Presented here are excerpts from the first book of Cassiodorus' Institutes written about 562 AD. In this book, Cassiodorus explores the idea of Christian scriptural study undertaken by heirs of a tradition of such interpretation embodied in an ideal library. Accordingly he presents an analytical bibliography of works known to him, most of them actually present in his monastery library on the southernmost coast of Italy.

These excerpts include: (1) the preface in which he outlines his vision; (2) the table of contents of the first book devoted to scripture study; (3) a representative bibliographical chapter, that dealing with the Psalter; and (4) his description of his monastery, its physical situation, and something of its spirit.



Book I


1. When I realized there was such a zealous and eager pursuit of secular learning, that the majority of mankind hope thereby to obtain worldly wisdom, I was deeply grieved that Holy Scripture lacked public teachers since secular authors certainly have a powerful and widespread tradition. Together with blessed Agapetus, Pope of Rome, I made efforts to collect money for expenses to enable Christian schools in the city of Rome to employ learned teachers from whom the faithful might gain eternal salvation for their souls and the adornment of fine, pure eloquence for their speech. They say that such a system existed for a long time at Alexandria and that the Hebrews are now using it enthusiastically in Nisibis, a city of Syria. But since I could not accomplish this task because of continual wars and raging battles in the Kingdom of Italy--for peaceful endeavors have no place in a time of unrest--I was moved by divine love to devise for you, with God's help, these introductory books to take the place of a teacher. Through them, God willing, I believe that the textual disposition of Holy Scripture and a compact sketch of secular letters may be unfolded. These works may seem unscholarly since in them you will find not fine eloquence but basic description. But they are of great use to anyone who seeks to know the source both of worldly knowledge and of the salvation of the soul. I transmit in them not my own teaching, but the words of earlier writers which we justly praise and gloriously herald to later generations. Any mention of the ancients in the midst of praising the Lord is not considered tasteless boasting. Furthermore, you indicate your satisfaction with a serious teacher if you question him often; even if you return many times to these books, you will not be checked by any severity.

2. Therefore, beloved brothers, let us ascend without hesitation to Holy Scripture through the praiseworthy commentaries of the Fathers, as if on the ladder of Jacob's vision so that, lifted by their thoughts, we may be worthy to arrive at contemplation of the Lord. For commentary on Scripture is, as it were, Jacob's ladder, by which the angels ascend and descend (Gen. 28:12); on which the Lord leans, stretching out his hand to those who are weary, and supports the tired steps of those ascending by their contemplation of Him. Therefore, we ought to keep this arrangement of the readings, that after the recruits of Christ have learned the Psalms, they may continuously practice the reading of divine authority until they understand the authority thoroughly. The books should be corrected to prevent scribal errors from being fixed in untrained minds, because what is fixed and rooted in the depths of memory is hard to remove. Happy indeed is the mind that has stored such a mysterious treasure in the depths of memory, with God's help; but much happier the mind that knows the ways of understanding from its own energetic investigation. As a result, such a mind vigorously expels human thoughts and is occupied to its salvation with divine eloquence. We recall that we have seen many men with powerful memories who, asked about obscure passages, have solved the questions put to them by examples drawn only from divine authority for a matter stated obscurely in one place is set down more clearly in another book. An example of this is the Apostle Paul who to a large extent in the letter written to the Hebrews elucidates the writings of the Old Testament by their fulfillment in the time of the New.

3. Therefore, dearest brothers, after the soldiers of Christ who have filled themselves with divine study and, grown strong by regular reading, begin to recognize selections in books cited as circumstances dictate, then they may profit from the teachings of this work. It is divided into two books, which include brief annotations on works to be read and set out in proper order for reading them; thus, the student learns where Latin commentators explain each passage. But if he finds something in these writers discussed in a cursory fashion, then those who know Greek should seek from Greek expositors those passages that reveal a path to salvation. In this way indifference and negligence may be destroyed and vital knowledge sought by eager minds in the training school of Christ.

4. They say that the Divine Scriptures of the Old and New Testament from the beginning to the end were elucidated in Greek by Clement of Alexandria surnamed "Stromateus," by Cyril, bishop of the same city, by John Chrysostom, Gregory, and Basil as well as other scholarly men whom eloquent Greece praises. But we, with the Lord's aid, rather seek Latin writers, for we are writing for Italians and so we have appropriately pointed out Roman commentators, for everyone accepts what is reported in his native language more easily. In them a matter may be treated by earlier teachers that cannot be satisfactorily handled by those of today. Therefore we will point out the most learned commentators; when you are sent to such writers you find the proper and full measure of teaching. It will also be better for you not to be guided by striking novelty but to satisfy yourself with the earlier source. Consequently I may teach at my leisure and instruct you with excusable confidence; and I think that this type of instruction is profitable even to us, teaching others in such a way that we most suitably avoid the snares of those who misrepresent us.

