chapter  2
23 Pages

Early Christian Friendship

Tradition and Innovation in the Fourth Century
WithR. Jacob McDonie

Chapter 2examines the Christian fourth century of the Western world in the figures of Ambrose (c. 340–97), Jerome (347–420), and Augustine (354–430) for the influence of classical rhetoric and friendship on their writing, but also for the heritage of friendship that they would confer upon the Middle Ages. In their works on friendship, fourth-century authors can be enduringly rhetorical and Ciceronian, but also, in the figure of Augustine, skeptical of the classical rhetoric of friendship. In quite different literary genres, Ambrose and Jerome are wont to see themselves and their friends inhabiting complementary rhetorical subject positions. Jerome also inaugurates a highly influential practice of writing to holy women, invoked as friends, to provide spiritual mentorship, a practice of epistolary cross-gendered friendship that finds favor among authors of the Carolingian period and twelfth century. Augustine is deeply ambivalent about friendship. He understands its potential for distraction from God, even its potential sinfulness; yet almost never do we find him in his pre- and post-conversion life in the Confessions (397–98) without a cherished friend. Moreover, Augustine, student and accomplished teacher of rhetoric, and connoisseur of the theater, seldom missed a chance to immerse himself in the world of performance and rhetoric. Yet in one of the most dramatic scenes in the Confessions, on the death of a childhood friend, Augustine renounces both friendship and the classical rhetoric through which he had come to understand it. Augustine sacrifices his beloved friend to bonds of community in the Confessions that would in the Middle Ages develop into an austere ideal of monasticism.