1. ‘Natural’ theology is to be discussed with the most eminent philosophers
OUR present subject demands much more concentrated attention than was needed for the solution and explanation of the questions raised in the earlier books. We shall be treating of ‘natural’ theology, which is a different matter from ‘fabulous’ or from ‘civil’ theology, the theology of the theatre and that of the city; the former of those makes great play with the scandals of the gods, while the latter reveals their even more scandalous desires, showing them to be malignant demons rather than gods. But in discussing ‘natural’ theology we shall have to cross swords not with the man in the street, but with philosophers; and that name means that they profess to be ‘lovers of wisdom’.
Now if wisdom is identical with God, by whom all things were made, as we are assured by divine authority1 and divine truth, then the true philosopher is the lover of God. But the thing designated by the name is not found in all those who boast of the name. Because men call themselves philosophers it does not follow that they are lovers of true wisdom. In fact we have to choose some, from those whose opinions we have been able to discover from their writings, with whom we may discuss the subject on a reasonable level.
It is not my aim, in this present work, to refute all the baseless opinions of all the philosophers, but only those appertaining to theology – and I take this Greek word to signify reasoning or discussion about the Divinity. And I shall not deal with all the theological speculation of philosophers, but confine myself to those thinkers who, while admitting the existence of a Divinity and his concern for human affairs, do not consider that the worship of one unchangeable God is sufficient for the attainment of a life of blessedness even after death, but suppose that for this end many gods are to be worshipped, gods who were created and established by him. Such philosophers certainly go far beyond Varro’s ideas and come much nearer to the truth. For Varro could extend his ‘natural’theology as far as the visible world, or the World-Soul, but no further. But these thinkers acknowledge a God who transcends any kind of soul, being the maker not only of this visible world – heaven and earth, in the familiar phrase – but also of every soul whatsoever, a God who gives blessedness to the rational and intelligent soul – the class to which the human soul belongs – by giving it a share in his unchangeable and immaterial light. Those philosophers are called Platonists, a name derived from their master Plato, as is well known to those who have even a superficial acquaintance with these ideas. I shall touch briefly on Plato, saying as much as I think essential for the present discussion. But first I shall mention those who preceded him in this branch of study.
2. The Italian and Ionian schools of philosophy and their founders
As far as Greek literature is concerned (and the Greek language has the highest international reputation) there is a tradition of two types of philosophy: the Italian, deriving from the part of Italy which used to be called Magna Graecia, and the Ionian, which flourished in the countries still called by the name of Greece. The Italian school had as its founder Pythagoras of Samos.2 who is credited with the coinage of the actual name of ‘philosophy’. Before his time the title of ‘sages’ was given to those who stood out from the rest of mankind by reason of some kind of quality of life which merited praise. But when Pythagoras was asked about his profession, he replied that he was a ‘philosopher’, that is, a devotee, or lover of wisdom; it seemed to him to be most presumptuous to claim to be a ‘sage’. The originator of the Ionian school was Thales of Miletus.3 He was one of the ‘Seven Sages’; but the other six were distinguished merely by their kind of life and by certain practical rules designed to promote the good life; Thales, for his part, took steps to ensure a succession of disciples, and after his researches into natural science he committed his findings to writing, and thus won renown. His most admired achievement was the ability to predict solar and lunar eclipses, thanks to his grasp of astronomical calculations. His theory was that water is the origin of all things, and out of water issued all the elements of the world and the world itself and all that is produced in it. But he did not ascribe the oversight of this work of creation, which strikes us with wonder when we contemplate the universe, to any operation of a Divine Intelligence.
Thales was succeeded by Anaximander,4 one of his pupils, and he changed his master’s conception of the physical universe. He did not derive everything from a single element as Thales had derived everything from water; Anaximander held that each thing has its own special source. These individual sources he believed to be infinite in number, and they give rise to an infinity of worlds with all that is produced in them. In his theory those worlds alternately disintegrate and are reborn after as long a duration as each is able to attain. Anaximander, like his master, gave no place to a Divine Intelligence in those operations of nature.
He left behind him a successor in the person of his disciple Anaxunenes,5 who ascribed the causes of all things to the infinite air. He did not deny the existence of gods, nor did he refrain from speaking of them; yet he did not believe that they created the air, but that they themselves derived their origin from it. His pupil, Anaxagoras,6 asserted his belief that the author of all the visible world is a Divine Mind working on an infinite matter, which consists of the mutually similar particles, which make up the whole universe, the individual things being constituted by their own special particles, but through the creative activity of the Divine Mind. Another pupil of Anaximines was Diogenes.7 He also maintained that air is the primal matter, from which all things are created. But he believed that the air participates in Divine Reason, without which nothing could issue from it.
The successor to Anaxagoras was his disciple Archelaus.8 He also held that the universe is constituted by mutually similar particles which make up all the particular things; but he asserted the presence of a Divine Intelligence in them, believing that this intelligence is the active force in the universe, operating by conjoining and separating the ‘eternal bodies’, that is, the particles.
Socrates is alleged to have been a disciple of Archelaus; and this brief recapitulation is designed to lead up to him.
3. The teaching of Socrates
Socrates is recorded as the first to turn the whole of philosophy towards the improvement and regulation of morality. All his predecessors had concentrated their attention on the study of physics, that is, on natural science. It is, in my view, impossible to decide for certain whether Socrates was led to take this course by the boredom induced by obscure and inconclusive subjects, which suggested that he should turn his attention to an inquiry offering greater clarity and certainty – the question of the necessary conditions for happiness, the goal of sleepless and laborious efforts of all philosophers – or whether, according to the more favourable interpretation of some expositors, he did not wish men’s minds to seek to invade the sphere of the divine, when they were polluted by earthly passions.
He saw that man had been trying to discover the causes of the universe, and he believed that the universe had its first and supreme cause in nothing but the will of the one supreme God; hence he thought that the causation of the universe could be grasped only by a purified intelligence. That is why he thought it essential to insist on the need to cleanse one’s life by accepting a high moral standard, so that the soul should be relieved of the weight of the lust that held it down, and then by its natural vigour should rise up to the sphere of the eternal and behold, thanks to its pure intelligence, the essence of the immaterial and unchangeable light where dwell the causes of all created things in undisturbed stability. There is no doubt about the remarkable charm and the shrewd urbanity with which he examined and exposed the ignorant stupidity of those who fancied they possessed some knowledge about ethical questions – to which he had applied his whole mental effort, although confessing his ignorance, or concealing his knowledge of the subject. The result was that he aroused a great deal of enmity, and was condemned to death on a trumped-up charge. But the same Athenian community which had publicly condemned him later honoured him with official mourning. The public indignation was so turned against his two accusers that one of them fell a victim to the violence of the mob, while the other only escaped a similar fate by a voluntary and perpetual exile.
Thanks to the renown of his life and his death, Socrates left behind him a large body of followers of his philosophy, who rivalled each other in their enthusiastic application to discussions of ethical questions which give rise to the problem of the Highest Good, the necessary condition of human happiness. The nature of this Summum Bonum did not emerge clearly from the discussions of Socrates, his method being to sift every question by advancing hypotheses and then overthrowing them. And so everyone took from him what he fancied, and set up whatever agreed with his own ideas as the Final Good (the Final Good meaning that whose attainment ensures man’s happiness). Such were the differences of opinion about the Final Good held by the Socratics that (though it is scarcely credible, in the disciples of a single master), some, like Aristippus, held that pleasure is the Summum Bonum; others, like Antisthenes, found it in virtue;9 others had their varying opinions, and it would be tedious to enumerate them.
4. Plato, the chief disciple of Socrates. His division of philosophy into three parts
Among the disciples of Socrates it was Plato who deservedly achieved the most outstanding reputation; and he quite overshadowed all the rest. Plato was an Athenian, born in a family which stood high in the community. He far out-distanced his fellow-students in his remarkable natural gifts; yet he decided that his own ability, aided by the teaching of Socrates, was not enough to bring his philosophy to perfection. And so he travelled far and wide, wherever he was drawn by any teacher’s reputation for philosophical insight. Thus it was that he went to Egypt to acquire all the highly prized teaching given there, and from thence passed on to that part of Italy where the Pythagoreans were in great renown. There he attended the lectures of the most eminent teachers and readily attained a grasp of the philosophy which was then enjoying its heyday in Italy.
He was devoted to his master Socrates with singular affection, and therefore even put into his mouth in almost all his discourses the ideas he himself had learnt from others, or those which he owed to his own intelligent perception, tempering them with Socrates’ charm and moral earnestness. The study of philosophy is conducted along two lines, one concerned with action, the other with pure thought – hence they may be called practical and speculative philosophy, the former dealing with the conduct of life and the establishment of moral standards, the latter concerned with the theory of causation and the nature of absolute truth. Socrates is the type of excellence in practical wisdom, while Pythagoras concentrated on the contemplative, for which he was equipped by his intellectual power. It was Plato’s great claim to fame that he brought philosophy to its perfection by joining together these two strands. He then divided philosophy into three parts: moral philosophy, which particularly relates to action; natural philosophy, devoted to speculation; and rational philosophy, which distinguishes truth from falsehood. This last is essential to both the others; but it is speculation which has a special claim to insight into the truth. Thus it is that this threefold division is not inconsistent with the distinction which recognizes the whole field of philosophical inquiry as consisting of active and speculative reasoning. However, Plato’s own thought in and about these three separate divisions; that is, how he defined (by process of knowledge or by the intuition of faith), the end of all action, where he located the cause of all phenomena, and where he found the illumination of all reasoning processes; these are matters which, in my judgement, it would take too long to discuss in detail, and I do not think one ought to make any unsubstantiated allegations on the subject. The fact is that Plato makes a point of preserving the manner of his master Socrates, whom he introduces as a disputant in his books. It is well known that Socrates was in the habit of concealing his knowledge, or his beliefs; and plato approved of that habit. The result is that it is not easy to discover his own opinion, even on important matters. For all that, there are some points met with in reading Plato’s works, whether his own statements, or the remarks of others recorded by him, which I ought to mention and to include in this work. Sometimes these quotations support the true religion, which our faith has received and now defends; sometimes they seem to show him in opposition to it. They are passages concerning the question of the divine unity or plurality with reference to the life after death, which is the life of true blessedness.
