Isidore the pastor

Isidore of Pelusium is still writing to those seeking his advice.  The first is an erudite bishop, who would like to be seen as a philosopher.


I find that the definition that the illustrious Job gives of wisdom and knowledge is a happy one: “To worship God is wisdom; to keep far away from evil is knowledge”; because, in truth, the supreme wisdom is a right conception of God, and the divine knowledge is a perfect way of life: the first has a right opinion of the divine, the second keeps far away from evil; the one uses words to speak about God, we estimate the other by its acts. So if one who loves God and is loved by him is at the same time wise and erudite, he has both the virtue of contemplation and the one of action, one as a soul, the other as a body; how can we look like exceptional philosophers if we neglect to live as well as possible and apply ourselves only to speaking well?

Pierre Evieux points out that the last sentence is an echo of the advice of Socrates, in Plato’s Gorgias

Another correspondent considering Christianity is plainly having difficulty with the cult of the martyrs.  The Roman cry of Vae victis – “stuff the losers” – ran all the way through paganism.  How can losing be anything but shameful? 


Defeat, my very wise friend, is not death in combat; it is to be afraid of the enemy and to throw down your shield: but he whose body lets him down when he tries to show bravery, the rule is that his name is inscribed on the trophy; likewise we see the athletes killed during the fight honoured by the organizers of these combats more than those who did not encounter the same fate. So if this is so, why do think you that, for the martyrs, death is a defeat, instead of seeing in it a reason to celebrate them all the more? Because the end of that combat is not to keep the body alive – which lived only for the torturers and which they put to death – but to not diminish the glory of virtue.

Evieux notes that when gladiatorial games began, a trophy was awarded, inscribed with the names of the gods, especially Zeus; but in a later era, the trophy of victory was inscribed with the names of those killed in the process.

Meanwhile the worldly advantages of a late Roman episcopate continued to have an evil effect on the worse sort of lesser clergy.


If neither the greatness of the episcopate, nor a conduct which in no way deserves it, nor the word of the apostle who defines what a bishop must be, nor the incorruptible tribunal which will pronounce an undeniable verdict, nor anything else draws aside you from the madness which transports you with a foolish desire and makes you hope to buy this dignity, least let yourself be persuaded by the pagans.

It is told that Pittacus received the government of the Mitylenians, and when he had overcome Phrynon, the chief of Rhegion, in single combat he wanted to return this power to them. When they did not agree to receive it, he forced them to. He did not want to be a tyrant, but an ordinary person.

So if one who by risking his life personally had acquired power, voluntarily laid it down — he was removed from danger, he was discharged from tyranny, and that because he had no account to return to anyone — you who are not even in law a simple taxpayer, so it is said, take on a burden with high responsibility, called to return multiple accounts, higher than any human dignity, a burden which you should not accept even if it were offered to you; well! look at what you dream of buying, not only without hiding, but to glorify yourself! Who then will not reproach such an audacity?

 Even the sub-deacons were worrying away at Aristotle (Nicomachean Ethics, V, X, 2-3). “If what is fair and what is just are equal, prefer to be fair.  What causes the problem is that being fair can be against the law; it’s like watering down justice.”  Isidore replies:


It would be right that a fair man should adopt an attitude more human than the man of a too strict justice. Because it is more fitting for him to show himself human, than for the man of justice.

Which sidesteps the problem rather, while endorsing Aristotle’s precept.  A problem familiar to every confessor, and to every self-help group, follows:


Better not to be caught by vice; if we are caught, it is to better know that we are caught and quickly to become ourselves again, like after getting drunk. Because he who is caught but does not think of being caught, his sickness is incurable.

Education is the concern of everyone who finds himself a parent.  The school curriculum remained based on the pagan classics as late as 1453.  But the tension between the Christian family and the needs of a worldly education remain even today.  Isidore highlights the key point:


Those who when their children are still very small in the first place sow a notion of excellence and divine providence, in the second place a sense of virtue, these, because they are not only parents but also excellent teachers, will obtain divine rewards. While those who implanted polytheism and vice in them, since they sacrificed their children to the demons, will receive the reward which they deserve.


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