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Rev. Alban Butler (1711–73). Volume XII: December. The Lives of the Saints. 1866.

December 4

St. Clement of Alexandria, Father of the Church

TITUS FLAVIUS CLEMENS was a native of Athens, began his studies in Greece, continued them in Italy, Asia Minor, Assyria, and Palestine, and ended his days in Egypt: for an insatiable desire of knowledge made him compass almost the whole world to improve himself in human literature. He mentions five eminent masters he had, one in Greece of the Ionic sect, 1 two in Calabria, and two more in the East. He was well skilled in the Platonic philosophy, but leaned more to the principles of the stoics; and, without tying himself to any particular institute, chose freely what appeared most excellent wherever he found it. One of the masters whom he had in Palestine, was of Jewish extraction, and probably a Christian: but the last he met with, whom he preferred before all the others, was Pantænus, who taught the catechetical school at Alexandria. In this search of truth he discovered the errors of idolatry, and came to the light of faith; for when he was rich in all the opulence of profane learning, he saw, nevertheless, that there was another kind of knowledge of more importance to the happiness of man, which was to be learned only from religion. From that instant his thirst after knowledge took a different turn, and fixed upon theology, “aiming at nothing,” as he says, “but a life perfected with all virtues.” He tells us, that some of those who immediately succeeded the apostles, and preserved the true tradition of the blessed doctrine from SS. Peter, James, John, and Paul, “have lived down to our time, to shed into our hearts the seed which they had received of the apostles their predecessors.” 2 Pantænus being sent by the Bishop Demetrius into the Indies, in 189, Clement succeeded him in the great school of the Christian doctrine at Alexandria, in which he taught with great success, and, among other scholars of great eminence, had Origen and St. Alexander, afterwards bishop of Jerusalem and martyr. His method of instructing consisted in teaching his scholars first what was good in the heathenish philosophy, and so leading them by degrees to Christianity; which they embraced more readily when they had relished many of its sublime maxims of morality derived from the light of nature, and scattered in the writings of the philosophers. 3 Clement was promoted to the priesthood about the beginning of the reign of Severus; for Eusebius gives him that title in the year 195. The persecution which that emperor raised against the church in 202, obliged him to abandon his employment. He went over to Cappadocia. Soon after we meet with him at Jerusalem, where he preached with great constancy and success, as appears in a letter written by Alexander. 4 Thence he passed to Antioch, and wherever he came he confirmed and enlarged the flock of Christ. From Antioch he returned to Alexandria.  1
  The ancients have left great eulogiums of the virtue and learning of St. Clement; but his greatest and standing Eulogium are his writings, in which he communicated to others part of the treasure he had amassed. In his Exhortation (or advice) to the Gentiles, he laid open the absurdity of idolatry by giving an historical account of its mythology; through this work he has interspersed many curious discoveries he had made in his travels, by which he gave great force to his reasoning, and a surprising agreeableness to his work. His next composition is called Stromata, a word which signifies variegated hangings, or tapestry made up of great variety or mixture. It is a miscellany in eight books, without much order, which the author compares, not to a curious garden where the trees and plants are set in exact order, but to a thick shady mountain, where trees of all kinds grow promiscuously together. In this work (which he says he made to serve him as a collection in his old age, when his memory should fail him) he is thought to have shown too much of the philosopher, and to have expressed some things unwarily, which yet will generally admit a candid interpretation. The style is harsher than in his other works; yet there runs through it a surprising vein of materials and richness of sentiment, with a profusion of learning which seems prodigious; and many discourses on morality, metaphysics, various heresies, idolatry, and theology are joined together by a thread of reasoning. In the sixth book, he draws a character of the true Gnostic or good Christian. The principal strokes in his picture are, that the true Gnostic has the command over his passions, is exactly temperate, and allows his body no more than what is necessary; he loves God above all things, and creatures for God’s sake, and the relation they bear to him, and nothing is able to separate him from this love. He bears with patience all unfortunate accidents, and makes it his business to learn all things which relate to God. He is never overcome with anger; and prays continually by charity that unites him to God, begging the remission of his sins, and grace not to sin any more, but to do good. In the seventh book he goes on describing the virtues of his Gnostic; and says he employs himself entirely in honouring God, in loving him, in understanding, hearing, and imitating his Word which was made man for our salvation; that he is gentle, courteous, affable, patient, charitable, sincere, faithful, and temperate; that he despises the good things of this world, and is ready to suffer every thing for Jesus Christ; that he does nothing out of ostentation, fear, or desire of being rewarded, but acts out of pure love to the goodness and justice of God; lastly, that he is entirely holy and divine. The Gnostic prayeth in all places, but this he does in secret, in the bottom of his heart; whether he be in public places, or in conversation, or at work. He praiseth God continually, not only in the morning when he riseth, and at noon day, but when he is walking, resting, or dressing, he is always glorifying God like the seraphim mentioned by Isaias. St. Clement distinguishes the true from the false Gnostics, or heretics in his time who