There are thinkers who have rightly recognized Plato’s pre-eminence over the pagan philosophers and have won praise for the penetration and accuracy of their judgement, and enjoy a widespread reputation as his followers. It may be that they have some such conception of God as to find in him the cause of existence, the principle of reason, and the rule of life. Those three things, it will be seen, correspond to the three divisions of philosophy: natural, rational, and moral. For if man has been so created as to attain, through the special excellence in man’s being, to that excellence which is superior to all other things, that is, to the one true God of supreme goodness, without whom no being exists, no teaching instructs, no experience profits, then we should seek him in whom for us all things are held together, we should find him in whom for us all things are certain, we should love him, in whom is found all goodness.
5. Theological questions are to be discussed with the Platonists rather than with any other philosophers, whose opinions must be counted inferior
If Plato says that the wise man is the man who imitates, knows and loves this God, and that participation in this God brings man happiness, what need is there to examine the other philosophers? There are none who come nearer to us than the Platonists.10 Platonism must take pride of place over ‘fabulous’ theology, with its titillation of impious minds by rehearsing the scandals of the gods, and over ‘civil’ theology, where unclean demons, posing as gods, have seduced the crowds who are wedded to earthly joys, and have desired to make human errors serve as divine honours for themselves; where those demons arouse in their worshippers an interest in degraded filth, to stimulate them to watch the representation of their scandals on the stage, as if it were an act of worship; and where the spectators present a spectacle even more delightful for those false gods; where any respectable performance in the temples is defiled by its connection with the obscenities of the theatre, and all the depravities in the theatre seem praiseworthy by comparison with the infamies conducted in the temples.
Platonism must be held superior to the interpretations produced by Varro, in which he tried to refer those ceremonies to sky and earth and the seeds and activities of life in this world; those rites have no such significance as he tried to read into them and the facts lent no support to his attempt; and even had the explanations been true, the rational soul could not find it right to worship as its God anything which is below itself in the order of nature, or to put above itself, as gods, things which the true God has put below it.
The same is true of the genuine revelations about the meaning of those cults which Numa Pompilius took care to conceal by having them buried with him,11 which were turned up by a plough, and then were burnt by order of the senate. To this class also belong (and this has to be said to prevent any harsh suspicions about Numa) the revelations which Alexander of Macedon, writing to his mother, says that he received from a high priest of the Egyptian religion, named Leo.12 According to this, not only picus, Faunus, Aeneas, and Romulus, not only Hercules, Aesculapius, Liber (son of Semele), the two sons of Tyndarus, and other deified mortals, but even ‘the gods of the great nations’ to whom Cicero seems to be alluding (without mentioning names) in his Tusculans,13 namely, Jupiter, Juno, Saturn, Vulcan, Vesta, and all those others, whom Varro tries to identify with the parts, or elements, of the universe – all these, according to this revelation, were originally human beings. The high priest was so afraid at having revealed those ‘mysteries’ that he begged Alexander to make sure that the letter to his mother, conveying this information, should be burnt to ashes.
The teaching of both these theologies, the ‘fabulous’ and the ‘civil’, must yield place to the doctrine of the Platonists; for the Platonists assert that the true God is the author of the universe, the source of the light of truth, and the bestower of happiness. And the other philosophers also must yield to those great men who recognize so great a God – I mean those other philosophers whose minds were so subservient to the body they conceived only of corporeal origins for all natural phenomena, Thales finding it in water, Anaximenes in air, the Stoics in fire, Epicurus in the atoms, that is, in infinitesimal material particles, indivisible and imperceptible;14 and there are all the other thinkers, whom it is unnecessary to enumerate, who have maintained that the cause and origin of the universe is to be found in material bodies, simple or compound, inanimate or animate, but still material bodies. Some of them believed, like the Epicureans, that living things could be produced by inanimate things. Others supposed that a living being is the source both of living things and of things without life; but still they held that bodies have their origin in a material body. The Stoics, for example, believed that fire, one of the four elements which constitute the visible universe, is endowed with life and wisdom, and is the creator of the universe and of all its contents; that fire, in fact, is actually God.
These thinkers and their like could not conceive of anything beyond the fantasies suggested by imagination, circumscribed by the bodily senses. They had, to be sure, something within themselves which they did not see; they formed a mental picture of what they had seen outside themselves, even when they did not see it any longer but merely thought of it. Now when a material thing is thus seen in the mind’s eye, it is no longer a material object but the likeness of such an object; and the faculty which perceives this likeness in the mind is neither a material body, nor the likeness of a physical object; and the faculty which judges its beauty or ugliness is certainly superior to the image on which it passes judgement. This faculty is the human intellect, the rational constituent in the soul of man, and that, without any doubt, is not a material object, if it is true that the image of the object, when it is seen and judged in the mind of a thinking man, is not a material object. Then it cannot be earth, or water, or air, or fire; not one of the four elements, as they are called, of which the visible material world is constituted. But if our mind is not a material object, how can God, the creator of the mind, be himself a material thing?
So, then, those thinkers must rank below the Platonists, as we have said. And so must those who would blush to assert that God is material, but suppose him to be of the same nature as the mind of man. They are not worried by the excessive mutability of the human soul, a mutability which it would be blasphemous to ascribe to the divine nature. They retort, ‘It is the body that changes the nature of the soul; in itself the soul is immutable.’ They might as well say, ‘It is an external material object which wounds the flesh: in itself the flesh is invulnerable.’ Nothing at all can change the immutable; what can be changed by an external object is susceptible of change, and cannot properly be called immutable.
6. The Platonist conception of natural philosophy
These philosophers, as we have seen, have been raised above the rest by a glorious reputation they so thoroughly deserve; and they recognized that no material object can be God; for that reason they raised their eyes above all material objects in their search for God. They realized that nothing changeable can be the supreme God; and therefore in their search for the supreme God, they raised their eyes above all mutable souls and spirits. They saw also that in every mutable being the form which determines its being, its mode of being and its nature, can only come from him who truly is, because he exists immutably. It follows that the whole material universe, its shapes, qualities, its ordered motions, its elements disposed throughout its whole extent, stretching from heaven to earth, together with all the bodies contained within them; and all life, whether that which merely nourishes and maintains existence, as in the trees, or that which has sensibility as well, as in the animals; or that which has all this, and intelligence besides, as in human beings; or that life which needs no support in the way of nourishment, but maintains existence, and has feeling and intelligence, as in the case of angels – all these alike could come into being only through him who simply is. For him existence is not something different from life, as if he could exist without living; nor is life something other than intelligence, as if he could live without understanding; nor understanding something other than happiness, as if he could understand without being happy. For him, to exist is the same as to live, to understand, to be happy.
It is because of this immutability and this simplicity that the Platonists realized that God is the creator from whom all other beings derive, while he is himself uncreated and underivative. They observed that whatever exists is either matter or life, and that life is superior to matter, that the form of matter is accessible to sense, that the form of life is accessible to intelligence. They therefore preferred the ‘intelligible’ to the ‘sensible’. By ‘sensible’ we mean that which can be apprehended by bodily sight and touch, by ‘intelligible’ that which can be recognized by the mind’s eye. Physical beauty, whether of an immobile object – for instance, the outline of a shape – or of movement – as in the case of a melody – can be appreciated only by the mind. This would be quite impossible, if this ‘idea’ of beauty were not found in the mind in a more perfect form, without volume or mass, without vocal sound, and independent of space and time. But even here, if this ‘idea’ of beauty were not subject to change, one person would not be a better judge of sensible beauty than another; the more intelligent would not be better than the slower, nor the experienced and skilled than the novice and the untrained; and the same person could not make progress towards better judgement than before. And it is obvious that anything which admits of increase or decrease is changeable.
This consideration has readily persuaded men of ability and learning, trained in the philosophical discipline, that the original ‘idea’ is not to be found in this sphere, where it is shown to be subject to change. In their view both body and mind might be more or less endowed with form (or ‘idea’), and if they could be deprived of form altogether they would be utterly non-existent. And so they saw that there must be some being in which the original form resides, unchangeable, and therefore incomparable. And they rightly believed that it is there that the origin of all things is to be found, in the uncreated, which is the source of all creation.
Thus ‘what is known of God is what he himself has revealed to them. For his invisible realities have been made visible to the intelligence, through his created works, as well as his eternal power and divinity.’15 It is by him that the visible and temporal things have been created.
So much for that section of philosophy which they call physical, or natural.
7. The pre-eminence of the Platonists in rational philosophy, or logic
As for the teaching which is comprised in the second division of philosophy, which the Platonists call logic, or rational philosophy, heaven forbid that I should think to compare them with those who have placed the criterion of truth in the bodily senses and have decided that all that belongs to the realm of learning is to be measured by such unreliable and misleading standards. Such are the Epicureans, and other philosophers of that type; and even the Stoics, who are so violently attached to the subtle art of disputation, which they call ‘dialectic’, hold that the art is to be derived from the bodily senses.16 They assert that it is from this source that the mind draws its concepts (ennoiai, in their vocabulary) of the things which they explain by means of definition. This is taken as the starting-point of their whole connected system of learning and teaching.
Here I always wonder what bodily senses they use to see that beauty which they say is found only in the wise. With what physical eyes have they beheld the beauty and grace of wisdom? On the other hand, those philosophers whom we deservedly prefer to all the rest, have distinguished between the things discerned by the mind and those attained by the senses, without either detracting from the proper powers of the senses, or ascribing to them powers beyond their competence, while they have declared that God himself, the creator of all things, is the light of the mind, which makes possible every acquisition of knowledge.
8. The Platonists’ superiority in moral philosophy
There remains the moral section of philosophy (‘ethics’ in Greek), which discusses the question of the Summum Bonum, to which we refer all our actions, which we seek for its own sake, not for any ulterior end, and the attainment of which leaves us nothing more to seek for our happiness. For this reason it is called the ‘end’; everything else we desire for the sake of this, this we desire for itself alone.