5. In the first book we have presented teachers of the former ages who are always available and prepared to teach you, not so much by their speech as through your eyes. Therefore, learned brothers, wisely moderate your desires, and in imitation of those who desire to gain health of the body, learn what is to be read in proper order. For those who want to be cured ask the doctors what foods they should take first, what refreshment they should take next, so that an indiscriminate appetite does not tax rather than restore the failing strength of their weakened limbs.

6. In the second book on the arts and disciplines of liberal studies some few things ought to be deleted; and yet in this material there is little harm to the person who slips, if he errs while keeping his faith firm. Whatever has been found in Divine Scripture on such matters will be better understood if one has prior acquaintance with them. It is well-known that, at the beginning of spiritual wisdom, information on these subjects was sowed, as it were, which secular teachers afterwards cleverly transferred to their own rules, as we have noted at suitable places in our Psalm Commentary.

7. Therefore, pray to God, the source of all that is useful; read constantly; go over the material diligently; for frequent and intense meditation is the mother of understanding. I have not forgotten that the eloquent Cassian in his Conversations Book 5 related that a certain old and simple man had been asked about the most obscure passages of Divine Scripture and that he, after long prayer, with the help of heavenly light understood and explained the most difficult matters to his questioners. He had suddenly gained by divine inspiration what he had not learned before from human teachers. St. Augustine tells a similar story in his Christian Learning of an illiterate foreign servant who through constant prayer suddenly read a book that was handed to him as though he had been taught by long practice in school. Concerning this matter Augustine himself spoke later as follows: although these miracles are surprising, and there is the statement that "all things are possible to those who believe" (Mark 9:22), we ought not to pray for such things often, but rather stick to the practice of ordinary teaching so that we do not rashly seek after those things which are beyond us and risk testing the precept of the Lord who says in Deuteronomy: "You shall not put the Lord your God to the test" (Deut. 6:16), and again says in the Gospel, "an evil and adulterous generation demands a sign," and so forth (Matthew 12:39). Therefore let us pray that those things which are now closed be opened to us and that we never lose our zeal for reading; even David when he was constantly occupied with the law of the Lord nevertheless cried out to the Lord saying, "give me discernment that I may learn your commands" (Psalms 118:73). Such is the sweet gift of this pursuit that the more one understands the more one seeks.

8. Although all Divine Scripture shines with heavenly brilliance and the excellence of the Holy Spirit appears clearly in it, I have dedicated my greatest efforts to the Psalter, the Prophets, and the Apostolic Letters, since they seem to me to touch on deeper profundities, and to contain, as it were, both the glorious height and depth of the whole Divine Scripture. I have read over carefully all nine sections containing the divine authority as best as an old man could. I collated against older copies as my friends read aloud to me from these. In this pursuit I grant that I have struggled, God willing, to achieve a harmonious eloquence without profaning the sacred books by taking undue liberties.

9. We believe this also ought to be noted: St. Jerome, led by consideration for the simple brothers, said in the preface to the Prophets that he had arranged his translation as it is now read today by cola and commata for the sake of those who had not learned punctuation from teachers of secular learning. Guided by the authority of this great man, we have judged that his procedure ought to be followed and that the other books be supplied with these divisions. St. Jerome's divisions by cola and commata in place of punctuation provide sufficient guidance for easy reading. We do not, therefore, presume to surpass the judgment of such a great man. I have left the rest of the books which were not arranged in such system of punctuation to be examined and corrected by the scribes who are responsible for this exacting task. Although they cannot altogether maintain the fine points of orthography, they will hasten to complete at least the correction of the ancient books in every way. They understand their own critical marks which by and large refer and call attention to this skill. To eliminate ingrained error from our midst, we have set down in a following book on the rules of proper spelling a summary that is suited to their intellectual capacity in order to eliminate transmission of crude conjectures of hasty correctors for posterity to complain of. I have tried to locate as many of the earlier writers on orthography as I could for use by the scribes, who can be if not corrected in every respect, at least greatly improved. Correct spelling is usually set out without ambiguity by the Greeks; among the Latin writers it has clearly been ignored because of its difficulty and therefore even now it requires the serious attention of the reader.

10. After this explanatory introduction, it is now time for us to approach the most spiritually healthful gift of religious doctrine, the light of devout minds, a heavenly gift, and a joy which will remain forever--which is briefly touched on in the two books which follow.

