Clement of Alexandria – Gesundheit

13 Jul

As I continue on my Early Christianity Reading Journey, I’m currently in the middle of reading Clement of Alexandria, who lived from about 150-215. A portion of his Paedagogus or Instructor is concerned with providing guidance on how Christians should live their lives and conduct their affairs. While there are one or two items of note, for the most part this resembles other similar sources. Christians should live modestly, not get drunk, not be gluttons and I’m sure parts I haven’t read yet will include advice on not becoming angry, lustful, etc. This is all pretty standard. I’ve read quite a few of these but I’ve never come across a passage such as this one which I enjoyed so much I thought I’d share it with you.

If any one is attacked with sneezing, just as in the case of the hiccup, he must not startle those near him with the explosion, and so give proof of his bad breeding; but the hiccup is to be quietly transmitted with the expiration of the breath, the mouth being composed becomingly, and not gaping and yawning like the tragic masks. So the disturbance of the hiccup may be avoided by making the respirations gently; for thus the threatening symptoms of the ball of wind will be dissipated in the most seemly way, by managing its egress so as also to conceal anything which the air forcible expelled may bring up with it. To wish to add to the noises, instead of diminishing them, is the sign of arrogance and disorderliness. Those, too, who scrape their teeth, bleeding the wounds, are disagreeable to themselves and detestable to their neighbors. Scratching the ears and the irritation of sneezing are swinish itchings and attend unbridled fornication. Both shameful sights and shameful conversation about them are to be shunned. Let the look be steady and the turning and movement of the neck, and the motions of the hands in conversation, be decorous. In a word, the Christian is characterized by composure, tranquility, calmness, and peace. 1


Going through this kind of stuff in sources can be sort of tedious. I’ve read quite a few similar “life guidance” documents and sometimes I have a hard time keeping my focus so I can detect some interesting differences. For example, in Instructor I.6 there’s a passage that at least hints of Adoptionism. 2 I can’t just skim Clement’s material(over 400 pages of text) and expect to find things like this. So the above passage, seemingly coming from out of nowhere (this particular chapter is mainly concerned with Christians living as a community and how they should behave towards one another) was a much appreciated break from the usual narrative, though I’m sure Clement didn’t intend it to be read for this reason. And I have no idea what the whole scraping teeth/bleeding wounds thing is. Sounds a bit gross. And then there’s finding out that scratching your ears and sneezing used to be part of the horizontal hokey-pokey. 3 But I appreciated being hauled out of a late 2nd century Christian Living Handbook and straight into a Miss Manners column. I don’t know if Clement has any more little tidbits like this in store but looking for them will help the next 300 pages pass by a little more quickly.

1 Clement of Alexandria, The Instructor II.7

2 Clement discusses Christ becoming perfected at his baptism, at the same time as God spoke to those gathered there, in terms that sure seem Adoptionist to me. Adoptionism is the Christian belief, considered heretical, that Jesus was a man who became a vessel for the Word of God or the Holy Spirit, being adopted by God as the place to send his son.

3 Before anyone jumps in to comment (though I enjoy comments); yes, I know Clement’s just saying if you can’t resist the urge to scratch it indicates you’ll likely have trouble avoiding other urges.

Roberts, Alexander & Donaldson, James, eds., Ante-Nicene Fathers Volume 2: Fathers of the Second Century: Hermas, Tatian, Athenagoras, Theophilus, and Clement of Alexandria (entire), Peabody, MA, USA: Hendrickson Publishers (2004). ISBN: 1-56563-084-X.


Posted by on July 13, 2013 in Religion


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6 responses to “Clement of Alexandria – Gesundheit

  1. magistra

    July 14, 2013 at 2:49 am

    I’ne never read the Instructor, but I got a good flavour of it from Peter Brown’s description in “The Body and Society”, which includes the references to avoiding belching and scratching the ears. As for the teeth-scraping, Roman toothpaste was apparently very abrasive. So perhaps this is a reference to people who clean their teeth noisily and/or do it so hard that they make their gums bleed in an unslightly way. (This is very easy to do even with modern brushes/toothpaste if you’ve got sensitive gums, as I have).

  2. Curt Emanuel

    July 14, 2013 at 6:39 am

    Thanks for the comment, and the link. Crushed bones and oyster shells – I think I’d have gone with gnawing on some mint myself. Hope Leeds went well. I’m looking forward to hearing about it.


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