Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Smelling like roses- The Instructor on the use of Ointments and Crowns

This is a continuation of my series on Clement of Alexandria and his book, "The Instructor." If you are new to this series or are unfamiliar with Clement and his book, you may want to first read the introduction to this series. You may also want to read the introduction to Book 2 of The Instructor as it give advice on how to understand Clement and his writings.
"The use of crowns and ointments is not necessary for us; for it impels to pleasures and indulgences, especially on the approach of night." (Clement of Alexandria, The Instructor, Book 2, Chapter 8)
Here Clement is referring to perfumes. The "crowns" he is talking about are not crowns of gold or silver tiaras, but floral wreaths worn around the head as accessories; used for their beauty and fragrant scents. Of key concerns is their use for the sake of pleasure alone and their tendency to lead to licentiousness and voluptuousness.
"I know, too, the words of Aristippus the Cyrenian. Aristippus was a luxurious man. He asked an answer to a sophistical proposition in the following terms: 'A horse anointed with ointment is not injured in his excellence as a horse, nor is a dog which has been anointed, in his excellence as a dog; no more is a man,' he added, and so finished. But the dog and horse take no account of the ointment, whilst in the case of those whose perceptions are more rational, applying girlish scents to their persons, its use is more censurable." (Clement of Alexandria, The Instructor, Book 2, Chapter 8)
Aristippus was a Greek philosopher who was a disciple of Socrates. However, unlike Socrates, he believed the the ultimate goal of life was pleasure. Pleasure and luxury had become the goal of the Greek/Roman culture in Clement's day. This included the use of perfumes and ointments.
"for day by day their thoughts are directed to the gratification of insatiable desire, to the exhaustless variety of fragrance. Wherefore also they are redolent of an excessive luxuriousness. And they fumigate and sprinkle their clothes, their bed-clothes, and their houses. Luxury all but compels vessels for the meanest uses to smell of perfume... Ointment being smooth oil, do you not think that it is calculated to render noble manners effeminate? Certainly. And as we have abandoned luxury in taste, so certainly do we renounce voluptuousness in sights and odours; lest through the senses, as through unwatched doors, we unconsciously give access into the soul to that excess which we have driven away." (Clement of Alexandria, The Instructor, Book 2, Chapter 8)
The early Christians considered luxury one of the greatest sins of their day. They believed that followers of Christ were called to a life of moderation, simplicity, and temperance; giving preference to necessity over pleasure. They believed that a life spent on the pursuit of pleasure was incompatible with a live given to "seek first His kingdom and His righteousness." (Matthew 6:33)
"To resume: oil itself suffices to lubricate the skin, and relax the nerves, and remove any heavy smell from the body, if we require oil for this purpose. But attention to sweet scents is a bait which draws us in to sensual lust. For the licentious man is led on every hand, both by his food, his bed, his conversation, by his eyes, his ears, his jaws, and by his nostrils too. As oxen are pulled by rings and ropes, so is the voluptuary by fumigations and unguents, and the sweet scents of crowns. But since we assign no place to pleasure which is linked to no use serviceable to life, come let us also distinguish here too, selecting what is useful. For there are sweet scents which neither make the head heavy nor provoke love, and are not redolent of embraces and licentious companionship, but, along with moderation, are salutary, nourishing the brain when labouring under indisposition, and strengthening the stomach... For their use is not wholly to be laid aside, but ointment is to be employed as a medicine and help in order to bring up the strength when enfeebled, and against catarrhs, and colds, and ennui, as the comic poet says:— 'The nostrils are anointed; it being A most essential thing for health to fill the brain with good odours.'" (Clement of Alexandria, The Instructor, Book 2, Chapter 8)
There is a proper use of ointments and perfumes, that which is beneficial to the mind and body and that which is useful to cover up "heavy smells from the body," but there is also that use which is only for pleasure and for the purpose of sensuality and seduction. One has only to watch the advertisements for perfumes on television to see how they are marketed; as being sensual, provocative, louring, and seductive. All such uses of perfume should be rejected by those who are seeking to live a righteous life. Perfumes in moderation, and for salutary purposes, may be used, but not indulged in to serve the pleasure of the flesh.
"But pleasure to which no utility attaches, induces the suspicion of meretricious habits, and is a drug provocative of the passions. Rubbing one’s self with ointment is entirely different from anointing one’s self with ointment. The former is effeminate, while anointing with ointment is in some cases beneficial." (Clement of Alexandria, The Instructor, Book 2, Chapter 8)
We are called to seek a life of righteousness not pleasure for true pleasure is not found in luxury or the indulgence in the things of this world. True pleasure is found in the presence of God. "In Your presence is fullness of joy; in Your right hand there are pleasures forever." (Psalm 16:11) Those who pursue pleasure may find it, though fleeting, but those who pursue God will find, not only His Kingdom, but will also receive pleasures forevermore. Let us pursue those things that are eternal, not the passing pleasures of this life.

David Robison

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