Document: Letter 37
Date: after 386
Addressee: Simplicianus
English Translation: FC 26.286-303
Summary of Contents: Stresses the theme that goodness and holiness are true freedoms, while sin is slavery

You remarked recently when we were chatting in a way characteristic of our long-standing affection that it pleased you to have me preach to my people on some of the writings of the Apostle Paul. Since his depth of meaning is understood only with difficulty, he should lead the one who hears him to lofty thoughts and should set on fire the commentator. In some instances, in fact, the speaker engages in exegesis and, having nothing of his own to add, being anxious to say something, fulfills the task of grammarian rather than exegete.

I realize in this complaint the result of our old friendship and, what is more, a tenderly fatherly love (for the passage of time brings intimacy, along with many benefits, but a father’s love does not). Then, too, because I feel that I have already done not without spirit what you are asking, I shall obey your wish, advised and instigated by my own pattern by no means difficult for me. I will not be imitating some great personage, but myself, as I return to some of my own insignificant practices.

Now, as regards our plan, I think that when we express in our sermons the metaphor and representation of the happy life, we have reached a conclusion which most persons, and especially you, a friend, will not find unsuitable. Yet it is more difficult not to displease your judgment than that of most others, though, by your devotion, you lighten the weight of your judgment and render it much milder to me.

Yet the Epistle, which troubled you after you were gone, has to do with the meaning of Paul the Apostle, who says in calling us from slavery to liberty: “You have been bought with a price; do not become the slaves of men.” In this he shows that our liberty consists in the knowledge of wisdom.

This passage has been pitched and tossed on a great mass of discussion by philosophers, who say that every wise man is free, every fool is a slave. This was said long before by a son of David in the words: “A fool is changed like the moon.” A wise man is not shattered by fear, or changed by power, or elated by good fortune, or overwhelmed by sadness. Where there is wisdom there are strength of spirit and perseverance and fortitude. The wise man is constant in soul, not deflated or elated by changing events. He does not toss like a child, carried about by every wind of doctrine, but remains perfected in Christ, grounded by charity, rooted by faith. The wise man is never idle and experiences no changing states of mind. But he will shine like the Sun of justice that shines in the kingdom of His Father.

Let us consider the source of that philosophy from which the patriarchs drew their wisdom and learning. Was not Noe the first to curse his son when he learned that Chanaan had made fun of his nakedness: “Cursed be Chanaan; meanest of slaves shall he be to his brethren,” and he put as lords over him his brothers, who with wisdom knew that they should respect their father’s years.

Did not Jacob, that source of all wisdom, who by reason of his wisdom was preferred to his elder brother, pour an abundance of this reasoning into the hearts of all? Although the devoted father felt a father’s affection for both his sons, he judged each differently (for love is not estranged from kinship, but judgments are formed according to merit). Hence, he gave favor to one, pity to the other, favoring the wise, but pitying the unwise because he could not rise to valorous deeds by his own strength or advance his steps at will. Thus, he blessed him so that he would serve his brother and be his slave, revealing how the lack of wisdom is brought low by servitude, that his slavery may be a remedy for him, because the foolish man cannot rule himself, and if he is without a guide he is undone by his own desires.

After due deliberation, the devoted father made him his brother’s slave so that he would be guided by the other’s prudence. Thus, to indiscreet persons the wise become as rulers to guide by their power the foolishness of the crowd which they rule under the guise of power, when they bring unwilling subjects to obey those who are more wise and to submit to the laws. So he put a yoke on the foolish one as on an unruly man, and he denied liberty to one who he decreed must live by his sword. He put his brother over him so that he might not sin by his temerity, but that, being subject to his authority and limitations, he might come to repentance. Slavery, you see, draws a distinction (some are weak of necessity though strong of purpose, because that is more beautiful which is done not of necessity but willingly), and so he put on him the yoke of necessity and later secured for him the blessing of willing subjection.

