Ante-Nicene Fathers, Vol VII:Early Church Fathers Index Previous Next
Lactantius: Chap. V.—Of false and true virtue; and of knowledge
Chap. V.—Of False and True Virtue; And of Knowledge.
But before I begin to set forth the separate virtues, I must mark out the character of virtue itself, which the philosophers have not rightly p. 167 defined, as to its nature, or in what things it consisted; and I must describe its operation and office. For they only retained the name, but lost its power, and nature, and effect. But whatever they are accustomed to say in their definition of virtue, Lucilius puts together and expresses in a few verses, which I prefer to introduce, lest, while I refute the opinions of many, I should be longer than is necessary:—“It is virtue, O Albinus, to pay the proper price,
To attend to the matters in which we are engaged, and in which we live.
It is virtue for a man to know the nature of everything.
It is virtue for a man to know what is right and useful and honourable,
What things are good, and what are evil.
What is useless, 1107 base, and dishonourable.
It is virtue to know the end of an object to be sought and the means of procuring it
It is virtue to be able to assign their value to riches.
It is virtue to give that which is really due to honour;
To be the enemy and the foe 1108 of bad men and manners, but, on the other hand, the defender of good men and manners;
To esteem these highly, to wish them well, to live in friendship with them,
Moreover, to consider the interest of ones country first;
Then those of parents, to put our own interests in the third and last place.”
From these definitions, which the poet briefly puts together, Marcus Tullius derived the offices of living, following Panætius the Stoic, 1109 and included them in three books.
But we shall presently see how false these things are, that it may appear how much the divine condescension has bestowed on us in opening to us the truth. He says that it is virtue to know what is good and evil, what is base, what is honourable, what is useful, what is useless. He might have shortened his treatise if he had only spoken of that which is good and evil; for nothing can be useful or honourable which is not also good, and nothing useless and base which is not also evil. And this also appears to be thus to philosophers, and Cicero shows it likewise in the third book of the above-mentioned treatise. 1110 But knowledge cannot be virtue, because it is not within us, but it comes to us from without. But that which is able to pass from one to the other is not virtue, because virtue is the property of each individual. Knowledge therefore consists in a benefit derived from another; for it depends upon hearing. Virtue is altogether our own; for it depends upon the will of doing that which is good. As, therefore, in undertaking a journey, it is of no profit to know the way, unless we also have the effort and strength for walking, so truly knowledge is of no avail if our virtue fails. For, in general, even they who sin perceive what is good and evil, though not perfectly; and as often as they act improperly, they know that they sin, and therefore endeavour to conceal their actions. But though the nature of good and evil does not escape their notice, they are overpowered by an evil desire to sin, because they are wanting in virtue, that is, the desire of doing right and honourable things. Therefore that the knowledge of good and evil is one thing, and virtue another, appears from this, because knowledge can exist without virtue, as it has been in the case of many of the philosophers; in which, since not to have done what you knew to be right is justly censurable, a depraved will and a vicious mind, which ignorance cannot excuse, will be justly punished. Therefore, as the knowledge of good and evil is not virtue, so the doing that which is good and the abstaining from evil is virtue. And yet knowledge is so united with virtue, that knowledge precedes virtue, and virtue follows knowledge; because knowledge is of no avail unless it is followed up by action. Horace therefore speaks somewhat better: “Virtue is the fleeing from vice, and the first wisdom is to be free from folly.” 1111 But he speaks improperly, because he defined virtue by its contrary, as though he should say, That is good which is not evil. For when I know not what virtue is, I do not know what vice is. Each therefore requires definition, because the nature of the case is such that each must be understood or not understood. 1112
But let us do that which he ought to have done. It is a virtue to restrain anger, to control desire, to curb lust; for this is to flee from vice. For almost all things which are done unjustly and dishonestly arise from these affections. For if the force of this emotion which is called anger be blunted, all the evil contentions of men will be lulled to rest; no one will plot, no one will rush forth to injure another. Also, if desire be restrained, no one will use violence by land or by sea, no one will lead an army to carry off and lay waste the property of others. Also, if the ardour of lusts be repressed, every age and sex will retain its sanctity; no one will suffer, or do anything disgraceful. Therefore all crimes and disgraceful actions will be taken away from the life and character of men, if these emotions are appeased and calmed by virtue. And this calming of the emotions and affections has this meaning, that we do all things which are right. The whole duty of virtue then is, not to sin. And assuredly he cannot discharge this who is ignorant of God, since ignorance p. 168 of Him from whom good things proceed must thrust a man unawares into vices. Therefore, that I may more briefly and significantly fix the offices of each subject, knowledge is to know God, virtue is to worship Him: the former implies wisdom, the latter righteousness.
Hostem atque inimicum: the former word signifies a “public,” the latter a “private enemy.”167:1109
[De Officiis, passim. Notably, to begin with, book i. cap. 3: “Triplex igitur,” etc.]167:1110
[De Nat. Deor., iii. See also De Off., cap. 5, sec. 18.]167:1111
Epist., i. 1. 41.167:1112
[To be taken with a grain of salt, but apparently comprehended in our authors personal theodicy.]
Next: Chap. VI.—Of the chief good and virtue, and or knowledge and righteousness
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