This Good, which conveys blessedness, is said by some to depend on man’s body, by others to derive from his mind; while yet others have located it in both mind and body. They observed, of course, that man himself consists of mind and body, and therefore they believed that the one or the other of the two constituents, or the one and the other, could be the source of his well-being – the source of that Good which is an end in itself, the guarantee of happiness, the standard of reference for all action, beyond which there is no further standard to be looked for. Thus those who are said to have added a third ‘extrinsic’ kind of good – honour, glory, money, or the like – have not introduced it as the ‘Final’ Good, to be sought for its own sake, but as a good relative to some other end. A good of this kind they held to be a good for the good, but an evil for the evil. And so those who looked to find man’s good in his mind, or in his body, or in both together, did not believe that it should be looked for anywhere but in man himself. Those who looked for it in the body were seeking its source in the lower element in man’s nature; those who derived it from the mind traced its origin to man’s nobler part; those who expected it from mind and body together required it from man’s whole being. But whether it was one part or both that they looked to, they did not go outside of man. Those three different principles did not result in three divergent schools of philosophy; they produced many more sects with widely different conceptions of the good of the body, the good of the mind, and the good of both.
All those schools must be ranked below those philosophers who have found man’s true Good not in the enjoyment of the body or the mind, but in the enjoyment of God. This is not like the mind’s enjoyment of the body, or of itself; nor is it like the enjoyment of friend by friend; it is like the eye’s enjoyment of light – or rather that is the closest analogy possible. With God’s help, I will explain the point to the best of my ability in another place. For the present, it suffices to mention that Plato defined the Sovereign Good as the life in accordance with virtue;17 and he declared that this was possible only for one who had the knowledge of God and who strove to imitate him; this was the sole condition of happiness. Therefore Plato has no hesitation in asserting that to be a philosopher is to love God, whose nature is immaterial. It immediately follows that the seeker after wisdom (which is the meaning of ‘philo-soph-er’) will only attain to happiness when he has begun to enjoy God. To be sure, it does not automatically follow that a man is happy, just because he enjoys what he has set his heart on; many are miserable because they are in love with things that should not be loved, and they become even more miserable when they enjoy them. But it remains true that no one is happy without the enjoyment of what he loves. Even those who set their heart on the wrong things do not suppose their happiness to consist in the loving, but in the enjoyment. If anyone then enjoys what he loves, and loves the true Supreme Good, only the most miserable would deny his happiness. Now this Sovereign Good, according to Plato, is God. And that is why he will have it that the true philosopher is the lover of God, since the aim of philosophy is happiness, and he who has set his heart on God will be happy in the enjoyment of him.
9. The philosophy that approximates most nearly to Christianity
Thus there are philosophers who have conceived of God, the supreme and true God, as the author of all created things, the light of knowledge, the Final Good of all activity, and who have recognized him as being for us the origin of existence, the truth of doctrine and the blessedness of life. They may be called, most suitably, Platonists; or they may give some other title to their school. It may be that it was only the leading members of the Ionian school who held the same opinions as Plato, and who understood him thoroughly; on the other hand, the same concepts may have been held also by Italian philosophers, because of Pythagoras and the Pythagoreans, and perhaps by some others of the same way of thinking and from the same part of the world. There may be others to be found who perceived and taught this truth among those who were esteemed as sages or philosophers in other nations: Libyans of Atlas, Egyptians, Indians, Persians, Chaldeans, Scythians, Gauls, Spaniards.18 Whoever they may have been, we rank such thinkers above all others and acknowledge them as representing the closest approximation to our Christian position.
10. Christianity and philosophy
A Christian whose education has been confined to the study of the Church’s literature may be quite unfamiliar with the name of Platonist, and may not know of the existence of two types of Greek-speaking philosophy, the Ionian and the Italian. For all that, he is not so out of touch with life in general as to be unaware that philosophers profess the pursuit of wisdom, or even the possession of it. But he is wary of those whose philosophy is ‘based on the elements of this world’, and not on God, the world’s creator. That is because he is put on his guard by the Apostle’s injunction, and gives an attentive hearing to those words: ‘Take care that no one leads you astray by philosophy and useless misleading teaching, based on the elements of the world.’19 However, he is prevented from regarding all thinkers as belonging to this class, when he listens to the Apostle’s remarks about some of them. ‘What can be known of God has been revealed among them. God in fact has revealed it to them. For his invisible realities, from the foundation of the world, have been made visible to the intelligence through his created works, as well as his eternal power and divinity.’20 And in his speech to the Athenians, after uttering that great saying about God, a saying which only a few can understand, ‘It is in him that we have our life, our movement, and our being,’ Paul goes on to say, ‘as some of your own writers have also said.’21 The Christian knows, to be sure, that he must be on his guard against their errors. For while the Apostle says that through his created works God has revealed to them his invisible qualities by making them visible to the intelligence, he says at the same time that they have not offered the right sort of worship to God himself, because they have transferred the divine honours, due to God alone, to other objects, which have no right to them.
Though having some acquaintance with God, they have not glorified him as God, nor have they given thanks to him; but they have dwindled into futility in their thinking and their stupid heart is shrouded in darkness. In claiming to be wise they have become fools and have exchanged the glory of the incorruptible God for images representing corruptible man, or birds, beasts or snakes.22
In this passage Paul intends us to understand a reference to the Romans, the Greeks and the Egyptians, who were proud of their reputation for wisdom. We shall later on engage in argument with them on this subject. But they agree with us in the conception of one God, who is the author of this whole universe, who is not only above all material things, as immaterial, but also, as incorruptible, above all souls, who is, in fact, our source, our light, our good; and in respect of this we rank them above all the others.
A Christian may be unacquainted with the writings of the philosophers; he may not employ in debate words which he has never learnt; he may not apply the Latin term ‘natural’ or the Greek term ‘physical’ to the division of philosophy which deals with the study of nature, or the term ‘rational’, or ‘logical’, to the division which discusses how we can reach the truth; or ‘moral’ or ‘ethical’ to the part which treats of morality, of the good ends which are to be pursued and the evil ends to be avoided. It does not follow that he fails to realize that we derive from the one true God of all goodness the nature with which we were created in his image. It does not mean that he is ignorant of the teaching thanks to which we acquire knowledge of God and of ourselves, nor that he is ignorant of the grace through which we are united to him and thus attain our happiness.
This is why we rate the Platonists above the rest of the philosophers. The others have employed their talents and concentrated their interests on the investigation of the causes of things, of the method of acquiring knowledge, and the rules of the moral life, while the Platonists, coming to a knowledge of God, have found the cause of the organized universe, the light by which truth is perceived, and the spring which offers the drink of felicity. All philosophers who have this conception of God are in agreement with our idea of him, whether they are Platonists or philosophers of any other kind, of any nation. The reason why I have decided to concentrate on the Platonists is that their writings are more generally known. For one thing, the Greeks, whose language enjoys a pre-eminent position internationally, have given the Platonists the widest publicity; for another, the Latins, struck by their excellence, or by their renown, have studied their writings in preference to others, and by translating them into our language have made them better known and more highly regarded.
11. How Plato may have acquired the insight which brought him so close to Christianity
Some of those who are united in fellowship with us in the grace of Christ are amazed when they hear or read that Plato had a conception of God which they recognize as agreeing in many respects with the truth of our religion. This has given rise to the suggestion that, at the time of his journey to Egypt, Plato listened to the prophet Jeremiah, or else that during the same foreign tour he read the prophetical Scriptures. I have put forward this suggestion in some of my books.23 But a careful calculation of the dates, which are to be found in the chronicles, shows that Plato was born about a century after the period of Jeremiah’s prophetic activity. Plato lived to be eighty-one, and it was, we find, a full sixty years after his death when Ptolemy, king of Egypt, ordered from Judaea a copy of the prophetic writings of the Hebrew people and had them translated into Greek for his use by seventy Jews who were familiar with the Greek language. This means that Plato could not have seen Jeremiah when on his travels, since the prophet had been dead for so long; nor could he have read his writings, since they had not yet been translated into Greek, the language in which Plato was such a master, unless perhaps, in his eager thirst for knowledge, he gained acquaintance with them – as he did with Egyptian books – with the help of an interpreter. There is no suggestion of a written translation which he could take away with him (that was reserved for Ptolemy, who, as the story goes, earned the privilege by an act of great generosity,24 though he may also have feared for his royal power). It may have been that he learnt by word of mouth as much as he could understand of the contents of the Scriptures.
There seems to be some evidence in support of this suggestion. Thus, the book of Genesis begins with these words: ‘In the beginning God made heaven and earth. But the earth was invisible and unformed, and there was darkness over the abyss, and the spirit of God soared above the water.’25Now in the Timacus, the book in which he writes about the creation of the world, Plato says that God in that work first brought together earth and fire;26 and it is obvious that for Plato fire takes the place of the sky, so that this statement has a certain resemblance to the one just quoted: ‘In the beginning God made heaven and earth.’ Plato goes on to say that water and air were the two intermediaries whose interposition effected the junction of those two extremes.27 This is supposed to be his interpretation of the bib-heal statement: ‘The spirit of God soared above the water.’ Now the air is also called ‘spirit’ (in the sense of ‘breath’); and so it might be thought that Plato failed to notice the normal use of the title ‘the Spirit of God’ in Scripture, and assumed that the four elements are mentioned in this passage. Then there is Plato’s assertion that the philosopher is ‘the lover of God’. Nothing shines out from the pages of Scripture more clearly than this. But what impresses me most, and almost brings me to agree that Plato cannot have been unacquainted with the sacred books, is that when the angel gave Moses the message from God, and Moses asked the name of him who gave the command to go and free the Hebrew people from Egypt, he received this reply, ‘I am HE WHO IS, and you will say to the sons of Israel, “HE WHO IS has sent me to you.” ’ 28 This implies that in comparison with him who really is, because he is unchangeable, the things created changeable have no real existence. This truth Plato vigorously maintained and diligently taught.29 And I do not know whether it can be found anywhere in the works of Plato’s predecessors, except in that book which has the statement, ‘I am HE WHO IS;and you will say to them: “HE WHO IS has sent me to you.” ’
12. Despite their true concept of one Cod, the Platonists countenance polytheism
We do not know the source of Plato’s knowledge of this teaching, whether it came from previous books of ancient writers, or whether, as the Apostle says, ‘what can be known about God has been revealed among them: in fact, God himself has revealed it. For his invisible realities have from the creation of the world, been made visible to the understanding through his created works; as well as his eternal power and divinity.’ But however this may be, I think I have shown myself justified in selecting the Platonists as my respondents in the present debate on natural theology; the question at issue being this: With a view to future blessedness after death, is it right to worship one God, or many?
