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Chap. iii.—that cicero and other men of learning erred in not turning away the people from error.
But what does it avail thus to address the vulgar and ignorant, when we see that learned and prudent men, though they understand the vanity of these ceremonies, nevertheless through some perverseness persist in the worship of those very objects which they condemn? Cicero was well aware that the deities which men worshipped were false. For when he had spoken many things which tended to the overthrow of religious ceremonies, he said nevertheless that these matters ought not to be discussed by the vulgar, lest such discussion should extinguish the system of religion which was publicly received. What can you do respecting him, who, when he perceives himself to be in error, of his own accord dashes himself against the stones, that all the people may stumble? or tears out his own eyes, that all may be blind? who neither deserves well of others, whom he suffers to be in error, nor of himself, since he inclines to the errors of others, and makes no use of the benefit of his own wisdom, so as to carry out129129 Fill up and complete the outline which he has conceived. in action the conception of his own mind, but knowingly and consciously thrusts his foot into the snare, that he also may be taken with the rest, whom he ought, as the more prudent, to have extricated? Nay rather, if you have any virtue, Cicero, endeavour to make the people wise: that is a befitting subject, on which you may expend all the powers of your eloquence. For there is no fear lest speech should fail you in so good a cause, when you have often defended even bad ones with copiousness and spirit. But truly you fear the prison of Socrates,130130 Lactantius charges Cicero with want of courage, in being unwilling to declare the truth to the Romans, lest he should incur the peril of death. The fortitude with which Socrates underwent death, when condemned by the Athenians, is related by Xenophon and Plato. and on that account you do not venture to undertake the advocacy of truth. But, as a wise man, you ought to have despised death. And, indeed, it would have been much more glorious to die on account of good words than on account of revilings. Nor would the renown of your Philippics have been more advantageous to you than the dispersion of the errors of mankind, and the recalling of the minds of men to a healthy state by your disputation.
But let us make allowance for timidity, which ought not to exist in a wise man. Why, then, are you yourself engaged in the same error? I see that you worship things of earth made by the hand: you understand that they are vain, and yet you do the same things which they do, whom you confess to be most foolish. What, therefore, did it profit you, that you saw the truth, which you were neither about to defend nor to follow? If even they who perceive themselves to be in error err willingly, how much more so do the unlearned vulgar, who delight in empty processions, and gaze at all things with boyish minds! They are delighted with trifling things, and are captivated with the form of images; and they are unable to weigh every object in their own minds, so as to understand that nothing which is beheld by the eyes of mortals ought to be worshipped, because it must necessarily be mortal. Nor is it matter of surprise if they do not see God, when they themselves do not even see man, whom they believe that they see. For this, which falls under the notice of the eyes,131131 Lactantius here follows Plato, who placed the essence of man in the intellectual soul. The body, however, as well as the soul, is of the essence of man; but Lactantius seems to limit the name of man to the higher and more worthy part. [Rhetorically, not dogmatically.] is not man, but the receptacle of man, the quality and figure of which are not seen from the lineaments of the vessel which contains them, but from the actions and character. They, therefore, who worship images are mere bodies without men, because they have given themselves to corporeal things, and do not see anything with the mind more than with the body; whereas it is the office of the soul to perceive those things more clearly which the eye of the body cannot behold. And that philosopher and poet severely accuses those men as humble and abject, who, in opposition to the design of their nature, prostrate themselves to the worship of earthly things; for he says:132132 Lucretius, De Rerum Natura, vi. 5. [“Premunt ad terram.”] —
“And they abase their souls with fear of the gods, and weigh and press them down to earth.”
When he said these things, indeed, his meaning was different—that nothing was to be worshipped, because the gods do not regard the affairs of men.
“Nor is it any piety to be often seen with veiled head to turn to a stone, and approach every altar, and fall prostrate on the ground, and spread the hands before the shrines of the gods, and sprinkle the altars with much blood of beasts, and to offer vow after vow.”
And assuredly if these things are useless, it is not right that sublime and lofty souls should be called away and depressed to the earth, but that they should think only of heavenly things.
False religious systems, therefore, have been attacked by more sagacious men, because they perceived their falsehood; but the true religion was not introduced, because they knew not what and where it was. They therefore so regarded it as though it had no existence, because they were unable to find it in its truth. And in this manner they fell into a much greater error than they who held a religion which was false. For those worshippers of fragile images, however foolish they may be, inasmuch as they place heavenly things in things which are earthly and corruptible, yet retain something of wisdom, and may be pardoned, because they hold the chief duty of man, if not in reality, yet still in their purpose; since, if not the only, yet certainly the greatest difference between men and the beasts consists in religion. But this latter class, in proportion to their superior wisdom, in that they understood the error of false religion, rendered themselves so much the more foolish, because they did not imagine that some religion was true. And thus, because it is easier to judge of the affairs of others than of their own, while they see the downfall of others, they have not observed what was before their own feet. On either side is found the greatest folly, and a certain trace134134 Odor quidam sapientiæ. of wisdom; so that you may doubt which are rather to be called more foolish—those who embrace a false religion, or those who embrace none. But (as I have said) pardon may be granted to those who are ignorant and do not own themselves to be wise; but it cannot be extended to those who, while they profess135135 Rom. i. 22: “Professing themselves to be wise, they became fools.” wisdom, rather exhibit folly. I am not, indeed, so unjust as to imagine that they could divine, so that they might find out the truth by themselves; for I acknowledge that this is impossible. But I require from them that which they were able to perform by reason136136 The apostle teaches the same, Rom. i. 19–21. itself. For they would act more prudently, if they both understood that some form of religion is true, and if, while they attacked false religions, they openly proclaimed that men were not in possession of that which is true.
But this consideration may perhaps have influenced them, that if there were any true religion, it would exert itself and assert its authority, and not permit the existence of anything opposed to it. For they were unable to see at all, on what account, or by whom, and in what manner true religion was depressed, which partakes of a divine mystery137137 Divini sacramenti. 1 Cor. ii. 7: “We speak the wisdom of God in a mystery.” and a heavenly secret. And no man can know138138 1 Cor ii. 14: “The natural man receiveth not the things of the Spirit of God, for they are foolishness unto him; neither can he know them, because they are spiritually discerned.” this by any means, unless he is taught. The sum of the matter is this: The unlearned and the foolish esteem false religions as true, because they neither know the true nor understand the false.139139 [2 Pet. iii. 16. Even among believers such perils exist.] But the more sagacious, because they are ignorant of the true, either persist in those religions which they know to be false, that they may appear to possess something; or worship nothing at all, that they may not fall into error, whereas this very thing partakes largely of error, under the figure of a man to imitate the life of cattle. To understand that which is false is truly the part of wisdom, but of human wisdom. Beyond this step man cannot proceed, and thus many of the philosophers have taken away religious institutions, as I have pointed out; but to know the truth is the part of divine wisdom. But man by himself cannot attain to this knowledge, unless he is taught by God. Thus philosophers have reached the height of human wisdom, so as to understand that which is not; but they have failed in attaining the power of saying that which really is. It is a well-known saying of Cicero:140140 De Natura Deorum, lib. i. [cap. 32. Quam falsa convincere]. “I wish that I could as easily find out the truth as I can refute false things.” And because this is beyond the power of man’s condition, the capability of this office is assigned to us, to whom God has delivered the knowledge of the truth; to the explaining of which the four last books shall be devoted. Now, in the meantime, let us bring to light false things, as we have begun to do.
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