Not nature but foolishness makes the slave. Not manumission but learning makes a man free. Esau was born free, but he became a slave; Joseph was sold into slavery, but he was raised to power that he might rule those who had purchased him. Yet he did not slight his obligation to work zealously; he clung to the heights of virtue; he preserved the liberty of innocence, the stronghold of blamelessness. So the Psalmist beautifully says: “Joseph had been sold into slavery. They had bound his feet with fetters.” “He had been sold into slavery,” he says; he did not become a slave. They had bound his feet, but not his soul. How is his soul bound when he says: “The iron pierced his soul”?

Although the souls of others were pierced with sin (iron is sin, because it pierces within), the soul of blessed Joseph did not lie open to sin, but pierced through sin. He was not swayed by the beauty of his mistress charms and so he did not experience the flames of passion, for he was aflame with the greater flame of divine grace. Thus, it is said very aptly of him: “Because the word of the Lord burned him,” and with this he quenched the fiery darts of the Devil.

How was he a slave, the man who showed the princes of his people how to regulate the corn supply, so that they knew beforehand and made provision for the coming famine? Or was he a slave, the man who took possession of the whole country of Egypt and reduced its entire population to slavery? This he did, not in order to put upon them the status of ignoble slavery, but to impose a tax, except upon the property of the priests, which remained free from tax because among the Egyptians the priestly caste was held in reverence.

A sale did not make a slave of him, though he was sold to traders. Thinking in terms of a price, you will find many who have purchased young girls of unusual beauty and, being enamored of them, have reduced themselves to shameful slavery. The concubine of King Darius, Apene, appeared sitting on his right when she took the crown from his head and put it on her own, and struck his face with her left hand. The king gazed at her with delight and smiled when- ever the woman smiled at him. But if she showed contempt for him he thought he was unhappy and distressed, and if he lost his power over her he would speak soft words and beg her to be reconciled with him.

But why do we take great pains to assert this? Do we not ordinarily see parents ransomed by their children when they have fallen into the power of pirates or savage barbarians? Are the laws of ransom stronger than the laws of nature? Is filial piety being forced into slavery? There are merchants of lions, yet they do not rule them, but when they see them angrily shake their shaggy masses from their neck they flee and seek shelter. The money which purchased these masters for them makes no difference, nor do the auction tables on which the buyer is generally judged and sentenced. The agreement does not change his condition of birth or take away the freedom of wisdom. Many free men are servants of a wise slave and he is a wise slave who rules his foolish masters.

Who do you think is more free? Only that wisdom is free which sets the poor over riches and makes slaves draw interest on their masters, not drawing money as interest, but wisdom. That talent draws interest from the Lord’s eternal treasury which is never despoiled and whose gain is priceless. That knowledge draws as interest the silver of heavenly speech of which the Law says: “You shall lend to many nations and you shall never borrow.” The Hebrew loaned to the nations; he did not receive knowledge from the people, but, instead, gave it. To him the Lord opened His treasury to bedew the Gentiles with the water of His speech and make them the prince of nations having no prince above them.

The free man is the wise man who was bought with the price of heavenly speech, the gold and silver of God’s word, bought with the price of blood (not least important is it to know the buyer), bought with the price of grace, for he heard and understood the one who said: “All you who thirst, come to the waters; and you that have no money, make haste, buy and eat and drink.”

The free man is the warrior who sees a woman of comely beauty and takes his enemy’s wealth as booty; then, when he is beset with longing and finds her, he sells what he does not need, removes the cloak she wore when she was taken, and weds the woman who is no longer a slave, but free. He knows that his learning and wisdom will not make him subject to her slavedom. Therefore, the Law says: “She may not be sold for money,” since nothing precious deserves this. And Job says: “Draw out wisdom in deeper places.” The topaz of Ethiopia will not be compared to her, being reckoned more precious than gold and silver.

Not only is the person free who has not fallen to the buyer’s bid, nor seen the finger raised, but that man rather is free who is free within himself, free by the law of nature, knowing that the law of nature has been laid down by custom, not by conditions, and that the extent of man’s duties harmonizes not with his choice but with the teachings of nature. Would that man only seem free to you who appeared as a censor and prefect of morals? Scripture says very truly that the poor will rule over riches, and the borrowers over creditors.

