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Life Of John Chrysostom by Frederic M. Perthes

IT is proper now to inquire, by what means Chrysostom became an orator, whose fame has continued undiminished for so many centuries. And it must be answered, in the first place, that he was indebted for this preëminence most of all to natural endowments. He was made for public speaking. He possessed by nature a strong, penetrating, comprehensive intellect, a quick invention, an exhaustless imagination, a rich vein of wit, great self-possession and depth of feeling, a keen faculty of observation and a practical turn of mind,—in a word, all the highest and most indispensable qualities of a good orator. And though described by his enemies as proud, repulsive, dark, and unsympathizing, he was nevertheless thoroughly noble, inspired with zeal for the good of men, and perfectly fearless wherever the cause of truth and right was to be defended.

Moreover, these rare gifts of nature received the best culture. From early youth his mother, the gentle and devout Anthusa, infused into his mind the purest principles of virtue and piety, and kindled his upright and benevolent spirit into a flame of zeal for the holy cause of Christianity. He was from childhood very familiar with the Scriptures, and through his own experience, aided by the invaluable teaching of Diodorus, obtained a deep understanding of their import.

His free, ingenuous mind was fortified still further against narrowness of view by study of the ancients, and was at the same time enriched with treasures of knowledge. He was no less fortunate in having for his teacher in rhetoric Libanius, the most distinguished sophist of his time. The principles of rhetorical art which this master enforced, gave him a true insight into the properties of genuine eloquence, and formed his taste as a speaker, while his own religious convictions were strong enough to make him perceive and avoid the formal sophistries of his teacher.

A knowledge of men is one of the most necessary qualities of an orator. Chrysostom obtained this in two ways. During a residence of six years among the monks, he acquired by prayer, by study of the Holy Scriptures and of himself, that deep knowledge of man which is the foundation of all true knowledge of men. And when afterwards he was called to an important office in one of the largest churches of the East, and witnessed the human strifes of high and low, it was easy for him, as his homilies on the statues testify, to trace back moral evils to their root and source, as well as to show in each case what was needed for their cure. If at a later period, in Constantinople, the great plainness of his discourses gave offence, this sprang from no want of knowledge in respect to the world or mankind, but was rather the fruit of his own ascetic strictness, of his burning zeal for the holy cause of religion, and—as we may not deny—of a certain proud sense of his spiritual superiority and official dignity.

For his ability, therefore, in public speaking, Chrysostom owed as much to nature and the extremely favorable circumstances of his life, even to ripe manhood, as to his own moral, religious, and scientific efforts. He was in all respects predestinated to be a distinguished orator.

What, then, were his characteristics as an orator? In reply to this question it will be necessary to consider the contents as well as the style and delivery of his discourses. For Chrysostom would not deserve the fame of having been the first orator of the ancient church, unless his pulpit addresses had been distinguished for excellence both of matter and of manner.

The eminent preachers, who lived before his time, had, for the most part, fallen into the error of seeking to interpret the Bible allegorically. Nor was Chrysostom, a diligent student of Origen, able to set himself entirely free from this prevailing tendency of the age. Yet after Origen he was the first preacher who interpreted the Scriptures without doing violence to their meaning, and who employed their contents mainly for useful practical purposes. Although his exegesis is in many particulars defective, it holds fast this practical character, and constantly aims to make the Word of God edify his people, and to place in a clear light the innumerable, interesting relations of that word to the heart and life of man.

Again, the Christian orators who preceded him had been addicted to curious metaphysical disquisitions, and to fierce, ever returning controversies with pagans, Jews, and heretics, so called. Chrysostom was not wholly free from these defects; yet scarcely one of his predecessors so fully subordinated the subtlety of current dogmatic opinions to the interests of true piety and practical morality. He spared no labor in striving to exhibit those speculative topics, which he was compelled to bring into the pulpit, in a manner so clear, lifelike, and interwoven with practical reflections, that his constant object, the moral improvement and Christian sanctification of those intrusted to his care, might not be defeated.

Hence the relation of his eloquence to moral science. The latter owes much to Chrysostom. It had not, to be sure, been wholly neglected by previous orators, several of whom, in the midst of violent doctrinal conflicts, had devoted special attention to morals. Nor were the ethical principles inculcated by Chrysostom purely Christian. Monachism, celibacy, asceticism, penance, were all extolled by him. He says, “the philosophy of monks outshines the sun.” But if we look away from these fruits of his peculiar education—from his praises of monkish asceticism, his inclination to the stoic philosophy, his severity in judging the conduct of others, and the like—Chrysostom then stands before us as that preacher of the fourth century, who announced the principles of Christian morality most purely and fully, most thoroughly and aptly, most emphatically and perseveringly. He not only delivered homilies upon a multitude of single virtues, but all his discourses are pervaded with the doctrines of morality And they were generally exhibited in a manner suited to win and move his hearers. For no orator understood the human heart in itself, and men of all classes and conditions, better than Chrysostom.

