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Works And Letters Of St Ambrose by St. Ambrose

Chapter XLV. On what is noble and virtuous, and what the difference between them isà

On what is noble and virtuous, and what the difference between them is, as stated both in the profane and sacred writers.

228. Let us then hold fast modesty, and that moderation which adds to the beauty of the whole of life. For it is no light thing in every matter to preserve due measure and to bring about order, wherein that is plainly conspicuous which we call |decorum,| or what is seemly. This is so closely connected with what is virtuous, that one cannot separate the two. For what is seemly is also virtuous -- and what is virtuous is seemly. So that the distinction lies rather in the words than in the things themselves. That there is a difference between them we can understand, but we cannot explain it.

229. To make an attempt to get some sort of a distinction between them, we may say that what is virtuous may be compared to the good health and soundness of the body, whilst what is seemly is, as it were, its comeliness and beauty. And as beauty seems to stand above soundness and health, and yet cannot exist without them, nor be separated from them in any way -- for unless one has good health, one cannot have beauty and comeliness -- so what is virtuous contains in itself also what is seemly, so as to seem to start with it, and to be unable to exist without it. What is virtuous, then, is like soundness in all our work and undertaking; what is seemly is, as it were, the outward appearance, which, when joined with what is virtuous, can only be known apart in our thoughts. For though in some cases it seems to stand out conspicuous, yet it has its root in what is virtuous, though the flower is its own. Rooted in this, it flourishes; otherwise it fails and droops. For what is virtue, but to avoid anything shameful as though it were death? And what is the opposite of virtue, except that which brings barrenness and death? If, then, the essence of virtue is strong and vigorous, seemliness will also quickly spring forth like a flower, for its root is sound. But if the root of its purpose is corrupt, nothing will grow out of it.

230. In our writings this is put somewhat more plainly. For David says: |The Lord reigneth, He is clothed with splendour.| And the Apostle says: |Walk honestly as in the day.| The Greek text has euschemonos -- and this really means: with good clothing, with a good appearance. When God made the first man, He created him with a good figure, with limbs well set, and gave him a very noble appearance. He had not given him remission of sins. But afterwards He, Who came in the form of a servant, and in the likeness of man, renewed him with His Spirit, and poured His grace into his heart, and put on Himself the splendour of the redemption of the human race. Therefore the Prophet said: |The Lord reigneth, He is clothed with splendour.| And again he says: |A hymn beseems Thee, O God, in Sion.| That is: It is right and good to fear Thee, to love Thee, to pray to Thee, to honour Thee, for it is written: |Let all things be done decently and in order.| But we can also fear, love, ask, honour men; yet the hymn especially is addressed to God. This seemliness which we offer to God we may believe to be far better than other things. It befits also a woman to pray in an orderly dress, but it especially beseems her to pray covered, and to pray giving promise of purity together with a good conversation.

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