Saint Jerome’s sophisticated communication

Massive investments in public education haven’t produced masses of sophisticated readers. Instead many persons now understand words like simpletons. It’s not just that they believe in “bad” words having incredible evil force built into their very letters. They more generally expect texts to be clear, brief, and sincere in the contrived style of the vapid faces that look you earnestly in the eye and speak words read from a teleprompter positioned in the news studio at the virtual site of your head.[1] Writing in the fourth century, Jerome of Stridon communicated in a more sophisticated way.

Words and acts can be other than what they seem. In a letter to the aristocratic, adolescent woman Eustochium, Jerome advised her to be pious and modest. He also warned against a common but sophisticated deception:

Do not wish to appear very religious or more humble than is necessary. One can seek glory by fleeing from it. Turning onlookers away from seeing their poverty, charity, and fasting, many in this itself are pleased to desire what they are pleased to scorn. In this way they amazingly seek praise while shunning it.

{ ne satis religiosa uelis uideri nec plus humilis, quam necesse est. ne gloriam fugiendo quaeras. plures enim paupertatis, misericordiae atque ieiunii arbitros declinantes in hoc ipso placere cupiunt, quod placere contemnunt; et mirum in modum laus, dum uitatur, adpetitur. }[2]

In modern terms, Jerome warned about humble-acting in ostentatiously shunning praise for praiseworthy acts. More generally, putting on an act can provide to others harmless entertainment. But suspicion that someone is only pretending can also be deeply troubling. Disjunction between appearance and reality has to be considered and handled, at least by anyone who isn’t fully indoctrinated.

Different persons might have radically different views of a fundamental matter. Christians in Jerome’s time believed in the resurrection of the dead and the life of the world to come. Others regarded such beliefs as madness. In conversation with a person of the latter belief, Jerome observed:

You be nicely fat. A lean body and pale skin pleases me. You think such witnesses are miserable. We consider you as more miserable. We to you, each to the other, seems insane.

{ Bono tuo crassus sis, me macies delectat et pallor; tu tales miseros arbitraris, nos te miseriorem putamus: invicem nobis videmur insani. }[3]

Considering others to be insane differs from seek seeking to beat them up, expel them from society, or kill them. Civilized persons in the fourth century were willing to live among others that they regarded as insane.

Everyone faces the temptation of proclaiming to know what one doesn’t know. Jerome complained about teachers of the Bible:

This garrulous old woman, that senile old man, this verbose sophist — they take scripture for granted, shred it, and teach it before understanding it. … And they charm the public’s ear with the rhetorical sermons that they utter. They think their sermons to be the law of God. They know not the dignity to consider what the Prophets and Apostles meant. But instead, they adapt incongruous passages to their own meaning. How great it is! Is it not the finest type of teaching, to corrupt meaning and coerce resisting scripture to their own will? … This is puerile and similar to the game of itinerant performers. They teach what they don’t know. And so, if I may speak with guts, that is worse: not to know what one doesn’t know.

{ Hanc garrula anus, hanc delirus senex, hanc sophista verbosus, hanc universi praesumunt, lacerant, docent, antequam discant. … et sermone composito aurem populi mulserint, quidquid dixerint, hoc legem Dei putant: nec scire dignantur, quid Prophetae, quid Apostoli senserint; sed ad sensum suum incongrua aptant testimonia; quasi grande sit, et non vitiosissimum docendi genus, depravare sententias, et ad voluntatem suam Scripturam trahere repugnantem. … Puerilia sunt haec, et circulatorum ludo similia, docere quod ignores: imo, ut cum stomacho loquar, ne hoc quidem scire quod nescias. }[4]

Unfortunately, one can never be completely certain about what one knows. Moreover, professing knowledge of one’s own ignorance is a conceptual regression going all the way back to Socrates. Jerome advocated and practiced faithful translation of the Bible. Like a faithful translator, a good teacher recognizes and communicates knowledge or expertise not confined to her own preferences.

