1. The Platonists say that true blessedness is conferred only by God. The question now arises: do those beings, whom they suppose that men should worship for the attainment of blessedness, desire that men should sacrifice to them, or to God alone?
THAT all men desire happiness is a truism for all who are in any degree able to use their reason. But mortals, in their weakness, ask, ‘Who is happy? And how is happiness gained?’ And those questions have stirred up many disputes of importance which have consumed the energy and the leisure of philosophers. It would be tedious to bring them up and discuss them, and it is also unnecessary. The line we followed in the eighth book was to select the philosophers with whom we should debate the question about the life of happiness which follows death, the question whether we can attain this life by offering the homage of devotion and worship to the one true God, who is also the creator of the gods, or to a multitude of gods. If the reader remembers this, he will not be expecting us to go over the same ground again: especially because, if he happens to have forgotten the details, he can turn back to refresh his memory.
Now we selected the Platonists as being deservedly the best known of all philosophers, because they have been able to realize that the soul of man, though immortal and rational (or intellectual), cannot attain happiness except by participation in the light of God, the creator of the soul and of the whole world. They also assert that no one can attain this life of blessedness, the object of all mankind’s desire, unless he has adhered, with the purity of chaste love, to that unique and supreme Good, which is the changeless God. And yet those philosophers themselves have either yielded to the futile errors of people in general or, in the Apostle’s words, ‘have dwindled into futility in their thinking’,1 in that they have supposed (or were willing that it should be supposed) that many gods are to be worshipped. Some, in fact, have gone so far as to lay it down that the divine honours of ceremonies and sacrifices are to be rendered even to demons. But I have already replied to this at some considerable length. Our present task concerns those immortal and blessed beings, established in heavenly abodes, in ‘dominations, principalities and powers’,2 the beings whom the philosophers call ‘gods’, and give to some of them the name of ‘demons’, or ‘angels’ – the word used by Christians. The question we must consider and discuss, as far as God grants us strength, is this: What kind of observances of religion and devotion are we to believe that they wish to see in us? Or, to put it more plainly: Is it their desire that we should offer ceremony and sacrifice, or consecrate with solemn ritual either our possessions or ourselves, to their God, who is also our God, and to him alone? Or do they claim those honours also for themselves?
For this is the kind of worship which we owe to the Divinity, or, more precisely, the Deity. I cannot think of a suitable Latin term to express it in one word, and so I shall be inserting, where necessary, a Greek word to convey my meaning. Latreia is the word represented in our translations by ‘service’, wherever it is found in the Scriptures. But the service due to man, the service referred to by the Apostle when he says that servants should be obedient to their masters,3 is called by a different word in Greek, whereas latreia, according to the usage of the writers who preserve for us the words of God, is always, or almost always, the word employed for the service which concerns the worship of God. The word ‘cult’ (cultus) by itself would not imply something due only to God. For we are said to ‘cultivate’ (colere) men when we continually pay respect to them either in our memory or by our presence. And this word is employed not only in respect of things which in a spirit of devout humility we regard as above us, but even of some things which are below us. For from the same word are derived agricolae (cultivators), celoni (fanners) and íncolas (inhabitants); and the gods themselves are called caelicolae simply because they dwell in (colunt) heaven (caelum) – the verb here meaning, of course, ‘inhabit’, not ‘Worship’; they are, as it were, ‘colonists’ of heaven. They are not coloni in the sense in which the word is used of those whose lives are bound up with their native soil, which they cultivate under the authority of a land-owner, but in the sense in which one of the great Latin authors used it in the line,
An ancient town there was, the dwelling-place
Of colonists from Tyre.4
He speaks of ‘colonists’ because they inhabited (ab incolendo), not because they cultivated the place (ab agricultura). Hence also the name ‘colonies’ is given to settlements founded by larger communities as a result of a kind of swarming of the population. Thus although it is quite true that ‘cult’, in the special use of the term, is due only to God, still the word cultus is used in other significations, and for that reason there is no one word in Latin to denote the ‘cult’ which is due to God.
The word ‘religion’ would seem, to be sure, to signify more particularly the ‘cult’ offered to God, rather than ‘cult’ in general; and that is why our translators have used it to render the Greek word thrêskeia. However, in Latin usage (and by that I do not mean in the speech of the illiterate, but even in the language of the highly educated) ‘religion’ is something which is displayed in human relationships, in the family (in the narrower and the wider sense) and between friends; and so the use of the word does not avoid ambiguity when the worship of God is in question. We have no right to affirm with confidence that ‘religion’ is confined to the worship of God, since it seems that this word has been detached from its normal meaning, in which it refers to an attitude of respect in relations between a man and his neighbour.
The word ‘piety’ (eusebeia in Greek) is generally understood as referring particularly to the worship of God. But this word also is used of a dutiful attitude towards parents; while in popular speech it is constantly used in connection with acts of compassion – the reason for this being, in my opinion, that God especially commands the performance of such acts, and bears witness that they please him as much as sacrifices or even more than sacrifices. From this familiar usage comes the application of the epithet pius to God himself;5 although the Greeks never call God eusebts, in their language, in spite of the fact that eusebeia is in common use as a synonym for compassion. Hence in some passages of Scripture, to make the precise meaning clear, the word theo-sebeia (God-worship) is preferred to eusebeia (good worship). We have no one word in Latin to express either of these Greek words.
There is, then, an attitude which is called in Greek latreia and is translated by the Latin servitus, meaning the service of the worship of God; or it may be called thrêskeia in Greek, but in Latin religio, the religion which ‘binds’ us to God;6 or the Greeks may call it theosebeia, which, in default of one equivalent word we may call ‘worship of God’. What is expressed by those words is the worship we hold to be due only to him who is the true God, who transforms his worshippers into gods. Therefore those immortal and blessed beings, whoever they are, who dwell in heavenly habitations, certainly have no claim to our worship, if they do not love us and do not desire our happiness. On the other hand, if they love us and desire our happiness, then they must want that happiness to come from whence theirs is derived. Can our happiness have a different source from theirs?
2. Plotinus on illumination from on high
There is no conflict on this subject between us and those eminent philosphers. For they saw, and in their writings proclaimed, with abundant emphasis and in all kinds of ways, that those beings received their happiness from the same source as we do, by a kind of light which is shed on them, a light apprehended by the intellect. This light for them is God. It is something other than themselves: it brings them illumination, so that they are full of light, and, by participation in this light, exist in a state of perfection and bliss.
Plotinus often stresses, in expounding Plato’s views, that even the being whom they hold to be the ‘Soul of the Universe’ receives its blessedness from the source of our soul’s felicity; and that source is the light, distinct from the Soul itself, by which it was created and by whose intelligible illumination it shines with intelligible light. Plotinus finds a comparison for these immaterial realities in the great material bodies in heaven which are visible to our sight, God being the sun, and the soul the moon, for it is supposed that the moon is illuminated by the light cast on her by the sun.
The great Platonist holds that the souls of the immortal and blessed beings who, he is certain, dwell in celestial abodes, belong to the class of rational (perhaps the better term would be ‘intellectual’) souls. The rational (or intellectual) soul, he writes, has nothing above it in the scale of being except God, who fashioned the world, the God by whom the soul itself was created; and those supernal beings receive the life of bliss and the light of the understanding of the truth from no other source than that from which they are given to us. Thus he agrees with the Gospel, where we read these words, ‘There was a man sent from God, and his name was John. He came as a witness, to bear witness to the light, so that all men should believe through him. He was not the light, but he had to bear witness to the light. The true light was that which illuminates every man coming into the world.’7This distinction clearly shows that the rational (or intellectual) soul, like the soul of John, cannot be light to itself, and that it shines only by participation in the true light of another. John himself admits this when, in bearing witness to that light, he says, ‘We have all received from his plenitude.’8
3. The true worship of God, and the Platonic deviation in the cult of angels
This being so, if the Platonists, or any others who shared those opinions, had acquaintance with God, had glorified him as God and given thanks to him and had not ‘dwindled into futility in their thinking’,9 and had not sometimes sponsored the errors of the people in general, and sometimes failed in courage to resist them, then they would straightway have admitted that there was one object of worship both for the immortal and blessed beings, and for us, in our mortal and wretched condition, so that we may attain to immortality and bliss. Both alike must worship the one God of gods, who is the angels’ God, as he is ours.
To this God we owe our service – what in Greek is called latreia – whether in the various sacraments or in ourselves. For we are his temple, collectively, and as individuals.10 For he condescends to dwell in the union of all and in each person. He is as great in the individual as he is in the whole body of his worshippers, for he cannot be increased in bulk or diminished by partition. When we lift up our hearts to him, our heart is his altar. We propitiate him by our priest, his only-begotten Son. We sacrifice blood-stained victims to him when we fight for truth ‘as far as shedding our blood’.11We burn the sweetest incense for him, when we are in his sight on fire with devout and holy love. We vow to him and offer to him the gifts he has given us, and the gift of ourselves. And we have annual festivals and fixed days appointed and consecrated for the remembrance of his benefits, lest ingratitude and forgetfulness should creep in as the years roll by. We offer to him, on the altar of the heart, the sacrifice of humility and praise,12 and the flame on the altar is the buring fire of charity. To see him as he can be seen and to cleave to him, we purify ourselves from every stain of sin and evil desire and we consecrate ourselves in his name. For he himself is the source of our bliss, he himself is the goal of all our striving. By our election of him as our goal – or rather by our re-election (for we had lost him by our neglect); by our reelection (and we are told that the word ‘religion’ comes from relegere, ‘to re-elect’13), we direct our course towards him with love (dilectio), so that in reaching him we may find our rest, and attain our happiness because we have achieved our fulfilment in him. For our Good, that Final Good about which the philosophers dispute, is nothing else but to cleave to him whose spiritual embrace, if one may so express it, fills the intellectual soul and makes it fertile with true virtues.
We are commanded to love this Good with all our heart, with all our soul, with all our strength; and to this Good we must be led by those who love us, and to it we must lead those whom we love. Thus are fulfilled those two commands on which ‘all the Law and the prophets depend’: ‘Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, with all thy soul, and with all thy mind’, and, ‘Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself.’14 For in order that a man may know how to love himself an end has been established for him to which he is to refer all his action, so that he may attain to bliss. For if a man loves himself, his one wish is to achieve blessedness. Now this end is ‘to cling to God’.15 Thus, if a man knows how to love himself, the commandment to love his neighbour bids him to do all he can to bring his neighbour to love God. This is the worship of God; this is true religion; this is the right kind of devotion; this is the service which is owed to God alone.
Therefore every immortal Power, however great its importance, will have no other wish, if it loves us as itself, than that we, for our happiness, should be subjected to God, seeing that it is such subjection that gives that Power its blessedness. If it does not worship God, it is wretched, because deprived of God; if it worships God, it will not wish itself to be worshipped in the place of God. Far from that, it will subscribe to the statement in Scripture, ‘He who sacrifices to gods, and not to the Lord alone, will be extirpated.’16 This saying it will approve with all the strength of its love.
4. Sacrifice due only to God
For, to say nothing of other acts of religious obedience performed in the worship of God, at least no one would dare to assert that sacrifice is due to any other being than God. There are in fact many ingredients in the worship of God which are also found in the honour paid to human beings, in a spirit either of humility or of noisome flattery; but even when men are said to be worthy of homage and veneration, and even, in extreme cases, of adoration, it is remembered that they are still human beings. But who has ever thought it right to offer sacrifice, except to a being known, or supposed, or imagined to be God? The antiquity of the worship of God by means of sacrifice is sufficiently proved by the story of Cain and Abel, the two brothers, where God rejected the sacrifice of the elder, and viewed with favour that of the younger brother.17
5. God does not require sacrifices, but he wishes them to be offered as symbols of what he does require
Could anyone be such a fool as to suppose that the sacrificial offerings are necessary to God – that they are of any use to him? There are many passages in holy Scripture to witness this point; but it will be enough to cut a long story short by quoting a short extract from one of the psalms: ‘I said to the Lord, “You are my God, for you have no need of my possessions.” ’18 Thus, far from needing any cattle, or any other corruptible and earthly thing, we must believe that God does not need even the righteousness of man; and that it is man, not God, who is benefited by all the worship which is rightly offered to God. For no one is going to say that he does any service to a spring by drinking from it, or to the light by beholding it. If in times gone by our ancestors offered other sacrifices to God, in the shape of animal victims (sacrifices which the people of God now read about, but do not perform) we are to understand that the significance of those acts was precisely the same as that of those now performed amongst us – the intention of which is that we may cleave to God and seek the good of our neighbour for the same end. Thus the visible sacrifice is the sacrament, the sacred sign, of the invisible sacrifice. That is why the penitent in the prophet’s book, if it was not the prophet himself, seeks God’s forgiveness for his sins with these words, ‘If you had wished for sacrifice, I would certainly have given it: but you will not delight in holocausts. The sacrifice offered to God is a broken spirit; God will not despise a heart that is broken and humbled.’19
Observe how he says that God does not want sacrifice, and how in the same place, he shows that God does desire sacrifice. God does not want the sacrifice of a slaughtered animal, but he desires the sacrifice of a broken heart. That offering which, he says, God does not want, signifies the offering which, he adds, God does desire. When he says that God does not want sacrifices he means that he does not want them in the way supposed by the fools, namely for his own gratification. For if he had not wished the sacrifices he desires (and there is only one, the heart bruised and humbled in the sorrow of penitence) to be signified by those sacrifices which he was supposed to long for as if they gave him pleasure, then he would certainly not have prescribed their offering in the old Law. And the reason why they had to be changed, at the fitting and predestined time, was to prevent the belief that those things were objects of desire to God himself, or at least were acceptable gifts from us to him, and to make us realize that what God required was that which they signified. This is the message of another passage, from another psalm: ‘If I am hungry, I shall not tell you: for the whole earth, and all that is in it, belongs to me. Am I likely to eat the flesh of bulls, or to drink the blood of goats?’20 God is saying, in effect, ‘Had I needed such things, I certainly would not have applied to you for them, seeing that I have them in my power.’ The psalmist goes on to explain the meaning of sacrifice by adding, ‘Offer to God the sacrifice of praise, and fulfil your vows to the Most High. And call upon me in the day of tribulation and I shall rescue you; and you will glorify me.’
