Ante-Nicene Fathers, Vol VII:Early Church Fathers Index Previous Next
Lactantius: Chap. III.—Of the condition of the beasts and man
Chap. III.—Of the Condition of the Beasts and Man.
They complain that man is born in a more feeble and frail condition than that in which the other animals are born: for that these, as soon as they are produced from the womb, immediately raise themselves on their feet, and express their joy by running to and fro, and are at once fit for enduring the air, inasmuch as they have come forth to the light protected by natural coverings; but man, on the contrary, being naked and defenceless, is cast forth, and driven, as it were, from a shipwreck, to the miseries of this life; who is neither able to move himself from the place where he has been born, 1817 nor to seek the nourishment of milk, nor to endure the injury of time. Therefore they say that Nature is not the mother of the human race, but a stepmother, who has dealt so liberally with the dumb creation, but has so produced man, that, without resources, and without strength, and destitute of all aid, he can do nothing else than give tokens 1818 of the state of his frailty by wailing and lamentations; “as well he may, whose destiny it is to go through in life so many ills.” 1819
And when they say these things they are believed to be very wise, because every one without consideration is displeased with his own condition; but I contend that they are never more foolish than when they say these things. 1820 For when I consider the condition of things, I understand that nothing ought to have been otherwise than it is—not to say could have been otherwise, for God is able to do all things: but it must be, that that most provident majesty made that which was better and more right.
I should like, therefore, to ask those censurers of the divine works, what they think to be wanting in man, on account of his being born in a more feeble condition. Do they think that men are, on this account, brought up worse? Or that they advance the less to the greatest strength of age? Or that weakness is a hindrance to their growth or safety, since reason bestows 1821 the things which are wanting? But, they say, the bringing up of man costs the greatest labours: in truth, the condition of the brute creation is better, because all these, when they have brought forth their young, have no care except for their own food; from which it is effected that, their teats being spontaneously distended, the nourishment of milk is supplied to their offspring, and that they seek this nourishment by the compulsion of nature, without any trouble on the part of the mothers. How is it with birds, which have a different nature? do they not undergo the greatest labours in bringing up their young, so that they sometimes appear to have something of human intelligence? For they either build their nests of mud, or construct them with twigs and leaves, and they sit upon the eggs without taking food; and since it has not been given to them to nourish their young from their own bodies, they convey to them food, and spend whole days in going to and fro in this manner; but by night they defend, cherish, and protect them. What more can men do? unless it be this only, that they do not drive away their young when grown up, but retain them bound by perpetual relationship and the bond of affection. Why should I say that the offspring of birds is much more fragile than that of man? Inasmuch as they do not bring forth the animal itself from the body of the mother, but that which, being warmed by the nourishment and heat of the body of the mother, produces the animal; and this, even when animated by breath, being unfledged and tender, is not only without the power of flying, but even of walking. Would he not, therefore, be most senseless, if any one should think that nature has dealt badly with birds, first, because they are twice born, and then because they are so weak, that they have to be nourished by food sought with labour by their parents? But they select the stronger, and pass by the more feeble animals.
I ask, therefore, from those who prefer the condition of the beasts to their own, what they would choose if God should give them the choice: would they prefer the wisdom of man p. 284 together with his weakness, or the strength of the beasts together with their nature? In truth, they are not so much like the beasts as not to prefer even a much more fragile condition, provided that it be human, to that strength of theirs unattended with reason. But, in truth, prudent men neither desire the reason of man together with frailty, nor the strength of the dumb animals without reason. Therefore it is nothing so repugnant or contradictory, 1822 that either reason or the condition of nature should of necessity prepare each animal. If it is furnished with natural protection, reason is superfluous. For what will it contrive? 1823 What will it do? Or what will it plan? Or in what will it display that light of the intellect, when Nature of its own accord grants those things which are able to be the result of reason? But if it be endued with reason, what need will there be of defences for the body, when reason once granted is able to supply the office of nature? And this has such power for the adorning and protection of man, that nothing greater or better can be given by God. Finally, since man is possessed of a body which is not great, and of slight strength, and of infirm health, nevertheless, since he has received that which is of greater value, he is better equipped than the other animals, and more adorned. For though he is born frail and feeble, yet he is safe from all the dumb animals, and all those which are born with greater strength, though they are able to bear patiently the inclemency of the sky, yet are unable to be safe from man. Thus it comes to pass that reason bestows more on man than nature does on the dumb animals; since, in their case, neither greatness of strength nor firmness of body can prevent them from being oppressed by us, or from being made subject to our power.
Can any one, then, when he sees that even elephants, 1824 with their vast bodies and strength, are subservient to man, complain respecting God, the Maker of all things, because he has received moderate strength, and a small body; and not estimate according to their deserts the divine benefits towards himself, which is the part of an ungrateful man, or (to speak more truly) of a madman? Plato, I believe, that he might refute these ungrateful men, gave thanks to nature that he was born a man. 1825 How much better and more soundly did he act, who perceived that the condition of man was better, than they did who would have preferred that they had been born beasts! For if God should happen to change them into those animals whose condition they prefer to their own, they would now immediately desire to return to their previous state, and would with great outcries eagerly demand their former condition, because strength and firmness of body are not of such consequence that you should be without the office of the tongue; or the free course of birds through the air, that you should be without the hands. For the hands are of greater service than the lightness and use of the wings; the tongue is of greater service than the strength of the whole body. What madness is it, therefore, to prefer those things which, if they were given, you would refuse to receive!
Lucret., v. 228.283:1820
[The admirable investigations of the modern atheists are so many testimonies against their own theories when they come to talk of force, etc., instead of God. P. 97, note 4, supra.]283:1821
Boves Lucas. Elephants are said to have been so called, because they were first seen by the Romans in Lucania.284:1825
Some editions here add: “But what is the nature of this, it does not belong to the present subject to consider.”
Next: Chap. IV.—Of the weakness of man
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