The reason for my choice of the Platonists, in preference to all others, is that the reputation and prestige they enjoy above the rest is in proportion to the superiority of their concept of one God, the creator of heaven and earth. The judgement of posterity has rated them far above other philosophers; how far is shown by the sequel. Aristotle (a disciple of Plato and a man of commanding genius, no match for Plato in literary style, but still far above the general run), founded a school called the ‘Peripatetics’ (the name being derived from his habit of walking about while discussing) and, thanks to his brilliant reputation, attracted to his sect a large number of disciples, even in the lifetime of his teacher. After Plato’s death, his nephew Speusippus and his favourite disciple Xenocrates succeeded him in his school, which was called the Academy, and they and their successors were hence called the ‘Academics’.30 In spite of this, the most notable philosophers of recent times have rejected the title of ‘Peripatetics’ or ‘Academics’, and have elected to be called ‘Platonists’.31
Among these modern philosophers the most highly esteemed of the Greeks are Plotinus, Iamblichus, and Porphyry;32 while Apuleius33 of Africa stands out as a notable Platonist, writing in both Greek and Latin.
Yet all those philosophers, and others of the same way of thinking, and even Plato himself,34 thought it right to render worship to a plurality of Gods.
13 By Plato’s definition all the gods are morally good
There are, to be sure, many other important points on which the Platonists differ from us. But I am particularly concerned with one point, which I have already mentioned; it is a matter of no small moment, and it is the topic of our present discussion. My first question is this: To what gods do they think this worship should be rendered? To the good, or the bad, or to both alike? Now we have the opinion of Plato35 that all gods are good, and that there is no such thing as a bad god. It follows that worship is offered to good gods. For only then is it offered to gods, seeing that they will not be gods at all, if they are not good. If this be true – and how could we rightly think otherwise of the gods? – it immediately makes nonsense of the idea, held by a good many people, that the bad gods are to be mollified by sacrifice to prevent them from doing harm, while the good are to be invoked to induce them to give help. For bad gods do not exist; therefore it is to the good gods that the honour of these rites is to be offered, as, allegedly, their due.
But then, who are the gods who like the stage shows and demand that those spectacles should be included in the divine ceremonies and exhibited among the honours paid to them? The power wielded by those gods proves their existence; their taste in entertainment unmistakably reveals their wickedness. Plato’s opinion on stage shows is well known.36 His decision is that poets should be banished from the community for having composed poetical fictions so dishonourable to the majesty and the goodness of the gods. Then who are these gods who are at odds with Plato himself on this subject of stage performances? Plato would not suffer the gods to be slandered by false accusations, while the gods demanded that those slanders should be performed in their honour. In fact, when the gods prescribed the establishment of those shows, they added active malignity to their demand for obscenity. They robbed Titus Latinius37 of his son, and inflicted sickness on him for his disobedience to their orders; and they restored him to health when he had fulfilled their requirements. Plato, for his part, does not consider that gods so evil should be feared, and he maintains his firm decision with the greatest resolution, and shows no hesitation in removing from a well-ordered people all the blasphemous frivolities of the poets, in which those gods delighted to find companionship in impurity. As I mentioned in my second book, Labeo38 classes Plato among the demi-gods. And yet Labeo holds that the evil deities should be placated by the blood of victims, and by supplications of the same kind, while the good divinities are to be propitiated by games and other ceremonies supposedly connected with joy. How is it then that the ‘demi-god’ Plato has the steadfast courage to deprive not demi-gods but gods, and, what is more, good gods, of the diversions which he regards as obscene? These gods certainly refute Labeo’s opinion, since in the case of Latinius they showed themselves not merely playful and pleasure-loving, but savage and terrible. And so I should like the Platonists to explain this problem. They follow the opinion of their master in thinking that all the gods are good and honourable, sharing with the sages a fellowship in virtue; and they hold it blasphemous to entertain any other opinion about any of the gods.
‘Here’, they say, ‘is our explanation.’ Very good. Let us give it an attentive hearing.
14. The notion of three kinds of rational souls: in the gods of heaven, in the demons in the air, in men on earth
There is, they say, a threefold division of all beings possessed of a rational soul; there are gods, men, and demons. The gods occupy the most exalted situation; mankind has the most lowly; and the demons are in between. For the gods have their abode in heaven; mankind lives on earth; demons dwell in the air.39 And their natures are graded to correspond to their different elevations. The gods are superior to men and demons, while men are set below gods and demons in respect of difference of merit as well as in the order of the physical elements. The demons are in a middle position; they are inferior to the gods and dwell below them, but superior to men, having their abode above them. In common with the gods, they have immortality of body; in common with men, they have the passions of the soul. Therefore it is not remarkable, the Platonists tell us, that they delight in the obscenities of the shows and the fantasies of the poets, seeing that they are subject to human desires, which are remote from the gods, and altogether alien to them. It follows then that in his detestation of poetry and his prohibition of poetical fictions, it is not the gods, who are all of them good and sublime, that Plato has deprived of the pleasures of stage shows; it is the demons.
These ideas can be found in many writers; but the Platonist Apuleius40 of Madaura has devoted a whole book to the subject, under the title, The God of Socrates. In this book he discusses and explains to what class of divinities that power belonged which was attached to Socrates in a kind of friendly companionship.41 The story is that he constantly received warnings from this divinity to abandon some line of action when the contemplated enterprise was not destined to be successful. Apuleius says quite frankly that this power was not a god but a demon and supports his contention with a wealth of argument, in the course of which he takes the statement of Plato about the sublime situation of the gods, the lowly state of man and the intermediate position of the demons, and subjects it to a thorough examination. Now if this represents Plato’s belief, how did he have the audacity to expel the poets from his city, and thus to deprive of their theatrical pleasures, if not the gods (for he withdrew them from any contact with mankind), at any rate the demons? Perhaps it was because he intended to advise the spirit of man (situated though it is in a bodily frame which is destined for death) to treat with contempt the corrupt commands of the demons and to abhor their obscenities in order to preserve an unsullied integrity. For it was in a spirit of the highest integrity that Plato condemned and prohibited these diversions; it follows that it was utterly infamous in the demons to demand and prescribe them.
Then either Apuleius is mistaken and the supernatural companion of Socrates did not come from this category of spiritual powers; or Plato is inconsistent in showing honour to demons at one moment, and at another banishing their enjoyments from a well-conducted city; or else Socrates is not to be felicitated on his friendship with a demon. Apuleius himself felt some embarrassment about the point. In fact he was prepared to give his book the title, The God of Socrates, whereas in line with his own discussion, in which he makes a carefully and copiously argued distinction between gods and demons, he ought to have called it The Demon of Socrates. However, he has preferred to make this point in the actual discussion rather than in its title. The fact is that as a result of the healthy doctrine which has shone upon the world of men, mankind in general has conceived a horror of the very name of demon, so that anyone reading the title, The Demon of Socrates, before studying the discussion in which Apuleius seeks to establish the excellence of demons, would conclude that Socrates was by no means a normal human being.
But what is it that Apuleius himself has found to praise in demons, apart from the subtlety and stability of their bodies and the elevation of their abode? As for their morality, in the general remarks he makes about demons as a whole, he has nothing good to say of them but a great deal of ill. In fact, when one has read the book, one can no longer be astonished that these demons wished the obscenities of the stage to have a place among divine ceremonies, and that while eager to be accounted gods, they could find pleasure in the scandals of the deities, and that everything in the sacred rites which arouses laughter or disgust by reason of its celebration of obscenity or its degraded barbarity is very much to their taste.
15. Neither the airy composition of their bodies nor the elevation of their abodes confers on the demons any superiority over mankind
In view of all this, heaven forbid that any truly religious spirit, a subject of the true God, should imagine that the demons are superior to itself simply because they enjoy a superiority in respect of their bodies. In that case many animals would be superior to human beings since they surpass us in the keenness of their senses, in facility and speed of movement, in muscular strength, and in vigorous longevity. Can any man equal the long sight of an eagle or a vulture? Or match a dog in sense of smell? Or rival the speed of a hare, a stag, or any of the birds? Or the strength of a lion or an elephant? Or the longevity of a serpent, who, they say, puts off old age when he puts off his skin, and thus has his youth restored? But just as we are superior to the beasts by reason of our powers of reason and intelligence, so our superiority to the demons should appear in a life of goodness and integrity. If divine providence has bestowed certain physical advantages on beings which are unquestionably our inferiors, the purpose of this is to encourage us to be more careful to cultivate the faculties in which we surpass the beasts than to develop the body, and to teach us to take no account of the physical superiority which, as we realize, the demons enjoy, in comparison with moral goodness, which gives us pre-eminence over the demons. For we also are destined for bodily immortality – not the immortality which is to endure the torment of eternal punishment, but the immortality for which purity of heart is the preparation.
Furthermore, it is utterly absurd to allow ourselves to be so impressed by spatial elevation, by the fact that the demons live in the air while we live on the earth, as to suppose that this means that they are to be considered our betters. On this showing we should regard all flying creatures as our betters! But, we shall be told, when the birds are tired with flying or when they have to take nourishment, they come down to earth for rest or food; the demons do not. Are our friends disposed to conclude that the birds rank above us, while the demons rank above the birds? If this is a crazy notion, there is no reason why we should suppose that because the demons inhabit an element above ours we ought to abase ourselves before them with a religious reverence. It does not follow that the birds of the air are to be rated above us inhabitants of earth; in fact they are subordinate to us because of the value of the rational soul, which we possess. Similarly, though the demons belong more to the air than we do, they are not superior to us just because the air is higher than the earth; in fact, human beings are to be ranked above them for this reason: that there is no possible comparison between the devout man’s hope and the demon’s despair.