And there is another passage, in another prophet:
By what means shall I reach God, or take hold of my God, the most high? Shall I reach him with holocausts, with year-old calves? Will God be satisfied with thousands of rams or ten thousands of fat goats? What if I give the first-born of my impiety, the fruit of my belly for the sin of my soul? Have you been told, O man, what is good? Or what does the Lord require from you, except to practise justice, and to love mercy, and to be prepared to go with the Lord your God?21
In the words of this prophet the two things are distinguished, and it is made quite plain that God does not require, for their own sake, the sacrifices which signify the sacrifices that God does demand. In the epistle entitled To the Hebrews we read, ‘Do not forget to do good and to give to others: for it is with such sacrifices that God is pleased.’22 Hence the meaning of the text, ‘I desire mercy rather than sacrifice,’23 is simply that one sacrifice is preferred to another; for what is generally called sacrifice is really a sign of the true sacrifice. Mercy is, in fact, the true sacrifice; hence the text I have just quoted: ‘It is by such sacrifices that God is pleased.’
The instructions about the multifarious sacrifices in the service of the Tabernacle or the Temple are recorded in Scripture as divine commands. We see now that they are to be interpreted as symbolizing the love of God and the love of one’s neighbour. For ‘on these two commands the whole Law depends, and the Prophets.’24
6. The true and perfect sacrifice
Thus the true sacrifice is offered in every act which is designed to unite us to God in a holy fellowship, every act, that is, which is directed to that final Good which makes possible our true felicity. For that reason even an act of compassion itself is not a sacrifice, if it is not done for the sake of God. For sacrifice is a ‘divine matter’, in the phrase of the old Latin authors, even if it is performed or offered by man. Hence a man consecrated in the name of God, and vowed to God, is in himself a sacrifice inasmuch as he ‘dies to the world’ so that he may ‘live for God’.25 For this also is related to compassion, the compassion a man shows towards himself. Hence the text, ‘Have compassion on your own soul by making yourself acceptable to God.’26
Our body also is a sacrifice when we discipline it by temperance, provided that we do this as we ought for the sake of God, so that we may not offer our bodily powers to the service of sin as the instruments of iniquity, but to the service of God as the instruments of righteousness.27 The Apostle exhorts us to this, when he says, ‘I entreat you, brothers, by the compassion of God, to offer your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, as the reasonable homage you owe him.’28 If then the body, which the soul employs as a subordinate, like a servant or a tool, is a sacrifice, when it is offered to God for good and right employment, how much more does the soul itself become a sacrifice when it offers itself to God, so that it may be kindled by the fire of love and may lose the ‘form’ of worldly desire, and may be ‘re-formed’ by submission to God as to the unchangeable ‘form’, thus becoming acceptable to God because of what it has received from his beauty. This is what the Apostle says, when he adds, ‘And do not be “con-formed” to this age, but be “re-formed” in newness of mind, so that you may prove what is the will of God, namely, what is good, what is acceptable to God, what is perfect.’
So then, the true sacrifices are acts of compassion, whether towards ourselves or towards our neighbours, when they are directed towards God; and acts of compassion are intended to free us from misery and thus to bring us to happiness – which is only attained by that good of which it has been said, ‘As for me, my true good is to cling to God.’29 This being so, it immediately follows that the whole redeemed community, that is to say, the congregation and fellowship of the saints, is offered to God as a universal sacrifice, through the great Priest who offered himself in his suffering for us – so that we might be the body of so great a head – under ‘the form of a servant’.30 For it was this form he offered, and in this form he was offered, because it is under this form that he is the Mediator, in this form he is the Priest, in this form he is the Sacrifice. Thus the Apostle first exhorts us to offer our bothes as a living sacrifice, holy, acceptable to God, as the reasonable homage we owe him, and not to be ‘con-formed’ to this age, but to be ‘re-formed’ in newness of mind to prove what is the will of God – namely what is good what is acceptable to God, what is perfect, because we ourselves are that whole sacrifice. And after this exhortation, he continues,
Through the grace of God which has been given to me, I say this to all of you: Do not have greater notions of yourselves than you ought to have, but keep your notions under control, according to the measure of faith which God has imparted to each. For just as we have many members in one body, and all the members have not the same functions; so we are many, but we make up one body in Christ; and individually we are members of one another, possessing gifts differing according to the grace which has been given us.31
This is the sacrifice of Christians, who are ‘many, making up one body in Christ’. This is the sacrifice which the Church continually celebrates in the sacrament of the altar, a sacrament well-known to the faithful where it is shown to the Church that she herself is offered in the offering which she presents to God.
7. The holy angels, in their love for us, wish us to worship only the true God, not themselves
Those immortal and blessed beings, who are established in dwellings in heaven, rejoice together in participation in their creator, and find in his eternity their stability, in his truth their assurance, and from his bounty derive their holiness. They have such a compassionate love for us wretched mortals that their aim is for our immortality and blessedness; and therefore they wish us not to sacrifice to themselves, but to God, for they know that they themselves, together with us, are his sacrifice. For with us they make one City of God, which is addressed in the words of the psalm, ‘Most glorious things have been said about you, City of God.’32 Part of this City, the part which consists of us, is on pilgrimage; part of it, the part which consists of the angels, helps us on our way. It is from that City on high where the will of God is intelligible and unchangeable Law, it is from that supernal court (curia), so to speak, which has concern (cura) for us, it is from that community that the holy Scripture descended, brought to us by the ministry of angels,33 the Scripture in which we find the saying, ‘The man who sacrifices to gods, and not to the Lord only, will be extirpated.’34
This Scripture, this Law, the precepts of this kind, have been attested by such great miracles that it is abundantly clear to whom these immortal and blessed beings would have us offer sacrifice, these beings who wish for us the same blessings as for themselves.
8. The miracles performed through the ministry of angels to confirm the faith of God’s people
No doubt I shall be thought to be going too far back into the remote past if I recall the miracles which proved the truth of the promises which God made to Abraham thousands of years before, when he foretold that in Abraham’s seed all nations were to obtain a blessing. No one could fail to marvel that Abraham should have had a son born to him of a barren wife who had already reached an age when even a fertile woman would not be able to have any more children, and that in the sacrifice offered by Abraham a flame came from heaven and ran between the divided victims.35 Nor could they fail to marvel that to Abraham also was foretold by angels the burning of Sodom by fire sent from heaven, and that these angels, appearing in the likeness of men, were welcomed as guests by Abraham, who received from them the promises of God about the coming birth of a son, and that when the burning of Sodom was imminent, Lot, Abraham’s brother’s son, was miraculously rescued from the city by the same angels, and his wife was suddenly turned into salt when she looked back on the road – thus giving, in symbolic form, a warning that no one, having started on the way to liberation, should look back with regret at his past life.
Then there were all those tremendous miracles performed in Egypt through Moses, in the liberation of God’s people from the yoke of servitude, when the magicians of Pharaoh, the king of Egypt, who was oppressing that people under his tyranny, were allowed to perform some miracles so that they might be overcome in an even more marvellous fashion! The magicians achieved their effects by the use of enchantments and magical spells, the specialities of evil angels, that is, of demons; but Moses wielded a power that was as much greater as his cause was more just, and he easily prevailed over them in the name of God, the creator of heaven and earth, with the assistance of the angels. In the end the magicians gave up the struggle at the third plague, and the plagues reached the final number of ten, in an ordered sequence of events, full of hidden meanings,36 carried out through the hand of Moses; and by those plagues the hard hearts of Pharaoh and the Egyptians were forced to yield and to allow God’s people to go free. They soon regretted this permission, and tried to catch up with the departing Hebrews; and then the sea divided to afford a dry crossing for the fugitives, but flowed back from each side to engulf and overwhelm their pursuers.
What am I to say of the repeated displays of the stupendous power of God in the miracles that accompanied the people’s passage through the desert? Water which had been undrinkable lost its bitterness when, at God’s instruction, a log of wood was flung into it; and it quenched the thirst of the parched Hebrews. Manna came from heaven when they were hungry; a limit was fixed for the amount to be collected, and any excess turned bad and produced maggots, though on the day before the Sabbath a double supply was collected, since collection was forbidden on the Sabbath, and none of that suffered any putrefaction. When the people longed for a meal of meat, and it seemed quite impossible to supply such a large multitude, their camp was filled with birds, and the ardour of their appetite was quenched by satiety and consequent disgust. When the enemy tried to oppose their passage, and gave battle, Moses prayed, with his arms stretched out in the form of a cross;37 and the enemy was crushed, without the loss of a single Hebrew. When a revolt broke out in the people of God, and some insurgents separated themselves from the divinely ordained community, the earth opened and swallowed them up alive – a visible token of invisible punishment. A rock, struck by a rod, poured out running water in abundance for so great a multitude. The fatal bites of snakes (a just punishment for the people’s sins) were cured by the sight of a brazen serpent erected on a wooden pole, and not only was relief brought to the afflicted people, but the destruction of death by a death was also signified by the image of crucified death. This serpent was preserved as a memorial of the miracle; but in later times the people went astray and began to worship it as an idol. And so King Hezekiah made devout use of his royal power in the service of God, and destroyed the image,38 thus winning great praise for his piety.
9. The unlawful practices of demon-worship, and the inconsistency of Porphyry, the Platonist
Those miracles and many others of the same kind – it would take too long to mention them all – were intended to support the worship of the one true God, and to prevent the cult of many false deities. They were achieved by simple faith and devout confidence, not by spells and charms composed according to the rules of criminal superstition, the craft which is called magic, or sorcery – a name of detestation – or by the more honourable title of ‘theurgy’.39 For people attempt to make some sort of a distinction between practitioners of illicit arts, who are to be condemned, classing these as ‘sorcerers’ (the popular name for this kind of thing is ‘black magic’) and others whom they are prepared to regard as praiseworthy, attributing to them the practice of ‘theurgy’. In fact, both types are engaged in the fraudulent rites of demons, wrongly called angels.
Porphyry40 goes so far as to promise some sort of purification of the soul by means of theurgy, though to be sure he is reluctant to commit himself, and seems to blush with embarrassment in his argument. On the other hand, he denies that this art offers to anyone a way of return to God; and so one can observe him maintaining two contradictory positions, and wavering between a superstition which amounts to the sin of blasphemy, and a philosophical standpoint. For at one moment he is warning us to beware of such practices as fraudulent, fraught with danger in their performance, and prohibited by law,41 and the next minute he seems to be surrendering to the supporters of magic,42 saying that the art is useful for the purification of one part of the soul. This is not the ‘intellectual’ element by which is perceived the truth of intelligible realities which have no resemblance to material substances; it is the ‘spiritual’ part of the soul, by which it apprehends the images of material things. Porphyry declares that by means of certain ‘theurgic consecrations’, which are called teletae, this spiritual element of the soul is put into a proper condition, capable of welcoming spirits and angels, and of seeing the gods. But he admits at the same time that those ‘theurgic rites’ do not effect any purification of the intellectual soul which would fit it to see its God and to apprehend the true realities.43 From this one can gather what kind of gods and what kind of vision he is talking about in those ‘theurgic consecrations’; it is not a vision of the true realities. In fact, he says that the rational soul (or, as he prefers, the ‘intellectual’ soul) can escape into its own sphere, even without any purification of the spiritual element by means of ‘theurgic art’, and further, that the purification of the spiritual part by theurgy does not go so far as to assure its attainment of immortality and eternity.