Would that man seem free in your estimation who bought votes for himself with money, standing more in need of the approval of the populace than of the opinion of the wise? Is he free if he is swayed by popular opinion and dreads the whisper of the crowd? The freedman does not receive liberty when the hand of the lictor is laid on him. I consider not wealth but virtue as liberty, for it does not bow to the wishes of the stronger, and it is laid hold of and possessed by one’s own greatness of soul The wise man is always free; he is always held in honor; he is always master of the laws. The law is not made for the just but for the unjust. The just man is a law unto himself and he does not need to summon the law from afar, for he carries it enclosed in his heart, having the law written on the tablets of his heart, and it is said to him: “Drink water out of your own vessels and from the stream of your own well” What is so close to us as the Word of God? This is the word on our heart and on our lips which we behold not but hold.

The wise man is free, since one who does as he wishes is free. Not every wish is good, but the wise man wishes only that which is good; he hates evil for he chooses what is good. Because he chooses what is good he is master of his choice and because he chooses his work is he free. Then, because he does what he wishes the free man is wise. The wise man does well everything that he does. One who does all things well does all things rightly, But one who does all things rightly does everything without offense, without blame, without loss and disturbance within himself. And one who does nearly everything without giving offense acts blamelessly and acts without disturbance to himself, without loss. He does not act unwisely but wisely in all things. One who acts with wisdom has nothing to fear, for fear lies in sin. Where there is no fear there is liberty; where there is liberty there is the power of doing what one wishes. Therefore, only the wise man is free.

One who cannot be forced or held in check is by no means a slave; the wise man cannot be forced or forbidden; a slave, therefore, is not wise. One who does not enjoy what he desires is held in check. But what does the wise man desire except what belongs to virtue and learning, without which he cannot exist? These are in him and they cannot be torn from him. If they are torn away, then he is no longer a wise man, for he is without the habit of virtue and without learning, of which he defrauds himself if he is not a willing broker of virtue. If compulsion is used on him it is clear that he acts unwillingly. In all our deeds there are either corrections by virtue, missteps by malice, or that which is midway or lacking in distinction. The wise man is not forced to virtue but he is a willing follower of it, because in fleeing evil he drives out all that is pleasing [to the senses] and does not let sleep overtake him. In what is neither good nor evil he is not disturbed so as to be swayed to this side and that like the common crowd, but his mind hangs, as it were, in a perfectly balanced scale. Thus, he leans neither entirely toward pleasure nor in the direction of what he should reject, but, showing moderate interest, he remains fixed in purpose. Therefore, it appears that the wise man does nothing unwillingly nor by force. If he were a slave he would be forced; therefore, the wise man is free.

The Apostle, too, declares this to be true when he says: “Am I not free? Am I not an apostle?” Indeed, he is so free that when certain persons slipped in to spy on his liberty, as he himself says, he would not yield in submission for one hour, that the truth of the Gospel might be preached. As one who did not cease he preached willingly. Where there is willingness there is the reward of willingness; where there is necessity, there is subservience to necessity. Willingness is better, therefore, than necessity. The wise man must be willing, the foolish man must obey and serve.

This is the declaration of the Apostle, who says: “If I do this willingly, I shall have a reward. But if unwillingly, it is a stewardship that has been entrusted to me.” The wise man is given a reward, yet he acts willingly; therefore, according to the Apostle, the free man is wise. Hence, he himself cries out: “For you have been called to liberty; only do not use liberty as an occasion for sensuality.” He separates the Christian from the Law that he may not seem to fall under the Law unwillingly. He calls him to the Gospel which they who are willing preach and carry out. The Jew is under the Law, the Christian in the midst of the Gospel. There is slavery under the Law, liberty in the Gospel, for in it is the understanding of wisdom. Everyone who accepts Christ is wise; he who is wise is free; every Christian, then, is both free and wise.