The system by which Plato connects and disposes the four elements in a symmetrical order42 interposes the two intermediary elements of air and water between the two extremes, fire, the most mobile element, and the motionless earth, in such a way that water is as far above earth as air is above water and fire above air. This arrangement may serve to warn us not to estimate the merits of living beings in proportion to the grades of the elements. Apuleius himself agrees with others in calling man a terrestrial animal43 and yet he is ranked far above the aquatic animals, although Plato sets water above earth. Thus we may see that in the question of the merits of souls, we must not keep to the order which is observed in the grading of material things. An inferior material body may well be the habitation of a superior soul, and an inferior soul may dwell in a superior body.
16. The views of Apuleius on the character and activities of the demons
Apuleius the Platonist also treats of the character of the demons, and says that they are liable to the same emotional disturbances as human beings. They resent injury, they are mollified by flattery and by gifts, they delight in receiving honours, they enjoy all kinds of rites and ceremonies and they are annoyed at any negligence about these.44 Among their functions he mentions divination by means of auguries, haruspication, clairvoyance, and dreams; and he ascribes to them the remarkable feats of magicians.45 He gives this brief definition of demons: species, animal; soul, subject to passions; mind, rational; body, composed of air; life-span, eternal. Now, of those five attributes, they have the first three, says Apuleius, in common with us; the fourth is peculiar to them; the fifth they share with the gods.46 But I observe that of the first three, which they have in common with us, they share two with the gods. For Apuleius asserts that the gods are themselves animals (i.e. living beings); when he assigns each species to its own element he places us among the terrestrial animals with all the other beings on the earth which have life and sensibility; among the aquatic animals he puts the fish and other swimming creatures; among the animals of the air he sets the demons; and the gods among etherial animals.47 Consequently, if the demons belong to the animal species, they have that attribute in common with the gods and the beasts, as well as with mankind. Their rational mind they share with the gods and with mankind. Their eternity they share only with the gods; their liability to passions, only with men, while their body of air is their own peculiarity.
Thus it is no special distinction for the demons to belong to the animal species; so do the beasts. The possession of a rational mind does not raise them above our level; we also have it. What advantage is it to be eternal, if it does not mean eternal happiness? Temporal felicity is preferable to an eternity of wretchedness. Liability to passions gives them no superiority to us; we also are so liable – and this is because of our misfortune. And what value are we to put on that airy body, seeing that a soul is to be esteemed above any kind of body, whatever its nature is? And that is why religious worship, the homage due from the soul, cannot be due to something which is inferior to the soul. If Apuleius had included the qualities of virtue, wisdom and felicity among the attributes of demons, and if he had told us that the demons possessed these for eternity, in common with the gods, then he would have been speaking of something to be envied, something to be highly prized.
Yet even so it would not have been right for us to worship them on this account as God is worshipped; it would have been our duty rather to worship God as the being from whom, as we knew, they had received those attributes. As it is, how much less right have they to divine honours, these animals of air, who only have reason so that they may be capable of wretchedness, and passions so that they may in fact be wretched, and eternity so that their wretchedness can have no end.
17. It is wrong for men to worship demons. We should free ourselves from their vices
Putting aside all other points, I want to limit my consideration to the matter of the passions of the soul which, according to Apuleius, the demons share with us. If the four elements are full of the living beings which belong to each of them, fire and air filled with immortal beings, water and earth with mortals, I would like to know why the souls of the demons are disturbed by the storms and tempests of the passions. For ‘disturbance’ represents the Greek pathos (passion), and that is what Apuleius means by calling the demons ‘subject to passions’ (passiva,) since the word ‘passion’ (pathos in Greek) signifies an irrational motion of the soul. Why then do we find these ‘passions’ in the souls of demons and not in the beasts? Because if anything similar is apparent in the beasts, it is not a ‘disturbance’, in that it is not contrary to reason,48 which they do not possess. In men these disturbances are possible as a result of either stupidity or wretchedness. For we are not yet in that happy condition of perfect wisdom which is promised us in the end, when we have been set free from this mortal state. The gods are said to be exempt from those disturbances just because they are not only immortal but also happy. We know that the gods themselves are said to have rational souls; but these are souls completely pure from all taint or infection. If then the gods do not suffer such disturbances, as they are blessed beings (animalia), knowing no unhappiness, and if the beasts are free from such disturbances, as they are beings incapable either of blessedness or of misery, it remains that the demons must be liable to such disturbances just as men are, as they are beings (animalia) who are not blessed, but wretched.
What folly it is then, or rather what madness, for us to subject ourselves to demons by any kind of worship, when the true religion sets us free from the vicious tendencies in which we resemble them! Apuleius is very tender towards the demons – he even pronounces them worthy of divine honours; and yet he is forced to admit that the demons are prompted by anger.49 But we, on the contrary, are bidden by the true religion not to allow ourselves to be prompted by anger, but rather to resist it. The demons are influenced by gifts; but we are bidden by the true religion not to show favour to anyone in consideration of gifts received. The demons are mollified by honours; but we are bidden by the true religion not to be influenced in any way by such things. The demons hate some men and love others – not as a result of a calmly considered decision, but because their soul, in the phrase of Apuleius, is ‘subject to passions’;50 as for us, we have the instruction of the true religion that we should love even our enemies. Lastly, the true religion bids us abjure all those movements of the heart, all those agitations of the mind, all those storms and tempests of the soul which in the demons make a raging sea of passion. It is nothing but folly, nothing but pitiable aberration, to humble yourself before a being whom you would hate to resemble in the conduct of your life and to worship one whom you would refuse to imitate. For surely the supremely important thing in religion is to model oneself on the object of one’s worship.
18. Demons are incapable of mediating between mankind and the God
It is therefore in vain that Apuleius and those of his way of thinking ascribe an honourable function to those demons by establishing them in the air, midway between the ethereal heaven and the earth, so that, since ‘gods never mix with men’ (as Plato is reported as saying),51 they may convey the prayers of men to the gods and bring back to men the answers granted to their requests. Those who thought in this way counted it improper that men and gods should be in direct contact, but quite proper for demons to be in contact with both men and gods, so that they may deliver petitions from mankind and return with the favours granted by the gods. The notion was, I suppose, that a man of probity, a stranger to the black arts of magic, should employ the good offices of such advocates to ensure that the gods should listen to his requests. And yet those advocates have a liking for those black arts, whereas his own aversion from such practices would give him a better claim to a ready and favourable hearing from the gods. Those demons have a liking, we know, for the obscenities of the theatre which modesty abhors; for the ‘thousand ways of doing ill’52 found in the malpractices of the sorcerers, which innocence detests. We are to suppose then, that if modesty and honesty seek anything from the gods, they cannot obtain it on their merits, but only by the intercession of their enemies! There is no point in striving, as Apuleius strives, to justify the poetical fictions and buffooneries of the theatre. We have on our side, in opposition to those practices, the master of their philosophical school, and their great authority, Plato himself -even if human modesty is so untrue to itself as to delight in obscenity, and, what is worse, to account it pleasing to the divine nature.
19. The blasphemy of magic, which employs the services of demons
In addition to this, I can quote the testimony of public feeling against those magic arts which some people – as unfortunate as they are blasphemous – are pleased to boast of. If these practices are the work of powers worthy of adoration, why are they so sternly chastised by the law? Are we to be told that it was the Christians who established the laws making sorcery a punishable offence? But what about these lines of the most illustrious of poets:
I call to witness, sister dear, the gods
And your beloved self, that if I seek
To arm myself with power of magic art
’Tis much against my will?53
Can this have any other meaning than that these malpractices are undoubtedly dangerous for mankind?
And here is another passage relating to these practices:
I’ve seen the crops removed from field to field,54
which is an allusion to that pernicious and abominable science by which, as the tale goes, one man’s crops could be transferred to another’s land. Cicero, it will be remembered, mentions that this practice was listed as a crime in the Twelve Tables, the most ancient order of Roman law, and that severe punishment was laid down for anyone who committed it.55
Moreover, was it before Christian judges that Apuleius himself was accused of magical practices? If he had been convinced that the acts laid to his charge were truly religious and devout and in harmony with the operations of the divine powers, he ought not merely to have confessed to them but to have professed his pride in them. He should have laid the blame on the laws which prohibited such practices and held them worthy of condemnation, when in fact they ought to be considered worthy of admiration and reverence. Then either he would have won the judges to his opinion or else the judges would have conformed to the unjust law and inflicted the death penalty on him for his laudatory testimonial to magic, and the demons would have given a recompense appropriate to the soul of a man who did not fear to sacrifice his human life for his testimony in praise of their activities. It was in this way that our Christian martyrs acted, when charged with the crime of professing Christianity, a crime which, as they knew, brought them salvation and eternal glory; they did not choose to escape temporal punishment by denying their faith they preferred to confess it, to proclaim it, to preach it; they endured all their suffering for their religion with fidelity and fortitude, and they died with a devout serenity. It was such conduct that brought shame upon the laws forbidding Christianity and brought about their alteration.
There is extant an elaborate and eloquent oration of Apuleius,56 in which he defends himself against the charge of magic on the ground that he had nothing to do with it, saying that the only way he wished to show his innocence was by the denial of actions which no innocent man could commit. He was right in considering the sorcerers deserving of condemnation. But seeing that all the marvels of sorcery are achieved by means of the science taught by the demons and by their operations, Apuleius should have asked himself why he judged them worthy of honour, alleging them indispensable for the delivery of our prayers to the gods – when it is their activities that we ought to shun if we want our prayers to reach the true God.
Next, I would like to ask Apuleius what kind of prayers they are which he supposes that the demons convey to the good gods. Are they magical prayers, or permitted prayers? If magical, the gods do not want that kind of prayer. If permitted, they do not want to receive them from such messengers. If a penitent sinner pours out his prayers, and especially if he has committed the offence of sorcery, is it likely that he receives pardon at the intercession of those who have encouraged and impelled him to fall into the sin which he now laments? Or do we imagine that the demons themselves first make an act of penitence for their deception, so that they may be able to win indulgence for the penitents? No one has ever alleged this about the demons. If this were the case and they longed to attain to the grace of absolution by their penitence, they would never have dared to claim divine honour for themselves. For this claim is a piece of detestable arrogance; but penitence displays a humility deserving of compassion.