Now Porphyry distinguishes between angels and demons, explaining that the demons inhabit the lower air, while the ether, or empyrean, is the abode of the angels, and he recommends us to cultivate the friendship of some demon, by whose assistance a man may be raised just a little above the earth after death – though he gives us to understand that it is by another way that one reaches the heavenly company of angels. For all that, he makes what one may call an explicit admission that warns men to beware of the society of demons. This is in the passage where he says that the soul, in the expiation which follows death, is horrified at the worship of demons who used to beset it. And although he recommends theurgy as being a means of conciliation between men and angels or gods, he cannot deny that it is concerned with such powers as grudge the soul’s purification, or support the machinations of those who grudge it. He quotes the complaints of some Chaldean astrologer on this matter, ‘A good man in Chaldea complains that his energetic efforts to purify a soul have been frustrated, because a powerful practitioner of the same art had been led by envy to conjure the powers with sacred spells and had bound them, to prevent their granting his requests. And so’, says Porphyry, ‘what the one had bound, the other could not undo.’ On this evidence, as he admits, theurgy is a science capable of achieving good or evil, whether among men or among gods. It also follows that the gods are susceptible to those disturbances and emotions which Apuleius ascribes to demons and men as their common condition, although Porphyry separates the gods from mankind by the elevation of their dwelling in the ether, and quotes the teaching of Plato in support of this distinction.
10. The false claims of theurgy
Porphyry is regarded as a greater authority than Apuleius. Yet here we find him, another Platonist, saying that even the gods themselves can be constrained by emotional disturbances through the power of the theurgic art, since they could be conjured by sacred spells, and prevented from effecting the purgation of a soul; and they were so terrified by the practitioner who demanded an evil result, that the other, who asked for a good result, was not able to release them from their fear by the same theurgic art, and to set them free to grant a benefit.
That this is all the invention of lying demons must be clear to anyone who is not their wretched slave, and a stranger to the grace of the true liberator. For if this business was concerned with ‘good gods’, the good man who undertook to purify a soul would undoubtedly have prevailed over his malevolent opponent. Or if the truth was that in the eyes of just gods the subject of the action did not deserve this purification, then they certainly should not have been terrified by the envious opponent, or prevented, as Porphyry says, by fear inspired by a greater power; they should have refused to grant the boon by an act of free judgement. The amazing thing is that the benevolent astrologer, who desired to purify a soul by theurgic rites, did not find some superior divinity capable either of inspiring greater terror and of compelling the terrified gods to perform a good work, or of restraining the author of their terror, thus leaving them free to do good – unless perhaps the benevolent theurgist was not equipped with a ritual to purify (as a preliminary measure) the gods whom he invoked to purify a soul from the infection of terror? How is it then that a more powerful god could be engaged to terrify, but not to purify? Are we to suppose that a good can be found to hear the appeal of the envious and strike terror into other gods to prevent their doing good, but that one cannot be found to hear the appeal of the benevolent, and deliver the gods from their fear, so that they can perform a good work?
What a wonderful art is this ‘theurgy’! What a marvellous way of purifying the soul, where foul envy has more success in demanding than pure benevolence has in obtaining a result! The whole thing is in fact an imposture of malignant spirits. We must beware of it; we must abhor it; we must listen to the teaching of salvation. Porphyry relates that those who engage in those polluted rites of purification, with their blasphemous ceremonies, have some marvellously beautiful visions, whether of angels or of gods, after the supposed purification. But even if they do in fact see anything of the sort, it is just as the Apostle says: ‘Satan transforms himself to look like an angel of light.’44 For it is from the Devil that these phantoms come. The Devil longs to ensnare men’s wretched souls in the fraudulent ceremonies of all those false gods, and to seduce them from the true worship of the true God, by whom alone they are purified and healed. And so, as is said of Proteus,
he turns himself into all shapes,45
sometimes appearing as a ruthless persecutor, sometimes as a fraudulent helper; in either case he seeks man’s hurt.
11. The letter of Porphyry to Anebo of Egypt
Porphyry showed better sense in his letter to Anebo of Egypt,46 in which, while appearing to ask for advice and information, he exposes this blasphemous art of magic and overthrows it. In this letter he attacks all the demons, declaring that they are so foolish as to be attracted by damp vapour, and for that reason they do not live in the ether, but in the air under the moon, and on the sphere of the moon itself. And yet he cannot bring himself to attribute to all the demons all the impostures, the malignities, the absurdities which excite his just indignation. In fact he follows the general convention of calling some of them ‘good demons’, even while admitting stupidity to be their general characteristic.
He also expresses astonishment that the gods are not only enticed by sacrificial victims, but even constrained and compelled to do what men want. And, assuming that gods are distinguished from demons by the fact that they are immaterial, whereas demons have material bodies, he wonders how the sun, the moon, and the other visible heavenly bodies (which are, he is quite sure, material bodies) are to be thought of as gods. And if they are gods, how is it that some are said to be beneficent, others malign, and how, being material, can they be united with immaterial beings?
He also asks, as if he were really in doubt, whether in the case of diviners and miracle-workers their powers are due to passions of the human soul, or to spirits of some kind coming from outside. He is inclined to favour the second suggestion, on the ground that it is by the employment of stones and herbs that they cast spells on people, open closed doors, and perform other miraculous feats of this kind. Hence, he says, some people have come to the conclusion that there is a class of beings whose characteristic property is to listen to man’s commands; they are by nature deceitful; they can take all shapes and forms, appearing as gods, or demons, or departed spirits. These are the beings who effect all these marvels, some of which appear to be good, some evil. As for such manifestations as are really good, those beings give no assistance to them; in fact they know nothing about them, and all they do is to suggest and impute evil; and very often they hinder those who are most eager in the pursuit of virtue. They are full of blind folly and arrogance; they delight in foul stenches; they are at the mercy of flattery – and so on. All this description of this class of fraudulent and malignant spirits, who come into the soul from outside and delude the senses of men, asleep or awake, Porphyry records, but not as his own conviction. It is for him a faint suspicion, a tentative suggestion, and so he puts it forward as the opinion of others.
It was, no doubt, difficult for so great a philosopher either to acknowledge all this society of demons or to censure them with confidence, whereas any Christian old woman would have no hesitation about the fact of their existence, and no reserve about denouncing them. Was it, perhaps, because Porphyry was afraid of offending his correspondent, seeing that Anebo was an eminent priest of such rites, and of offending others who were impressed by such performances, assuming them to be divine works, closely connected with the worship of the gods?
However that may be, Porphyry pursues the subject, and, under colour of asking for information, he mentions facts which on sober consideration would only be attributed to malicious deceitful powers. He asks how it is that when powers have been invoked as being utterly good, the commands given to them assume that they are completely evil, when they are bidden to fulfil the unjust instructions of mankind. Why do these powers refuse to listen to the supplication of one who is contaminated by the ‘work of Venus’, while they have no hesitation about leading anyone to illicit unions? Why do they insist that their priests should abstain from eating meat, no doubt to guard themselves from the danger of pollution by their bodily exhalations, while they themselves are attracted by smells, and especially by the stench of sacrificial victims? Why has the initiate in the mysteries to avoid any contact with dead bodies, when the celebration of the mysteries themselves generally involves dead bodies? How is it that a human being addicted to any kind of vice can direct his threats, not just to any demon, or to a departed spirit, but even to the sun itself, or to the moon, or any of the heavenly bodies and terrify them with his lies so as to extort true service from them? For men threaten to batter the heavens, and to perform other feats beyond human competence, so that the gods may be terrified by false and absurd menaces, like silly children, and induced to fulfil men’s commands. Porphyry also quotes an author called Chaeremon,47 who was well versed in such rites – or rather blasphemies – as saying that the mysteries of Isis and her husband Osiris,48 which are in such repute in Egypt, have the greatest power to force the gods to do what they are bidden, if the man who seeks to constrain the gods with spells threatens to reveal or indeed to abolish those mysteries – if, that is, he cries out in a terrible voice that he will scatter the members of Osiris, unless the gods are prompt to carry out his orders.
There is every reason for Porphyry’s astonishment at the thought that a human being should utter such futile and crazy threats against the gods (and not against any ordinary gods, but the gods of the heavens, shining with the light of the stars) and that such threats should not be without result, but that their violence should have power to inspire such terror as to induce the gods to perform the service required. The truth is that under pretence of expressing astonishment and asking for explanations of these facts, Porphyry is really giving us to understand that all these manifestations are the work of spirits of the kind he has previously described when ostensibly giving the opinion of others; these spirits are deceitful, not by nature, as he put it, but by their own viciousness. They disguise themselves as gods or as ghosts; but they do not pretend to be demons as Porphyry says, for that is what they clearly are.
Then there is the magic by means of herbs and stones and animals, by certain prescribed sounds and phrases, by the use of figures and models, or again by the observation of certain movements of the stars in the changing face of heaven. Porphyry supposes that by such methods men contrive for themselves on earth the forces capable of achieving their various designs. But all this again is connected with those same demons who delude the souls of those who submit to their control, and provide for themselves delightful entertainments arising from the follies of mankind.
Porphyry is really puzzled and is asking for information on these matters; and yet he mentions the facts which could prove the falsity and demonstrate the wickedness of such practices, which are obviously connected not with the powers which help us to the attainment of felicity, but with the demons of delusion. Or else, to take a more favourable view of the philosopher, he knows that the Egyptian is addicted to those errors, and has a high opinion of the importance of his science, and so he wants to avoid offending him by what might seem an arrogant assumption of a teacher’s authority, and not to upset him by frankly opposing him in argument; and so he adopts the humility of an enquirer who seeks to know the truth, in the hope of leading his correspondent to reflect on those practices, and thus of showing him how contemptible they are, and how much they are to be shunned.
Finally, almost at the end of the letter, he asks for instruction about the way to happiness, according to the wisdom of Egypt. As for those whose dealings with the gods get no further than to trouble the Divine Intelligence about the finding of a runaway slave, or the acquisition of a piece of property, or on the subject of a marriage, or a business deal, and that sort of thing, such people, he says, have evidently cultivated that wisdom to little purpose. And the divine powers, with whom they have had dealings, may have given true predictions about all other matters; but in spite of that, since they have not given any sensible or useful advice on the subject of happiness, they cannot be gods, or even good demons: they are either identical with that being who is called the Deceiver, or else they are nothing but a figment of the human imagination.
12. The miracles of God performed through the ministry of angels
However, since effects are achieved by those arts which surpass the limits of all the power of mankind, the only sensible course is to realize the true nature of those marvels, in the way of predictions or events which seem to be examples of divine power, and yet have no connection with the worship of the one God. It is to this God that man must cleave in all sincerity, if he is to attain the only Good which brings true happiness. The Platonists themselves admit this, by a multitude of testimonies. And so all these marvels are to be seen as mockeries, seductions, and hindrances, contrived by malicious demons – things from which true piety must protect us.
Contrasted with these are all the miracles which are effected by divine power, whether by means of angels or in any other manner, so as to commend to us the worship and religion of the one God, in whom alone is the life of blessedness. All these we must believe to be done either by the action of those who love us according to truth and piety, or through their agency, God himself being at work in them. For we must not listen to those who say that God does not work visible miracles, since, according to their own admission, it is God who made the world, and they cannot deny that the world is a visible work. And whatever miracle happens in this world, it is certainly a lesser marvel than the whole world, that is to say, the heavens and the earth and all that is in them, which God undoubtedly made. But the manner of its making is as hidden from man and as incomprehensible to man as is he who made it. And so although the miracles of the visible world of nature have lost their value for us because we see them continually, still, if we observe them wisely they will be found to be greater miracles than the most extraordinary and unusual events. For man is a greater miracle than any miracle effected by man’s agency.
And therefore God who made the visible marvels of heaven and earth does not disdain to work visible miracles in heaven and earth, by which he arouses the soul, hitherto preoccupied with visible things, to the worship of himself, the invisible God. But where and when he does this is a secret of his unchanging counsel, in whose plan all future events are already present. For he moves events in time, while himself remains unmoved by time. He knows what is to happen as already having happened. To him there is no difference between seeing us about to pray and listening to our prayers, for even when his angels listen, it is he himself who listens in them, being in them as in his true temple, not made with hands, as he is in his saints on earth; and his commands, which are eternal when viewed in reference to his everlasting Law, are fulfilled in time.
13. The invisible God makes himself visible, according to the capacity of the beholders
We ought not to be disturbed by the fact that, although he is invisible, God is reported as having often shown himself in visible form to our ancestors. Just as the uttered sound which makes audible the thought that has its existence in the silence of the understanding, is not the same as that thought, so the visible form in which God – who exists in his invisible substance – became visible was not identical with God himself. For all that, he was seen in that material form, just as the thought is heard in the sound of the voice. And those patriarchs were well aware that they were seeing the invisible God in a material form, though God himself was not material. For God spoke to Moses, and Moses spoke to him in reply; and yet Moses said to him, ‘If I have found favour in your sight, show me yourself, so that I may see you and know you.’49
Now it was necessary that the Law of God should be given, under the form of decrees proclaimed by angels,50 in awe-inspiring circumstances, and given not to one man, not to a few sages, but to the whole nation, an immense people; and therefore great portents happened on the mountain in the sight of that people; and there the Law was given through the agency of one man, while the multitude beheld the fearful and terrible happenings. For the belief of the people of Israel in Moses was something quite different from the Spartans’ belief in Ly-curgus,51 when he told them that he had received from Jupiter or from Apollo the laws which he laid down. When the Hebrew people received the Law that prescribed the worship of one God, marvellous signs and commotions of nature occurred in the sight of the people, to the extent which divine providence judged sufficient, which made it apparent that for the giving of that Law the creation was serving the purpose of the Creator.
