The Academy for the Study of Saint Ambrose of Milan
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“What It Means to be Virtuous”


by Alyssa Stark

The concepts of duty and what makes a person virtuous are very closely related. Duty can be classified as many things such as one's: responsibility, obligation, commitment, job, or an office they hold. St. Ambrose wrote whole book called de Officiis in which he describes what one's duty in life is and what characteristic a person must have to be considered virtuous.

Before Ambrose wrote the book de Officiis, Cicero wrote about a similar topic. Mark D. Jordan states that: "Cicero's De officiis is often described as a treatise in three books that reviews and partly revises Stoic teaching on moral obligation. It avows itself as a letter from a father to his son who is away at school". Ambrose's De officiis is very similar to Cicero's writing. The main difference between Cicero's writing and Ambrose's writing is the examples which they use to back up the points that they are trying to get across. Jordan states that:

The importance of the Scriptures in Ambrose's rewriting of Cicero can be seen more sharply in the choice of examples. Cicero layered his examples from the personal through familial and the national to the simply human. In Ambrose, the examples are from "our Scriptures", which provide the story of their family, their nation and even, their species. (ibid.p 493)

Taking this into account this makes Ambrose's piece much more relevant to Christians. It is easier to understand what one's duty in life is when it is mapped out in a way that comes from the view point of the people who are going to be reading it, which in this case is are Catholics. Ambrose felt very passionately about what a person's duty as a Catholic was, De officiis, does a great job of explaining what that duty is.

In order to fulfill one's duties they must become a virtuous person. There are four virtues a person must have to be considered virtuous. These four qualities are prudence, temperance, justice, and fortitude. The virtues of prudence and justice are closely related. This is because "justice cannot exist without prudence, since it demands no small amount of prudence to see whether a thing is just or unjust... Nor, on the other hand, can prudence exist without justice, for piety towards God is the beginning of understanding. On which we notice that this is a borrowed rather than an original idea among the worldly wise, for piety is the foundation of all virtues". (ibid.127.126) It is correct to think that prudence is the "foundation" of all virtues. Prudence can be defined as pausing and thinking before reacting to a situation. Before reacting or having temperance one must pause and think. Before judging if a situation is just or not one must pause and think. Before having the strength or fortitude to follow through on an action one must pause and think. Without the presence of prudence none of the other virtues could exist. Once someone accomplishes becoming prudent they are on their way to being considered a virtuous person and fulfilling one of Ambrose's many duties.

The first duty then is to have due measure in our speech. In this way a sacrifice of praise is offered up to God; thus a godly fear is shown when the sacred Scriptures are read; thus parents are honoured...A wise man, intending to speak, first carefully considers what he is to say, and to whom he is to say it; also where and at what time. There is therefore such a thing as due measure in keeping silence and also in speaking; there is also such a thing as a due measure in what we do. It is a glorious thing to maintain the right standard of duty. ( officies.I.10.35)
What this quote is saying is what it means to show respect for who someone is talking to. It is one's duty in life to pause before speaking, think of the appropriateness, and phrasing of what they are about to say before they say it. Everyone should talk to everyone around them with the respect they would use if they were to be talking to God. This can be related to the virtue of prudence because it highlights how important it is consider the setting before speaking.

The next virtue that is needed to be considered virtuous is temperance. Temperance is how one reacts to a situation. In applying temperance, : "One must also in every action consider what is suitable for different persons, times, and ages, and what will also be in accordance with the abilities of individuals. For often what befits one does not befit another; one thing suits a youth, another an old man; one thing does in danger, another in good fortune." (ibid.42.222) This is saying that not every situation can be handled the same way. The ability to look at a situation and decide how to go about reacting to it lies within the presence or lack of temperance. When someone acquires the capability to look at a situation and first pause and think about it, and second decide how they want to react to it, they have two out of the four virtues needed to be considered a virtuous person.

The third virtue one needs to have to be considered virtuous is the ability to judge if a situation is just or unjust. Ambrose gives a hierarchy in which justice should be shown: "But the piety of justice is first directed towards God; secondly, towards one's country; next, towards parents; lastly, towards all... we love life as the gift of God, we love our country and our parents; lastly, our companions, with whom we like to associate. Hence arises true love, which prefers others to self, and seeks not its own, wherein lies the pre-eminence of justice". (ibid.27.127) In order to be just one must not be selfish. The way Ambrose is approaching justice is by putting forward four things that should come first in our lives before we start worrying about ourselves. The first is God. Anything that gets in the way of our love for God is unjust, anything that gets in the harms something that God has created is unjust. The next is our country. Living in America it is obvious what it means to be patriotic. Based on the preceding quote Ambrose is saying that anything that gets in the way of our love for our country, or prohibits us from being as patriotic as possible is unjust. Love for parents is the next thing in Ambrose's hierarchy. Any action that would harm one's parents is unjust; anything that gets in the way our love for our parents is unjust. The same goes for companions, or friends. Anything that would harm a person's friend is to be considered unjust; anything that would cause harm to a friendship is considered to be unjust. The final thing that Ambrose says is the broadest. That is that "true love prefers others to self" this is saying that when a person has the virtue of justice they put others before themselves, and judge any situation as unjust if it negatively affects another person.

