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Ante-Nicene Fathers, Vol III:
Tertullian: Part I: The Physical Theory Continued. Further Reasons Advanced Against the Divinity of the Elements.

Early Church Fathers  Index     

Chapter V.—The Physical Theory Continued. Further Reasons Advanced Against the Divinity of the Elements.

Why, then, do we not resort to that far more reasonable 850 opinion, which has clear proof of being derived from men’s common sense and unsophisticated deduction? 851 Even Varro bears it in mind, when he says that the elements are supposed to be divine, because nothing whatever is capable, without their concurrence, 852 of being produced, nourished, or applied to the sustenance 853 of man’s life and of the earth, since not even our bodies and souls could have sufficed in themselves without the modification 854 of the elements. By this it is that the world is made generally habitable,—a result which is harmoniously secured 855 by the distribution into zones, 856 except where human residence has been rendered impracticable by intensity of cold or heat. On this account, men have accounted as gods—the sun, because it imparts from itself the light of day, ripens the fruit with its warmth, and measures the year with its stated periods; the moon, which is at once the solace of the night and the controller of the months by its governance; the stars also, certain indications as they are of those seasons which are to be observed in the tillage of our fields; lastly, the very heaven also under which, and the earth over which, as well as the intermediate space within which, all things conspire together for the good of man. Nor is it from their beneficent influences only that a faith in their divinity has been deemed compatible with the elements, but from their opposite qualities also, such as usually happen from what one might call 857 their wrath and anger—as thunder, and hail, and drought, and pestilential winds, floods also, and openings of the ground, and earthquakes: these are all fairly enough 858 accounted gods, whether their nature becomes the object of reverence as being favourable, or of fear because terrible—the sovereign dispenser, 859 in fact, 860 both of help and of hurt. But in the practical conduct of p. 134 social life, this is the way in which men act and feel: they do not show gratitude or find fault with the very things from which the succour or the injury proceeds, so much as with them by whose strength and power the operation of the things is effected. For even in your amusements you do not award the crown as a prize to the flute or the harp, but to the musician who manages the said flute or harp by the power of his delightful skill. 861 In like manner, when one is in ill-health, you do not bestow your acknowledgments on the flannel wraps, 862 or the medicines, or the poultices, but on the doctors by whose care and prudence the remedies become effectual.  So again, in untoward events, they who are wounded with the sword do not charge the injury on the sword or the spear, but on the enemy or the robber; whilst those whom a falling house covers do not blame the tiles or the stones, but the oldness of the building; as again shipwrecked sailors impute their calamity not to the rocks and waves, but to the tempest. And rightly too; for it is certain that everything which happens must be ascribed not to the instrument with which, but to the agent by whom, it takes place; inasmuch as he is the prime cause of the occurrence, 863 who appoints both the event itself and that by whose instrumentality it comes to pass (as there are in all things these three particular elements—the fact itself, its instrument, and its cause), because he himself who wills the occurrence of a thing comes into notice 864 prior to the thing which he wills, or the instrument by which it occurs. On all other occasions therefore, your conduct is right enough, because you consider the author; but in physical phenomena your rule is opposed to that natural principle which prompts you to a wise judgment in all other cases, removing out of sight as you do the supreme position of the author, and considering rather the things that happen, than him by whom they happen. Thus it comes to pass that you suppose the power and the dominion to belong to the elements, which are but the slaves and functionaries.  Now do we not, in thus tracing out an artificer and master within, expose the artful structure of their slavery 865 out of the appointed functions of those elements to which you ascribe (the attributes) of power? 866 But gods are not slaves; therefore whatever things are servile in character are not gods.  Otherwise 867 they should prove to us that, according to the ordinary course of things, liberty is promoted by irregular licence, 868 despotism by liberty, and that by despotism divine power is meant. For if all the (heavenly bodies) overhead forget not 869 to fulfil their courses in certain orbits, in regular seasons, at proper distances, and at equal intervals—appointed in the way of a law for the revolutions of time, and for directing the guidance thereof—can it fail to result 870 from the very observance of their conditions and the fidelity of their operations, that you will be convinced both by the recurrence of their orbital courses and the accuracy of their mutations, when you bear in mind how ceaseless is their recurrence, that a governing power presides over them, to which the entire management of the world 871 is obedient, reaching even to the utility and injury of the human race? For you cannot pretend that these (phenomena) act and care for themselves alone, without contributing anything to the advantage of mankind, when you maintain that the elements are divine for no other reason than that you experience from them either benefit or injury to yourself. For if they benefit themselves only, you are under no obligation to them.


Footnotes

133:850

Humaniorem.

133:851

Conjectura.

133:852

Suffragio.

133:853

Sationem.

133:854

Temperamento.

133:855

Fœderata.

133:856

Circulorum conditionibus.

133:857

Tanquam.

133:858

Jure.

133:859

Domina.

133:860

Scilicet.

134:861

Vi suavitatis.

134:862

Lanis.

134:863

Caput facti.

134:864

Invenitur.

134:865

Servitutis artem. “Artem” Oehler explains by “artificiose institutum.”

134:866

We subjoin Oehler’s text of this obscure sentence: “Non in ista investigatione alicujus artificis intus et domini servitutis artem ostendimus elementorum certis ex operis” (for “operibis,” not unusual in Tertullian) “eorum quas facis potestatis?”

134:867

Aut.

134:868

De licentia passivitatis libertas approbetur.

134:869

Meminerunt.

134:870

Num non.

134:871

Universa negotiatio mundialis.


Next: The Changes of the Heavenly Bodies, Proof that They are Not Divine. Transition from the Physical to the Mythic Class of Gods.

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