14. God is to be worshipped as well for temporal as for eternal benefits
The experience of mankind in general, as far as God’s people is concerned, is comparable to the experience of the individual man. There is a process of education, through the epochs of a people’s history, as through the successive stages of a man’s life, designed to raise them from the temporal and the visible to an apprehension of the eternal and the invisible. But even at the time when visible rewards were promised by divine revelation, man was commanded to worship one God, lest, even for the sake of the earthly benefits of this transient life, man should subject his mind to any being other than the Creator and Master of his soul. For all things which men can receive at the hands of either angels or men, are in the power of the one Omnipotent: and anyone who does not admit this is insane.
Plotinus the Platonist has a discussion about providence,52 in which he proves, by the beauty of flowers and leaves, that providence extends from the supreme God, whose beauty is inteligible and ineffable, as far as those lowly things of earth. All those castaways, so to speak, doomed to perish so swiftly, could not, he maintains, display such perfection of graceful harmony in their shapes, were it not that they received their form from the eternal abode of the intelligible and changeless ‘form’53 which contains them all together in itself. This is what the Lord Jesus tells us in the passage where he says,
Consider the lilies of the field: they do not work, or spin. Yet I tell you, Solomon in all his splendour was not clothed like one of those. Now if this is how God dresses the grass of the countryside, which is here today and tomorrow is put in the stove; how much more will he clothe you, you men of small faith?54
Now the soul of man is still weak because of its earthly desires, and in this temporal existence it craves for those inferior goods of this world which, although essential for this transitory life, are to be despised in comparison with the eternal blessings of that other life. Even so, it is altogether right that the soul should learn to look for those temporal blessings from God, and from him alone, so that even in longing for them it should not withdraw from the worship of that God. whom it only reaches by despising them and turning away from them.
15. The ministry of the holy angels as instruments of God’s providence
Thus it pleased divine providence to arrange the course of the ages in such a way that, as I have said, and as we read in the Acts of the Apostles, the Law concerning the worship of the one true God was given in decrees communicated by angels.55 God’s own substance always remains invisible to corruptible eyes: and yet in those edicts the person of God himself became manifest by unmistakable signs, through the medium of created things in subjection to the Creator. God, in his own nature, so to say, neither begins nor ceases to speak; he speaks not temporally, but eternally; not corporally but spiritually; not to the senses but to the understanding. Yet through his created beings he spoke in successive syllables, following one another in transitory intervals of time. His ministers and messengers enjoy his unchanging truth in their immortal blessedness, and they hear his language in its purity, with the ear of the mind, not of the body; and when what they hear demands to be put into action and to be brought into the sphere of the visible and the sensible, then they put it into effect without delay or difficulty.
Now in this arrangement of the successive ages, the Law was given so as to offer, to begin with, the promise of the good things of this world. But these good things were intended to stand for the eternal blessings; and this was the meaning of the outward and visible rites which were celebrated by all the people, but understood by few. For all the words of that Law and all the acts enjoined by it united in the clearest testimony to teach the worship of one God – not one of a host of gods, but the one God who made heaven and earth, and every soul and every spirit which exists outside himself. He is the creator, and all the rest are created, and for their being, and for their well-being, they have need of him by whom they have been created.
16. For the attainment of happiness we should listen to the angels who teach that worship should be offered only to the one God
Which angels are we then to believe, in the matter of the life of blessedness and eternity? What is our decision? Is it to be those who wish to receive for themselves the worship of religious ceremonies, and demand from mortals the performance of rites and sacrifices in
their honour? Or those who say that all this worship is due to God, the sole creator of all things, and who teach with true piety that it is to be rendered to him, the contemplation of whom gives them the happiness which they promise it will bring to us in the future? For this vision of God is a vision of such beauty and altogether deserving of such a love, that Plotinus says without hesitation that a man who fails of it is altogether unfortunate, no matter how richly endowed he may be with any other kind of goods.56 Thus by various signs and wonders we are invited by angels of one sort to devote our worship in the highest sense of the word to this one God, by angels of another sort to devote that worship to themselves – with this difference, that the former forbid the worship of the second while the latter sort do not dare to forbid the worship of God. Which sort are we to believe? Let us have an answer from the Platonists, from the philosophers of all the schools, from the theurgists (though ‘periurgists’ – ‘superstitious meddlers’ – would be a more appropriate term for them), and let us have an answer also from ordinary men, if any sense of their nature, as created capable of reason, remains alive in them in any degree. Let them tell us, I say, if we should sacrifice to those gods or angels who demand sacrifices for themselves, or to him alone to whom sacrifice is to be offered, according to the commands of those who forbid the offering of sacrifice to themselves or to the other angels.
If neither the one sort nor the other had performed any miracles, but had only given instructions, the one prescribing sacrifice to themselves, the other forbidding those sacrifices, but insisting that they should be offered only to the one God; even so, piety by itself should have sufficed to decide which of those commands derived from arrogant pride, and which from true religion. I would go further; if it had been only those who demand sacrifices for themselves who had astonished the souls of men by their miraculous feats, while those who forbid such sacrifices and order that they should be reserved for God alone, had not deigned to perform any visible miracles; even so, the authority of the latter certainly ought to have carried the day, not by the verdict of the bodily senses but in the judgement of the reasoning mind. But in fact God has decided to support the oracles of his truth by performing miracles through those immortal messengers who proclaim not their own arrogance but the majesty of God; and their miracles are greater, more certain, more impressive than all the others. The purpose of those wonders was to prevent those angels who demand sacrifices for themselves from finding it easy to persuade men of unstable piety to a false religion just by making a prodigious display to their senses. In view of those miracles, surely no one would like to be such a fool as not to choose to recognize the truth that he should follow, where he finds more to excite his wonder?
When I speak of the miracles of the gods of the Gentiles, which history vouches for, I am not referring to accidental prodigies which occur at long intervals by the interplay of mysterious causes at work in this world, causes which nevertheless are fixed and ordained under the rule of divine providence – such things, I mean, as the birth of extraordinary animals, unusual phenomena in the sky and on the earth, whether merely frightening or harmful as well, all of which, according to the claim put out by the crafty deceit of the demons, can be conjured up or controlled by demonic rites. What I am talking about are the phenomena which are quite evidently the result of the force and power of demons: like the story that the images of the Penates, carried from Troy by Aeneas in his flight, removed themselves from one place to another;57 the feat of Tarquinius in cutting a whetstone with a razor;58 the serpent from Epidaurus accompanying Aesculapius on his voyage to Rome;59 the ship which conveyed the image of the Phyrgian Mother, which stuck fast and resisted all the efforts of men and oxen, but was set in motion and drawn along by one mere woman, with her girdle attached to it – a testimony to her chastity;60 the Vestal Virgin, under suspicion of violation of her vows, who put an end to the question by filling a sieve with water from the Tiber without losing any.61 Such miracles as those are in no way comparable in power and grandeur with those performed, as we read, among the people of God. How much less comparable are the performances prohibited and punished by the laws of the nations who worshipped gods of this kind, I mean the feats of magic or theurgy! Most of those are mere appearance, deceiving men’s senses by extravagant illusions: such things as ‘bringing down the moon’
Until she flings her foam upon the grass
That spreads below her,
as Lucan says.62
It is true that some of those miracles may seem in externals to equal many of those performed among true worshippers; the distinction lies in the difference of the end, and here our miracles show incomparable superiority. For the former give us added reason for refusing sacrifice to those multiple gods, with a resolution proportional to the insistence of their demands; the latter bear witness to the one God, who has no need of such rites, as he shows by the evidence of his Scriptures, as also by the later abolition of the same sacrifices.
And so, if any angels claim sacrifice for themselves, we must prefer to them those who claim it not for themselves but for the God whom they serve, the creator of all things. In this way they show the sincerity of their love for us, since by such sacrifice they wish to subject us not to themselves, but to him. For they find their own happiness in the contemplation of him, from whom they have never departed; and they desire that we also should come to him. If, on the other hand, there are angels who desire that sacrifice should be offered to many gods, and not only to one, while not asking sacrifice for themselves but for those gods whose angels they are, even so we ought to hold them inferior to those who are the angels of the one God of gods, and who command sacrifice to be offered to him, while forbidding its offering to any other, since none of these other angels forbids sacrifice to the God whose angels command sacrifice to him alone. And if angels show, by their arrogance and deceit, that they are not good angels, nor angels of good gods, but evil demons, whose aim is that sacrificial worship should be offered to themselves and not to the one supreme God, what more potent defence against them can we choose than that of the one God, whom the good angels serve? And the good angels command us to offer the service of sacrifice not to themselves but to him to whom we owe the sacrifice of ourselves.
17. The Ark of the Testimony and the miracles performed to support the authority of the Law and the promise
The Law of God was given in decrees conveyed by angels,63 and it prescribed the worship of the one God of gods in religious rites, and forbade the offering of such worship to any other beings. This Law was placed in an ark (a chest), which was called the Ark of the Testimony. The meaning of this title is quite evident. It is not that God, who was worshipped in all those ceremonies, was habitually confined and enclosed in a place, although his replies were given from the place where the Ark was and certain miracles were there presented to human senses; but the testimonies of his will were said to come from there, because the Law itself was inscribed on tablets of stone and deposited, as I said, in this Ark. During the period of wandering in the desert the priests carried the Ark with all proper reverence, together with the tent which was similarly entitled the Tent of the Testimony. There was also a sign, a cloud which appeared in the daytime and glowed like a fire by night. When this cloud began to move, they struck camp; when it halted, they pitched camp.64
Great miracles gave testimony to the Law, apart from those I have spoken of, and apart from the utterances which issued from the place of the Ark. When the Hebrews were entering the promised land and the Ark started to cross over, the river Jordan stopped its flow on the upstream side and flowed away downstream, thus affording a dry passage for the Ark and the people. After that, when they met with the first resistance from a city, which followed the custom of the Gentiles in worshipping a plurality of gods, the Ark was carried round the city seven times and the walls suddenly collapsed, without any physical assault or any use of the battering-ram.65 Thereafter, when the Hebrews were by now within the promised land, and the Ark had been captured by the enemy because of the sins of the people, its captors set it in a place of honour in the temple of the god whom they honoured above all the rest, and shut the temple when they went out. Next day, when they opened the temple, they found the image to which they offered their prayers fallen to the ground and broken, a sorry sight. Under the stress of such prodigies, and after even more unpleasant punishment, the enemy restored the Ark of God’s Testimony to the people from whom they had captured it. And what circumstances attended that restoration! They loaded the Ark on a cart, to which they harnessed cattle from whom they had taken their sucking calves. Then they let the cattle go where they liked, wishing even here to test the divine power. The cattle, without any man to guide or steer them, resolutely made their way to the Hebrews, without turning back in response to the lowing of their hungry calves; and thus they restored the sacred object to those who revered it.66
Such miracles are small things for God, but important for mortals, to inspire in them a salutary fear and to give them instruction. Now the philosophers, and in particular the Platonists, have won praise for wisdom superior to the rest of mankind, as I said a little earlier, for having taught that divine providence controls even the lowest things on the earth, producing as evidence all the thousands of beauties found not only in the bodies of living creatures but even in blades of grass.67 If this is so, how much clearer is the witness to divine power in the miracles which take place at the moment when the religion is presented to men which forbids sacrifice to any being in heaven, on earth, or in the underworld, and prescribes sacrifice solely to the one God, who alone gives us happiness by his love for us and our love for him. He defines in advance the periods in which these sacrifices are demanded; he foretells that these sacrifices will be changed for something better through the action of a better priest, and by this he makes it clear that he does not himself desire such sacrifices but uses them to point to things of greater worth. His purpose is not that he should be glorified by those honours, but that we should be inflamed by the fire of his love and aroused to worship him and unite ourselves to him; and that is a good for us, not for him.