20. Is it credible that the God would rather have contact with demons than with men?
‘But there is a pressing, urgent reason which demands the mediation of demons between gods and men, to present requests from men and to convey the desired boons from the gods.’
’And what, pray, is that reason, that pressing necessity?’
‘The fact that a god never has direct contact with a human being.’57
What a glorious notion of the holiness of God! He has no contact with a suppliant human being; but he has contact with an arrogant demon! He has no dealings with a man who repents; yet he has dealings with a demon who deceives. He has no contact with a man who flees to the Divinity for refuge; but contact with a demon who has pretensions to divinity. He has no contact with a man who craves his pardon; but contact with a demon who eggs man on to wickedness. God holds aloof from the man who, in his philosophical works, is for outlawing the poets from a well-constituted city, but not from the demons who demand from the civic authorities and the pontiffs the presentation in the theatre of the buffooneries of the poets. He holds aloof from men who forbid the invention of scandals about the gods, but not from the demons who delight in such calumnies. He shuns men who punish the crimes of sorcerers under just laws, but not the demons who teach the arts of magic and ensure their results. He shuns men who take care not to imitate the demons, but not the demons who are always on the look-out to deceive mankind.
21. Do the Gods employ demons as messengers?
‘But of course there is an imperative necessity for this absurdity, this indignity! The gods, we must remember, dwell in the ether: they are concerned about human affairs, but they would not know what is happening in the world of men, if the demons of the air did not keep them informed. For the ether is far away from the earth, high aloft; while the air is in contact with the earth.’
What a wonderful sample of wisdom! This is a fair summary of their conception of the gods. They insist on their goodness; they hold that they are concerned with human affairs – otherwise they would appear unworthy of worship; but because of the distance between the elements the gods are ignorant of those affairs. And so demons are believed to be indispensable, to enable the gods to learn what is going on in the world of men and to know when they ought to give men help. And that is why it is thought that the demons themselves should be worshipped.
If this is true, then demons are better known to those gods, by reason of physical proximity, than is man, by reason of the goodness of his heart. What a deplorable necessity! Or rather, what ridiculous and outrageous futility – designed to preserve the gods from futility! For if the gods, with their spirit unencumbered by any material obstacle, can see our spirit, they do not need demon-messengers for this purpose; while if it is through their own body that the gods of the ether perceive the outward expressions of the spirit, such as speech, facial expression and gesture, and receive the news from the demons in the same way, then they can be misled by the lies of the demons. While if the divine nature of the gods precludes the possibility of their deception by the demons, then the same divine nature should preclude the possibility of their ignorance of the affairs of us men.
I should like those philosophers to let me know whether the demons told the gods about Plato’s dislike of the fictions put about by the poets concerning the scandals of the gods and concealed the fact that they themselves enjoyed them. Or did they keep both facts from the gods, preferring them to be in total ignorance of the situation? Or did they disclose both Plato’s religious prudence in regard to the gods and the demons’ flippant outrages against them? Or did they prefer the gods to be unaware of the decision of Plato, his refusal to let the gods be slandered by false accusations of crime at the impious caprice of poets, while they had no shame or fear about admitting their own wickedness, their enjoyment of the stage shows in which the infamies of the gods are presented to the public? Will the Platonists kindly make their choice among the four possibilities I have put before them in these questions? And then will they please observe, whatever their choice, how bad is the opinion they hold about these ‘good gods’.
If they select the first hypothesis, they will be acknowledging that it was not allowable for the gods to be on terms with the good Plato, who forbade the outrages against them, and yet that they were on terms with the evil demons, who rejoiced in those outrages. For the ‘good gods’ would not have been able to know about that good man, who was situated so far away from them, except through the evil demons; and they would not have known the demons very well, for all their proximity.
Perhaps they choose the second, confessing that the demons concealed the facts and left the gods in complete ignorance both of Plato’s most religious law and their own sacrilegious pleasure? Then what useful knowledge could the gods obtain through the agency of those demon-messengers, when they know nothing of the reverent decisions that good men make for the honour of the ‘good gods’ and in restraint of the licentiousness of evil demons?
Or they may choose the third possibility, and reply that the gods were informed by the agency of the demons, not only about Plato’s prohibition of outrages against the gods, but also about the demons’ wicked exultation in those outrages. Would this be a report, or an insult? And did the gods listen to this information, and learn both these items of news, without banishing from their presence those malignant demons whose desires and actions were utterly at variance with the honour of the gods and the reverent attitude of Plato? What is more, did they employ those wicked neighbours to convey their gifts to the good Plato in his remote abode? It looks as if they are so linked up in this chain of the elements, that they can be in connection with their slanderers, but not with their defenders. They knew both these facts, but they had no power to alter the weights of air and earth.
There only remains the fourth suggestion, which is the worst of them all. It would surely be insupportable to imagine that the demons told the gods all about the slanderous fantasies of the poets concerning the immortal gods, and the dishonourable buffooneries of the theatre; and about their own avidity for such productions and the exquisite pleasure they afforded them, while they said nothing about the philosophical seriousness which led Plato to decree the removal of all such performances from his ideal republic. This would mean that the gods have no choice but to rely on such messengers for information about the iniquities of the worst characters – the iniquities of these same messengers – while they are not allowed to learn of the virtues of the philosophers – and that, too, though the aim of the former is to do them outrage, of the latter, to do them honour!
22. The worship of demons is to be rejected
Thus we see that none of these four suggestions is a possible choice, since any one of them would imply an intolerable conception of the gods. The only remaining possibility is to refuse any credence to the teaching of Apuleius and the other philosophers of his way of thinking. Apuleius is at great pains to persuade us that the demons are situated midway between gods and men to serve in some way as messengers and go-betweens, to carry our petitions to the gods and to convey to us the gods’ assistance. We must realize that they are in reality spirits whose only desire is to do harm, who are completely alien from any kind of justice, swollen with arrogance, livid with envy, and full of crafty deception. They do indeed dwell in the air, because they have been cast down from the upper heights of heaven as a reward for their irremediable transgression and condemned to inhabit this region as a kind of prison appropriate to their nature. But the fact that their dwelling-place is above the earth and the water does not mean that they are superior to mankind in worth, for men far surpass them, in spite of having terrestrial bodies, by virtue of the reverent attitude of mind which leads them to choose God for their support.
In spite of that, the demons clearly hold sway over many men, who are unworthy to participate in the true religion, and they treat them as prisoners and subjects; and they have persuaded the greater part of them to accept the demons as gods, by means of impressive but deceitful miracles, whether miracles of action or of prediction. But there are others who have observed the viciousness of these demons with rather more careful attention. The demons have failed to persuade them of their divinity; and so they have pretended that they are intermediaries between gods and men, securing for mankind the benefits of the gods. And yet when men have decided that not even this honourable position is to be accorded to the demons, because, seeing their wickedness, they did not believe them to be gods (since they would have it that all gods are good), even so men could not bring themselves to declare that demons were altogether unworthy of any divine honour, especially because they were afraid of shocking the general public. For they saw that people in general were enslaved to those demons by the superstitious beliefs to which they were inured, thanks to all those ceremonies, and all those temples.
23. Hermes Trismegtstus on the worship of idols
Hermes the Egyptian (called Trismegistus)58 expressed very different opinions about those demons. Apuleius, to be sure, denies that they are gods. But, for all that, in asserting that they are engaged in a kind of mediatory activity between gods and men, so that they appear to be indispensable to men in their relations with the gods, he does not distinguish their cult from the worship of the gods on high. The Egyptian, by contrast, distinguishes between gods created by the supreme God, and gods made by men.
Put like that, the statement sounds as if it referred to images which are ‘the work of men’s hands’; but Hermes asserts that the visible and tangible idols are in some way the bodies of gods; certain spirits have been induced to take up their abode in them, and they have the power either to do harm, or to satisfy many of the wants of those who offer them divine honours and obedient worship. When Hermes talks of gods being made by men, he refers to a kind of technique of attaching invisible spirits to material bodies, so that the images dedicated and subjected to those spirits become, as it were, animated bodies. This, he says, is the great, the marvellous power of creating gods, which has been given to men.
Here are the actual words of the Egyptian, as given in a Latin translation,
Since the subject of our discussion is the relationship and the fellowship between men and gods, observe, Asclepius, the power and force of man. As the Lord, the Father, that is (to give him his full tide) God, is the creator of the gods of heaven, so man is the maker of the gods who are content to dwell in temples, in close contact with human beings.59
And, a little later,
Humanity, while remaining mindful of its nature and origin, perseveres in this imitation of the divinity. That is, just as the Father and Lord has created the eternal gods, to be liike himself, so humanity has fashioned gods after the likeness of its own appearance.60
At this point Asclepius, his chief interlocutor, responds with the question, ‘Are you talking about statues, Trismegistus?’ To which he replies,
Statues? My dear Asclepius, what an infidel you are! Statues endowed with souls, fully equipped with sensibility and spirit; statues which perform such great and wonderful works; statues which foreknow the future, and foretell it by means of the lot, by means of seers and dreams and many other methods; which send diseases upon men and also cure them, bestowing sadness or joy, according to deserts. Are you aware, my friend, that Egypt is the image of heaven? Or, more precisely, that in Egypt we have the transference, the descent to earth, of all that goes on in heaven, under the guidance of God? And, to tell the whole truth, our land is the temple of the universe. Yet for all that (since it is right that a wise man should have foreknowledge of all the future) it must not be that you should remain in ignorance of this fact: there will come a time when it will be apparent that it is in vain that the Egyptians have kept up the worship of the gods with reverent piety and attentive devotion.61
Hermes goes on to treat of this topic at great length; and it appears that he is predicting the present time when the Christian religion has overthrown all these deceitful images with an irresistible finality corresponding to its truth and holiness, so that the grace of the true Saviour may set man free from these man-made gods, and subject him to God, man’s creator. But, in predicting this, Hermes speaks as if amicably disposed towards these mockeries of the demons, and he makes no express mention of Christianity by name. He tells of the future suppression and abolition of the worship, the observance of which safeguarded the resemblance to heaven in the land of Egypt; and his prophecy adopts the tone of mourning and lamentation. He was one of those of whom the Apostle is speaking when he says,
Though they have some acquaintance with God they have not glorified him as God, nor have they given him thanks: but they have dwindled into futility in their thinking and their stupid heart is shrouded in darkness. In claiming to be wise they have become fools; and have exchanged the glory of the incorruptible God for images representing corruptible man.62
– and so on; it would take too long to give the whole passage.
