Nothing New: Roman Crockery and the Human Heart

It is a timeless and Biblical adage that there truly is “nothing new under the Sun.” (Eccl. 1.9.) When it comes to matters of the human heart, this brief and profound reflection is brutally apparent.

In a lengthy book seeking to encourage the second century Christian to follow the teachings of Jesus as the Great Teacher, Clement of Alexandria devotes an entire chapter to a discussion of crockery and silverware. Whilst such subject matter might seem at best trivial, the author actually offers a profound challenge that speaks directly to the human heart.

Having discussed the frivolous luxury with which the non-Christian world was so clearly obsessed, Clement ends this chapter with a challenge to the reader of his work.

Crockery and the Creator

“Boasting about one’s plate is utterly base. For it is plainly wrong to care much about what any one who likes may buy from the market. But wisdom is not bought with coin of earth, nor is it sold in the market-place, but in heaven. And it is sold for true coin, the immortal Word, the regal gold.”

Clement, Paedagogus, 2.3. (Written c.198 AD.)

It does seem somewhat odd to challenge the believer with the extent to which they idolise their ‘plate’ – i.e., their crockery. But as Clement has explained, the elaborate vessels with which guests are both entertained and impressed in Roman high society became a marker of your wealth and status. Possession of such luxurious items was a guaranteed way to show off your riches and importance. But Clement goes on to establish something we can more readily engage with today. “It is plainly wrong to care much about what any one who likes may buy from the market.” To care so deeply about something you can simply purchase, be it luxurious dinnerware or the latest sports car, is ridiculous. Especially when contrasted against something of true and eternal value: wisdom from heaven itself.

Clement’s view of those who hold too tightly to these created things is clear. He considers such a view frivolous, misleading and destructive.

  1. Frivolous: Clement makes light of such absurd desires. Who would care so much about plates? The author is deliberately confronting the reader with the absurdity of a heart that chases after material things in this way.
  2. Misleading: Such a pursuit of material goods limits the individual. True wisdom is not bought or sold in the marketplace, it is found only in the immortal Word. When your attention is bound up in the frivolous pursuit of created goods, you cannot enjoy rightly the glorious goodness of the Creator God.
  3. Destructive: Such a love of ‘plates’ [here substitute our modern affectations] is base. It leads us into boastful pride, and contorts our minds to care too much about the corrupting things of this earth. It takes our focus and our affections away from things of true worth, and this will lead to our missing out on the glorious and heavenly wisdom of eternity.

Roman Materialism and the Modern Marketplace

Clement wrote to a second century audience, a world obsessed with social power dynamics and elitism. To have such lavish crockery was a symbol of your place and prestige in society. So it is today. Maybe our social media followers aren’t that fussed about our crockery and cutlery, but whether it is our new gadget, exotic holiday or glamorous lifestyle, we are a culture obsessed with the material. Obsessed with things that can simply be picked up in the marketplace, should one have the means.

Clement echoes the teaching of Jesus in this passage. Having urged his listeners to place their worth and treasure in Heaven, not in the things of this world, Jesus concluded “For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.” (Matt 6:21.) Our culture puts its treasure in the kind of luxury and lifestyle that Clement here decries. And so the hearts of our world are wedded to things that cannot fulfil them, and will ultimately pass away.

The absurdity with which Clement confronted his Roman reader ought to challenge the modern reader too. Why on earth would we invest our lives in such worthless trinkets when eternal wisdom and life is on offer? Clement’s implied exhortation is for us too: don’t get so caught up in the things of this world that your heart is torn away from that which truly lasts and matters. This second century confrontation is one we would do well to listen to, to examine our own heart, and come afresh before the immortal Word in whom true glory is on offer.

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