THE writings of the Fathers once formed the studies of the learned. These labours abound with that subtilty of argument which will repay the industry of the inquisitive, and the antiquary may turn them over for pictures of the manners of the age. A favourite subject with Saint Ambrose was that of Virginity, on winch he has several works, and perhaps he wished to revive the order of the vestals of ancient Rome, which afterwards produced the institution of Nuns. His “Treatise on VIRGINS” is in three volumes. We learn from this work of the fourth century the lively impressions his exhortations had made on the minds and hearts of girls, not less in the most distant provinces, than in the neighbourhood of Milan, where he resided. The virgins of Bologna, amounting only, it appears, to the number of twenty, performed all kinds of needlework, not merely to gain their livelihood, but also to be enabled to perform acts of liberality, and exerted their industry to allure other girls to join the holy profession of VIRGINITY. He exhorts daughters, in spite of their parents, and even their lovers, to consecrate themselves. “I do not blame marriage,” he says, “I only show the advantages of VIRGINITY.”
He composed this book in so florid a style, that he considered it required some apology. A Religious of the Benedictines published a translation in 1689.
So sensible was Saint Ambrose of the rarity of the profession he would establish, that he thus combats his adversaries: “They complain that human nature will be exhausted but I ask who has ever sought to marry without finding women enough from amongst whom he might choose? What murder, or what war, has ever been occasioned for a virgin? It is one of the consequences of marriage to kill the adulterer, and to war with the ravisher.”
He wrote another treatise On the perhetual Virginity of the Mother of God. He attacks Bonosius on this subject, and defends her virginity, which was indeed greatly suspected by Bonosius, who, however, got nothing by this bold suspicion but the dreadful name of Heretic. A third treatise was entitled Exhortation to Virginity; a fourth, On the Fate of a Virgin, is more curious. He relates the misfortunes of one Susannah, who was by no means a companion for her namesake; for, having made a vow of virginity, and taken the veil, she afterwards endeavoured to conceal her shame, but the precaution only tended to render her more culpable. Her behaviour, indeed, had long afforded ample food for the sarcasms of the Jews and Pagans. Saint Ambrose compelled her to perform public penance, and after having declaimed on her double crime, gave her hopes of pardon, if, like “Sœur Jeanne,” this early nun would sincerely repent: to complete her chastisement, he ordered her every day to recite the fiftieth psalm.
¶ This article is revised and abridged from a longer piece in early (1790s) editions of the Curiosities entitled ‘Saint Ambrose.’ The earlier article begins with the first sentence above, before continuing thus:
…are at present rarely known even by their titles. There are, however, in these labours splendid, passages, and numerous instances of that subtilty of argument which will repay the industry of the inquisitive. In the literary History of France, these writings are liberally quoted in the criticisms which its erudite authors have given us. I shall notice some works of Saint Ambrose, which serve to display those nice distinctions in which the ancient Fathers and modern Casuists once delighted.
Saint Ambrose wrote a treatise on Silence. In this work he enters into a detail of the dangers to which we are exposed by an intemperate use of the tongue, and touches on the advantages of silence.
“How many are there who sin in speaking (such are his expressions) while how few are there who sin by preserving a strict silence. It is for this reason more difficult to know how to remain silent than to speak.”—But he does not wish that this silence should be idle and unfruitful; he would rather that it should teach us to guard our heart and conduct our tongue. He even acknowledges that it is useful, and sometimes necessary, to break it, so that it be done with mildness, with modesty, and with circumspection. It was thus that David taught us to preserve silence; a mode of preserving it very different from that which Pythagoras inculcated to his disciples.
Ambrose composed another book On the Benefits of Death. He there shews its advantages; and begins by starting this objection—Why is Death not an evil, since it is so contrary to Life? On this he distinguishes three sorts of death: the death which occasions sin, and murders the soul; the death of sin, which he calls a mystic death; and the natural death, which terminates the course of life, and separates the soul from the body. We acknowledge that the first sort of death is a great evil, as the second is a great good. It is not so with the third. The just regard it as fortunate, and others fear it as a dreadful punishment. He observes, that this fear arises only from our weakness, and from the illusions which the false pleasures of life present us with. To dissipate this fear, we must consider how many afflictions, bitternesses; chagrins, cares, temptations, perils, &c. we are surrounded with in this world, and that the longer we remain in it we shall augment the number of our sins. He then shews, that death delivering us from all these evils, it should be regarded as an advantage, and that we should not therefore fear it.
After having extracted thus much on Silence and Death, I shall notice another more curious and amusing labour…
After which D’Israeli turns to Ambrose’s writings on Virginity, as outlined above.