Philodemus and Aristides

I confess I have not read the recent book by the author “Philodemus” (my pseudonym). From what I have read in various reviews, his arguments do not really engage my own misgivings about the book’s general subject and thesis, so I am not likely to crack it open any time soon. Still, I was reminded of Philodemus’ book while I was rereading Galatians 5 recently. And Paul’s words there about “deeds of the flesh” and “fruits of the Spirit” then got me thinking again about a similar passage in Marcianus Aristides, an Athenian philosopher and Christian apologist active in the early-mid 100s. A figure comparable to Justin Martyr, Aristides wrote a defense of Christianity to either the emperor Hadrian (r. 117–138) or Hadrian’s successor, Antoninus Pius (r. 138–161). In the main, Aristides was trying to demonstrate that Christianity was not a subversive, depraved, and anti-social eastern cult: a religious boogeyman of the sort that had kept respectable Roman officials up at night since the Middle Republic. Aristides addresses the following claim to the emperor:

(Christians) discipline themselves away from every lawless (sexual?) association and every depravity; they neither disdain the widow nor distress the orphan. He who has provides unbegrudgingly for him who has not. If they see a stranger (ξένος, also translated “foreigner”), they bring him under their roof and greet him like a true brother. For they do not call themselves “brothers” according to the flesh but according to the spirit. They are prepared to give their lives for Christ, for they guard his instructions steadfastly, living holy and just lives, just as the Lord God instructed them, giving thanks to him every hour for all food, drink, and all other goods.[1]

From what I gather, Philodemus’ own ideal for the Christian social ethic is rather different from Aristides’ in tone, emphasis, and content. Notably, Aristides’ Christians love their own flesh and blood but also those with whom they share no natural bond. Perhaps I’ve misjudged him from a distance, but I am not sure such universalizing charity can sit comfortably with Philodemus’ program. Divergent too, I think, are the respective attitudes of Philodemus and Aristides toward the host society and its political order. Where I have heard Philodemus is keen to muse on revolutionary resistance, Aristides belongs to that old “fear-God-and-honor-the-emperor” school of political theology. Conceivably, Philodemus and his admirers might reply that the Aristidian Christians were fine in their way, but too pale, thymos-less, and timid to be a model for our particular moment in history. And given that Paul had once called thymos a vice of the flesh revealing a lack of the Spirit and barring practitioners from inheriting the Kingdom of God (Gal. 5:18–21), second-century believers may very well have copped to that particular charge—contemporary efforts to redefine thymos as some kind of classical virtue notwithstanding.

By their actions alone, I think Aristides’ contemporary co-religionists often rebuff any impression of pusillanimity. “Giving their lives for Christ” was not theoretical in this world. A few decades before Aristides penned his defense, Hadrian’s predecessor, Trajan, received a letter from one of his local governors inquiring about how to deal with the bothersome superstition of Christianity. Trajan learned that this governor had already executed multiple Christians who had stubbornly refused repeated chances to foreswear their sectarianism. Assiduous as ever, the governor had also tortured reputed “ministers” of this local community: two female slaves, women at the very lowest, most exposed rung of the Roman social ladder who must have understood the terrible risk they accepted by so serving their church. We don’t hear any more about their fate or how they responded in the face of torture; we don’t even get their names. But in these women, one suspects we have the sort of personal character Aristides had mind, Christians who exhibit the marks of “sonship” described by Paul: cultivated habits of love, joy, peace, long-suffering, beneficence, magnanimity, faithfulness, and a general aversion to hubris.

  1. Fragmenta of Aristides, 15.6–7. My translation, from the text of C. Vona, L’apologia di Aristide, Rome: Facultas Theologica Pontificii Athenaei Lateranensis, 1950: 117-126.


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