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Dictionary of Christian Biography and Literature to the End of the Sixth Century A.D., with an Account of the Principal Sects and Heresies.
« Miltiades, bishop of Rome Minucius Felix, Marcus Miro »

Minucius Felix, Marcus

Minucius Felix, Marcus, one of the earliest and most pleasing of the Latin Christian apologists. His personal history can only be gathered from his own book. The earliest writer to mention him by name is Lactantius (Institut. v. 1), who describes him as a lawyer, "non ignobilis inter causidicos loci," but Lactantius may be merely drawing a natural inference from the introduction to the book itself, where Minucius tells how he had taken advantage of the court holidays to leave Rome for Ostia, "ad vindimeam feriae judiciariam curam relaxaverant." St. Jerome three times mentions Minucius (Ep. 48 ad Pammach. vol. i. p. 221; Ep. 70 ad Magnum, vol. i. p. 427; de Vir. Illust. c. 58, vol. ii. p. 883), and describes him as "insignis causidicus Romani fori"; but it seems clear that Jerome drew this description from Lactantius, whom he quotes. It has been attempted to deduce the date of Minucius from the place which Jerome assigns him in his list of illustrious men; but there is no evidence that Jerome really knew more than we know ourselves. Still more may the same be said of Eucherius, who speaks of Minucius (Ep. ad Valer. in Patr. Lat. l. 719). The gens Minucia was widely spread at Rome, and an inscription (Gruter, p. 918) shows among its families one with the cognomen Felix.

The only extant work of Minucius is a dialogue entitled "Octavius," modelled on the philosophical works of Cicero, whose writings, particularly de Natura Deorum and de Divinatione, Minucius has carefully studied. Minucius recalls a conversation of his lately deceased friend Octavius which resulted in the conversion to Christianity of their common friend Caecilius. He tells how Octavius had come to Rome, and gives a charming description of the morning walk on the beach taken by the three friends after they had gone from Rome to Ostia, until at last they sat down for rest and serious discussion on large stones placed for protection of the baths. At the beginning of the walk the heathen Caecilius, as they were passing an image of Serapis, had saluted it, as was customary, by kissing hands, whereupon Octavius charged Minucius with culpable negligence in having allowed his friend to continue in such degrading superstition. Caecilius challenges Octavius to a formal dispute.. The little treatise then divides itself into two parts, containing first a lively attack by Caecilius on the Christian doctrines and practices, then a reply, about twice as long, by Octavius, refuting and retorting the heathen arguments. Each point of the attack is dealt with in order. Caecilius confesses himself vanquished, gladly ranging himself on the conquering side.

The following is an abstract of the arguments used by Caecilius on the heathen side. He censures the presumption of the Christians, who, though unlettered men, venture to pronounce positively on questions about which the greatest philosophers have doubted; he denies that there is any good ground for believing in the existence of a God, since the chance concourse of atoms will sufficiently account for the origin of the world, while the prosperity of the wicked and the misfortunes of the good shew that the world is governed by no Providence. Then shifting his ground, he urges the duty of worshipping the gods whom their ancestors had worshipped, and the folly of rejecting what universal experience and the consent of all nations had found to be salutary. Each nation had its peculiar god: the Romans, the most religious of all, worshipped gods of all nations, and so had attained the highest prosperity. The power of their deities bad been exhibited in many oracles and prodigies; only one or two philosophers had ventured to deny their agency, and one of these, Protagoras, had in consequence been banished by the Athenians. Was it not then deplorable that the gods should be assailed by men of the dregs of the people, who, collecting credulous women and silly men, banded them in a fearful conspiracy, cemented by secret and detestable rites? Tales are repeated, for some of which the authority of Fronto is cited, of the initiation of Christian neophytes by partaking of the blood of a slaughtered infant, and other customary charges. If these things were not true, at least the obscurity in which they shrouded their rites shewed that they were such as they had cause to be ashamed of. These members of an illegal society dreaded to bring their doctrines into the light of day; they had no altars, no temples, no images, and were not even in their manner of worship like the Jews, the only people besides themselves who worshipped that wretched lonely God Who had not been able to save His own people from captivity; yet wished to meddle with everything and pry into every thought and every action. Nor was this the only absurdity of Christian doctrine. They threatened destruction to the world, which always had lasted and was bound together by fixed laws, and said that one day it would be burnt up. Yet for themselves, who were not eternal like the world, but were seen to be born and die, they dared to hope for immortality, and expect that their dust and ashes would live again. In the prospect of this imaginary life they gave up all enjoyment of their real present life, trusting in a God Whose impotence was exhibited in their daily sufferings from which He was unable to save His worshippers. In fine, if the Christians had any modesty, let them give up philosophy, of which their want of education had made them incapable; or if they must philosophize, let them fallow that greatest of philosophers, Socrates, whose maxim was, "What is above us we have nothing to do with," otherwise the result will be either the destruction of all religion or the adoption of anile superstition.

