St. Ambrose summarizes the opinions of classical philosophy on duty. Then he explains why a Christian has a different idea of duty: a Christian measures everything by eternity, not by our brief life on earth.
The philosophers believed that duties were derived from what is virtuous and what is useful, and that from these two one should choose the better. It may happen, they say, that two virtuous or two useful things will clash together, and the question is, which is the more virtuous, and which the more useful?
First, therefore, “duty” is divided into three sections: what is virtuous, what is useful, and what is the better of two. Then, again, these three are divided into five classes; that is, two that are virtuous, two that are useful, and, lastly, the right judgment as to the choice between them. The first they say has to do with the moral dignity and integrity of life; the second with the conveniences of life, with wealth, resources, opportunities; whilst a right judgment must underlie the choice of any of them. This is what the philosophers say.
But we measure nothing at all but what is fitting and virtuous, and that by the rule of things future rather than of things present; and we call nothing useful unless it will help us to the blessing of eternal life; certainly not what will help us merely enjoy the present time. Nor do we recognize any advantages in opportunities and in the wealth of earthly goods, but consider them as disadvantages if not put aside, and to be looked on as a burden when we have them, rather than as a loss when expended. –St. Ambrose, On the Duties of the Clergy, 1.9IN GOD’S PRESENCE, CONSIDER . . .
When I can’t decide what’s the right thing to do, do I measure the alternatives by the rule of heaven?
Father, empower me in my weakness, and grant me the strength and capability to serve you.
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