Ante-Nicene Fathers, Vol VII:Early Church Fathers Index Previous Next
Lactantius: Chap. I.—Of the non-condemnation of accused persons without a hearing of their cause; from what cause philosophers despised the sacred writings; of the first advocates of the Christian religion
Chap. I.—Of the Non-Condemnation of Accused Persons Without a Hearing of Their Cause; From What Cause Philosophers Despised the Sacred Writings; Of the First Advocates of the Christian Religion.
I Entertain no doubt, O mighty Emperor Constantine, 913 —since they are impatient through excessive superstition,—that if any one of those who are foolishly religious should take in hand this work of ours, in which that matchless Creator of all things and Ruler of this boundless world is asserted, he would even assail it with abusive language, and perhaps, having scarcely read the beginning, would dash it to the ground, cast it from him, curse it, and think himself contaminated and bound by inexpiable guilt if he should patiently read or hear these things. We demand, however, from this man, if it is possible, by the right of human nature, 914 that he should not condemn before that he knows the whole matter. For if the right of defending themselves is given to sacrilegious persons, and to traitors and sorcerers, and if it is lawful for no one to be condemned beforehand, his cause being as yet untried, we do not appear to ask unjustly, that if there shall be any one who shall have fallen upon this subject, if he shall read it, he read it throughout; if he shall hear it, that he put off the forming of an opinion until the end. But I know the obstinacy of men; we shall never succeed in obtaining this. For they fear lest they should be overcome by us, and be compelled at length to yield, truth itself crying out. They interrupt, therefore, and make hindrances, that they may not hear; and close their eyes, that they may not see the light which we present to them. Wherefore they themselves plainly show their distrust in their own abandoned system, since they neither venture to investigate, nor to engage with as, because they know that they are easily overpowered. And therefore, discussion being taken away,“Wisdom is driven from among them, they have recourse to violence,”
as Ennius says; and because they eagerly endeavour to condemn as guilty those whom they plainly know to be innocent, they are unwilling to be agreed respecting innocence itself; as though, in truth, it were a greater injustice to have condemned innocence, when proved to be such, than unheard. But, as I said, they are afraid lest, if they should hear, they should be unable to condemn.
And therefore they torture, put to death, and banish the worshippers of the Most High God, that is, the righteous; nor are they, who so vehemently hate, themselves able to assign the causes of their hatred. Because they are themselves in error, they are angry with those who follow the path of truth; and when they are able to correct themselves, they greatly increase 915 their errors by cruel deeds, they are stained with the blood of the innocent, and they tear away with violence souls dedicated to God from the lacerated bodies. Such are the men with whom we now endeavour to engage and to dispute: these are the men whom we would lead away from a foolish persuasion to the truth, men who would more readily drink blood than imbibe the words of the righteous. What then? Will our labour be in vain? By no means. For if we shall not be able to deliver these from death, to which they are hastening with the greatest speed; if we cannot recall them from that devious path to life and light, since they themselves oppose their own safety; yet we shall strengthen those who belong to us, whose opinion is not settled, and founded and fixed p. 136 with solid roots. For many of them waver, and especially those who have any acquaintance with literature. For in this respect philosophers, and orators, and poets are pernicious, because they are easily able to ensnare unwary souls by the sweetness of their discourse, and of their poems flowing with delightful modulation. These are sweets 916 which conceal poison. And on this account I wished to connect wisdom with religion, that that vain system may not at all injure the studious; so that now the knowledge of literature may not only be of no injury to religion and righteousness, but may even be of the greatest profit, if he who has learned it should be more instructed in virtues and wiser in truth.
