Posted by: ken98 | April 20, 2010

A Very Short Day History-Wise, and Dueling Church Fathers

Day 221 – Ken here (T)(4-20-2010)
(DEF II, v.3, ch.34 pp.310-320)(pages read: 1410)

I am pretty beat today – BUT i don’t think I’ve come across a more meager (in terms of historical grit) passage of 10 pages in Gibbon in the ENTIRE previous 1400 pages I’ve read so far within the first 2 volumes. The only reason I think Gibbon spent so much time on such a petty event (the embassy of Maximin to Attila as told by the historian Priscus) is that Gibbon himself “discovered” this minuscule gem of minor history and wanted to exploit it by first publishing a summary in his 3200 page history (what harm could it do? 10 more pages inserted in the middle of more than three thousand? Who could deny him that?).

As a sociological testament documenting somewhat Attila’s thinking processes, it may have merit – although its difficult to tell where Priscus leaves off and Gibbon’s “reconstructions” (which he admits to over and over again in the footnotes) begin exactly. I’m thinking it comes across intelligible because it was mostly paraphrased and re-written by Gibbon into something more approaching history.

Notwithstanding all its possible faults, the 10 pages today read more like the transcript of a Gibbonian soliloquy at a forgettable afternoon tea party in London than an extract from his serious historical work. I can say it is definitely descriptive, but not particularly informative (which puts these 10 pages on a par with the markings on a yardstick – they appear to describe, but don’t really tell you anything).

But maybe its just me.


A very short day, history-wise. Gibbon spends the next 10 pages describing in excruciating detail a very minor, very specific, very non-eventful embassy from Theodosius II to Attila the Hun (by Maximin in 448). It is notable and remembered because a minor historian Priscus of Panium accompanied and documented the journey, although Priscus did not document it very well, or very accurately. Gibbon ends with a Priscus-derived description of a feeble attempt on Attila’s life by a eunuch sent by Theodosius II which was never completed, was never punished, and leaves the reader wondering why he has been told about it. A very short day, history-wise.

The Story
Theodosius II sends an embassy to Attila (448)
  • They travel a thousand miles without seeing a city
  • Attila lives in a somewhat temporary city made of wood in the middle of the Hungarian steppes
  • At one point in the journey, the men of the expedition are offered the use of damsels for the night. The next day, the lady who had offered the damsels is given presents before they leave
  • Theodosius II bribes a eunuch to make an attempt on Attila’s life – the plot is discovered and fails
  • Attila is stupid like a fox – he gets angry with the Romans over and over again then demands more money to placate his cyclical wrath
  • And that was pretty much it for 10 pages of Gibbon text today



    American Wrestling Association - Logo.  Reading Augustine and Jerome going at each other over the use/misuse of lying in everyday life is a little like watching National Wrestling - seeing two heavyweights slug it out in a very public venue using all their best moves to the best dramatic effect - over trifles.   In a few years, Jerome and Augustine would have more to worry about than scripture and lying - they'd be fighting for their lives (and thier city's lives) in the barbarian invasions (and losing too)

    American Wrestling Association - Logo. Reading Augustine and Jerome going at each other over the use/misuse of lying in everyday life is a little like watching National Wrestling - seeing two heavyweights slug it out in a very public venue using all their best moves to the best dramatic effect - over trifles. In a few years, Jerome and Augustine would have more to worry about than scripture and lying - they'd be fighting for their lives (and thier city's lives) in the barbarian invasions (and losing too)

    Last Word…
    On the Fine Art of Lying – Dueling Church Fathers – Jerome versus Augustine

    Gibbon makes an incredibly opaque reference to dissimulation in his concluding paragraph on the Little Town That Could – Azimuntium (see previous post) (DEF II, v.3, ch.34, p.310) which opened up an interesting vista into the Early Church and specifically the Fathers Jerome and Augustine. In typical caustic prose (and a whining, heavy, sarcastic voice – this must have been the popular mode to write public letters of rebuke to one’s contemporaries in), Jerome answers Augustine on the subject of lying (what must have been a similarly bitter accusatory letter). Jerome argues for relative truth – circumstances and situations dictate the amount of truth you reveal. Augustine argues for absolute truth (which is what you’d expect from a North African and the man who almost singlehandedly came up with the idea of Original Sin, and who had to deal with Donatists – who believed one lie would damn a person to hell for ever) and the inescapable duty of every Christian to always tell the whole truth.

    It’s not often you get to see two venerable old men (well, both were in their 50’s – not so old after all – Jerome was 7 years older than Augustine) calling each other petty nitpickers and fools (at best), and dangerous, misleading shepherds (at worse). It reminds me uncomfortably of a round of Women’s Mud Wrestling on Late Night T.V. – not the best image for a discussion between two Fathers of the Church. The overstated acrimony is a little over the top, but its really part and parcel of Antique rhetoric – it was expected to drastically overstate your own case and ridiculously understate your opponents – and maintain a healthy offensive, disparaging tone throughout the whole exercise.