18. Against those who deny the credibility of the Church’s books in the matter of the miracles by which God’s people were instructed
Is anyone going to say that those miracles are false; that they never happened, but were hes invented by writers of Scripture? Anyone who says this, and asserts that in these matters no reliance is to be placed on any written evidence, can go on to say that none of the gods has any concern for the affairs of mortals. It was, in fact, only by the performance of miracles that the pagan gods persuaded men that they should offer them worship; and the evidence for those miracles is found also in history, the history of the pagan world; and these gods were able to show their power as wonder-workers, even though they could not point to any service they rendered to mankind. Hence, in this present work (on the tenth book of which we are now engaged) we have not undertaken to refute those who claim that there is no such thing as divine power, or maintain that it has no concern for human affairs.68 Our argument is with those who prefer their own gods to our God, the founder of the Holy and Most Glorious City. Such men do not know that he is the invisible and unchanging founder of this visible and changing world, the true giver of the life of blessedness, the source of which is not to be found in his creatures but in himself.
For it is God’s prophet who says, with complete truth, ‘As for me, my true good is to cling to God.’69 The question of the Supreme Good, to the attainment of which all duties are to be referred, is a matter of debate among philosophers. Our prophet did not say, ‘For me the good is the possession of abundant wealth’, or, ‘to enjoy the distinction of the purple robe and the glory of sceptre or crown’; nor (as some philosophers70 have not blushed to say), ‘My good is bodily pleasure’; nor (following what seems to have been the better conception of those whom I take to be better philosophers),71 ‘My good is the virtue of my soul.’ What he said was, ‘As for me, my true good is to cling to God.’ He had received this teaching from him to whom alone sacrifice should be offered, according to the instructions of the holy angels, borne out by the witness of miracles. Thus the prophet himself became a sacrifice to him whose immaterial fire set him ablaze with rapture, and a holy desire hurried him into the ineffable and spiritual embrace of God.
Now the worshippers of many gods (whatever may be their conception of the character of those gods) believe, one assumes, that miracles have been effected by them, accepting the records of their national history, or their magic books or (more respectably, as they think) their ‘theurgic documents’. Then why do they refuse credence to the record of such events in those writings which should be held more trustworthy in proportion as the God for whom they reserve all sacrificial worship72 is great above all others?
19. The reason for visible sacrifice, which is only to be offered to the one true and invisible God
There are some who suppose that these visible sacrifices are suitable for other gods, but that for the one God, as he is invisible, greatest and best, only the invisible, the greatest, and the best sacrifices are proper; and such sacrifices are the services of a pure mind and a good will. But such people evidently do not realize that the visible sacrifices are symbols of the invisible offerings, just as spoken words are the symbols of things. Therefore in our prayers and praises we address significant sounds to him, as we render to him in our hearts the realities thus signified. In the same way, in offering our sacrifices we shall be aware that visible sacrifice must be offered only to him, to whom we ourselves ought to be an invisible sacrifice in our hearts. It is then that the angels and the higher powers and all who ‘excel in strength’73 by reason of their very goodness and piety, support us and rejoice with us and assist us in this enterprise with all their might.
But if we wish to render this worship to them, they are not glad to receive it; and when they are sent to men in such a form that their presence is detected by the senses, they directly forbid such worship. There are instances of this in the Scriptures. There have been some who thought that angels should be rendered the honour of adoration and sacrifice which is due to God; and they were forbidden to do so by the angels’ warning, and ordered to render it to him to whom alone, as the angels know, it could be offered without blasphemy.74 The example of the angels was copied by holy men of God. In Lycaonia, Paul and Barnabas performed a miracle of healing and in consequence were taken for gods; and the Lycaonians wanted to sacrifice victims to them. But in humble piety the apostles declined this worship; and they proclaimed to the people the God in whom they should believe.75
But the reason why those deceitful angels arrogantly claim this honour for themselves is simply that they know that it is the due of the true God. The notion, entertained by Porphyry and a number of others,76 that those angels enjoy the smell of dead bodies, is false. It is divine honours that really delight them. They have a plentiful supply of smells everywhere; and if they want more, they can produce them for themselves. So the spirits who arrogate to themselves divinity, do not find their pleasure in the smoke of any burning body, but in the soul of a suppliant, deluded and subjected to their domination. They bar the way to the true God, so that a man may not become a sacrifice to him, so long as he sacrifices to any other being.
20. The supreme and true sacrifice of the Mediator between God and man
Hence it is that the true Mediator (in so far as he ‘took the form of a servant’77 and was thus made ‘the mediator between God and mankind, the man Christ Jesus’78) receives the sacrifice ‘in the form of God’, in union with the Father, with whom he is one God. And yet ‘in the form of a servant’ he preferred to be himself the sacrifice than to receive it, to prevent anyone from supposing that sacrifice, even in this circumstance, should be offered to any created being. Thus he is both the priest, himself making the offering, and the oblation. This is the reality and he intended the daily sacrifice of the Church to be the sacramental symbol of this; for the Church, being the body of which he is the head, learns to offer itself through him. This is the true sacrifice; and the sacrifices of the saints in earlier times were many different symbols of it. This one sacrifice was prefigured by many rites, just as many words are used to refer to one thing, to emphasize a point without inducing boredom. This was the supreme sacrifice, and the true sacrifice, and all the false sacrifices yielded place to it.
21. Power given to demons for the glorification of the saints through their steadfast endurance of sufferings
It is true that power was allowed to the demons, for a limited period, fixed in advance; a power which enabled them to egg on those whom they controlled, and so to exercise their hatred against the City of God in the manner of tyrants. Not only could they receive sacrifices from those who readily offered them and demand them from their willing subjects: they could extort them by the violence of persecution from those who refused. But this persecution, far from being the ruin of the Church, in fact turned out to its advantage, by filling up the number of the martyrs.79 The City of God regards these martyrs as citizens so much the more glorious and the more honoured the more bravely they struggled against the sin of impiety and resisted it, up to the point of shedding their blood.80
If it were not contrary to the usage of the Church, we might call those martyrs our ‘heroes’, a much more fitting name. ‘Hero’ is said to be derived from the name of Juno. The Greek name for Juno is Hera, and that is why one or other of her sons was called Heros, according to Greek legend. This myth evidently signifies, though in cryptic fashion, that Juno is assigned the power over the air;81 and the meaning is that the heroes dwell with the demons, the name ‘heroes’ denoting the souls of the departed who have rendered some exceptional service. Our martyrs, in contrast, would be called ‘heroes’, if (as I said) the usage of the Church allowed it, not because of any association with the demons in the air, but as the conquerors of those demons, that is, of the ‘powers of the air’,82 and of Juno herself among them, whatever we take to be the meaning of the name. For the poets were not altogether off the mark in representing her as the enemy of virtue, jealous of brave men who strove to attain to heaven. But observe how once again Virgil, most unfortunately, gives her best and yields to her power. Although he makes Juno say,
Conquered am I by Aeneas,83
he represents Helenus, ostensibly the religious adviser, as warning Aeneas himself in these words:
Offer your prayers to Juno of goodwill,
And win the powerful queen with suppliant gifts.84
There is a notion mentioned by Porphyry, not as his own opinion but as one held by others. According to this a good spirit, god, or demon, cannot enter into a man unless the evil spirit has first been appeased. It seems that, according to the philosophers, the evil powers are stronger than the good, seeing that the evil spirits prevent the good from giving aid unless they are appeased and give place to them, while the good spirits cannot assist us against the will of the evil powers; whereas the evil spirits can do harm, while the good have no power to resist them. This is not the way of the true and truly holy religion. It is not in this manner that our martyrs overcome Juno, that is to say, the powers of the air who envy the virtues of the saints. Our ‘heroes’ (if usage would allow the title) overcome Hera by divine virtues, not at all by ‘suppliant gifts’. There is no doubt that Scipio was rightly called Africanus for having conquered Africa by his soldierly qualities; he would have had less claim to the title if he had appeased the enemy by gifts to secure their mercy.
22. The source of the power of the saints, and of their purification
It is by true piety that the men of God cast out this power of the air, the enemy and adversary of piety; it is by exorcizing, not by appeasing them, and they triumph over all temptations of that hostile power not by praying to the enemy but by praying to their God against the enemy. For the hostile power cannot vanquish or subdue a man unless that man becomes associated with the enemy in sin. And so the power is conquered in the name of him who assumed human nature and whose life was without sin, so that in him, who was both priest and sacrifice, remission of sins might be effected, that is, through the ‘mediator between God and mankind, the man Christ Jesus’,85 through whom we are purified from our sins and reconciled to God. For it is only sins that separate men from God; and in this life purification from sins is not effected by our merit, but by the compassion of God, through his indulgence, not through our power; for even that poor little virtue which we call ours has itself been granted to us by his bounty. Yet we should have a high opinion of ourselves, in this life in the flesh, were it not that, right up to the time of our departure, we live under pardon. And that is why grace has been bestowed on us through the intervention of a mediator, so that when we had been polluted by the sinful flesh we might be purified by ‘the likeness of sinful flesh’.86 By this grace of God, the evidence of his great mercy, we are guided in this life by faith, and after this life are brought to complete fulfilment by the vision of the unchanging truth.
23. The ‘principles’ of the Platonic theory of spiritual purgation
Porphyry also says that, according to the reply of the divine oracles, the initiatory rites of the sun and of the moon cannot purify us. The purpose of this reply, he says, is to make it clear that a man cannot be purified by the initiatory rites of any god. For where is the god whose rites can effect our purification, if those of the sun and the moon are of no avail? For they are regarded as the chief divinities among the gods of heaven. Porphyry’s main point is that the same oracle made it clear that purification is effected by the ‘principles’. This was to prevent the belief in the efficiency of the rites of any other god, among the crowd of divinities, after it had been stated that the rites of the sun and the moon were of no avail for this purpose.
We know what Porphyry, as a Platonist, means by the ‘principles’.87 He refers to God the Father, and God the Son, whom he calls in Greek the Intellect or Mind of the Father. About the Holy Spirit he says nothing, or at least nothing clear; although I do not understand what other being he refers to as holding the middle position between these two. If, like Plotinus in his discussion of the three ‘principal substances’,88 he had intended it to be inferred that this third entity is the natural substance of the soul, he would certainly not have said that this held the middle place between the two others, the Father and the Son. Plotinus certainly regards the nature of the soul as inferior to the Intellect of the Father;89 whereas Porphyry, in speaking of an entity in the middle position, places it between, not below, the two others. Doubtless he meant what we mean when we speak of the Holy Spirit, who is not the spirit of the Father only or of the Son only, but of both; and he described him to the best of his power, or according to his inclination. For the philosophers are free in their choice of expressions, and are not afraid of offending the ears of the religious when treating of subjects very hard to understand, while we Christians are in solemn duty bound to speak in accordance with a fixed rule,90 for fear that a looseness of language might give rise to a blasphemous opinion about the realities to which the words refer.
24. The one true ‘principle’ of purification and regeneration
Thus when we speak about God we do not talk about two or three ‘principles’, any more than we are allowed to speak of two or three gods, although in talking of each person, whether the Father, the Son, or the Holy Spirit, we acknowledge that each of them is God. But we do not, like the Sabellian heretics,91 identify the Father with the Son, and the Holy Spirit with both Father and Son. What we say is that the Father is Father of the Son, the Son is Son of the Father, the Holy Spirit is the Spirit of both Father and Son, but he is not identical with either. Thus the true statement is that man is only purified by ‘the principle’, although these philosophers have spoken of ‘principles’ in the plural.
But since Porphyry was in subjection to those envious powers, and was at the same time ashamed of his subjection and yet afraid to contradict them openly, he refused to recognize that the Lord Christ is the ‘principle’, and that by his incarnation we are purified. The fact is that he despised Christ as he appeared in flesh, in that very flesh which he assumed in order to effect the sacrifice of our purification. It was of course his pride which blinded Porphyry to this great mystery, that pride which our true and gracious Mediator has overthrown by his humility, in showing himself to mortals in the condition of mortality. It was because they were free from that mortal condition that the false and malignant ‘mediators’ vaunted their superiority, and deluded unhappy men by false promises of assistance, as immortals coming to the aid of mortals. And so the good and true Mediator has shown that it is sin which is evil, not the substance or nature of flesh, since that substance could be assumed, with a human soul, and preserved free from sin, and could be laid aside in death, and changed into something better by resurrection. He has shown that death itself, although it is the punishment for sin (a punishment which he paid for us, though being himself without sin), is not to be avoided by sinning but rather, if occasion offers, to be endured for the cause of right. For it is just because he died, and his death was not the penalty of sin, that he was able by dying to pay the price of our sins.