Moreover, even though it should be profitable to no other, it certainly will be so to us: the conscience will delight itself, and the mind will rejoice that it is engaged in the light of truth, which is the food of the soul, being overspread with an incredible kind of pleasantness. But we must not despair. Perchance“We sing not to the deaf.” 917
For neither are affairs in so bad a condition that there are no sound minds to which the truth may be pleasing, and which may both see and follow the right course when it is pointed out to them. Only let the cup be anointed 918 with the heavenly honey of wisdom, that the bitter remedies may be drunk by them unawares, without any annoyance, whilst the first sweetness of taste by its allurement conceals, under the cover 919 of pleasantness, the bitterness of the harsh flavour. For this is especially the cause why, with the wise and the learned, and the princes of this world, the sacred Scriptures are without credit, because the prophets spoke in common and simple language, as though they spoke to the people. And therefore they are despised by those who are willing to hear or read nothing except that which is polished and eloquent; nor is anything able to remain fixed in their minds, except that which charms their ears by a more soothing sound. But those things which appear humble 920 are considered anile, foolish, and common. So entirely do they regard nothing as true, except that which is pleasant to the ear; nothing as credible, except that which can excite 921 pleasure: no one estimates 922 a subject by its truth, but by its embellishment. Therefore they do not believe the sacred writings, because they are without any pretence; 923 but they do not even believe those who explain them, because they also are either altogether ignorant, or at any rate possessed of little learning. For it very rarely happens that they are wholly eloquent; and the cause of this is evident. For eloquence is subservient to the world, it desires to display itself to the people, and to please in things which are evil; since it often endeavours to overpower the truth, that it may show its power; it seeks wealth, desires honours; in short, it demands the highest degree of dignity. Therefore it despises these subjects as low; it avoids secret things as contrary to itself, inasmuch as it rejoices in publicity, and longs for the multitude and celebrity. Hence it comes to pass that wisdom and truth need suitable heralds. And if by chance any of the learned have betaken themselves to it, they have not been sufficient for its defence.
Of those who are known to me, Minucius Felix was of no ignoble rank among pleaders. His book, which bears the title of Octavius, declares how suitable a maintainer of the truth he might have been, if he had given himself altogether to that pursuit. 924 Septimius Tertullianus also was skilled in literature of every kind; but in eloquence he had little readiness, and was not sufficiently polished, and very obscure. Not even therefore did he find sufficient renown. Cyprianus, therefore, was above all others 925 distinguished and renowned, since he had sought great glory to himself from the profession of the art of oratory, and he wrote very many things worthy of admiration in their particular class. For he was of a turn of mind which was ready, copious, agreeable, and (that which is the greatest excellence of style) plain and open; so that you cannot determine whether he was more embellished in speech, or more ready in explanation, or more powerful in persuasion. And yet he is unable to please those who are ignorant of the mystery except by his words; inasmuch as the things which he spoke are mystical, and prepared with this object, that they may be heard by the faithful only: in short, he is accustomed to be derided by the learned men of this age, to whom his writings have happened to be known. I have heard of a certain man who was skilful indeed, who by the change of a single letter called him Coprianus, 926 as though he were one who had applied to old womens fables a mind which was elegant and fitted for better things. But if this happened to him whose eloquence is p. 137 not unpleasant, what then must we suppose happens to those whose discourse is meagre and displeasing, who could have had neither the power of persuasion, nor subtlety in arguing, nor any severity at all for refuting?
These words are omitted in some editions. The chapter is a kind of preface to the whole book, in which he complains that punishment has been inflicted on the Christians, without due inquiry into their cause. [Religious = superstitious. See p. 131, supra.]135:914
Coacervant, “they heap up.”136:916
Virgil, Bucol., x. 8.136:918
There is a reference here to a well-known passage of Lucretius, i. 935: “As physicians, when they purpose to give nauseous wormwood to children, first smear the rim round the bowl with the sweet yellow juice of honey, that the unthinking age of children may be fooled as far as the lips, but though beguiled, not be betrayed.”136:919
Incutere. So Lucretius, i. 19, “incutiens amorem.”136:922
[Vol iv. 173. Note our authors reference to the founders of Latin Christianity, all North-Africans, like Arnobius and himself. See vol. iv. pp. 169, 170.]136:925
The word κοπρίας is applied to sycophants and low buffoons and jesters, who, for the sake of exciting laughter, made boastful and extravagant promises.
Next: Chap. II.—To what an extent the Christian truth has been assailed by rash men
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