    It’s actually healthy to see it, as it reminds us that those icons (literally) we see of these two men, are ICONS OF TWO MEN who had all the foibles, weaknesses, and unfortunate luck (our fortunate luck I suppose) to write down and record for all time their mutual bile and enmity for posterity to see. These are the Fathers of the Church, warts and all.

    Here is a sample of Jerome’s Letter back to Augustine (written in 404 – a few years before the West fell apart and the barbarian invasions started – you could still argue these “minor” theological points in public letters and feel you were accomplishing something – a few years later and it was all you could do to shore up the splintering remains of your shattered Roman Worldview and get yourself up in the morning – remember, Augustine wrote the City of God in response to the Sack of Rome 6 years in the future 410 by the Goths)

    From Fathers Online (here)

    This short section starts with a long, 200 word response to Augustine’s apparently simple question – what was the name of that book? Jerome takes advantage of the question to show Augustine’s stupidity and blockhead-ishness. You can just HEAR the complaining, semi-hysterical tone in Jerome’s voice as he corrects the obviously devious or dense Augustine (quoting Augustine’s “statement”, mentioning Augustine’s using the wrong name for a book, endlessly repeating the correct name of the book over and over again, etc). He then begins asking leading questions of Augustine and begins to quote himself in a deprecatory way, reminding Augustine of his sizeable scholarship in this area already, etc etc. Better than the American Wrestling Association and Hulk Hogan.

    Chapter 2

    3. You say that you received from some brother a book of mine, in which I have given a list of ecclesiastical writers, both Greek and Latin, but which had no title; and that when you asked the brother aforesaid (I quote your own statement) why the title-page had no inscription, or what was the name by which the book was known, he answered that it was called Epitaphium, i.e. Obituary Notices: upon which you display your reasoning powers, by remarking that the name Epitaphium would have been properly given to the book if the reader had found in it an account of the lives and writings of deceased authors, but that inasmuch as mention is made of the works of many who were living when the book was written, and are at this day still living, you wonder why I should have given the book a title so inappropriate. I think that it must be obvious to your own common sense, that you might have discovered the title of that book from its contents, without any other help. For you have read both Greek and Latin biographies of eminent men, and you know that they do not give to works of this kind the title Epitaphium, but simply Illustrious Men, e.g. Illustrious Generals, or philosophers, orators, historians, poets, etc., as the case may be. An Epitaphium is a work written concerning the dead; such as I remember having composed long ago after the decease of the presbyter Nepotianus, of blessed memory. The book, therefore, of which you speak ought to be entitled, Concerning Illustrious Men, or properly, Concerning Ecclesiastical Writers, although it is said that by many who were not qualified to make any correction of the title, it has been called Concerning Authors.

    4. You ask, in the second place, my reason for saying, in my commentary on the Epistle to the Galatians, that Paul could not have rebuked Peter for that which he himself had done, Galatians 2:14 and could not have censured in another the dissimulation of which he was himself confessedly guilty; and you affirm that that rebuke of the apostle was not a manœuvre of pious policy, but real; and you say that I ought not to teach falsehood, but that all things in Scripture are to be received literally as they stand.

    To this I answer, in the first place, that your wisdom ought to have suggested the remembrance of the short preface to my commentaries, saying of my own person, What then? Am I so foolish and bold as to promise that which he could not accomplish? By no means; but I have rather, as it seems to me, with more reserve and hesitation, because feeling the deficiency of my strength, followed the commentaries of Origen in this matter. For that illustrious man…

    and on, and on, and on

    and this is the cryptic passage/footnote in Gibbon
    (the text centers around whether it was proper for the town of Azimuntium to lie to Attila about whether or not they had killed Attila’s captured troops, and had freed Romans and deserters whom they had captured – apparently they had lied – and Gibbon thought it ridiculous to question their morals)

    No matter how much Gibbon wants to call it “peevish” and “seeming”, the dispute was real, very real for all participants in the early 400’s. Neither Augustine nor Jerome seem very happy with each other.

    A strict though fruitless inquiry was allowed; but the Huns were obliged to swear that they did not detain any prisoners belonging to the city before they could recover two surviving countrymen whom the Azimuntines had reserved as pledges for the safety of their lost companions. Attila, on his side, was satisfied and deceived by their solemn asseveration that the rest of the captives had been put to the sword and that it was their constant practice immediately to dismiss the Romans and the deserters who had obtained the security of the public faith. This prudent and officious dissimulation may be condemned or excused by the casuists as they incline to the rigid decree of St. Augustin, or the milder sentiment of St. Jerom and St. Chrysostom: but every soldier, every statesman, must acknowledge that, if the race of the Azimuntines had been encouraged and multiplied, the barbarians would have ceased to trample on the majesty of the empire.(38)

    and the footnote:

    Note 038
    The peevish dispute of St. Jerom and St. Augustin, who laboured by different expedients to reconcile the seeming quarrel of the two apostles, St. Peter and St. Paul, depends on the solution of an important question (Middleton’s Works, vol. ii. p. 5-10), which has been frequently agitated by catholic and protestant divines, and even by lawyers and philosophers of every age.

    (DEF II, v.3 ch.34, p.310, fn.37)


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