The final virtue is fortitude. Ambrose breaks fortitude up into two parts: as it pertains to war, and as it pertains to home. Ambrose states: "The thought of warlike matters seems to be foreign to the duty of our office, for we have our thoughts fixed more on the duty of the soul than on that of the body; nor is it our business to look to arms, but rather to the affairs of peace". (ibid.35.175) In this Ambrose is saying that it is not in our obligations as a Catholic to be involved in war, but rather to learn how to solve things peacefully without violence. When a person achieves the skill of learning to cope with issues non-violently they can be considered a virtuous person. Fortitude also has a lot to do with justice. Ambrose states that: "fortitude without justice is the source of wickedness. For the stronger it is, the more ready is it to crush the weaker, while in matters of war one ought to see whether the war is just or unjust." (ibid.35.176) Within a virtuous person there must be a balance of fortitude and justice. Fortitude has the capability of being very powerful, but only if a person has the justice to correctly decide if a situation is just or unjust and what actions need to be taken.

It is intriguing to think about what causes a person to become virtuous. In Ambrose's time it was ingrained in each person what it took to become a person of virtue. Whether they knew it from the writings of Ambrose himself, by reading the bible, or by having people who led by example, there was no question as to when a person was being virtuous and when they were not. In the world today, there is not the luxury of knowing what it takes to be a person of virtues. In fact if one is not explicitly told what the virtues are, there would be no way of knowing. This leads to the question: How do people know then how to live their life in a virtuous manner?

There are many ways that people acquire the knowledge of how to act in an acceptable or virtuous manner. One way is by parents letting their children know what it takes to live virtuously. The next way is learning by experience. Usually people learn if how they are acting is virtuous or not by how it is received by others. The next way people learn what is a virtuous way of living is by the media. The media has an overriding influence on how people act. Whether it is by stories on the news, movies and television shows, video games, or social networking, people tend to follow the crowd and usually the way different crowds are acting causes tension between people. This tension then causes people to be considered not virtuous.

One way people can decide if something is virtuous or not is by watching stories on the news. Stories chosen to be on the news usually are ones that deal with violence, crime, and other non-virtuous things. When one sees that someone is doing something not virtuous (stealing, killing, fighting) they may start to think that those actions are ok, thus mimicking them and making themselves also a non virtuous person. This situation can work in the opposite way also. If a teenager watched a movie about someone who instead of fighting paused, thought, and turned the other cheek they may be more inclined to do the same when they are in a similar situation. In that situation the virtue of prudence would be what they were practicing. Using this virtue starts the process of becoming a more virtuous person.

In recent news there have been a lot of stories related to the bullying of those who are homosexual. Anyone who causes someone to feel inferior due to their sexuality is not a virtuous person in any aspect. All four virtues can be applied to the topic of bullying those based on one's sexuality. According to Ambrose these virtues would be prudence, temperance, justice, and fortitude. When someone bullies someone based on their sexuality they are definitely not practicing the virtue of prudence. Practicing prudence would require pausing and thinking before saying anything hurtful about someone. Someone's sexuality does not define them, and when one does not pause and think and realize that they cannot be considered virtuous. The next virtue is temperance or how one acts in a situation. When someone realizes that a person is homosexual the next thing they must do is decide how to react to that. If they have prudence they will pause and think, decide that that does not change the person they are, and treat them like they would treat anyone else. When someone acquires both prudence and temperance they are halfway to becoming a virtuous person. The third virtue is justice, or judging if a situation is just or unjust. This seems to come in when dealing with observing that someone is being bullied due to their sexuality. If someone possesses the virtue of justice, they will stick up for the person who is being bullied, and realize that they don't deserve to get treated different than anyone else. Possessing the virtue of justice is probably one of the hardest virtues to attain, and when one does, it is something to be commended. The final virtue fortitude, or backing up how one feels about something with actions. This virtue goes along with justice. If someone decides that someone who is homosexual should not be bullied, but does not back that thought up with action they cannot be considered virtuous. This virtue goes well with the saying "actions speak louder than words". I feel St. Ambrose would appreciate this quote a lot as it pertains to justice and fortitude. One can talk about how something is unfair all they want but until they act on it, and prove to those around them that how they feel can be justified nothing can be resolved.

Although the focus in the preceding paragraphs has been related to the bullying of homosexuals, the issue of non-virtuous people extends far beyond that. It can be related to the littlest slip in prudence, to the total lack of fortitude and everywhere in between. The truth is that unless people are explicitly told that what they are doing is wrong, and non-virtuous, nothing is going to change. However, my hope for the world is that someday in future everyone uses prudence, justice, fortitude, and temperance in their day to day life. This would make the world a much more accepting place to live. I feel like this is how St. Ambrose felt about the topic of virtues too. He probably knew that at some point virtues wouldn't be the focus of daily life and people would need to be reminded of what these virtues were. He accomplishes that goal in the book de OfficiesDe Officies reminds everyone from the 4th century to the 21st century what it means to be a virtuous person. This book makes Ambrose relevant in the world today, and his take on virtues is reason enough as to why him, and his works should still be studied to date.