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Eyes to See, Hands to Serve: Ambrose's Transformation of Liberalitas

Erin Galgay Walsh

           The reception of Cicero’s work within Ambrose’s De officiis has attracted much scholarly attention, and the range of opinions about his use of Cicero range from outright plagiarism to a complete transformation. By focusing on Ambrose’s treatment of a single virtue, liberalitas (generosity), the independence of Ambrose’s homonymous work becomes apparent. The social function of generosity within Cicero’s discourse on the duties expected of a Roman statesman is maintained in Ambrose’s work, but the motivations and nature of the virtue will be recast in light of the New Testament. Generosity becomes an important virtue within the Christian moral life, and the rigor of Ambrose’s presentation is a reflection of the greater stringency found throughout the work in comparison to the Ciceronian model (Atkins, 51). Cicero anticipates the self-aggrandizing nature of public largesse and tries to curb excesses and abuse through a syncretistic philosophical reflection. Ambrose censures his audience to avoid public display, and he provides a significantly different foundations and exempla for acquiring this virtue. This paper focuses on the way that the late antique writer and bishop appropriated Cicero’s moral vision while challenging Stoic ideals of generosity as insufficient for a Christian social ethic.

            While mapping the relationships among virtues, Cicero places liberality as a sub-category of charity. An integral part of Cicero’s presentation is the role that generosity plays in the development of a public persona, and Ambrose adapts this virtue, seemingly the privilege of the wealthy patrician for Cicero, to function in the public life of the Church as well as in the private lives of Christians. Ambrose also retains the stress Cicero places on the care and thoughtfulness required in the proper practice of liberality (Manning, 73). Ambrose’s departure from the Ciceronian model consists in the parameters he sets for proper motivations as well as his introduction of the term misericordia into his discussion of the virtues. Absent from Cicero’s De officiis, misericordia is often depicted as a character flaw rather than a positive attribute. The comparison of misericordia or pity with clemency in Seneca’s De clementia will provide a window into the ways that pre-Christian Roman philosophers and writers viewed misericordia and will reveal how Ambrose is critiquing the assumptions of the Classical thought he inherits.

            In adapting the format of De officiis for his audience, Ambrose draws upon biblical examples and categories – especially in his espousal of misericordia as essential to the proper Christian practice of liberalitas. In order to link the virtue of generosity to misericordia, mercy or pity, Ambrose appeals to biblical models to demonstrate how generosity, perfected through mercy, displays a love of God and neighbor. The example this paper will focus on is the figure of Joseph, whose life becomes a model for clerics. As a result, the account of this virtue centers on preserving the dignity of the ecclesial institution and extending resources to those who are truly in need. In this way liberalitas, the virtue of a consummate Roman statesman for Cicero, is transformed into the mark of a Christian community and the characteristic of an effective priest.

           The rehabilitation of misericordia, in relation both to generosity but the life of virtue more genuinely, is not a pious addendum to a Ciceronian ethic but a pointed rebuttal to the description we find in writers such as Seneca. Part of Ambrose’s innovation in this work will be answering the Stoic and philosophical challenge about the role of self-interest in the mind of the giver.  Liberality becomes an expression of Christianity’s social vision within the work of Ambrose, and generosity becomes an officia perfecta through the presence of mercy. Within Ambrose’s ideological vision mercy is depicted not as a disconnected imitation of divine largess, but as a participation in a divine economy of mercy. In this way Ambrose's De officiis stands as an example of dynamic Christian appropriation of a Classical literature.

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