A considerable part, therefore, of the reputation for eloquence, which Chrysostom has enjoyed in every age, is manifestly due to the contents of his discourses, to his on the whole excellent method of interpretation, to his for the most part comprehensive and pure doctrinal views, and to the dignity, power, and impressiveness of his moral teachings.

But the style of his sermons has contributed yet more, perhaps, to the fame of Chrysostom. For this was eminently popular. He knew how to let himself gracefully down to the capacity of an uncultivated audience, and to speak with a perspicuity, simplicity, and naturalness, which fully explain, why not merely the higher classes, but also the middle and lower, heard him preach with so much delight and admiration. Chrysostom strove with the greatest earnestness to avoid all obscurity of language. He always chose the most familiar words, and did not hesitate to use the phrases of common life, when it was necessary for greater clearness of expression. And this great perspicuity appeared not in the choice of words alone, but also in the course of thought as well. His explanations of Scripture, and his doctrinal discussions evince peculiar skill and sagacity in elucidating dark points.

One of his distinguishing qualities, a copia verborum, aided him greatly in making his discourses popular and perspicuous. His treasure of words and phrases was inexhaustible, and language streamed from his lips like a full, rich flood. Yet with this luxurious fulness of speech, were united at the same time, force, fire, and vivacity. His language while expounding the Scripture, is thoughtful and temperate; but when he speaks against vices or sins, against pagans, Jews, or heretics, it rises into vehemence, it smites with great power at the hearts of his audience, it seizes upon the spirit, and overcomes all the obstacles which error, madness, and sin, would raise in its path. No one can employ more touching, impassioned, vigorous, or penetrating words than Chrysostom. Hence he delays in simple exposition no longer than seems indispensable for the general understanding of his chosen theme or passage of Scripture. He then proceeds directly to make use of his explanation for impressing the mind and heart of his audience. To accomplish this single, ultimate object, he exerts the whole strength of his intellect, the exhaustless power of his invention, and the full compass of his abundant knowledge. No wonder, therefore, that the words of Chrysostom were often greeted by his audience with extraordinary applause. It was common for his hearers in the progress of a discourse, to shout for joy, to clap their hands, to wave their handkerchiefs in token of approval, and to express their assent aloud in words. Indeed he was ever sure of having the hearts of his audience under his control while speaking.

He also knew how to enchain the spirits of a multitude by the elevation of his thoughts and style, by the sublime and glorious flight with which he rose on the wings of eloquence to the contemplation of divine things. Yet he was far from maintaining throughout a whole address this lofty strain. It was rather one of his excellences and a clear proof of his deep knowledge of the art of speaking, that great variety of style characterized his sermons. The tender and the vigorous, the serious and the lively, the lofty and the familiar, entreaty and reproof, warning and consolation, were so skilfully and eloquently intermingled, that the heart of his hearer was assailed on all sides, and every faculty of his soul visited by an appeal. The effect of all this was increased by the readiness with which Chrysostom laid hold of passing events in church or state, in city or parish, in families or among individuals, and even of that which occurred in the house of God while he was speaking, for the purpose of illustrating or enforcing his theme.

And finally, a remarkable exuberance of images, examples, and comparisons, contributed much to the variety of style, the perspicuity, and the impressiveness which characterize the discourses of Chrysostom.

Having thus specified his chief excellences as a pulpit orator, it is now proper to indicate some of his defects. For while these must be ascribed in a great measure to his over-active imagination, to his long residence with ascetic monks, to the prevalent style of preaching in his day, and to the excessive frequency of his pulpit efforts, they are nevertheless defects, and should be referred to by way of caution and warning. Owing to his ignorance of the Hebrew text and to the influence of popular but erroneous doctrines, he sometimes misinterprets the Word of God. His definitions, moreover, are frequently inaccurate, and his moral teachings often wrong. However free in spirit, Chrysostom was still a child of his time, and partook of many of its errors. Nor was his style perfect. In seeking to be understood he too often repeats the same thought, multiplies explanatory remarks, or refutes imaginary objections. To the same category belong his too great fulness of detail in description and his excessive multiplication of examples and similitudes. Besides, in order to place the subject under examination in the most striking and favorable light, he does not hesitate to magnify unduly its importance, and to depreciate for the time being other virtues or men, as the case may be. He is also inclined to exaggerate whatever is really wonderful or sublime, and, on the other hand, to indulge in mere play upon the sound or meaning of words. And finally, by pursuing his allegories too far, he often renders them obscure and weak.

These are the greatest defects in the discourses of Chrysostom. And they are sufficiently important in themselves to furnish instruction and warning, while yet their shadow is by no means deep enough to darken essentially the radiant light of his eloquence.

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