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Works And Letters Of St Ambrose by St. Ambrose

Chapter I. Statement of the reasons wherefore the matters, treated of shortly in the two formerà

Statement of the reasons wherefore the matters, treated of shortly in the two former, are dealt with more at length in the three later books. Defence of the employment of fables, which is supported by the example of Holy Writ, wherein are found various figures of poetic fable, in particular the Sirens, which are figures of sensual pleasures, and which Christians ought to be taught to avoid, by the words of Paul and the deeds of Christ.

1. Forasmuch as your most gracious Majesty had laid command upon me to write for your own instruction some treatise concerning the Faith, and had yourself called me to your presence and encouraged my timidity, I, being as one on the eve of battle, composed but two books only, for the pointing out of certain ways and paths by which our faith progresses.

2. Seeing, however, that certain malicious minds, bent on sowing disputes, have not yet exhausted the force of their assaults, whilst your gracious Majesty's pious anxiety calls me to further labours, inasmuch as you desire to try in more things him whom you have proved in a few, I am resolved to deal somewhat more particularly with the matters whereof I have already treated in a few words, lest it should be thought, not that I have advanced those propositions in quietness and confidence, but that I, having asserted them, doubted and so abandoned their defence.

3. Again, seeing that we spoke of the Hydra and Scylla (I. vi.46), and brought them in by way of comparison, to show how we must beware, whether of the ever-renewed outgrowths of infidelity, or the ill-omened shipwrecks made upon its shallows, if any one holds that such embellishments of an argument, borrowed from the romances of poets, are unlawful, and, from lack of opportunity to speak evil of my faith, assails something in my language, then let him know that not only phrases but complete verses of poetry have been woven into the text of Holy Writ.

4. Whence, for instance, came that verse, |His offspring truly are we,| whereof Paul, by prophetic experience, taught, makes use? The course of prophetic speech avoids neither the Giants nor the Valley of the Titans, and Isaiah spake of sirens and the daughters of ostriches. Jeremiah also hath prophesied concerning Babylon, that the daughters of sirens shall dwell therein, in order to show that the snares of Babylon, that is, of the tumult of this world, are to be likened to stories of old-time lust, that seemed upon this life's rocky shores to sing some tuneful song, but deadly withal, to catch the souls of youth, -- which the Greek poet himself tells us that the wise man escaped through being bound, as it were, in the chains of his own prudence. So hard a thing, before Christ's coming, was it esteemed, even for the stronger, to save themselves from the deceitful shows and allurements of pleasure.

5. But if the poet judged the enticement of worldly pleasure and licence destructive of men's minds and a sure cause of shipwreck, what ought we to think, for whom it hath been written: |Train not the flesh in concupiscence|? And again: |I chastise my body and bring it into servitude, lest whilst I preach to others, I myself become a castaway.|

6. Truly, Christ won salvation for us, not by luxury but by fasting. Moreover, it was not to obtain favour for Himself, but to instruct us, that He fasted. Nor yet did He hunger because He was overcome by the weakness of the body, but by His hunger He proved that He had verily taken upon Himself a body; that so He might teach us that He had taken not only our body, but also the weaknesses of that body, even as it is written: |Surely He hath taken our infirmities and borne our sicknesses.|

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