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Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, Vol. II:
City of God: Chapter 14

Early Church Fathers  Index     

Chapter 14.—That Plato, Who Excluded Poets from a Well-Ordered City, Was Better Than These Gods Who Desire to Be Honoured by Theatrical Plays.

We have still to inquire why the poets who write the plays, and who by the law of the twelve tables are prohibited from injuring the good name of the citizens, are reckoned more estimable than the actors, though they so shamefully asperse the character of the gods?  Is it right that the actors of these poetical and God-dishonoring effusions be branded, while their authors are honored?  Must we not here award the palm to a Greek, Plato, who, in framing his ideal republic, 105 conceived that poets should be banished from the city as enemies of the state?  He could not brook that the gods be brought into disrepute, nor that the minds of the citizens be depraved and besotted, by the fictions of the poets.  Compare now human nature as you see it in Plato, expelling poets from the city that the citizens be uninjured, with the divine nature as you see it in these gods exacting plays in their own honor.  Plato strove, though unsuccessfully, to persuade the light-minded and lascivious Greeks to abstain from so much as writing such plays; the gods used their authority to extort the acting of the same from the dignified and sober-minded Romans.  And not content with having them acted, they had them dedicated to themselves, consecrated to themselves, solemnly celebrated in their own honor.  To which, then, would it be more becoming in a state to decree divine honors,—to Plato, who prohibited these wicked and licentious plays, or to the demons who delighted in blinding men to the truth of what Plato unsuccessfully sought to inculcate?

This philosopher, Plato, has been elevated by Labeo to the rank of a demigod, and set thus upon a level with such as Hercules and Romulus.  Labeo ranks demigods higher than heroes, but both he counts among the deities.  But I have no doubt that he thinks this man whom he reckons a demigod worthy of greater respect not only than the heroes, but also than the gods themselves.  The laws of the Romans and the speculations of Plato have this resemblance, that the latter pronounce a wholesale condemnation of poetical fictions, while the former restrain the license of satire, at least so far as men are the objects of it.  Plato will not suffer poets even to dwell in his city:  the laws of Rome prohibit actors from being enrolled as citizens; and if they had not feared to offend the gods who had asked the services of the players, they would in all likelihood have banished them altogether.  It is obvious, therefore, that the Romans could not receive, nor reasonably expect to receive, laws for the regulation of their conduct from their gods, since the laws they themselves enacted far surpassed and put to shame the morality of the gods.  The gods demand stageplays in their own honor; the Romans exclude the players from all civic honors; 106 the former commanded that they should be celebrated by the scenic representation of their own disgrace; the latter commanded that no poet should dare to blemish the reputation of any citizen.  But that demigod Plato resisted the lust of such gods as these, and showed the Romans what their genius had left incomplete; for he absolutely excluded poets from his ideal state, whether they composed fictions with no regard to truth, or set the worst possible examples before wretched men under the guise of divine actions.  We for our part, indeed, reckon Plato neither a god nor a p. 31 demigod; we would not even compare him to any of God’s holy angels; nor to the truth-speaking prophets, nor to any of the apostles or martyrs of Christ, nay, not to any faithful Christian man.  The reason of this opinion of ours we will, God prospering us, render in its own place.  Nevertheless, since they wish him to be considered a demigod, we think he certainly is more entitled to that rank, and is every way superior, if not to Hercules and Romulus (though no historian could ever narrate nor any poet sing of him that he had killed his brother, or committed any crime), yet certainly to Priapus, or a Cynocephalus, 107 or the Fever, 108 —divinities whom the Romans have partly received from foreigners, and partly consecrated by home-grown rites.  How, then, could gods such as these be expected to promulgate good and wholesome laws, either for the prevention of moral and social evils, or for their eradication where they had already sprung up?—gods who used their influence even to sow and cherish profligacy, by appointing that deeds truly or falsely ascribed to them should be published to the people by means of theatrical exhibitions, and by thus gratuitously fanning the flame of human lust with the breath of a seemingly divine approbation.  In vain does Cicero, speaking of poets, exclaim against this state of things in these words:  “When the plaudits and acclamation of the people, who sit as infallible judges, are won by the poets, what darkness benights the mind, what fears invade, what passions inflame it!” 109


Footnotes

30:105

See the Republic, book iii.

30:106

Comp. Tertullian, De Spectac. c. 22.

31:107

The Egyptian gods represented with dogs’ heads, called by Lucan (viii. 832) semicanes deos.

31:108

The Fever had, according to Vives, three altars in Rome.  See Cicero, De Nat. Deor. iii. 25, and Ælian, Var. Hist. xii. 11.

31:109

Cicero, De Republica, v.  Compare the third Tusculan Quæst. c. ii.


Next: Chapter 15

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