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Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, Vol. II:
City of God: Chapter 6

Early Church Fathers  Index     

Chapter 6.—Concerning the Mythic, that Is, the Fabulous, Theology, and the Civil, Against Varro.

O Marcus Varro! thou art the most acute, and without doubt the most learned, but still a man, not God,—now lifted up by the Spirit p. 114 of God to see and to announce divine things, thou seest, indeed, that divine things are to be separated from human trifles and lies, but thou fearest to offend those most corrupt opinions of the populace, and their customs in public superstitions, which thou thyself, when thou considerest them on all sides, perceivest, and all your literature loudly pronounces to be abhorrent from the nature of the gods, even of such gods as the frailty of the human mind supposes to exist in the elements of this world.  What can the most excellent human talent do here?  What can human learning, though manifold, avail thee in this perplexity?  Thou desirest to worship the natural gods; thou art compelled to worship the civil.  Thou hast found some of the gods to be fabulous, on whom thou vomitest forth very freely what thou thinkest, and, whether thou willest or not, thou wettest therewith even the civil gods.  Thou sayest, forsooth, that the fabulous are adapted to the theatre, the natural to the world, and the civil to the city; though the world is a divine work, but cities and theatres are the works of men, and though the gods who are laughed at in the theatre are not other than those who are adored in the temples; and ye do not exhibit games in honor of other gods than those to whom ye immolate victims.  How much more freely and more subtly wouldst thou have decided these hadst thou said that some gods are natural, others established by men; and concerning those who have been so established, the literature of the poets gives one account, and that of the priests another,—both of which are, nevertheless, so friendly the one to the other, through fellowship in falsehood, that they are both pleasing to the demons, to whom the doctrine of the truth is hostile.

That theology, therefore, which they call natural, being put aside for a moment, as it is afterwards to be discussed, we ask if any one is really content to seek a hope for eternal life from poetical, theatrical, scenic gods?  Perish the thought!  The true God avert so wild and sacrilegious a madness!  What, is eternal life to be asked from those gods whom these things pleased, and whom these things propitiate, in which their own crimes are represented?  No one, as I think, has arrived at such a pitch of headlong and furious impiety.  So then, neither by the fabulous nor by the civil theology does any one obtain eternal life.  For the one sows base things concerning the gods by feigning them, the other reaps by cherishing them; the one scatters lies, the other gathers them together; the one pursues divine things with false crimes, the other incorporates among divine things the plays which are made up of these crimes; the one sounds abroad in human songs impious fictions concerning the gods, the other consecrates these for the festivities of the gods themselves; the one sings the misdeeds and crimes of the gods, the other loves them; the one gives forth or feigns, the other either attests the true or delights in the false.  Both are base; both are damnable.  But the one which is theatrical teaches public abomination, and that one which is of the city adorns itself with that abomination.  Shall eternal life be hoped for from these, by which this short and temporal life is polluted?  Does the society of wicked men pollute our life if they insinuate themselves into our affections, and win our assent? and does not the society of demons pollute the life, who are worshipped with their own crimes?—if with true crimes, how wicked the demons! if with false, how wicked the worship!

When we say these things, it may perchance seem to some one who is very ignorant of these matters that only those things concerning the gods which are sung in the songs of the poets and acted on the stage are unworthy of the divine majesty, and ridiculous, and too detestable to be celebrated, whilst those sacred things which not stage-players but priests perform are pure and free from all unseemliness.  Had this been so, never would any one have thought that these theatrical abominations should be celebrated in their honor, never would the gods themselves have ordered them to be performed to them.  But men are in nowise ashamed to perform these things in the theatres, because similar things are carried on in the temples.  In short, when the fore-mentioned author attempted to distinguish the civil theology from the fabulous and natural, as a sort of third and distinct kind, he wished it to be understood to be rather tempered by both than separated from either.  For he says that those things which the poets write are less than the people ought to follow, whilst what the philosophers say is more than it is expedient for the people to pry into.  “Which,” says he, “differ in such a way, that nevertheless not a few things from both of them have been taken to the account of the civil theology; wherefore we will indicate what the civil theology has in common with that of the poet, though it ought to be more closely connected with the theology of philosophers.”  Civil theology is therefore not quite disconnected from that of the poets.  Nevertheless, in another place, concerning the generations of the gods, he says that the people are more inclined toward p. 115 the poets than toward the physical theologists.  For in this place he said what ought to be done; in that other place, what was really done.  He said that the latter had written for the sake of utility, but the poets for the sake of amusement.  And hence the things from the poets’ writings, which the people ought not to follow, are the crimes of the gods; which, nevertheless, amuse both the people and the gods.  For, for amusement’s sake, he says, the poets write, and not for that of utility; nevertheless they write such things as the gods will desire, and the people perform.

Next: Chapter 7

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