Saint Jerome the scholar

Sophisticated communication involves conscious shaping of form and substance. Jerome chided his friend the monk Chrysogonus for not writing to him:

Yet perhaps negligence is always with a related excuse. You might claim that you had nothing to write. If it was this, you should have written that you have nothing to write.

{ Nisi forte negligentiae semper excusatione socia, asseras te non habuisse quod scriberes: cum hoc ipsum debueris scribere, te non habuisse quod scriberes. }[5]

Telling someone that one has nothing to say to her could harshly terminate a relationship. But a letter of that form is different. It would show that a person was in one’s mind and that one sought to remain in communication with him. That surely was the sense in which Jerome sought at least a letter of no substance from his friend Chrysogonus.

Within the highly sophisticated culture of the late Roman Empire, Jerome recognized an extraordinary act of communication: the word of God made flesh in Jesus Christ. From a Christian perspective, God became a human being to be with his people face to face and to redeem them from their sins. The Biblical context, the real form, and the divine ideal are all significant in Christian understanding of Jesus Christ. All that was folly to many in Jerome’s time. Jerome had to be sophisticated to communicate what he believed and understood.

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[1] On limitations of the C-B-S (clear, brief, sincere) style, Lanham (2003) pp. 1-10.

[2] Jerome, Letters 22, Jerome to Eustochium, section 27, Latin text from Hilberg (1910-18), my English translation, benefiting from those of Carroll (1956), Wright (1933), and Freemantle (1892). Jerome wrote this letter in Rome in 384 GC. Here’s an appreciation of Jerome.

[3] Jerome, Letters 45, Jerome to Asella, section 5, Latin text from Hilberg (1910-18), my English translation, benefiting from those of Carroll (1956), Wright (1933), and Freemantle (1892). Jerome wrote this letter in 385 GC.

[4] Jerome, Letters 53, Jerome to Paulinus, section 7, Latin text from Hilberg (1910-18), my English translation, benefiting from those of Carroll (1956) and Freemantle (1892). Jerome wrote this letter in 394 GC to Paulinus, who was Bishop of Nola. Hilberg emended stomacho to Clitomacho. Clitomachus was a philosopher in Athens in the second century BGC.

Jerome was keenly aware of deception, including self-deception. Recognized a merit of Prudentius, Lewis declared:

we must remember how rarely we find in classical literature any adequate recognition of the great fact of self-deception.

Lewis (1938) p. 71. Jerome, like Prudentius, deeply understood human psychology and human relations.

[5] Jerome, Letters 9, Jerome to Chrysogonus, Latin text from Hilberg (1910-18), my English translation, benefiting from those of Carroll (1956) and Freemantle (1892). Jerome wrote this letter in 374 GC.

[image] Saint Jerome. Painting by El Greco about 1610. Preserved as accession # 1975.1.148 in the Metropolitan Museum (New York, USA). Credit Line: Robert Lehman Collection, 1975.


Carroll, Paul, trans. 1956. The Satirical letters of St. Jerome. Chicago: Gateway Editions, distributed by H. Regnery Co.

Freemantle, William Henry, trans. 1892.  The Principal Works of St. Jerome.  Philip Schaff, ed. Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, 2nd Series, vol. 6. Oxford: Parker.

Hilberg, Isidorus, ed. 1910-1918. Sancti Eusebii Hieronymi Epistulae {Letters of Saint Eusebius Hieronymus (Jerome)}. Vindobonae: Tempsky. Corpus Scriptorum Ecclesiasticorum Latinorum (CSEL) 54 (Epistulae 1-70), 55 (Epistulae 71-120), and 56 (Epistulae 120-154).

Lanham, Richard A. 2003. Analyzing prose. London: Continuum.

Lewis, C. S. 1938. The Allegory of Love: a study in medieval tradition. London: Milford.

Wright, F. A., ed. and trans. 1933. Select Letters of St. Jerome. Loeb Classical Library, no. 262. Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press.

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