But this Platonist failed to see that Christ was the ‘principle’; for then he would have recognized him as the means of purification. The fact is that it is not the flesh which is the ‘principle’, nor the human soul in Christ, but the Word, ‘through whom everything came into existence’.92 And therefore the flesh does not purify by itself, but through the Word by which it was assumed, when ‘the Word became flesh, and dwelt among us’.93 When Christ spoke in a mystical sense about ‘eating his flesh’ some of his uncomprehending hearers were shocked, and they said, as they went away, ‘This kind of talk is intolerable! Who can endure to listen to it?’ And Jesus said to those who stayed behind, ‘It is the spirit which gives life: but the flesh is of no help to anyone.’94 The ‘principle’, then, having assumed a soul and flesh, purifies the soul and the flesh of believers. Hence, when the Jews asked him who he was, Christ replied that he was the ‘principle’ (or beginning).95 We should certainly have been utterly unable to understand this, carnal as we are, and weak, liable to sin, and shrouded in the darkness of ignorance, had we not been purified and healed by Christ, by means of what we were and what we were not. For we were men, but we were not righteous, while in his incarnation there was the human nature, but it was righteous and sinless. This was the mediation, the stretching out of a hand to those who lay fallen; this is the ‘seed (of Abraham)’ which was prepared for, through the ministry of those angels, whose edicts gave man the Law96 which prescribed the worship of one God and promised the coming of this Mediator.
25. The saints in earlier ages under the Law were all justified by the mystery of Christs incarnation and through faith in him
It was through faith in this mystery that the righteous men of antiquity were able to be purified by living piously, not only before the Law was given to the Hebrew people – for God never failed to instruct them, nor did the angels – but also in the period of the Law; although in its foreshadowing of spiritual realities, the Law seems to offer promises of material rewards, and that is the reason why it is called the Old Testament.
For there were then the prophets, through whom, as through the angels, the same promise was announced, and among them was the author of that great and inspired saying about the supreme good of man which I quoted just now, ‘As for me, my true good is to cling to God.’97 This psalm marks the clear distinction between the two Testaments, the Old and the New. For the prophet observed that the promises of material and earthly blessings were abundantly granted to the wicked, and he says that his feet had almost stumbled, and his steps had nearly slipped. It seemed that he had served God to no purpose since he saw those who despised God flourishing in the happiness which he had looked to receive from him. He says that he wearied himself in his efforts to solve the problem why this should happen, until he went into the sanctuary of God and reflected on the end of those men who had seemed to him, mistakenly, to be happy. Then he understood that in their exaltation of themselves they have been, in his words, ‘cast down, and have disappeared because of their wickedness’, and all that height of temporal felicity has become for them ‘like a dream from which a man wakes’ and finds himself suddenly robbed of those illusory delights of which he has dreamed. And because in this world, in this earthly city, they felt themselves to be of great importance, ‘in your City, Lord, you will reduce their phantom to nothing.’
For all that, the psalmist makes it plain that he has profited from seeking even worldly benefits only from the one true God who has all things in his power. He says, ‘I have become like a beast in your presence’; and by ‘like a beast’ he obviously means ‘without understanding’.
I ought to have desired to receive from you the things which I cannot share with the wicked. But when I saw the wicked abundantly supplied with these goods, I thought that I had served you to no purpose, seeing that those goods were enjoyed even by those who refused to serve you. And yet ‘I am always with you’; for even in my search for those benefits I have not applied to any other gods.
Thus he goes on to say, ‘You have taken hold of my right hand: you have guided me according to your will, and have taken me to yourself in glory.’ He implies that all those advantages which he saw the wicked enjoying in abundance – a sight which brought him almost to collapse – all those belong to the left hand. ‘What do I possess in heaven?’ he asks; ‘and what have I wished to receive from you on earth?’ He is reproaching himself and is ashamed of himself with good reason because, having (as he afterwards realized) such a treasure in heaven, he sought from his God such transient benefits on earth such a fragile and shabby felicity. ‘My heart and my flesh’, he says, ‘have failed, God of my heart’; but this is a happy failure, a desertion of the lower level, to gain the heights. Hence, in another psalm, ‘My soul longs, and faints with desire for the courts of the Lord.’98And again, in another psalm, ‘My soul has fainted with desire for your salvation.’99 And yet, though he has spoken of the failure of both heart and flesh, he does not add, ‘God of my heart and flesh’, but ‘God of my heart’. For it is clearly by means of the heart that the flesh is purified. Thus the Lord says, ‘Clean what is inside, and then the outside will be clean.’100
The psalmist goes on to say that his ‘possession’ is God himself, and not something which comes from God. ‘God of my heart’, he says, ‘and God my possession for all the ages’, because out of all the possible choices offered to men, he has decided to choose God himself. ‘For look,’ he says, ‘those who remove themselves far away from you will perish: you have destroyed everyone who deserts you to play the harlot’, that is, everyone who chooses to prostitute himself to a multitude of gods. Then follows the statement which led me to quote the other verse of the psalm, ‘As for me, my true good is to cling to God, not to depart from him; not to indulge in the promiscuity of a harlot. Now this ‘cleaving to God’ will only be perfect when all that has to be set free has gained its freedom.
Meanwhile, now is the time, as he goes on to say, ‘to place my hope in God’. For, as the Apostle says, ‘To experience what one hopes for is no longer to hope; for why should anyone hope for what he already experiences? But if we hope for something we do not experience, it is with patient endurance that we a wait it.’101 Now since we are established in this hope, let us put into practice the next verse of the psalm, and be ourselves, to the best of our poor ability, the angels – that is the heralds – of God, proclaiming his will, praising his glory and his grace. ‘To place my hope in God’, says the psalmist, and he proceeds, ‘so that I may proclaim all your praises in the gates of the Daughter of Sion.’102 ‘The Daughter of Sion’ is the most glorious City of God, which knows and worships one God. It is proclaimed by holy angels, who have invited us into the society of that City, and have desired us to become their fellow-citizens in it. They have no wish that we should honour them as our gods. Their desire is that we should join with them in the worship of him who is their God and ours, not that we should sacrifice to them, but that we should be, with them, a sacrifice to God.
No one who considers these facts without malice or prejudice can have any hesitation in concluding hat the blessed immortals feel no jealousy towards us – and indeed jealousy would prevent their blessedness – but rather that they all extend their love to us, that their purpose is that we should join them in their blessedness, and that they offer us more support and more assistance when we, with them, worship one God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, than they would give us if we worshipped those immortal spirits themselves by our sacrifices.
26. The inconsistency of Porphyry, in his hesitation between the true God and demon-worship
It seems to me that Porphyry feels some embarrassment in his attitude to his friends the theurgists. For his own belief corresponded more or less to what we hold, but he did not defend his opinions without reserve against the worship of many gods. He alleged, in fact, that there are two classes of angels: the one sort come down from above and reveal divine prophecies to men who practice theurgy, while the others are those who make known on earth the truth about the Father, his height and his depth.
Are we to believe that those angels, whose task is to declare the will of the Father, wish us to be in subjection to any other being than him whose will they convey to us? Thus our Platonist himself very rightly advises us to imitate them rather than to invoke them. And so we have no need to fear that we shall offend those blessed and immortal beings by failing to offer sacrifice to them. For they know that such worship is due only to the one true God, and their blessedness is derived from their adherence to him. Can it then be doubted that they would not wish such worship to be offered to them either figuratively, or in the reality which is represented by the symbols? To claim such honour is the arrogance of the proud and wretched demons; far different is the piety of those beings who are subject to God, and who derive their happiness from adherence to him, and from no other source. They are bound to support us with sincere goodwill towards the attainment of the same blessing. They could not arrogate to themselves a worship which would bring us into subjection to them; they must needs proclaim him under whom we may enjoy peace in fellowship with them.
Why do you still tremble, my dear philosopher, to raise your voice without restraint against the powers who are envious of genuine virtue and of the gifts of the true God? You have already distinguished between the angels who announce the will of the Father, and those who come down to the theurgists, attracted by magical art of some kind. Why do you still do these latter the honour of seeing that they reveal divine prophecies? What divine prophecies can they reveal, seeing that they do not reveal the will of the Father? No doubt these are the spirits which were bound by that envious magician by means of sacred spells, to prevent them from effecting the purification of a soul.103 You tell us that the good magician who was anxious to effect the purification was unable to release those spirits from their bondage and restore their freedom of action. Do you still doubt that they are malignant demons? Or is it perhaps that you pretend ignorance for fear of offending the theurgists, who have taken advantage of your superstition to seduce you into accepting the pernicious nonsense of their teaching as if it were some great benefit? Here is a malicious power – or rather a plague – holding sway over malicious men – or rather, according to your own account, acting as their humble servant. Have you the audacity to exalt this power above the air and establish it in heaven among your gods, even among your gods of the stars, or even to dishonour the stars themselves with these disgraceful slanders?
27. Porphyry’s impiety is worse than the errors of Apuleius
Your fellow-Platonist, Apuleius, went wrong in a more civilized and acceptable fashion. It was only to the demons that he attributed unhealthy passions and perturbations of the mind;104 and they were stationed beneath the moon. He venerated them; but, for all that, he had to admit that such was their condition, whether he liked it or not. But when it came to the higher gods, who belong to the ethereal spaces, the visible gods, whom he saw shining for all to see, like the sun, the moon, and the other lights in the same sphere, as well as the invisible deities, whose existence he imagined, he used every possible argument to isolate them from the taint of such disturbances.
You did not get this doctrine from Plato. It was your Chaldean teachers who persuaded you to bring human weakness up into the exalted heights of the universe, into the ether and the empyrean, up to the heavenly firmaments, so that your gods might be able to give supernatural revelations to the theurgists. Yet you consider yourself superior to such supernatural knowledge, in virtue of your intellectual life. You, of course, feel that, as a philosopher, you have not the slightest need of the purifications of theurgic art. Yet as a kind of repayment of your debt to those masters of yours, you prescribe such purgations for others. You inveigle those who are incapable of becoming philosophers to indulge in practices which, on your own showing, are of no use to you, because you are capable of higher things. Thus all those who cannot approach to philosophic virtue (a lofty ideal to which only a few attain) have your authority to seek out theurgists, in order to receive at their hands the purgation of the ‘spiritual’ soul at least, though not of the ‘intellectual’. The result is, naturally, that since the vast majority have no taste for philosophy, you collect far more clients for those secret and illegal masters of yours than candidates for the Platonic schools. You have made yourself the preacher and the angel of those unclean spirits who pretend to be gods of the ether; and they have promised you that those who have been purified in their ‘spiritual’ soul, by theurgic art, although they cannot, indeed, return to the Father, will have their dwelling among the gods of the ether, above the levels of the air.
Such teaching gets no hearing from that vast multitude whom Christ came to set free from the domination of the demons. For it is in him that they find a purification full of compassion, the purification of mind, spirit, and body. For he took upon himself entire humanity, though without sin, for this precise purpose, that he might cure all the constituents of human nature of the plague of sins. Would that you had recognized him and had entrusted yourself to him for your healing, instead of relying either on your own virtue, fragile and insecure as human virtue is, or on disastrous superstition! That would have been safer, for he would not have deceived you. Even your own oracles, as you yourself say, acknowledged him as holy and immortal; and the most renowned of poets also spoke of him, in a poetical manner certainly, for Christ is represented by an imaginary portrait of another person, but with complete truth, if the picture is referred to Christ.105 This is what Virgil says:
With you for guide, whatever trace remains
Of our past crimes, shall all be done away;
The world shall then be freed from endless fear.106
He means that even in those who are far advanced in righteousness and virtue there may remain, because of the weakness of our mortal life, if not the crimes at least the traces of crimes; and they can only be healed by that Saviour, whom this verse expressly describes. It is quite clear that Virgil did not say this on his own. This is shown by the fourth verse of the same eclogue,
Now comes the last age in the prophecy
Of Cumae’s oracle.
It is immediately apparent that this passage was derived from the Sibyl of Cumae.107
But those theurgists, or rather the demons who disguise themselves by appearing in the form of gods, cannot purify the human spirit; rather they defile it by their fantastic illusions, by the deceptive apparitions through which they make game of their victims. For how could they purify a man’s spirit, when their own spirit is unclean? If it were not, they could not possibly have been bound by the spells of a malicious man, and terrified into withholding that worthless boon which, it was supposed, they intended to convey; nor would they have refused it because of a like malice in themselves.108 It is enough for our purpose that you admit that theurgic purification cannot purify the ‘intellectual’ soul – that is, our mind; and that while you assert that it can purify the ‘spiritual’ soul – that is, the part of the soul inferior to the reason – you confess that theurgic art cannot make it immortal and eternal. Whereas Christ promises eternal life; and therefore the world flocks to him. You and your like are indignant at this, but dumbfounded in amazement as well.
You have not been able to deny that men are led astray by the practices of theurgy, that large numbers are deceived by its confused and nonsensical doctrines, that the most certain of all false steps is to betake oneself to those ‘principalities’ and ‘angels’ with sacrifices and supplications. But to what avail is this acknowledgement, if you go back on it (as if to assure yourself that all this learning has not been a waste of time) by sending men to theurgists, so that those practitioners may purify the ‘spiritual’ soul of those who do not live the life of the ‘intellectual’ soul?
28. The blindness of Porphyry to the true wisdom, which is Christ
And so you send men on the most certainly mistaken path; and you are not ashamed of doing so great a wrong, although you profess to be a lover of virtue and wisdom. If you were a genuine and faithful lover, you would have recognized ‘Christ, the Power of God and the Wisdom of God’,109instead of shying away110 from his saving humility, inflated with the swollen pride of useless learning.