The Apostle has taught me that beyond this liberty there is the liberty of being a slave: “For free though I was,” he says, “I made myself a slave of all that I might gain the more converts.” What lies beyond that liberty except to have the spirit of grace, to have charity? Liberty makes us free before men, charity a friend before God. Therefore Christ said: “But I have called you friends.” Charity is good and of it is said: “By the charity of the Spirit serve one another.” Christ, too, was a servant so that He might make all men free. “His hands have served in the basket.” He who did not think it robbery to be equal with God took the nature of a slave, and He became all things to all men to bring salvation to all.  Paul, an imitator of Him, as if he was under the Law and lived as if outside the Law, spent his life for the advantage of those whom He wished to gain. He willingly became weak for the weak in order to strengthen them; he ran the race to overtake them; he chastised his body to triumph in Christ over natures of bronze.

A wise man, though he be a slave, is at liberty; and from this it follows that, though a fool rule, he is in slavery, and, what is worse, though he have care of a very few, he is slave to more and harsher masters. For he is slave to his passions; he is slave to his own wishes; he cannot escape his rulers night or day because he has these rulers within him; within he suffers unbearable slavery. Slavery is twofold, one of the body and the other of the soul, men being masters of the body, but sin and passion masters of the soul, and from these only liberty of spirit frees a man so that he is delivered from his servitude.

Let us look for that truly wise man, the truly free man, who, although he lives under the rule of many, says freely: “Who is he that will plead against me? Do you alone with- draw your hand from me, and from your face I will not be able to hide; and let not your dread terrify me.”

King David following him said: “Against you only have I sinned.” In his regal position, like the lord of laws he was not subject to laws, but he was guilty before God who alone is Lord of hosts.

Listen to another free man: “But with me it is a very small matter to be judged by you or by man’s tribunal. Nay, I do not even judge my own self. For I have nothing on my conscience…but he who judges me is the Lord.” True liberty belongs to the spiritual man, for he judges all things, but is himself judged by no one, not by anyone who shares his created nature. He knows that he is subject to God alone, who alone is without sin, of whom Job says: “God lives, who so judges me,” for He alone can judge the just man in whose sight the heavens are not pure, nor the lights of the stars shining and clear.

Who is he who puts into the midst of Sophocles’ play those verses which say: “Jupiter is over me but no man”? How much more ancient is Job, how much more aged is David? They should know that they have drawn their excellent sayings from our writers.

Is a man wise if he does not reach the secrets of the Godhead and learn the hidden things of wisdom revealed to him? He alone is wise, then, who uses as his guide God to search out the lair of truth, and although a mortal he becomes the heir of His immortal God, successor by grace and partaker of His joy, as it is written: “Therefore God, your God, has anointed you with the oil of gladness above your fellows.”

If one looks into this state of affairs more closely he will learn how great are the advantages to the wise and how great the hindrances to the unwise, because to the former liberty is a help, to the latter servitude is a hindrance. The wise man emerges as a victor over those who warred with him, triumphing over lust, fear, cowardice, gloom and other vices, until he puts them out of the hold of his mind and beats them back and shuts them from his boundaries and his lands. Like a careful leader he knows he should beware of the onrush of brigands and certain strategies of war by means of which hostile enemies of the soul often throw flaming arrows. For we have certain battles in time of peace and peace in time of war. So he also says: “Conflicts without, anxieties within.” “But in all these we overcome because of him who loved us.” And he says he is frightened neither by troubles, nor persecutions, nor hunger, nor danger, nor death.

Is a man not a slave if he shudders at these [trials] and is fearful of death? Surely he is a slave, and his state of slavery is pitiable. Nothing so reduces the soul to total slavery as does the fear of death. How will that mind raise itself which is cast down, poor and debased, if it has been given over to a whole whirlpool of weakness by its longing for this life? See how the slave says: “I shall hide myself, and I shall be mourning and fearful on earth, and it will happen that whosoever finds me will kill me.” Then, like a slave, he received a mark and he could not escape death. Thus is the sinner a slave to fear, a slave to desire, a slave to greed, a slave to lust, a slave to sin, a slave to anger, and, though such a man appears to himself free, he is more a slave than if he were under tyrants.

