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Ambrose's Patriarchs

Ambrose's Patriarchs

Ethics for the Common Man

Marcia L. Colish

“This is a significant study, by a distinguished scholar, of works that are often overlooked but that, as Marcia Colish ably demonstrates, challenge some widely held interpretations of Ambrose as a theologian, ethicist, and philosopher. This book is both thought provoking and enlightening.” —Francine Cardman, Weston Jesuit School of Theology

In this welcome new book Marcia L. Colish offers the only monograph-length study of the patriarch treatises of Ambrose of Milan (c. 340–397), in which he develops, for the first time in the patristic period, an ethics for the laity. Ambrose the ethicist has been viewed primarily as the author of advice to those with special callings in the church, such as priests, widows, and consecrated virgins. His views have been characterized as advocating asceticism and promoting a Platonic view of human nature, in which the body is a moral problem. Ambrose’s patriarch treatises, argues Colish, are instead aimed at lay people who did not have special callings in the church, but who led active lives in the world as spouses, parents, heads of households, professionals, and citizens. These treatises reveal a different side of Ambrose and show that he developed an ethics of moderation based on an Aristotelian and Stoic anthropology, which he modified in the light of biblical ethics and St. Paul’s view of human nature.

Colish’s analysis sharply revises previous estimates of Ambrose the ethicist through a careful consideration of the patriarch treatises in their historical context, as Lenten sermons delivered by Ambrose to the catechumens in his Milanese church whom he was preparing during Lent for their coming Easter baptism. The pastoral context and intended audience of these treatises have largely been ignored in previous scholarship. Colish contends that when the treatises are read as Ambrose intended for them to be received, as a corpus of works aimed at the conversion of pagan Roman adults to Christianity, Ambrose’s vision of a Christian ethics for the common man emerges.

Ambrose’s Patriarchs will be invaluable to scholars in the fields of theology, classics, philosophy, and ethics.

ISBN: 978-0-268-02364-5
208 pages
Publication Year: 2005

Marcia L. Colish is Frederick B. Artz Professor of History, emerita, at Oberlin College and visiting fellow in history at Yale University.

“In Ambrose’s Patriarchs_, Colish shifts the discussion on the bishop’s patriarchal treatises from source-critical considerations to their function in the liturgical life of the Milanese church. She argues that Ambrose created these writings in order to instruct Roman catechumens (_competentes) on their new identity as members of the people of Israel and to provide them with practical examples of ethical virtue. . . . Colish’s analysis is polished and convincing, and is suitable for both graduate students and scholars alike.” — Religious Studies Review

“Marcia Colish . . . is the first scholar to grasp what can be made for modern readers of Ambrose’s four treatises on the patriarchs. The result is an original and suggestive book. She shows that Ambrose chose the patriarchs as subjects for exegetical talks to catechumens who were soon to be baptized.” — First Things

“Masterly and crystal-clear written study of Ambrose’s treatises De Abraham, De Issac, De Iacob and De Ioseph. . . . This groundbreaking study on the first patristic development of ethics for the common man is very carefully edited. . . . [It] has an excellent bibliography of primary sources and is concluded by an excellent Index.” — Vigiliae Christianae

“While acknowledging that Ambrose was eclectic, Colish contends that his critical appropriation of Stoic, Aristotelian, Philonic, and, to a lesser degree, Platonic thought produced a distinctive Ambrosian anthropology and was ‘first, in patristic literature,’ to articulate an ethic for the common man rather than for ascetics.” — Pro Ecclesia

“In this engaging and challenging study, Marcia L. Colish, the distinguished historian of ideas and the Philosophy of the Middle Ages, turns her attention to four treatises about the Patriarchs of the Old Testament, written by Ambrose, the late 4th century bishop of Milan. She detects in them the very first Christian ethics ‘for the common man’ and reassesses familiar preconceptions of Ambrose’s philosophical and ethical positions.” — Comptes Rendus

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Ambrose's Patriarchs

Ethics for the Common Man

Marcia L. Colish

 Ambrose's Patriarchs: Ethics for the Common Man
Cloth Edition
Paper Edition

“This is a significant study, by a distinguished scholar, of works that are often overlooked but that, as Marcia Colish ably demonstrates, challenge some widely held interpretations of Ambrose as a theologian, ethicist, and philosopher. This book is both thought provoking and enlightening.” —Francine Cardman, Weston Jesuit School of Theology

In this welcome new book Marcia L. Colish offers the only monograph-length study of the patriarch treatises of Ambrose of Milan (c. 340–397), in which he develops, for the first time in the patristic period, an ethics for the laity. Ambrose the ethicist has been viewed primarily as the author of advice to those with special callings in the church, such as priests, widows, and consecrated virgins. His views have been characterized as advocating asceticism and promoting a Platonic view of human nature, in which the body is a moral problem. Ambrose’s patriarch treatises, argues Colish, are instead aimed at lay people who did not have special callings in the church, but who led active lives in the world as spouses, parents, heads of households, professionals, and citizens. These treatises reveal a different side of Ambrose and show that he developed an ethics of moderation based on an Aristotelian and Stoic anthropology, which he modified in the light of biblical ethics and St. Paul’s view of human nature.

Colish’s analysis sharply revises previous estimates of Ambrose the ethicist through a careful consideration of the patriarch treatises in their historical context, as Lenten sermons delivered by Ambrose to the catechumens in his Milanese church whom he was preparing during Lent for their coming Easter baptism. The pastoral context and intended audience of these treatises have largely been ignored in previous scholarship. Colish contends that when the treatises are read as Ambrose intended for them to be received, as a corpus of works aimed at the conversion of pagan Roman adults to Christianity, Ambrose’s vision of a Christian ethics for the common man emerges.

Ambrose’s Patriarchs will be invaluable to scholars in the fields of theology, classics, philosophy, and ethics.

ISBN: 978-0-268-02364-5

208 pages

“In Ambrose’s Patriarchs_, Colish shifts the discussion on the bishop’s patriarchal treatises from source-critical considerations to their function in the liturgical life of the Milanese church. She argues that Ambrose created these writings in order to instruct Roman catechumens (_competentes) on their new identity as members of the people of Israel and to provide them with practical examples of ethical virtue. . . . Colish’s analysis is polished and convincing, and is suitable for both graduate students and scholars alike.” — Religious Studies Review

“Marcia Colish . . . is the first scholar to grasp what can be made for modern readers of Ambrose’s four treatises on the patriarchs. The result is an original and suggestive book. She shows that Ambrose chose the patriarchs as subjects for exegetical talks to catechumens who were soon to be baptized.” — First Things

“Masterly and crystal-clear written study of Ambrose’s treatises De Abraham, De Issac, De Iacob and De Ioseph. . . . This groundbreaking study on the first patristic development of ethics for the common man is very carefully edited. . . . [It] has an excellent bibliography of primary sources and is concluded by an excellent Index.” — Vigiliae Christianae

“While acknowledging that Ambrose was eclectic, Colish contends that his critical appropriation of Stoic, Aristotelian, Philonic, and, to a lesser degree, Platonic thought produced a distinctive Ambrosian anthropology and was ‘first, in patristic literature,’ to articulate an ethic for the common man rather than for ascetics.” — Pro Ecclesia

“In this engaging and challenging study, Marcia L. Colish, the distinguished historian of ideas and the Philosophy of the Middle Ages, turns her attention to four treatises about the Patriarchs of the Old Testament, written by Ambrose, the late 4th century bishop of Milan. She detects in them the very first Christian ethics ‘for the common man’ and reassesses familiar preconceptions of Ambrose’s philosophical and ethical positions.” — Comptes Rendus