Certainly Trismegistus had much to say in this strain about the one true God, the creator of the world – much that corresponds to the teaching of the truth. And yet in some way because of that ‘darkening of the heart’ he sank low enough to wish men to remain forever subject to gods who, on his own showing, are the creations of men, and to bewail the prospect of their extirpation at some future time, as if there were any unhappier situation than that of a man under the domination of his own inventions. It is easier for a man to cease to be a man, by worshipping as gods things of his own creation, than it is for things of man’s own creation to become gods as a result of his worship. It is more likely that ‘man who is in a position of honour and who does not realize it’, should become ‘comparable to the beasts’,63 than that the work of man’s hands should be ranked above a work of God, created in God’s image – that is, man himself. So it is just that man should be sundered from him who made him, when he puts above himself that which he has created.
Hermes of Egypt grieved because he knew the time was coming when all those futile delusions and those pernicious blasphemies would be done away with. But the impudence of his grief matched the imprudence of his knowledge. For it was not the Holy Spirit that had revealed this to him, as he revealed it to the holy prophets, who foresaw it and expressed their joy in such words as these: ‘Suppose man makes gods for himself. Why, they are not gods at all!’64 and in another place: ‘The day will come, says the Lord, when I will extirpate from the land the names of the idols, and there will not be the memory of them’;65 and (appropriately to our present subject) Isaiah speaks of Egypt in particular: ‘The works of men’s hands will be removed from before his face; and their heart will be overcome in them’,66 and so on.
To the same class of seers belong those who rejoiced at the coming of what they had known would come, such seers as Simeon and Anna, who recognized Christ soon after his birth, and Elizabeth, who acknowledged him, by inspiration of the Spirit, soon after his conception;67 such as Peter, who said, when the Father revealed it to him, ‘You are the Christ, the son of the living God.’68 Whereas it was the spirits who informed this Egyptian about the coming of the time for their destruction, those spirits who cried out in terror to the Lord, when he was present in the flesh, ‘Why have you come to destroy us before the time?’69 Perhaps they said this because it happened so suddenly to them – they knew it was bound to come, but they thought it would be slower in coming; perhaps what they meant by their destruction was the fact that they were recognized and despised, and this happened ‘before the time’, that is before the time of judgement, when they are to be punished with eternal damnation together with all the men who have continued in their fellowship. This is what we are told by the religion which never deceives and is never deceived, unlike the teaching of Hermes, who is ‘blown from side to side by every wind of teaching’;70 who gives a mixture of truth and falsehood, and who grieves at the thought of the destruction of a religion which he later confesses to be false.
24. Hermes acknowledges the falseness of Egyptian religion, while lamenting its coming destruction
After a lengthy digression, Hermes returns to his starting-point, the man-made gods, and says,
That is enough on this subject. Let us return to the subject of man and his reason, the divine gift which justifies man’s title of ‘rational being’. What has been said about man is marvellous, but there is something still more wonderful. For the miracle of all miracles is that man has been able to discover the divine nature and to bring it into being. Thus, because our ancestors went far astray in their conception of the gods, on account of their lack of faith and their neglect of divine worship and true religion, they invented the art of creating gods. They also brought in a power derived from the nature of the universe as a supplement to this technique, suitable for their purpose, and by this adidtion (since they could not create souls) they called up the souls of angels or demons and made them inhere in sacred images and in divine mysteries, so that by their means the idols could have the power of doing good or inflicting harm.71
I doubt if the demons themselves, if conjured, would confess as much as Hermes admitted. He says, ‘It is because our ancestors went far astray in their conception of the gods, on account of their lack of faith and their neglect of divine worship and true religion, that they invented the art of creating gods’ There was no question of his ascribing the invention of this art of creating gods to any trivial error. It was not enough for him to say ‘they went astray’; he had to go further than that; ‘they went far astray’. It was a serious error, a failure of belief and a neglect of worship and religion that led to the invention of the art. And yet the sage laments the abolition of this manufacture of gods, discovered as a result of serious error and infidelity and the neglect of religion; he laments the coming disappearance of this at an appointed time, as if it were the end of true religion. One is bound to ask whether it was not the power of God which inspired him to disclose the past errors of his ancestors and the power of the Devil which constrained him to lament the future punishment of the demons. If the ancestors of the Egyptians discovered the art of making gods because of their grievous errors about the nature of the gods, their lack of faith, and their neglect of worship and religion, it should not cause astonishment if the products of this abominable art – the direct opposite of true religion – are abolished by the true religion, seeing that the truth corrects error, faith refutes infidelity, and conversion remedies opposition.
Even if Hermes had merely stated that his forebears had discovered the art of making gods without mentioning the causes, it would have been up to us, if we had any feeling of justice and piety, to realize that they would never have arrived at that art of making gods, if they had not strayed from the truth – if they had had a worthy conception of God and if they had been attentive to divine worship and religion. Now if this had been our discovery, if we had alleged the causes of this art to be the grievous error of men, their lack of faith, and the estrangement from true religion of a mistaken and unbelieving attitude of mind, then the impudence of the opponents of truth would be in some degree tolerable. But when Hermes himself, while regarding the mastery of this technique of god-making as the supreme marvel of man, grieves that the time is coming when even the laws will enforce the abolition of all these invented divinities established by man, when in the same breath he expressly acknowledges the causes which brought the Egyptians to this pass, and tells us that his ancestors discovered the technique of god-making by reason of their grievous error, their lack of faith, their carelessness about divine worship and religion, what, in view of this, ought we to say – or rather, what ought we to do, except to offer all possible thanks to the Lord our God who has stopped these practices by means of causes quite opposite to those which lead to their establishment? What was established by multitudinous error was removed by the way of truth; what was established by infidelity was removed by faith; what was established by opposition to true religion was removed by conversion to the one true and holy God.
The lament of Hermes was concerned only with Egypt; but the change was not confined to that country. It has happened throughout the world, and the whole earth sings a new song to the Lord, as was truly prophesied in the Scriptures and in the writings of the prophets, where we read, ‘Sing to the Lord a new song; sing to the Lord, all the earth.’72 And this is the title of the psalm just quoted: When the house was being built, after the captivity. Indeed this house, the City of God, which is the holy Church, is now being built in the whole world after the captivity in which the demons held captive those men who, on believing in God, have become like ‘living stones’ of which the house is being built.73 For the fact that man was the maker of his gods did not mean that he was not possessed by what he had made, for by worshipping them he was drawn into fellowship with them, and I do not mean fellowship with senseless idols, but with crafty demons. For what are idols but the things of which Scripture says, ‘They have eyes, but they do not see,’74 and all the rest that can be said of material things, bereft of life and sense, however skilfully fashioned? But the unclean spirits, bound to these images by this wicked art, had brought the souls of their worshippers into a wretched captivity, by forcing them into their fellowship. Hence the Apostle says, ‘We know that an idol is nothing; when the gentiles offer sacrifice, it is to demons that they sacrifice, not to God. I do not want you to enter into fellowship with demons.’75 It is after this captivity, in which men were kept prisoner by malignant demons, that God’s house is being built in all the earth. Hence comes the title of the psalm, which has these words:
Sing to the Lord a new song; sing to the Lord, all the earth. Sing to the Lord, bless his name, give the good news of his salvation, day by day. Proclaim his glory among the nations, his wonderful acts among all peoples: for the Lord is great, and worthy of all praise; he is to be feared above all gods. Because all the gods of the nations are demons; but the Lord has created the heavens.76
Thus, in lamenting that the time was to come, when the worship of idols would be abolished and with it the domination of demons over their worshippers, Hermes was inspired by an evil spirit to desire the perpetual continuance of that captivity, whose passing was the occasion for the psalm which sings of the building of God’s house in all the earth. Hermes made his prophecy with lamentation; the prophet announced his vision with joy. But since the victory is with the Spirit, who sang of these triumphs through the mouth of the holy prophets, even Hermes was in a miraculous way constrained to admit that the institutions whose abolition he contemplated with revulsion and lamentation were the work not of the wise, the faithful, and the devout, but of those in error, of unbelievers, and of those estranged from the worship of true religion. He gives these creations the name of gods, but then he declares they are the creation of men whom he certainly ought not to resemble. By admitting this he shows, whether he will or no, that these ‘gods’ are not to be worshipped by those who do not resemble those who created them – not to be worshipped, that is, by the wise, the faithful, and the devout. He also demonstrates that the men who created them imposed on themselves the burden of having ‘gods’ who were not gods. How true is the prophetic saying, ‘Suppose man makes gods for himself. Why, they are not gods at all.’77
Hermes then, gives the title of ‘man-made gods’ to the ‘gods’ of this kind, the gods of men of this kind, manufactured by men of this kind, that is, to demons which some strange art has attached to idols by means of the fetters of their own passions. For all that, he has not assigned to them the role conferred on them by Apuleius the Platonist (whose absurd inconsistencies we have already sufficiently exposed); he has not assigned them the role of intermediaries and intercessors between the gods created by God and men – who also are God’s creation – to convey men’s prayers to the gods and to bring back divine gifts to men. It is the height of folly to believe that gods made by man could have more influence with gods created by God than men themselves – whom God himself created. The demon attached to an image by an impious art has been made a god by man, but a god for this particular kind of man, not for all mankind. What sort of a god then is this who could only be made by a man who is in error, who lacks faith, who is estranged from the true God? Furthermore, if the demons who are worshipped in the temples and made to inhere in images (that is, in visible statues), through some strange art, by men who made them gods by means of this art because they were estranged from true religious worship – if such beings are not intermediaries and messengers between gods and men, both because of their corrupt and degraded characters, and also because men, however much in error, however faithless and estranged from true religious worship, are nevertheless better than those whom they have made into gods by their art – if this is true, it remains that what power they have is the power they have as demons. Either they make pretence of procuring benefits for men, and so do the greater harm, in so far as the deception is the greater, or they do evil without disguise. And yet they can only work in either way when they are permitted by the deep and inscrutable providence of God. But it is never as intermediaries between men and gods because of their friendship with the gods that they have power in the world of men. For they cannot conceivably be friends of the ‘good gods’ – whom we Christians call holy angels (rational creatures who have their holy abode in heaven) or Thrones, Dominations, Principalities, Powers.78The demons are as remote from them as vice from virtue, wickedness from goodness.
