Pelagius, “Letter to Demetrias” and “On the Possibility of Not Sinning,” in B. R. Rees, The Letters of Pelagius and His Followers (Rochester, NY: The Boydell Press, 1991)
Letter to Demetrias
This letter was written by Pelagius to Demetrias, a young Christian (age 14) who has decided to take a vow of virginity. It emphasizes human agency and rationality in moral decision making. At the outset Pelagius describes his method for doing ethics, “first to demonstrate the power and quality of human nature and to show what it is capable of achieving, and then to go on to encourage the mind of my listener to consider the idea of different kinds of virtues” (36). He claims, the “best incentive for the mind consists in teaching it that it is possible to do anything which one really wants to do.”
Human beings are understood be made by God “to be free to act and not under compulsion” (37). His understanding of human nature might be summarized, “Yet we do not defend the good of nature to such an extent that we claim that it cannot do evil, since we undoubtedly declare also that it is capable of good and evil; we merely try to protect it from an unjust charge, so that we may not seem to be forced to do evil through a fault in our nature, when, in fact, we do neither good nor evil without the exercise of our will and always have the freedom to do one of the two, being always able to do either” (43).
In instructing Demetrias in how to act, he reminds her “the divine scriptures… alone enable you to understand the complete will of God” (45). Then he draws a distinction between the things that people must do to be perfect and the things that they must do simply to obey God, “having set out to win the state of blessedness which attaches itself to a special intention, see to it that you keep the general commandment also” (46). As Demetrias proceeds she is to remember both that spiritual goods are better than material ones and that she should “try even now to be the kind of person you want to be when you reach the last day.” He then briefly returns to the subject of human nature by claiming that the “first five years [of life] are the best for moral training” (50). He also divides the moral law into the positive and the negative, “it is not enough for you to refrain from evil, if you refrain from good as well: the law of God is divided into two classes of orders, and, while it forbids evil, it also enjoins good, and it prohibits neglect of itself on either count” (52). He offers a wonderfully instructive metaphor: “Life is compared to a reward, so that those who are to be given the brightness of the sun in the future shine forth here with a like splendour of righteousness and light up the blindness of unbelievers with works of holiness” (54). Then he switches to general advice, “we have enough worthless people, people seeking to make a name for themselves by making others out to be worthless” (57); “Beware of flatterers as your enemies:… they corrupt shallow souls with feigned praise and inflict their agreeable wounds on over-credulous minds;” “Moderation is best in everything and due sense of proportion is praiseworthy in all circumstances; the body has to be controlled, not broken” (59); and “Within the space of an hour one’s conduct can undergo change, and fasting, abstinence, psalmody and keeping vigil demand a conscious act of will more than constant practice” (62).
He concludes by describing the source of sin as thoughts not action, “for every deed and every word, whichever it may be, is laid out for inspection in advance and its future is decided by thoughtful consideration” (65). This means that, “The mind must be renewed by fresh growth in virtue every day, and we must measure our journey through life not be what has been completed but by remains to be done” (67).
The major reason to do all of this is to prepare for the end of the world. When it comes those who have acted rightly “will have cause for rejoicing from heaven” (70).
On the Possibility of Not Sinning
This short letter defines sin as “failure to avoid things which are forbidden, and failure to do things that are commanded.” God has clearly commanded humanity to be free from sin and since “God would have never commanded the impossible” the possibility of living without sin must be maintained (169). Furthermore, saying that it is impossible to live without sin provides an excuse for sinner, “under the plea that it is impossible not to sin, they are given a false sense of security in sinning.” Also, “The man who labours and strives to be without any sin will humbly and submissively express his regret for the error of his ways, when he realizes that he has done what he could have avoided if he had wanted to” (168).