Saint Ambrose of Milan (340–397) was a military governor turned Christian bishop. As such, he was concerned about the conduct of the priests under him. He wrote his tract On the Duties of the Clergy, in order to encourage his priests to live virtuous lives. In doing so, he copied the pattern, many of the arguments, and even some of the illustrations of Cicero’s work, On Duties (read about it here).
The structure of both books is the same. As Ambrose explains it: “The philosophers considered that duties were derived from what is virtuous and what is useful, and that from these two one should choose the better” (1.9.27). Both authors explain what is virtuous in the first book, then what is useful in the second, and then how to deal with a conflict between the two in the third.
In explaining the conflict between the two, Ambrose and Cicero are very similar. Ambrose says, “Let not, therefore, expediency get the better of virtue, but virtue of expediency” (3.6.37). Again, “True expediency does not therefore exist where virtue loses more than expediency gains” (3.6.44). Cicero says, “When men detach the useful from the honourable, they undermine the very foundations of nature” (On Obligations, 119).
They are also very similar in their instance on the active life. Both men believed that virtue must have an outward face. The virtuous person does not hide in seclusion but seeks justice for the whole community. As Ambrose says, “We must think it a far more noble thing to labour for our country than to pass a quiet life at ease in the full enjoyment of leisure” (3.3.23). Cicero says, “you should embark on activities which are of course important and highly useful, but are in addition extremely taxing, full of toils and dangers which threaten both life and the many strands that compose it” (24). Activity not passivity is the characteristic of virtue.
This activity must be directed toward the community as a whole, if it is to be really just. Ambrose says, “He who is really wise does not know how to regard his own advantage, but looks with all his desire to that which is eternal, and to that which is seemly and virtuous, seeking not what is useful for himself, but for all” (3.2.12). According to Ambrose, true wisdom leads to a general concern for the community.
That does not mean that we do not focus our efforts to better the community. Both men have a hierarchy of recipients of duty. Both men insist that it is a debt to God, parents, and country that comes first. Cicero places parents in front of country. Ambrose says country before parents, but it is not clear that this is an exact order.
What does it look like to pursue the good of all? Both men have lengthy descriptions. It is by giving help and aid to others that we build a just community. Cicero writes:
Therefore we should follow nature as our guide in this sense of making available shared benefits by exchange of our obligations, by giving and receiving, and in this way binding the community and its individuals closely together by our skills, our efforts, and our talents (10).
Ambrose says the same thing:
Thus, in accordance with the will of God and the union of nature, we ought to be of mutual help one to the other, and to vie with each other in doing duties, to lay all our advantages as it were before all, and (to use the words of Scripture) to bring help one to the other from a feeling of devotion or of duty, by giving money, or by doing something, at any rate in some way or other; so that the charm of human fellowship may ever grow sweeter among us, and none may ever be recalled from their duty by the fear of danger, but rather account all things, whether good or evil, as their own concern (1.28.135).
To build a just community, we have to get out of ourselves and do good unto others. As we do this, “the charm of human fellowship” grows “sweeter among us.” This is the vision for the just community and how we can actively seek to build it.
Clear Heads Needed
Both authors insist that it is important to clear our own heads and think correctly in order to be able to serve others. We will encounter many obstacles on the way, and we must prepare for them.
First of all, this requires wisdom. We have to think ahead. Cicero says that we must learn “disregard for external circumstances, springing from the conviction that a man ought to revere or aspire to or seek nothing except what is honourable and proper, and should not lie down before any man or emotional disturbance or twist of fortune” (24). We should not be moved by the difficulties that we will face.
How do we do this? Ambrose provides advice:
Therefore it is the duty of a brave man not to shut his eyes when anything threatens, but to put it before him and to search it out as it were in the mirror of his mind, and to meet the future with foreseeing thought, for fear he might afterwards have to say: This has come to me because I thought it could not come about (1.38.200).
We see here the connection between wisdom and courage. Wisdom helps courage see the variety of challenges it will face and be ready for them. The more we can think through the challenges in our head, the more we will be ready for them when we meet them face to face.
One striking difference between Ambrose and Cicero is Ambrose’s insistence on the rewards of the future life. In a moving passage, Ambrose explains that this future reward can help us meet the challenges of this life:
A reward future and not present—in heaven, not on earth—has He promised shall be given. What further do you expect? What further is due? Why do you demand the crown with so much haste, before you conquer? Why do you desire to shake off the dust and to rest? Why do you long to sit at the feast before the course is finished? As yet the people are looking on, the athletes are in the arena, and thou — do you already look for ease?” (1.16.59).
If we can train ourselves to anticipate a later reward rather than present comfort, we will be better able to undergo the challenges of pursuing the just community in the present. In this way, wisdom and a faith that can see clearly the future reward will be best equipped to pursue a just and virtuous life.
Ambrose of Milan provides a powerful description of the just and virtuous life. It is clearly constructed out of the thought pattern of Cicero, with some important differences and additions. For the Christian, Ambrose’s work can help us process the work of Cicero for a Christian context. Both works are a strong spur to get out of ourselves and seek an active life that is beneficial for all. Both works provide resources that can help us do the work that we need to do to clear our head so we can serve the community in a life of virtue.