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City of God: Chapter 24
Chapter 24.—How Hermes Openly Confessed the Error of His Forefathers, the Coming Destruction of Which He Nevertheless Bewailed.
After a long interval, Hermes again comes back to the subject of the gods which men have made, saying as follows: “But enough on this subject. Let us return to man and to reason, that divine gift on account of which man has been called a rational animal. For the things which have been said concerning man, wonderful though they are, are less wonderful than those which have been said concerning reason. For man to discover the divine nature, and to make it, surpasses the wonder of all other wonderful things. Because, therefore, our forefathers erred very far with respect to the knowledge of the gods, through incredulity and through want of attention to their worship and service, they invented this art of making gods; and this art once invented, they associated with it a suitable virtue borrowed from universal nature, and being incapable of making souls, they evoked those of demons or of angels, and united them with these holy images and divine mysteries, in order that through these souls the images might have power to do good or harm to men.” I know not whether the demons themselves could have been made, even by adjuration, to confess as he has confessed in these words: “Because our forefathers erred very far with respect to the knowledge of the gods, through incredulity and through want of attention to their worship and service, they invented the art of making gods.” Does he say that it was a moderate degree of error which resulted in their discovery of the art of making gods, or was he content to say “they erred?” No; he must needs add “very far,” and say, “They erred very far.” It was this great error and incredulity, then, of their forefathers who did not attend to the worship and service of the gods, which was the origin of the art of making gods. And yet this wise man grieves over the ruin of this art at some future time, as if it were a divine religion. Is he not verily compelled by divine influence, on the one hand, to reveal the past error of his forefathers, and by a diabolical influence, on the other hand, to bewail the future punishment of demons? For if their forefathers, by erring very far with respect to the knowledge of the gods, through incredulity and aversion of mind from their worship and service, invented the art of making gods, what wonder is it that all that is done by this detestable art, which is opposed to the divine religion, should be taken away by that religion, when truth corrects error, faith refutes incredulity, and conversion rectifies aversion?
For if he had only said, without mentioning the cause, that his forefathers had discovered the art of making gods, it would have been our duty, if we paid any regard to what is right and pious, to consider and to see that they could never have attained to this art if they had not erred from the truth, if they had believed those things which are worthy of God, if they had attended to divine worship and service. However, if we alone should say that the causes of this art were to be found in the great error and incredulity of men, and aversion of the mind erring from and unfaithful to divine religion, the impudence of those who resist the truth were in some way to be borne with; but when he who admires in man, above all other things, this power which it has been granted him to practise, and sorrows because a time is coming when all those figments of gods invented by men shall even be commanded by the laws to be taken away,—when even this man confesses nevertheless, and explains the causes which led to the discovery of this art, saying that their ancestors, through great error and incredulity, and through not attending to the worship and service of the gods, invented this art of making gods,—what ought we to say, or rather to do, but to give to the Lord our God all the thanks we are able, because He has taken p. 162 away those things by causes the contrary of those which led to their institution? For that which the prevalence of error instituted, the way of truth took away; that which incredulity instituted, faith took away; that which aversion from divine worship and service instituted, conversion to the one true and holy God took away. Nor was this the case only in Egypt, for which country alone the spirit of the demons lamented in Hermes, but in all the earth, which sings to the Lord a new song, 327 as the truly holy and truly prophetic Scriptures have predicted, in which it is written, “Sing unto the Lord a new song; sing unto the Lord, all the earth.” For the title of this psalm is, “When the house was built after the captivity.” For a house is being built to the Lord in all the earth, even the city of God, which is the holy Church, after that captivity in which demons held captive those men who, through faith in God, became living stones in the house. For although man made gods, it did not follow that he who made them was not held captive by them, when, by worshipping them, he was drawn into fellowship with them,—into the fellowship not of stolid idols, but of cunning demons; for what are idols but what they are represented to be in the same scriptures, “They have eyes, but they do not see,” 328 and, though artistically fashioned, are still without life and sensation? But unclean spirits, associated through that wicked art with these same idols, have miserably taken captive the souls of their worshippers, by bringing them down into fellowship with themselves. Whence the apostle says, “We know that an idol is nothing, but those things which the Gentiles sacrifice they sacrifice to demons, and not to God; and I would not ye should have fellowship with demons.” 