Academic journal article Logos: A Journal of Catholic Thought and Culture

Sulpicius Severus's Life of Saint Martin: The Saint and His Biographer as Agents of Cultural Transformation

Academic journal article Logos: A Journal of Catholic Thought and Culture

Sulpicius Severus's Life of Saint Martin: The Saint and His Biographer as Agents of Cultural Transformation

Article excerpt

MARTIN OF TOURS (c. 336-97) was a Roman soldier living in Gaul when Rome was abandoning paganism and embracing Christianity. Roman civic institutions were disappearing with the collapse of military security and political order in the West. Yet the intellectual legacy of Rome was continuing in the Church. By this time, many Christians had received a classical Roman education and were beginning to make their distinct contribution to the Western literary tradition. Justin Martyr (c. 100-60) was an early prominent Christian who had received a classical education. As a converted man of letters Justin directed his literary skill at the critics of the Christian faith in his Apologies and his Dialogue with the Jew Trypho. Athenagorus (c. 177), an Athenean, wrote an eloquent defense of Christianity addressed to the philosopher-emperor Marcus Aurelius. (1) The Catechetical School at Alexandria yielded a corpus of learned Christian philosophical and theological writings through Clement and his pupil Origen. Cyprian of Carthage (d. A.D. 258) wrote many letters addressing various pastoral and theological questions facing the persecuted Church of his day, letters known and long revered for their content and style. (2) Eusebius of Caesarea (c. 263-339) made his great literary contribution in his Ecclesiastical History, recounting the history of the Church from the time of the Apostles to the reign of Constantine the Great. All of these classically trained thinkers were responding to what historian of rhetoric James J. Murphy identified as "the problem of defining the intellectual base for a culture which would permit the Church to perform its duty of leading men to salvation." (3) This duty of leading souls to salvation required the use of the intellectual goods of Greco-Roman culture, goods that first had to be removed from their original pagan contexts before they could be placed in the service of the Church. This translatio from a pagan to a Christian context could not help but alter the signification of the various terms, concepts, and ideas, which constituted a genuine transformation of culture. (4)

To this great tradition Sulpicius Severus (363-c. 420) added his Life of Saint Martin. Like the other great thinkers of the early Church, Sulpicius received a typical Roman education consisting of rhetorical and literary studies, which included Virgil, Terence, Sallust, Cicero, Horace, and Plautus. (5) In this area he would have had much in common with his pagan contemporaries. Clare Stancliffe writes that Sulpicius's formal education "was virtually unaffected by the rise of Christianity. The teaching of Christian beliefs and morals was the affair of the family, and of the Church; it in no way replaced the standard classical education." (6) This commonality with the pagan Roman tradition was the source of considerable tension in the minds of many Christian thinkers, creating an ambivalence experienced by individuals of such stature as Ambrose and Jerome. Ambrose claimed to prefer the simple style of the Scriptures to the polished language of orators, yet he modeled his De officiis ministrorum, a manual for training priests, on Cicero's De officiis. (7) The well-known experience of Jerome more forcefully exemplifies this ambivalence, when Christ chides him with the words: "Thou art not a Christian, but a Ciceronian." (8) Nevertheless, later in life Jerome would recommend Cicero as an oratorical model to his students. (9) Sulpicius, however, did not seem to share this ambivalence. Like Jerome, he was an ascetic; and yet, as Jacques Fontaine writes: "The ascetic of Primuliacum did not experience the anxieties of the 'dream of Jerome'; he intended to live 'as a Ciceronian and a Christian.'" (10) In this he was closer to the position of Augustine, who quite deliberately blended Ciceronian rhetoric with Christian teaching in his De doctrina christiana.

Like his fellow Christian thinkers, Sulpicius took his classical pagan education and transplanted it into a Christian context. …

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