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Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, Vol. II:
City of God: Chapter 31

Early Church Fathers  Index     

Chapter 31.—Concerning the Opinions of Varro, Who, While Reprobating the Popular Belief, Thought that Their Worship Should Be Confined to One God, Though He Was Unable to Discover the True God.

What says Varro himself, whom we grieve to have found, although not by his own judgment, placing the scenic plays among things divine?  When in many passages he is exhorting, like a religious man, to the worship of the gods, does he not in doing so admit that he does not in his own judgment believe those things which he relates that the Roman state has instituted; so that he does not hesitate to affirm that if he were founding a new state, he could enumerate the gods and their names better by the rule of nature?  But being born into a nation already ancient, he says that he finds himself bound to accept the traditional names and surnames of the gods, and the histories connected with them, and that his purpose in investigating and publishing these details is to incline the people to worship the gods, and not to despise them.  By which words this most acute man sufficiently indicates that he does not publish all things, because they would not only have been contemptible to himself, but would have seemed despicable even to the rabble, unless they had been passed over in silence.  I should be thought to conjecture these things, unless he himself, in another passage, had openly said, in speaking of religious rites, that many things are true which it is not only not useful for the common people to know, but that it is expedient that the people should think otherwise, even though falsely, and therefore the Greeks have shut up the religious ceremonies and mysteries in silence, and within walls.  In this he no doubt expresses the policy of the so-called wise men by whom states and peoples are ruled.  Yet by this crafty device the malign demons are wonderfully delighted, who possess alike the deceivers and the deceived, and from whose tyranny nothing sets free save the grace of God through Jesus Christ our Lord.

The same most acute and learned author also says, that those alone seem to him to have perceived what God is, who have believed Him to be the soul of the world, governing it by design and reason. 186   And by this, it appears, that although he did not attain to the truth,—for the true God is not a soul, but the maker and author of the soul,—yet if he could have been free to go against the prejudices of custom, he could have confessed and counselled others that the one God ought to be worshipped, who governs the world by design and reason; so that on this subject only this point would remain to be debated with him, that he had called Him a soul, and not rather the creator of the soul.  He says, also, that the ancient Romans, for more than a hundred and seventy years, worshipped the gods without an image. 187   “And if this custom,” he says, “could have remained till now, the gods would have been more purely worshipped.”  In favor of this opinion, he cites as a witness among others the Jewish nation; nor does he hesitate to conclude that passage by saying of those who first consecrated images for the people, that they have both taken away religious fear from their fellow-citizens, and increased error, wisely thinking that the gods easily fall into contempt when exhibited under the stolidity of images.  But as he does not say they have transmitted error, but that they have increased it, he therefore wishes it to be understood that there was error already when there were no images.  Wherefore, when he says they alone have perceived what God is who have believed Him to be the governing soul of the world, and thinks that the rites of religion would have been more purely observed without images, who fails to see how near he has come to the truth?  For if he had been able to do anything against so inveterate an error, he would certainly have given it as his opinion both that the one God should be worshipped, and that He should be worshipped p. 82 without an image; and having so nearly discovered the truth, perhaps he might easily have been put in mind of the mutability of the soul, and might thus have perceived that the true God is that immutable nature which made the soul itself.  Since these things are so, whatever ridicule such men have poured in their writings against the plurality of the gods, they have done so rather as compelled by the secret will of God to confess them, than as trying to persuade others.  If, therefore, any testimonies are adduced by us from these writings, they are adduced for the confutation of those who are unwilling to consider from how great and malignant a power of the demons the singular sacrifice of the shedding of the most holy blood, and the gift of the imparted Spirit, can set us free.



See Cicero, De Nat. Deor. i. 2.


Plutarch’s Numa, c. 8.

Next: Chapter 32

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