329 After this captivity, therefore, in which men were held by malign demons, the house of God is being built in all the earth; whence the title of that psalm in which it is said, “Sing unto the Lord a new song; sing unto the Lord, all the earth. Sing unto the Lord, bless His name; declare well His salvation from day to day. Declare His glory among the nations, among all people His wonderful things. For great is the Lord, and much to be praised: He is terrible above all gods. For all the gods of the nations are demons: but the Lord made the heavens.” 330
Wherefore he who sorrowed because a time was coming when the worship of idols should be abolished, and the domination of the demons over those who worshipped them, wished, under the influence of a demon, that that captivity should always continue, at the cessation of which that psalm celebrates the building of the house of the Lord in all the earth. Hermes foretold these things with grief, the prophet with joyfulness; and because the Spirit is victorious who sang these things through the ancient prophets, even Hermes himself was compelled in a wonderful manner to confess, that those very things which he wished not to be removed, and at the prospect of whose removal he was sorrowful, had been instituted, not by prudent, faithful, and religious, but by erring and unbelieving men, averse to the worship and service of the gods. And although he calls them gods, nevertheless, when he says that they were made by such men as we certainly ought not to be, he shows, whether he will or not, that they are not to be worshipped by those who do not resemble these image-makers, that is, by prudent, faithful, and religious men, at the same time also making it manifest that the very men who made them involved themselves in the worship of those as gods who were not gods. For true is the saying of the prophet, “If a man make gods, lo, they are no gods.” 331 Such gods, therefore, acknowledged by such worshippers and made by such men, did Hermes call “gods made by men,” that is to say, demons, through some art of I know not what description, bound by the chains of their own lusts to images. But, nevertheless, he did not agree with that opinion of the Platonic Apuleius, of which we have already shown the incongruity and absurdity, namely, that they were interpreters and intercessors between the gods whom God made, and men whom the same God made, bringing to God the prayers of men, and from God the gifts given in answer to these prayers. For it is exceedingly stupid to believe that gods whom men have made have more influence with gods whom God has made than men themselves have, whom the very same God has made. And consider, too, that it is a demon which, bound by a man to an image by means of an impious art, has been made a god, but a god to such a man only, not to every man. What kind of god, therefore, is that which no man would make but one erring, incredulous, and averse to the true God? Moreover, if the demons which are worshipped in the temples, being introduced by some kind of strange art into images, that is, into visible representations of themselves, by those men who by this art made gods when they were straying away from, and were averse to the worship and service of the gods,—if, I say, those demons p. 163 are neither mediators nor interpreters between men and the gods, both on account of their own most wicked and base manners, and because men, though erring, incredulous, and averse from the worship and service of the gods, are nevertheless beyond doubt better than the demons whom they themselves have evoked, then it remains to be affirmed that what power they possess they possess as demons, doing harm by bestowing pretended benefits,—harm all the greater for the deception,—or else openly and undisguisedly doing evil to men. They cannot, however, do anything of this kind unless where they are permitted by the deep and secret providence of God, and then only so far as they are permitted. When, however, they are permitted, it is not because they, being midway between men and the gods, have through the friendship of the gods great power over men; for these demons cannot possibly be friends to the good gods who dwell in the holy and heavenly habitation, by whom we mean holy angels and rational creatures, whether thrones, or dominations, or principalities, or powers, from whom they are as far separated in disposition and character as vice is distant from virtue, wickedness from goodness.
Ps. 115.5, etc.162:329
1 Cor. 10:19, 20.162:330
Next: Chapter 25
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