25. The community between the holy angels and good men
We must therefore never dream of canvassing the goodwill or the generosity of the ‘good gods’ – or rather of the good angels – through the supposed mediation of demons. We can only do this in virtue of a resemblance to them in goodness of will; for it is by such goodness that we share with them our being, our life and our worship of the God whom they worship, even though we cannot see him with our bodily eyes, while in so far as we are in misery by reason of the dissimilarity of our will and our frailty and weakness, we are remote from them – but remote in quality of life, not in physical situation. If we are not united with them, it is not because we dwell on earth under the conditions of fleshly existence; it is because in the impurity of our heart we have a taste for earthly things.79 When we are restored to health and so become like the angels, we come near to them even now by faith, if we believe that we receive our happiness with their support, from him who has already given them theirs.
26. Pagan religion was bound up with the cult of the dead
We should pay particular attention to what this Egyptian says in the course of his lament over the coming time when those institutions will be abolished in Egypt, which, on his own admission, were the work of men grievously astray, and faithless, and estranged from true religious worship. His words are: ‘At that time, this land, the holy abode of shrines and temples, will be full of tombs and of dead men.’80 This suggests that, if these rites were not abolished, men would not be destined to the, or else that the dead were going to be put somewhere else than in the earth! Of course, as time goes on the number of tombs increases, because of the greater number of the dead.
It seems that what Hermes was really lamenting was that the pagan temples and shrines would be succeeded by the memorials of our Christian martyrs. To be sure, those who read these words in a perverse spirit of hostility to Christianity, suppose that the pagans used to worship gods in their temples, while we worship dead men in their tombs. Men are so blind in their impiety that, as it were, they bump into mountains and refuse to see what hits them in the eye. And so they fail to observe that in the whole of pagan literature no gods, or scarcely any gods, are to be found who were not originally human beings who have been accorded divine honours after their death. I pass over the statement of Varro that all the dead were regarded by the pagans as the gods called Manes. Varro proves this by the rites which are performed for almost all the dead, mentioning especially the funeral games as being the most impressive proof of divinity, since the custom is to hold games only in honour of divine powers.
Hermes himself, with whom we are at the moment concerned, testifies that the gods of Egypt are dead men. He does this in the very same book in which, when he purports to foretell the future, he says in lamentation, ‘Then this land, the holy abode of shrines and temples, will be full of tombs and dead men.’ After saying that his ancestors had ‘gone far astray in their conception of the gods, on account of their lack of faith, and their neglect of divine worship and true religion; and so they discovered the art of making gods’, he goes on to say,
They also brought in a power derived from the nature of the universe, as a supplement to this technique, suitable for their purpose, and by this addition (since they could not create souls) they called up the souls of angels or demons and made them inhere in sacred images and in divine mysteries, so that by their means the idols could have the power of doing good or inflicting harm.
He then proceeds as if he intended to prove this by examples,
In fact, your grandfather, my dear Asclepius, the first inventor of medicine, has a temple dedicated to him on a mountain in Libya, in which his terrestrial being, his body, lies. The rest of him, or rather the whole of him, if we assume that the whole person consists of life and feeling, has returned to heaven in a better state of being; and now, by his divine power, he provides the sick with all the help which he used to afford them in virtue of his medical skill.81
You see that Hermes declares that a dead man was worshipped as a god in the place where he had his sepulchre. In saying that he ‘returned to heaven’ Hermes is at once deceived and deceiving.
After that he adds, ‘My grandfather Hermes, whose name I bear, resides, as you know, in his own city, which is called after him, and there he gives help to those who come from all parts of the world, and preserves them from danger.’ The story is that the elder Hermes, or Mercury, whom Trismegistus claims as his ancestor, lives in Hermopolis, the city called by his name. Now we have two gods, Asclepius and Hermes, who, by his account, were once men. Greeks and Latins agree in this opinion about Asclepius; as for Mercury, many people do not think that he started as a mortal, although our Hermes attests that he is his grandfather. It may be suggested that there were two different characters called Hermes. I am not much concerned to argue the question whether Hermes the god is distinct from Hermes the grandfather. The point is that according to the testimony of his grandson, a man of high repute among his own people, Hermes, like Asclepius, started as a man and became a god.
Trismegistus proceeds, ‘We know how many benefits Isis, wife of Osiris,82 bestows on us when she is favourable; how much harm she does to us, in her wrath!’ And he is concerned to point out that the gods created by men by means of the art previously mentioned belong to the class of capricious divinities. He thus gives us to understand that, in his opinion, the demons derived their existence from the souls of the dead – the demons who were installed in images by means of the art discovered by men with erroneous notions, without faith, and without true religion, because the makers of these gods were, of course, unable to make souls. After his above-mentioned remark about Isis (‘we know how much harm she does, in her wrath’), he continues, ‘The fact is, that the gods of the earth and of the world are easily irritated, being made and compounded of both natures by men.’ By ‘both natures’ he means soul and body, the demon being the soul, the image, the body. ‘And that’, he says, ‘is why those beings are called by the Egyptians “holy animals (creatures with souls)” and in their various cities worship is rendered to the souls of men, which were consecrated during their lifetime. The Egyptians in those cities obey the laws of those gods and adopt their names.’
What has become of that apparent cry of lamentation, when Hermes grieves that the land of Egypt, ‘the holy abode of shrines and temples’, is doomed to be ‘full of tombs and of dead men’? To be sure, the deceiving spirit, at whose inspiration Hermes uttered those words, was constrained to admit, through Hermes’ own mouth, that that country was even then ‘full of tombs and of dead men’, whom the people worshipped as gods. It was the grief of the demons that found expression in his words. They bewailed the punishment that was in store for them in the future at the memorial shrines of the Christian martyrs. For in many such places they are tormented, and acknowledge themselves for what they are, and are expelled from the bodies of the men they have possessed.
27. The Christum cult of martyrs
For all that, we Christians do not assign to the martyrs temples, priests, ceremonies and sacrifices. They are not gods for us; their God is our God. We certainly honour the memory of our martyrs, as holy men of God, who have contended for the truth as far as the death of their bodies, so that the true religion might be made known and fiction and falsehood convicted. There may have been some in previous times who thought as they did, but, if so, fear kept them silent.
But has any of the faithful ever heard the priest say, in his prayers as he stands at the altar, even if that altar has been erected for the glory and worship of God over the body of a holy martyr, ‘I offer sacrifice to you, Peter, or Paul, or Cyprian’?83 He has not. For at the memorials of martyrs the sacrifice is offered to God who made them men and made them martyrs, and has brought them into fellowship with his holy angels in the glory of heaven. And so in this solemn celebration we offer thanks to the true God for their victories, and by renewing their memory we encourage ourselves to emulate their crowns and palms of victory, calling upon God to help us. Thus all the acts of reverence which the devout perform at the shrines of the martyrs are acts of respect to their memory. They are not ceremonies or sacrifices offered to the dead as to gods.
There are some Christians who bring banquets to the memorials.84 This is not the custom of the better-instructed, and in most parts of the world the practice is unknown. But even those who do this first lay the food at the tomb, then say their prayers and then remove the viands, which they either eat themselves, or distribute to the poor. Their intention is that the food should be sanctified through the merits of the martyrs in the name of the Lord of the martyrs. That this is not a sacrifice to the martyrs is well known to anyone who knows of the one and only Christian sacrifice, which is offered there also.
Thus we honour our martyrs neither with divine worship nor with human slanders as the pagans worship their gods. We neither offer sacrifice to them, nor turn their disgraces into religious ceremonies.
Consider the stories of Isis,85 the Egyptian goddess, wife of Osiris, and their ancestors, who, according to Egyptian literature, were all kings. (When Isis was offering sacrifice to these ancestors, she found a crop of barley, and showed the ears to the king, her husband, and to his counsellor, Mercury; that is why she is identified with Ceres.) There are full accounts of the misdeeds of this family not in the poets, but in the books of the Egyptian mysteries; and Alexander wrote about them in a letter to his mother,86 after the revelations of Leo, the priest. Those who have the inclination and the ability to read about them should do so, and should think over what they have read. Then they should ask themselves what kind of human beings these were, for whom religious rites were established after their death, and what kind of actions were the basis of these ceremonies. Let them not, in heaven’s name, have the audacity to compare them in any way with our holy martyrs, although they hold them to be gods, whereas we Christians do not deify our martyrs. We have not established priests in their honour, nor do we offer sacrifice to them; that would be unfitting, improper, and forbidden, since sacrifice is due only to God. Nor do we divert them with scandals about them, or with disgusting shows like those in which the pagans celebrate the offences of their gods, whether those which they have committed, when they were human beings, or those which have been invented for the delight of noxious demons, if these ‘gods’ did not start as men.
Socrates certainly would not have taken one of this category of demons as his god, if it is true that he had a private god. But it may be that this upright man, so innocent of the art of manufacturing gods, had a god of this kind foisted on him by those who aspired to excel in that art.
Need I say more? That these spirits are not to be worshipped with a view to the attainment of a life of blessedness after death, is something which no one, of even average intelligence, could doubt. But it may be that we shall be told that while all the gods are good, some of the demons are evil, others good, and that it is to the good ones that we should render worship with a view to eternal blessedness.
We must see, in the next book, if this notion has any value.