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.

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