Essay / Theology

“Everything Contrary to Right Reason is a Sin” (Clement)

Clement of Alexandria’s Paedagogus reads like a spiritual guidebook that crashed into a book of manners. If that doesn’t make sense to us, it might be because  we don’t see all of life’s domains jointed together, as Clement did. Virtue, for Clement, was precisely the application of right reason to every detail of conduct.

One of the results is that Clement left us a remarkable set of instructions for good behavior, taking the trouble to write down descriptions of how young people ought to walk, talk, eat, and sleep. The whole Paedagogus is worth perusing, but here’s a thousand-word sampler:

“Let us call Him, then by the one title: Educator of little ones, an Educator who does not simply follow behind, but who leads the way, for His aim is to improve the soul, not just to instruct it; to guide to a life of virtue, not merely to one of knowledge.”

“Everything contrary to right reason is a sin.”

On Eating. “There is no limit to the gluttony that some men practice. Truly, in ever inventing a multitude of new sweets and ever seeking recipes of every description, they are shipwrecked on pastries and honey-cakes and desserts. These men hug their delicacies to themselves, yet after a while they must yield them to the privy.”

“It is easy to consider such men swine or dogs rather than men, because of their voraciousness. They are in such a hurry to stuff themselves that both cheeks are puffed out at the same time, all the hollows of their face are filled out, and sweat even rolls down as they exert themselves to satisfy their insatiable appetite, wheezing from their intemperance, and cramming food into their stomachs with incredible energy, as though they were gathering a crop for storage rather than nourishment.”

“Keep from speaking while eating, for speech is inarticulate and ill-mannered when the mouth is full, and the tongue, impeded by the food, cannot function properly but utters only indistinct sounds.”

“It is not polite to eat and drink at the same time, either, because it indicates extreme intemperance to try to do two things together that need to be done separately.”

On Drinking. “It is wise to dilute the wine with as much water as possible (and to avoid depending upon it as we do water), as well as to restrain our appetite for drinking bouts and to keep from drinking wine like water. Both are creatures of God, and so the mixture of both, water and wine, contributes to our health.”

“How do you think the Lord drank when He had become man for our sake? As shamelessly as we do? Was it not rather with good manners, with dignity, and leisurely?”

“The emission of the breath in a belch should be made noiselessly.”

On Elaborate Furnishings. “Expensiveness should not be the goal in objects whose purpose is usefulness. Why? Tell me, does a table knife refuse to cut if it be not studded with silver or have a handle of ivory?”

“Generally speaking, riches that are not under complete control are the citadel of evil.”

“It is farcical and downright ridiculous for men to bring out urinals of silver and chamberpots of transparent alabaster, and for rich women in their silliness to have privies made of gold. It is as if the wealthy were not able even to relieve nature except in a grandiose style. Yet I would wish that for the rest of their lives they considered gold worthy only of dung.”

On Manners. “As for young men, let them be present in public only with their ears.”

“If they should be sitting down, let them not put their feet one on top of the other, nor cross their legs, nor rest their chin on their hands. It is lack of good breeding to fail to support oneself, yet a fault common in the young.”

“To be forever restlessly shifting one’s position argues for levity of character.”

On Sleeping. “The habit of sleeping in soft down is injurious, apart from the danger of pampering the body, because those who sleep in it sink deep into the softness of the bed; it is not healthy for the sleeper who cannot move about in it because of the high elevation on either side of his body.”

“Sleep is meant to relax the body, not to debilitate it. For that reason, I say that sleep should be taken not as self-indulgence, but as rest from activity. In general, all of us must struggle against sleep, accustoming ourselves gently and gradually to utilize a greater proportion of our lives and not waste them in sleep. Sleep, indeed, like a tax-collector, claims half the portion of our lives.”

On Grooming. “Is it not womanish for a man to have his hair combed slick, putting each lock in place before a mirror, and to have himself shaved with a razor, for appearance’s sake, to have his chin shaved and the hair plucked out and made completely smooth?”

“”All the hairs of your head are numbered,” the Lord says. The hairs of the beard have been numbered, too, and for that matter those of the whole body. They should not be plucked out at all, contrary to the decision made by the free will of God numbering them one by one.”

“If a man wishes to become beautiful, he should embellish what is the most beautiful part of human nature: his mind. Let him pluck out, not his hair, but his desires.”

On Walking. “There is something else we must carefully guard against: walking like a man in a frenzy; rather, we should cultivate a gait that is dignified and leisurely, yet not dilly-dallying. We should not sway from side to side, either, as we walk, or roll our eyes about, staring at everyone we meet to see if they turn to look at us, for all the world as if we were on the stage parading about grandiosely and pointing with our finger.”

Conclusion. “These are the laws of reason, words that impart inspiration, written by the hand of the Lord, not on tablets of stone, but inscribed in the hearts of men, provided only that those hearts are not attached to corruption.”

Share this essay [social_share/]