Table of Contents

IV. Psalter

1. The third section containing the Psalter, which was the first commentary we worked on, has fourth place in the arrangement of Biblical books. Blessed Hilary, blessed Ambrose, and blessed Jerome have treated some of the psalms, but St. Augustine in a scholarly manner more fully treated all. *Up to now I have collected two decades of Augustine's commentary with the Lord's help.

2. And in my usual way, borrowing from him, so to speak, light from light, I have written something about that book with the Lord's bounty. Consequently, the famous line of the bard of Mantua is truly fulfilled in my case, "and I cackle as a goose among the melodious swans" (Virgil, Ecl. 9.36). In this work I have not disturbed the psalm text under discussion by straying from the subject, but in place of glosses I have stated briefly on each passage what the nature of the text itself demands. If anyone perchance deigns to read this work after reading other such commentators he will understand (as the other Fathers also unassailably claimed) that Sacred Scripture is the source of what the teachers of secular letters afterwards transferred to their field. I have (if I am not mistaken) shown these facts as the passages brought them up to the best of my ability with the Lord's aid.

3. The short book of Athanasius, bishop of Alexandria, which he sent to Marcellinus as a sweet refreshment after his illness ought to be read. It is called The Book of Psalms. In it he gives various kinds of advice and reveals the excellence of that work in an edifying discussion which comfortingly mentions the various misfortunes of mankind and their remedies. The Psalter appears like a heavenly sphere thick with twinkling stars and, so to speak, like a beautiful peacock which is adorned with round eyes and a rich and lovely variety of colors. The Psalter is indeed a paradise for souls, containing numberless fruits on which the human soul is sweetly fed and fattened.

4. I have decided that this entire corpus of Psalms ought to be put in three volumes of fifty Psalms each so that the triple number of the jubilee year might signify to you the gift of remission desired from the Holy Trinity. A single volume containing all the psalms might prove too difficult for some brothers. With the Lord's aid many may find a shortened form of the book beneficial to their salvation and may receive the hope of precious salvation when the work is divided in such a way. Have in your library then one book of all the Psalms for reference if perchance the text strikes you as erroneous. But the interest of the brothers may be served by the divided sections.

XXVIIII. On the Location of the Monastery of Vivarium or Castellum

1. The location of the monastery of Vivarium encourages us to prepare many things for pilgrims and the needy from the irrigated gardens and the fish-filled stream of Pellena which flows nearby. The stream is neither dangerous from big waves nor negligible because of slight flow. Directed skillfully it flows wherever you consider it necessary and provides enough water for your gardens and mills. It is available when needed and when it has satisfied your needs it recedes to a distance; when turned to a specific purpose, its sudden appearance does not frighten nor does it fail to appear when it is required. The sea also lies before you for various kinds of fishing and the captured fish can be closed up in fish ponds when you wish. For with God's aid we have constructed pleasant pools here in which many fish meander safely in pens. It is so like a mountain cave that the fish does not realize that it is held captive since it has freedom both to get is food and to hide in hollows as usual. We have also had baths constructed to benefit the afflictions of the body. Clear streams, known to be pleasant for drinking and washing, flow nicely into the baths. So your monastery is sought by outsiders, rather than that you should have any reason to long for other places. But these things, as you well know, are the pleasures of this present world, not the future hope of the faithful; for the former will pass, the latter will remain without end. Although we are settled here we should transfer our desires to those things which will enable us to reign with Christ.

2. Read devotedly and gladly what Cassian the priest wrote about the instruction of faithful monks. He says at the beginning of his holy treatise that there are eight cardinal vices to be avoided at the outset of a holy vocation. He comprehends the dangerous movements of minds so well that he almost makes a man see and avoid the excesses which his dark confusion had hidden from him. Cassian has been justly criticized by blessed Prosper on the question of free will. On this account we are warned to read him with some care because he has gone beyond the mark in such matters. Victor of Maktar, an African bishop, with the Lord's aid has corrected his writings and has added what little was missing so that he deserves credit for these words. We believe you ought to search for his work, among others from the region of Africa immediately. Cassian does violently attack other sects of monks, but you, dear brothers, with God's aid should choose that role which Cassian has praised soundly.

3. But if, as we trust, the monastic way of life in the monastery of Vivarium has properly trained you with the aid of divine grace, and if your purified minds happen to desire something higher, you have the pleasant retreat of Mount Castellum where you can live happily like anchorites with the Lord's aid. The place there is as secluded as a desert since it is entirely enclosed by ancient walls. It will be proper for those of you who have already been trained and tested to choose this dwelling place if you have prepared the ascent in your heart first. As a result of reading you know which of the two states you can desire or endure. It is a great thing that one who cannot teach others by his words may instruct them obviously by the sanctity of his ways when he has preserved rectitude in his way of life.