Octavius replies that a hearing shall not be refused to the arguments of Christians because of their low worldly condition. Reason is the common property of all men. It is the rich who, intent on their wealth, are too often unable to lift their eyes to things divine. Some of those afterwards recognized as the greatest philosophers were at first despised as poor and plebeian. He then establishes, by the ordinary arguments from the order of the universe, the existence and providence and unity of God, confirming his conclusions by the authority of various philosophers, whose opinions respecting the Deity he extracts from Cicero's treatise. In proof how natural is the belief in God's unity, he appeals to the common use of the singular Deus, both in common speech and in the writings of the poets. He shews that the gods whom the heathen worshipped were but deified men, and exposes the absurdity of the fables commonly told of them, the folly of image-worship, and the cruelty and licentiousness of the rites by which the gods were honoured. He shews that it is false that the Romans owed their prosperity to their religion, since it was by a multitude of irreligious acts that their empire grew, and because their original native gods, to whom, if to any, must be ascribed the origin of their greatness, had been deposed from their position by the adoption of gods of the conquered peoples. He traces the source of all idolatry to the operation of the demons who, having lost their first estate, desired to draw others into the same ruin as themselves, who inspired oracles, wrought fictitious cures and other pretended miracles to deceive men, and were also the inventors and instigators of the calumnies against Christianity. All this was attested by their own confession when exorcised by Christians. Turning to the charges made against the Christians, Octavius not only denies and refutes them, but retorts them on the heathen, who had been the more ready to believe that others had been guilty of them because they had done the like themselves. If the Christians had not temples, or images, or altars, it was because they would not degrade the majesty of the infinite God by limiting Him to a narrow place. Man himself was God's best image, a holy life the best sacrifice that could be offered Him. God is invisible, but so is the wind whose effects we witness; so is our own soul; the sun itself, the source of all light, we cannot look at. As for the Christian doctrines which Caecilius had represented as absurd and incredible, different heathen philosophers had taught a future destruction of the world by fire or otherwise; some of them had taught a transmigration of souls, a doctrine quite as difficult as that of the resurrection of the body and less natural. The doctrine of a future life is recommended by countless analogies of nature; and though men whose lives are bad dislike to believe in future retribution, and prefer to think that death ends all, yet the current popular belief in Pyriphlegethon and Styx, a belief derived from information given by demons and from the Jewish prophets, shews how deep-seated is the conviction that the time will come when it shall not be well with the wicked. Nor is it to be thought that God deals ill with His worshippers because He does not give them a larger share of prosperity in this life: the Christians do not covet earthly riches; they look on trials as their discipline, persecutions as their warfare, in which they are not deserted by their God, but combat under His eye. The Romans honour with their praises such sufferers as Mucius Scaevola and Regulus, yet the heroism of these men has been repeatedly surpassed by that of Christian women and children. Lastly, we need not be disturbed by the failure of sceptical philosophers to arrive at any certain knowledge of truth. These men's lives gave the lie to their professions of wisdom; we, whose excellence is in life and not merely in word, may boast that we have succeeded in finding what they sought in vain, and have only cause for gratitude that a revelation was reserved for our hands which was denied to them.

It will be seen how meagre Minucius is in his exposition of Christian doctrine, thus differing from all the other apologists. The doctrines of the unity of God, the resurrection of the body, and future retribution make up nearly the whole of the system of Christian doctrine which he sets forth. The doctrine of the Logos, so prominent in the apologies of Justin, Athenagoras, and Tertullian, is absent; our Lord's name is not mentioned, and though from the manner in which Octavius repels the charge that the Christians worshipped a man who had been punished for his crimes, it may reasonably be inferred that he believed our Lord to be more than man, yet this is not plainly stated. Minucius clearly shews that the topics he omits are excluded, not from disbelief in, or ignorance of, them, but from a designed limitation of the objects of his work, because at the end, when Caecilius has declared himself satisfied on the main questions of the existence of God and of Providence and of the general truth of the Christian religion, he asks for another conversation, not because of remaining doubts, but because he desires to be taught other things still necessary to perfect instruction. It cannot be accident that Minucius does not imitate the entire unreserve with which Justin speaks of Christian doctrines and Christian rites. The work of Minucius was doubtless intended mainly to influence intelligent heathen; and we must infer that in the West at least the feeling prevailed when Minucius wrote which made Christians fear to cast their pearls before swine. One striking difference between Minucius and Justin is the former's complete omission of the argument from prophecy, yet the inspiration of the Jewish prophets is incidentally recognized (c. 35). Minucius never mentions the writings of either O. or N. T., and has scarcely any coincidence of language with them. There is (c. 29) an echo of Jer. xvii. 5, and perhaps (c. 34) of I. Cor. xv. 36, 42.