You admit, however, that even the ‘spiritual’ soul can be purified by the virtue of self-control, without the aid of theurgic arts or of initiations, which you have been at such unprofitable pains to learn about. Sometimes you go as far as to say that initiations do not lift up the soul, after death, so that it now seems that they are of no value after the end of this life even for what you call the ‘spiritual’ soul. And yet you keep on discussing them in various aspects; you return to them again and again, your only object being, as far as I can see, to give the appearance of being an expert in those matters also, and to ingratiate yourself with those who hanker after such illicit practices, or else to arouse a curious interest in them on your own account. But I give you a good mark for admitting that this is a dangerous art, both by reason of the perils of the law111 and of the risk involved in the actual performance. I trust that the unfortunates will attend at least to these warnings and will retreat from these arts, or never approach them at all, to avoid being sucked into the gulf.
You do say, to be sure, that ignorance, and the many faults that arise from ignorance, cannot be purified by any initiatory rites. That can only be done through the patrikos nous, that is, the Mind or Intellect of the Father, which is acquainted with the Father’s will. But you do not believe that this is what Christ is. In fact, you despise him on account of the body which he received from a woman, and because of the shame of the cross; you are of course, the kind of thinker to reject such lowness with disdain, and to cull your exalted wisdom on the heights. While Christ fulfils the true prophecy of the holy prophets when they said of him, ‘I will destroy the wisdom of the wise men, and I will reprove the prudence of the prudent.’112 It is not his own wisdom, the wisdom which he has given them, which he destroys and reproves in them; it is the wisdom which they arrogate to themselves, when they have not the wisdom which comes from him. This is why the Apostle, after quoting the witness of the prophet, goes on to say,
Where is the wise man now? Where is the learned scholar? Where is your worldly-wiseman? Has not God turned worldly wisdom into foolishness? For according to God’s wise design the world did not find God by its worldly wisdom: and therefore God decided to save those who believe by means of the folly of the preaching of the gospel. The Jews demanded miracles, the Greeks look for wisdom. But what we preach is a crucified Christ, which is shocking to the Jews, and ludicrous to the Greeks; but for those who have been called, Jews and Greeks alike, he is the Power of God and the Wisdom of God. For God’s piece of folly is wiser than men, and God’s show of weakness is stronger than men.113
This is rejected, as folly and weakness, by those who think themselves wise and strong by their own virtue. But this in fact is grace, which heals the weakness of those who do not proudly boast of their delusive happiness, but instead make a humble admission of their genuine misery.
29. The Platonists in their impiety are ashamed to acknowledge Christ’s incarnation
You assert the Father and his Son, whom you call the Intellect or Mind of the Father; you also speak of a being who is between the two, and we imagine that you are referring to the Holy Spirit. And it is your habit to call them three gods.114 In spite of your irregular terminology you Platonists have here some kind of an intuition of the goal to which we must strive, however dimly seen through the obscurities of a subtle imagination. And yet you refuse to recognize the incarnation of the unchanging Son of God, which brings us salvation, so that we can arrive at those realities in which we believe, and which we can in some small measure comprehend. Thus you see, to some extent, though from afar off and with clouded vision, the country in which we must find our home; but you do not keep to the road along which we must travel.
For all this, Porphyry, you acknowledge the existence of grace, when you say that it is granted only to few to reach God by virtue of their intelligence. For you do not say, ‘Only few have decided’, or, ‘Few have had the wish’; you speak of its being ‘granted’. And this is an undoubted confession of the grace of God and the insufficiency of man. You even use the word ‘grace’ itself quite openly in the passage where, following Plato,115 you assert without hesitation that man cannot by any means reach the perfection of wisdom in this life, but that, after this life, all those who live the life of the intellect receive all that is needed for their fulfilment from the providence and grace of God.
If only you had recognized the grace of God through Jesus Christ our Lord! If only you had been able to see his incarnation, in which he took a human soul and body, as the supreme instance of grace! But what can I do? I know that it is to no avail that I speak to a dead man, to no avail, that is, as far as you are concerned. But there are people who hold you in high regard, who are attached to you by reason of some kind of a love of wisdom, or a superstitious interest in those magic arts which you should never have studied, and they are the authence to whom my colloquy with you is really directed, and it may be that for them it is not in vain. The grace of God could not be commended in a way more likely to evoke a grateful response, than the way by which the only Son of God, while remaining unchangeably in his own proper being, clothed himself in humanity and gave to men the spirit of his love by the mediation of a man, so that by this love men might come to him who formerly was so far away from them, far from mortals in his immortality, from the changeable in his changelessness, from the wicked in his righteousness, from the wretched in his blessedness. And because he has implanted in our nature the desire for blessedness and immortality he has now taken on himself mortality, while continuing in his blessedness, so that he might confer on us what our hearts desire; and by his sufferings he has taught us to make light of what we dread.
But humility was the necessary condition for submission to this truth; and it is no easy task to persuade the proud necks of you philosophers to accept this yoke. For what is there incredible – especially for you who hold certain opinions which should encourage you to believe – what is there incredible in the assertion that God has assumed a human soul and body? You Platonists have, at any rate, so lofty a conception of the ‘intellectual’ soul (which must be identified with the human soul) that you assert that it is capable of becoming consubstantial with the Mind of the Father, which is, on your admission, the Son of God. Why then is it incredible that one ‘intellectual’ soul should have been assumed, for the salvation of many, in some unique and ineffable manner? That the body is united with the soul, so that man may be entire and complete, is a fact we recognize on the evidence of our own nature. If it had not been a fact of familiar experience, we should certainly have found it even more incredible; for it should be easier for faith to accept the union of spirit with spirit even though it is the union of human and divine, changeable with changeless, or, to use the terms employed by you Platonists, incorporeal with incorporeal, than that of a body with an incorporeal entity.
Perhaps you were put off by the unexampled birth of his body from a virgin? But this should not have presented a difficulty. The fact that a wonderful being was born in a wonderful way ought rather to induce you to accept our religion. But the difficulty may be the fact that this body was laid aside in death, and then transformed by his resurrection, and that when it had thus become incorruptible and immortal he carried it up into the realms above., It may be that you refuse to believe this, since you are well aware that in these same books from which I have so often quoted, which treat of the Return of the Soul, Porphyry so often lays it down that one must escape from any kind of body in order that the soul may dwell with God in blessedness. It is in fact Porphyry himself who needs correction in respect of this opinion, especially in view of the incredible notions which you Platonists share with him on the subject of the Soul of this visible world, of this vast corporeal mass. For you allege, on the authority of Plato,116 that the world is a living being, and a being of utter blessedness, and this being you hold to be eternal How then can it enjoy unceasing happiness, without being ever released from its body, if it is true that escape from the body is necessary for the happiness of the soul?
Besides this you admit in your books that this sun of ours and all the other stars are bodies, and all mankind has no hesitation in joining you in observing this and acknowledging the fact. But you go further, and give it out, on the basis of what you suppose to be a profounder knowledge, that these are living beings of utter blessedness, eternal in these corporeal forms. Why is it, then, that when the Christian faith is urged upon you, you straightway forget, or pretend to have no knowledge of, your customary arguments and doctrines? What reason is there for your refusal to become Christians on account of opinions which are your own, though you yourselves attack them? It can only be that Christ came in humility, and you are proud. What will be the nature of the bothes of the saints in the resurrection is a question for discussion in much more detail among those who are specially qualified in knowledge of the Christian Scriptures. Of this we have no doubt: the resurrected body will be eternal, and its nature will be like that example which Christ showed us in his resurrection. But whatever may be its nature, the fact is that while the Christian teaching is that this body will be incorruptible and immortal and will present no obstacle to that contemplation by which the soul is fixed on God, you also say that in the celestial sphere there are immortal bothes of beings whose blessedness is immortal. Then what basis is there for your notion that escape from any kind of body is an essential condition for our happiness, a notion that makes you feel that you have rational justification for your rejection of Christianity? The only reason, I repeat, is that Christ is humble, and you are proud.
Now perhaps you are ashamed to have your errors corrected? Here again is a fault which is only found in the proud. No doubt it seems disgraceful for learned men to desert their master Plato to become disciples of Christ, who by his Spirit taught a fisherman wisdom, so that he could say,
The Word was in the beginning of all things, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was with God at the beginning. All things came into being through him, and nothing that came into being came into being without him. In him was life, and that life was the life of men. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overwhelmed it.
This is the beginning of the holy Gospel which we call the Gospel According to John.
There is a story I often heard recounted by a holy old man called Simplicianus,117 who later became head of the Church in Milan, as its bishop. He told us that a certain Platonic philosopher used to say that this passage should be inscribed in letters of gold and set up in the most prominent place in every church. But God, the great teacher, became of no account in the eyes of the proud simply because ‘the Word became flesh, and dwelt among us’.118 And so it was not enough for the unfortunate that they should be sick, they must needs glory in their sickness, and be ashamed to take the medicine which could cure them. Now the result of this is not to exalt them, but to ensure for them a more disastrous fall.
30. Porphyry’s refutation and correction of Platonic teaching
If it is considered improper to correct Plato on any point, why did Porphyry himself offer a number of important corrections? For it is an established fact that Plato wrote that after death the souls of men return to earth, and even enter into the bothes of beasts. The same belief was held also by Plotinus, the teacher of Porphyry.119 Nevertheless, Porphyry refused to accept it, quite rightly.120 His theory was that human souls return, but into men’s bothes, not the bothes which they have left, but into others, into new bothes. One supposes that he was ashamed to hold the Platonic theory, for fear that a mother might come back as a mule and be ridden by her son! Yet it caused him no embarrassment to hold a belief which would admit the risk of a mother’s returning as a girl and marrying her own son. How much more honourable is the belief taught by the holy and truthful angels, spoken of by the prophets under the guidance of the Spirit of God, and by him whose coming as Saviour was foretold by heralds sent in advance, and by the apostles who were sent out and who filled the whole world with the teaching of the gospel. The belief that souls return once for all to their own bothes is far more honourable than that they return time after time to different bothes. For all that, Porphyry, as I have said, is right to an important extent in his opinion, in that at least he held that it is only into men that human souls can be thrust; and had no hesitation at all in abolishing their animal prisons.
Porphyry also says that God has put the soul into the world for this purpose, that the soul might realize the evils of the material world and so hurry back to the Father, and never again be held back by the polluting contact of such evils. Certainly his theory on this subject is to some degree inconsistent with the facts. The soul is given to the body in order to do good, for it would not recognize evil if it did not do good. Nevertheless he did correct the opinion of other Platonists on this point, and he did so on an important question. For he admitted that when the soul has been purified from all evil and established with the Father it will never afterwards suffer the evils of this world. By this belief he did away with the theory which is regarded as a principal feature of Platonism, the theory that just as the dead came from the living so the living always come from the dead.121And he shows the falsity of the statement of Virgil (apparently following Plato) that the souls who are dispatched, after their purification, to the Elysian Fields (which seems to be a poetical description of the joys of the blessed) are summoned to the river of Lethe, that is, to forgetfulness of the past,
So that, forgetful, they may seek again
The vault of heaven, and once more desire
To take a mortal body.122
Porphyry was entirely justified in rejecting this teaching; since it is really absurd to believe that in that other life, which could not be completely blessed if there were not complete assurance of its eternity, souls yearn for the taint of corruptible bothes and desire to return from thence to those bothes; as if the effect of the final purification were a longing for renewed defilement. For if the result of perfect cleansing is the forgetfulness of all ills, and the forgetfulness of ills produces a longing for bothes, in which the souls will again be involved in ills, it follows that the supreme felicity will be the cause of misery, the perfection of wisdom the cause of folly, and perfect cleansing the cause of uncleanness. And the happiness of the soul will not be based on truth, however long it is to continue, in a state where it must be deceived, if it is to be happy. For it will not be happy without a sense of security; and to have a sense of security it must believe that its happiness will be everlasting, which is a false belief, since in time it will come to misery. How can it then rejoice in truth, when its joy depends on a false belief? Porphyry saw this, and for this reason he asserted that the soul after purification returns to the Father so that it may never be held back by the polluting contact of evil. Therefore the belief held by certain Platonists is false, that there is a kind of inevitable cycle of departure from evil followed by return. Even if this were true, what advantage would be gained by the knowledge of it? Unless perhaps the Platonists would venture to claim superiority to us on the ground that we in this life have already attained that ignorance which they are going to reach in another and better life, after complete purification and the acquisition of supreme wisdom, so that they may enjoy happiness by believing a falsehood!