disturbed the church by abominable novelties and pretences to an imaginary perfection. The errors and extravagancies, into which many fall, concerning perfection, demonstrate that this subject is to be handled with extreme delicacy. St. Clement, to guard against the dangers of false mystics, lays down the nature and extent of each theological virtue, and particularly the purity of the love of God. He judiciously marks out the bounds between resignation and indifference, and treats on Activity, Transformation, and Union, so as to hold the form of sound words, and, to shun obscurity, the language of the deceiver, and the illusions of fanaticism. St. Clement’s short treatise entitled, Who is the rich man that shall be saved? is an exposition of the words of Christ to the young rich man, Mark x. showing, that in order to be saved, it is not necessary for a person absolutely to quit his riches, provided he make a good use of them. Here the author discourses of the love of God and our neighbour, and of repentance; to prove the efficacy of which, he relates the famous history of the young robber reclaimed by St. John.  2
  The Pedagogue of St. Clement, in three books, is an excellent abridgment of Christian morality, and shows in what manner all good Christians lived in those early ages. In the first book, the author shows that Christ is the pedagogue, conductor, and pastor of men, and all stand in need of instruction: for a Christian’s whole life ought to be a continued series of virtuous actions. In the second book, rules are laid down for the regulation of certain particular duties, especially relating to abstinence, mortification, modesty, humility, silence, prayer, alms, and chastity, both in the state of marriage and in that of virginity. He prescribes plain food, barely as conducing to health and strength; but one meal a day, in the evening; or at the most only two, that is, besides the great meal, a breakfast of dry bread without drinking. He proves the moderate use of wine to be lawful against the encratiæ, but forbids it to young persons, and will have it only drunk at the evening meal, and then very sparingly. Luxury in furniture and apparel, he condemns and inveighs against, better than Juvenal or any ancient satirist had ever done before him. Sleep he orders to be moderate, and never allows it in the day; he requires the night to be begun by repeating the divine praises, and that we rise several times in the night to pray, and get up in the morning before day. Against the licentiousness of the pagans he shows that all impurities are sins against reason. In the third book, he speaks of modesty, &c., and shows that none but Christians are truly rich, their treasure being frugality. He concludes by exhorting men to hearken to the saving precepts of Christ, to whom he addresses a prayer, praising Him with the Father and the Holy Ghost, and returning him thanks for making him a member of the church. In this work many excellent rules are laid down for conducting souls to true perfection; but in a translation it would be necessary that certain expressions should be made agreeable to the manners of our times. 5  3
  St. Clement’s style in his Pedagogue, and especially in his exhortation to the Gentiles, is florid, elegant, and sublime, as Photius observes; but the diction is not Attic or perfectly pure. Great erudition is displayed in all his writings, especially in his exhortation to the Gentiles. St. Jerom calls him: “the most learned of our authors.” 6 And Theodoret says: 7 “That holy man surpassed all others in the extent of his learning.” St. Alexander of Jerusalem and other ancients exceedingly commend the sanctity of his life. The late pious French author of the Bibliothèque portative des Pères de l’Eglise, observes, that Clement is one of the great masters of an interior life among the ancient fathers of the church, and that his principal maxims are, that the Gnostic or spiritual Christian ought to pray at all times; and in all places, both in the secret of his heart, and often by singing psalms and hymns to the Lord: that he must have crucified all inordinate desires, and must hold his passions in perfect subjection, and that though he be united by charity to his beloved, he pray assiduously for the pardon of his sins, and for the grace not to sin. St. Clement died at Alexandria, before the end of the reign of Caracalla, who was slain in 217. His name had a place in the martyrology of Usuard, which was long used in most churches in Gaul, but never in the Roman. Pope Benedict XIV., in his learned dissertation, addressed in the form of a brief, to the king of Portugal, prefixed to the edition of the Roman Martyrology, made in 1749, excellently shows, that there is not sufficient reason for ever inserting his name in the Roman Martyrology. The authority of certain private calendars, and the custom of sacred biographers suffices for giving his life in this place. See Tillemont, t. 3, Ceillier, t. 2, and John Potter, then bishop of Oxford, afterwards archbishop of Canterbury, in the accurate edition of the works of St. Clement of Alexandria, which he published with notes, at Oxford, in 1715, t. 1, p. 1. t. 2, p. 10, 40, et seq.  4
Note 1. The Ionic sect, founded by Thales, ended in Archelaus the master of Socrates: but this is only true of public schools of this sect, for many particular persons followed it much later. [back]
Note 2. S. Clem. Alex. Strom. l. 1, p. 274, et ap. Eus. l. 5, c. 11. [back]
Note 3. Strom. l. 1, p. 278. [back]
Note 4. Eus. l. 6, c. 3. [back]
Note 5. Photius, cod. 109, gives an abstract of several errors found in a book of this father called Hypotiposes. A fragment of this work is extant, entitled, An extract of the oriental doctrine of Theodotus (of Palestine.) Photius says, the heretics had corrupted this writing. St. Clement also copied sometimes the sentiments of philosophers and others, which he never approved or adopted. This charge, however, has weakened his authority, in points of doctrine; though it is certain that he lived and died in the communion of the church, and condemned all heresies which she condemned. [back]
Note 6. Catal. et Ep. ad Magn. [back]
Note 7. Hæret. Feb. l. 1, c. 8. [back]