His date is generally agreed to have been before 250, somewhere about which time Cyprian published his de Idolorum Vanitate, in which large use is made of Minucius. A nearer limit depends on settling the relation of Minucius to Tertullian. His dialogue and the apology of Tertullian have in common so many arguments, sometimes in nearly the same words, that one of the two undoubtedly used the work of the other, but as to which was the follower critics have held opposite opinions. The difficulty is mainly caused by the excellent use both writers have made of their materials, whencesoever obtained, and the thoroughness with which they have incorporated them. We have already shewn the perfect workmanship of the dialogue of Minucius. Tertullian's Apology is equally excellent, though its plan is entirely different. It is an advocate's speech, written for presentation to heathen magistrates to convince them that Christians did not deserve persecution. It is more loosely constructed, and evidently more hastily written, than that of Minucius, but bears a strong stamp of originality. Many points briefly touched on in Minucius are expanded in Tertullian, so that either Minucius has abridged Tertullian or Tertullian has used and developed the suggestions of Minucius. This has furnished the best argument for the priority of Tertullian. Tertullian, it has been said, is one of the most original of writers, Minucius quite the reverse. We have already mentioned his obligations to Cicero; his work is also largely indebted to Seneca, besides containing traces of Juvenal and other writers. Is it not, then, most natural to believe that as he has drawn his arguments for Theism from Cicero, he has taken his defence of Christianity from Tertullian? In the common matter there are considerable differences as to arrangement and form of expression. If Tertullian were the original, Minucius would have a change of arrangement forced on him by the plan of his work, while the changes in form of expression either improve the Latinity or make the sentence more pointed; whereas if Minucius were the original, Tertullian's changes can hardly have any other object than to disguise his obligation. Notwithstanding, a very careful comparison of the common matter led Ebert (K. Sächs. Ges. der Wissenschaften; philol.-histor. Classe, Bd. v.) to consider Minucius the original, and Ebert's ability in arguing the case obtained for a time general acceptance of his opinion. But recently new evidence has been obtained. The dialogue would seem to describe Minucius as a native of Cirta and fellow-townsman of Fronto, of whom he speaks as "Cirtensis noster," while Octavius refers to him as "Fronto tuus." Now at Cirta (Constantine in Algeria) the French have found six inscriptions containing the name of Caecilius Natalis (Mommsen, Lat. Insc. viii. 6996 and 7094–7098). This Caecilius was chief magistrate of Cirta in 210, and on the completion of five years of office raised at his own expense a triumphal arch in honour of Caracalla, brazen statues in honour of "Indulgentia domini nostri," exhibited "ludos scenicos" for seven days, and in other ways exhibited munificence. See an art. by Dessau (Hermes, 1880, p. 471). We see no good reason for refusing to identify this Caecilius Natalis with the Caecilius of the dialogue. He is not likely to have been a Christian when discharging the functions just described; the conversation related by Minucius would therefore have occurred somewhat later than 215; and the composition itself might be a score of years later. We thus fall back on the opinion held by the best critics before the publication of Ebert's memoir, that the work of Minucius was written in the peaceful days of Alexander Severus, say a.d. 234.

A useful ed. is in Gersdorf's Bibl. Pat. Ecc. (Leipz. 1847), one with variorum notes in vol. iii. of Migne's Patr. Lat., an excellent one by Holden (Camb.1853), and one by Halm (Vienna, 1867) founded on a new collation of the MS., which may therefore be regarded as the best authority for the text, but contains only critical notes. See also Waltzing, Bibliographie raisonnée de Min. Fel. in Muséon Belge (1902), vi. pp. 216 ff.; also G. Bossier in La fin du Paganisme, 3rd ed. (Paris, 1898), i. 261. There is an English trans. in the Lib of Ante-Nic. Fathers.

[G.S.]

« Miltiades, bishop of Rome Minucius Felix, Marcus Miro »

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