Now if such a suggestion is utterly absurd and ridiculous, we are clearly bound to prefer the opinion of Porphyry to that of the thinkers who have imagined a circular movement of souls, in which they alternate for ever between bliss and misery. If so, we have here a Platonist departing from Plato, for the better. Here we have one who saw what his master failed to see; and though he was a disciple of a teacher of such eminence and authority, he did not shrink from correcting his teacher, because he preferred the truth to the man.123
31. Against the argument of the Platonists, that the human soul is co-eternal with God
Since these are questions which are beyond the competence of human wit to sift to the bottom, why do we not trust instead in the divine power which tells us that the soul itself is, like other things, created out of non-existence? The Platonists are evidently satisfied with justifying their refusal to believe this by the argument that nothing can have an eternal future which has not had an eternal past. And yet, when treating of the universe, and the gods which, he says, God has created in the universe, Plato distinctly affirms that they come into being and have a beginning; yet he declares that they will not have an end, but will continue for ever, thanks to the mighty will of their creator.124 Nevertheless the Platonists have discovered a way of interpreting this statement, by asserting that this refers not to a beginning in time, but to a relation of dependence. ‘If a foot’, they say, ‘had been from all eternity planted on dust, the print of it would always be underneath; but for all that no one would doubt that the footprint was made by the pressure of the foot: and yet there would be no temporal priority, although one was made by the other. Similarly’, they say, ‘the universe and the created gods in it have always existed, while their maker always exists; and yet they have been made.’
Yes, but if the soul has always existed, are we to say that its misery also has always existed? If not, then if there is anything in the soul which has not existed from eternity but has come into being in time, why could it not be that the soul itself has a temporal beginning, without having had a previous existence? Furthermore, its blessedness also, as Porphyry admits, will be more secure after the experience of evils, and will endure without end. Then evidently this blessedness has a beginning in time; and yet it will exist for ever, without having had a previous existence.
Thus the whole argument falls to the ground, since it purported to establish that nothing could be without an end in time unless it did not have a beginning in time. For it has been shown that the beatitude of the soul has had a beginning in time, but will not have an end in time. And so let human weakness yield to divine authority. And on the subject of the true religion let us believe those blessed and immortal beings who do not claim for themselves the honour which they know to be due to their God, who is also our God, who do not bid us to sacrifice to any but him to whom we, with them, owe the sacrifice of ourselves. As I have often said, and as cannot be said too often, this is a sacrifice offered through that priest who, in the manhood which he assumed and through which he willed to be also a priest, has deigned to become a sacrifice for us, even as far as death.125
32. The way of salvation for all, which Porphyry failed to discover
This is the religion which contains the universal way for the liberation of the soul, since no soul can be freed by any other way. For this is, one may say, the royal road, which alone leads to that kingdom whose glory is not the tottering grandeur of the temporal, but the secure stability of the eternal.
Now Porphyry says – towards the end of his first book On the Return of the Soul – that no doctrine has yet been established to form the teaching of a philosophical sect, which offers a universal way for the liberation of the soul; no such way has been produced by any philosophy (in the truest sense of the word), or by the moral teaching and disciplines of the Indians,126 or by the magical spells of the Chaldeans, or in any other way, and that this universal way had never been brought to his knowledge in his study of history. He admits without any doubt that such a way exists, but confesses that it had never come to his notice. Thus he was not satisfied with all that he had taken such pains to learn on the subject of the liberation of the soul, the knowledge and the beliefs which he convinced himself – or rather convinced others – that he possessed. For he felt that he had failed to obtain any supreme authority which he was bound to follow on such an important subject. Now he states that he has never become acquainted with any philosophical sect, even among the genuine philosophies, which would offer a universal way for the liberation of the soul. And in saying this he makes it clear, as it seems to me, that the kind of philosophy in which he was engaged was not a genuine philosophy, or, if it was, that it did not offer such a way of liberation. And yet how could it be a genuine philosophy, if it did not offer this way? For what is a universal way for the liberation of the soul, if it is not a way by which all souls are liberated, and therefore the only way for any soul? And when he goes on to say, ‘or by the moral teaching and discipline of the Indians, the magical spells of the Chaldeans, or any other way’ he testifies quite explicitly that this way is not afforded by the teaching he had learnt from the Indians and the Chaldeans: and he certainly could not keep quiet about his borrowing of ‘divine oracles’ from the Chaldeans, those oracles which he refers to so continually.
What then does Porphyry mean to be understood by this ‘universal way of liberation for the soul’? He says that it has not been obtained either from any of the genuine philosophies, or from the teaching of those nations which were regarded as great authorities in so-called ‘divine matters’, because those nations were especially influenced by a superstitious interest in the doctrine and the cult of angels of various kinds. What then does he mean by this cult which has never come to his notice in his historical inquiries? What in fact is this universal way, unless it is one which is not the exclusive property of a particular nation but has been divinely imparted to be the common property of all the nations? That such a way exists is not doubted by a man so exceptionally talented as Porphyry. He does not believe that divine providence could have left mankind without such a universal way for the liberation of the soul. For what he says is not that the way does not exist, but only that this great boon, this great assistance, has not come to his notice. No wonder in that. For Porphyry was active at a time when the universal way for the liberation of the soul, which is simply the Christian religion, was, by divine permission, under attack127 from the demon-worshippers and the kings of the earth, in order to make up the number of consecrated martyrs, that is, of the witnesses to the truth, whose purpose was to show that all bodily sufferings must be endured in loyalty to true religion and for the commendation of the truth. Porphyry saw what was happening; and he supposed that persecutions of this kind would soon lead to the disappearance of this way, and that therefore it was not the universal way for the soul’s liberation. He did not realize that this persecution which so influenced him, and which he was afraid of suffering if he chose to follow that way, in fact tended to strengthen Christianity and to commend it more forcefully.
This then is the universal way for the soul’s liberation; universal because it is granted to all nations by the divine compassion. But wherever the knowledge of this way has already come, and wherever it will come in the future, no one has, or will have, the right to ask, ‘Why just now?’ or ‘Why so late?’ for the design of him who offers it is inscrutable to natural human understanding. Porphyry himself understood this when he said that this gift of God had not yet been obtained and had not yet come to his knowledge. For he did not decide that it was not a reality just because he had not yet accepted it as his belief, or because it had not come to his knowledge.
This is, I repeat, the universal way for the liberation of believers. The faithful Abraham received this divine message about it: ‘In your seed all nations will be blessed.’128 Now Abraham was by birth a Chaldean, but he was bidden to leave his country, his family, and his father’s house, so that he might receive this promise, and that from him might issue the ‘seed prepared for by the ministry of angels, the mediator offering his hand’;129 so that in this mediator should be found that universal way for the soul’s liberation, the way made available for all nations. Then when he had first been liberated from the superstitions of the Chaldeans, Abraham worshipped and followed the one true God, and believed with complete trust in his promises. This is the universal way of which the holy prophet speaks, when he says, ‘May God have mercy on us and give us his blessing. May he make his face to shine on us; that we may know your way on the earth, and your salvation in all nations.’130 Hence, so long afterwards, the Saviour, who took flesh from ‘the seed of Abraham’, said of himself, ‘I am the way, the truth, and the life.’131
This is the universal way about which the prophecy was made so long before,
In the last days there will appear in full view the mountain of the Lord, prepared on the summit of the mountains, and lifted up above the hills; and all the nations will come to it, and many nations will enter and say: ‘Come, let us go up to the mountain of God, and go into the house of the God of Jacob: and he will announce to us his way, and we will start upon it’. For the Law will issue out of Sion, and the Word of the Lord from Jerusalem.132
This means that the way does not belong to one people, but is for all nations; and the Law and the Word of God did not stay in Sion and Jerusalem but went out from there so that it might spread through the whole world. Hence the Mediator himself, after his resurrection, said to his trembling disciples, ‘What was written about me in the Law, the Prophets, and the Psalms, had to be fulfilled.’ Then
he opened their understanding, so that they comprehended the meaning of the Scriptures: and he told them that Christ was bound to suffer and to rise from the dead on the third day; and that penitence and remission of sins was to be proclaimed in his name throughout all the nations, beginning at Jerusalem.133
So this is the universal way of liberation for the soul which the holy angels and the holy prophets foretold. They revealed it in former times among a small number of men, where they could find a hearing, among men who enjoyed the favour of God, and in particular among the Hebrew people, whose political community was in a manner consecrated for the purposes of prophesying and announcing the City of God which was to be assembled out of all nations. The angels and saints pointed to this way by means of the tabernacle, the temple, the priesthood, and the sacrifices; and they spoke of it sometimes by explicit statements, more often in the language of mystic symbolism. But in the end the Mediator himself came in flesh, and he and his blessed apostles now revealed the grace of the new covenant and disclosed openly what in previous ages had been indicated by veiled allusions, when hints were given in accordance with the stages of mankind’s development, following the plan decided upon by God, in his wisdom.
This revelation had the supporting testimony of the signs of God’s miraculous works, of which I have already given some few examples.134 Such signs appeared not only in the form of visions of angels, and the resounding utterances of celestial ministers. There were also men of God who used the word of simple piety to drive out unclean spirits from the bodies and minds of men; and by this means bodily sickness and infirmities were cured, savage beasts on land and sea, the winged creatures of the sky, the woods, the elements, and the stars were made obedient to the divine commands, the infernal powers retreated, the dead came back to life. And this is to leave on one side the miracles which belong to the Saviour, and to him alone; above all, the miracles of his birth and resurrection. In the former we are presented simply with the mystery of a virgin motherhood, whereas in the latter he has shown us the pattern which is to be reproduced in those who will rise again at the last day.
This is the way which purifies the whole man and prepares his mortal being for immortality, in all the elements which constitute a man. We have not to seek one purification for that element which Porphyry calls the ‘intellectual’ soul, another for the ‘spiritual’, and yet another for the body itself. It was to avoid such quests that our Purifier and Saviour, the true Purifier and the all-powerful Saviour, took upon himself the man in his entirety. This way has never been withheld from mankind, either when those events were foretold as destined in the future, or when the news was brought of their accomplishment. And apart from this way no one has been set free, no one is being set free, no one will be set free.
Porphyry, however, says that the universal way for the soul’s liberation has never come to his knowledge in his study of history. Yet what could be found more striking than this historical record, which has taken possession of the whole world by its towering authority; or what more worthy of belief, seeing that in this record the events of the past are so narrated as to be also prophecies of the future? Many of those prophecies we see to have been fulfilled, and we confidently expect the fulfilment of the rest. Neither Porphyry nor any other Platonist can brush aside the revelations of the future and the predictions encountered in this way, on the grounds that they are concerned merely with worldly matters and with this present life – a criticism justly levelled by the philosophers against soothsaying and the divination of other sects, carried on by all manner of methods and techniques. They say that predictions of this kind are never practised by men of standing, that they are of little value; and this judgement is soundly based. Such foreknowledge either derives from the anticipatory perception of secondary causes, in the same way as medical skill can foresee, by antecedent indications, many future conditions affecting bodily health; or else it comes from unclean demons. For they give forewarning of events which result from their designs, and in some measure assert their claim to be the lawful controllers of events by directing the thoughts and desires of the wicked towards any facts which suit those thoughts and desires, and by appealing to the lowest elements in human frailty.
It was not such prophecies as these that were the concern of the holy men who walked on that way of universal liberation for souls. They did not attach importance to such things: although such matters did not escape them, and such predictions were often made by them, to serve as credentials for prophecies of things which could not be apprehended by the senses, and which could not be swiftly and readily brought to a test. But there were other matters, of high importance, matters truly relating to God, which they foretold in the future according to such knowledge as was granted to them by the will of God. These matters were the future coming of Christ in the flesh, and all the wonders which were accomplished in him and which were effected in his name; the repentance of men, the conversion of men’s wills to God, the remission of sins, the grace of justification; the faith of the devout, and the multitude of men all over the world who believe in the true doctrine of God; the abolition of the worship of idols and demons; and the training to resist temptation, the purification of those who persevere and their liberation from all evil; the day of judgement, the resurrection of the dead, the eternal condemnation of the society of the wicked, and the eternal dominion of the glorious City of God in the deathless enjoyment of the vision of God. All this was foretold and promise in the Scriptures. We see the fulfilment of so many of these promises that we look for the fulfilment of the rest with the confidence of a devotion rightly directed. This is the right road which leads to the vision of God and to eternal union with him; it is proclaimed and asserted in the truth of the holy Scriptures. And all those who do not believe in it, and therefore fail to understand it, may attack it; they cannot overthrow it.
Thus in the ten books now completed we have refuted the objections of the wicked, who prefer their own gods to the founder of that Holy City which is the subject of this undertaking; and although the refutation may not be all that some eagerly expected of us, still it has met the wishes of some, through the help that our true God and Lord has deigned to give us. The first five books have been written against those who imagine that the gods are to be worshipped for the sake of the good things of this life, the latter five against those who think that the cult of the gods should be kept up with a view to the future life after death. I shall now proceed to fulfil the promise made in the first book, and, in so far as I receive assistance from on high, I shall put forward what I think ought to be said about the two cities, which are, as I have pointed out, intermixed with one another in this present world; and I shall treat of their origin, their development, and their destined ends.