The free are those who abide by the laws. True law is a direct statement, true law is not carved on tablets, nor inscribed on bronze, but stamped on the mind and imprinted in the senses. Since a wise man is not under the law he is a law to himself, for he carries the law in his heart in a mode of expression natural to himself and embellished with a sort of heading. Is our blindness such that we do not see very evident declarations of ideas and examples of virtues? How degrading it is that respectable men obey human laws that they may share freedom, yet the wise cast aside and abandon the true law of nature, though they are made to the image of God and bear the true mark of freedom. So great is this freedom that as children we do not know how to be slaves to vice, we are strangers to anger, we are free from greed, unacquainted with lust. How sad it is that we who are born in freedom die in slavery!

This comes from inconstancy and weakness of character, for we are concerned over foolish worries and spend ourselves uselessly. The wise man’s heart, his acts, his work must be deeply rooted and immovable. Moses gave this instruction when his hands became so heavy that Joshua the son of Nun could scarcely hold them up. Yet the people won a victory because, although the work they did was not important, it was full of meaning and courage, not done with a sense of wavering or unsteady purpose, but with the constancy of a well-grounded intention. The wise man stretches out his hands, the fool draws them in, as it is written: “The fool folds his hands together, and eats his own flesh,” for he thinks more of the body than of the spirit. Was it not a daughter of Judah who called to the Lord with outstretched hands: “You know that they have borne false witness against me.” She thought it was better not to sin and to fall into the snare of her accusers rather than to sin under the cloak of impunity. By despising death she preserved her innocence. And was it not the daughter of Jephte who by her own encouraging words confirmed her father’s vow to immolate her?

For contempt of death I do not draw on the books of the philosophers, or the ascetics of India, and the highly praised answer which Calanus gave Alexander when he told him to follow him: “Of what kind of praise do I seem worthy, if you ask me to return to Greece and I can be compelled to do what I do not want to do? Your words are truly filled with authority, but my mind is more filled with liberty.” Then he wrote this letter. Calanus to Alexander: “Friends who do not see our works in their visions are bidding you lay hands and force on the Indian philosophers. You will move their bodies from place to place, you will not force their souls to do what they do not wish any more than you will force rocks and trees to speak. A huge fire burns pain into living bodies and causes destruction; we are above this, we are consumed alive. There is no king or leader who can torture us to do what we have not planned. We are not like the philosophers of Greece who plan their pronouncements on events, looking to the fame of their opinion; we keep a relation between words and deeds. Events are swift; words are short-lived; our freedom is blessed in virtue.”

Famous words, but mere words! Brilliant firmness of purpose, but from a man! A brilliant letter, but from a philosopher! Among us, even maidens climb the steps of virtue mounting to the very sky with their longing for death. What need to mention Thecla, Agnes, and Pelagia, who produced noble offspring, rushing to their death as if to immortality? Amid lions the maidens frolicked and fearlessly gazed on roaring beasts. Let us compare our examples with those ascetics of India: blessed Lawrence proved by his deeds what he had boasted in words, that when he was being burned alive, surviving the flames, he said: “Turn me and eat me.” Not unworthy of the daughter of Abraham was the struggle of the sons of the Machabees: some chanted above the flames, others, while being burned alive, asked not to be spared, but they were so carried away that the persecutor was the more inflamed with anger. The wise man was free.

What example is more sublime than blessed Pelagia, who, when she was overwhelmed by her persecutors, said before she went into their presence: “I die willingly, no one will lay a hand on me, no one will harm my virginity with his shameless glance, I shall take with me my purity and my modesty unsullied. These robbers wll have no reward for their brazenness. Pelagia will follow Christ, no one will take away her freedom, no one will see her freedom of faith taken away, nor her remarkable purity, the product of wisdom. That which is servile will remain here, bound for no use.” Great was the freedom of that pious maiden who, though she was hedged in by lines of persecutors with utmost danger to her purity and life, was in no way shaken.

