: Selected Writings
Maximus the Confessor: Selected Writings by George C. Berthold

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This book contains several works by one of the greatest theologians in the history of Christianity. St. Maximus’s approach to theology, in which he married the mystical and doctrinal, has been a major influence on the subsequent development of Christian thought. This book is an edifying pleasure to read and to contemplate throughout. I recommend it to anyone interested in matters of theology.

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The life of beasts and the life of men

Those who live as beasts on the level of sense alone make the Word flesh in a way dangerous to themselves. They misuse God’s creatures for the service of the passions and do not contemplate the reason of wisdom which is manifest in all things to know and glorify God from his works, as well as to perceive whence and what and why and where we are going from the things which are seen. Rather we go groping through the present life in darkness, feeling with both hands nothing but ignorance about God.

St. Maximus the Confessor, Chapters on Knowledge, Second Century, 41