The man who is ruled by anger is also bound by the yoke of sin. The man who is easily stirred to wrath has dug up sin; “whoever commits sin is a slave of sin.” He is not free who is a slave to greed, for he cannot possess his own vessel. He is not free who, serving his own needs and pleasures, wavers on straying bypaths. He is not free who is warped by ambition, for he is a slave to another’s power. But he is free who can say: “All things are lawful to me, but not all things are expedient. All things are lawful for me, but I will not be brought under the power of anyone. Food for the belly, and the belly for food.” He is free who says: “Why is our liberty judged by the unbeliever’s knowledge?”

Liberty suits the wise, not the unwise, for one who wraps a stone in a hurling machine is like the man who gives honor to a fool. He hurts himself and brings more danger to himself as he throws the javelin. As the harm of a stone is increased by the engine of war and is doubled by its fall, so, too, is the downfall of the fool in freedom more violent. The power of the fool must be curtailed, his liberty should not be increased, because slavery fits him. Thus, Proverbs added: “Thorns grow in the hand of a drunkard, so slavery in the hand of a fool.” As the drunkard is hurt by his drinking, so is the fool by his deeds. The one plunges himself into sin by drinking, the other convicts himself by his work and is dragged into slavery by his deeds. Paul saw himself dragged into bondage by the law of sin, but in order to be freed he took refuge in the grace of freedom.

Fools are not free; it is said to them: “Be not like the horse and the mule, which have no understanding. Control with bridle and bit the jaws of those who come near you. Many are the blows of the wicked.” Many blows are necessary that their wickedness be controlled; training, not harshness, exacts this. Besides, He that spares the rod hates his son,” since each one is punished more heavily for his sins. The weight of sin is heavy, the stripes for crimes are heavy; they weigh like a heavy burden; they leave scars upon the soul and make the wounds of the mind fester.

Let us lay aside the heavy load of slavery, let us give up wantonness and pleasures which bind us with chains of desires and restrain us with their ties. Pleasures do not help the fool, and one who gives himself to pleasure from childhood will remain in slavery, so that, although alive, he is dead. Therefore, let wantonness be cut out, let pleasures be removed; if anyone has been wanton let him say farewell to the past. The pruned vine brings forth fruit, the half-pruned grows, the neglected grows wild. So it is written: “like a man careless of his field is the unwise man, like a man careless of his vineyard is the man bereft of reason; if you abandon it, it will be deserted.” Let us cultivate this body of ours, let us chastise it, let us reduce it to slavery, let us not underestimate it.

Our limbs are means of righteousness; they are also the means of sin. If they are raised, they are the means of justice so that sin does not rule them; but, if the body is dead to sin, blame will not reign over it, and our limbs will be free from sin. Let us not obey its desires, nor give our limbs to sin as the weapons of injustice. If you look at a woman to covet her, your limbs are the weapons of sin. If you speak to her in order to harass her, your tongue and your mouth are the weapons of sin. If you remove the boundary stones laid down by your ancestors, your limbs are the weapons of sin. If you run with hurried steps to shed the blood of innocent people, your limbs are the weapons of evil.

On the contrary, if you see the needy and bring him home, your limbs are the weapons of justice. If you snatch up one who is being led to death, if you tear up the debtor’s bond, your limbs are the weapons of justice. If you confess Christ (the lips of the wise are weapons of the intellect), your lips are weapons of justice. Whoever can say: “I was an eye to the blind, a foot to the lame, the father of the poor,” his limbs are limbs of justice.

Let us who are free from sin, purchased, as it were, by the price of Christ’s blood, let us not be subject to the slavery of men or of passion. Let us not be ashamed to confess our sin.

See how free the man who could say: “I have not been afraid of a very great multitude, so that I would not confess my sin in the sight of all.” One who confesses to the Lord is freed from his slavery: “The just is the accuser of himself in the beginning of his speech.” He is not only free but just, for justice is in liberty, and liberty in confession, and as soon as one has confessed he is pardoned. To conclude: “I said ‘I will confess my iniquity to the Lord,’ and you forgave the guilt of my heart.” The delay of absolution is in the confession, the remission of sin follows confession. He is wise who confesses, he is free whose sins are forgiven and he trails no clouds of sin.

Farewell, and love us as you do, because I also love you.

Translation from FC 26.286-303, adapted by SMT

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