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Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, Vol. IV:
Writings in Connection with the Donatist Controversy.: Chapter 21

Early Church Fathers  Index     

Chapter 21.—24.  But see, when he is reduced to straits in the argument, he again makes an attack on me full of mist and wind, that the calm clearness of the truth may be obscured; and through the extremity of his want he becomes full of resources, shown not in saying what is true, but in unbought empty revilings.  Hold fast, with the keenest attention and utmost perseverance, what he ought to answer,—that is, where means may be found for cleansing the conscience of the recipient when the stains in that of the giver are concealed,—lest possibly the blast of his p. 606 eloquence should wrest this from your hands, and you in turn should be carried away by the dark tempest of his turgid discourse, so as wholly to fail in seeing whence he has digressed, and to what point he should return; and see where the man can wander, whilst he cannot stand in the matter which he has undertaken.  For see how much he says, through having nothing that he ought to say.  He says "that I slide in slippery places, but am held up; that I neither destroy nor confirm the objections that I make; that I devise uncertain things in the place of certainty; that I do not permit my readers to believe what is true, but cause them to look with increased suspicion on what is doubtful."  He says "that I have the accursed talents of the Academic philosopher Carneades." 2374   He endeavors to insinuate what the Academics think of the falseness or the falsehood of human sensation, showing in this also that he is wholly without knowledge of what he says.  He declares that "it is said by them that snow is black, whereas it is white; and that silver is black; and that a tower is round, or free from projections, when it is really angular; that an oar is broken in the water, while it is whole." 2375   And all this because, when he had said that "the conscience of him that gives," or "of him that gives in holiness, is what we look for to cleanse the conscience of the recipient," I said in reply, What if the conscience of the giver be hidden from sight, and possibly be stained with guilt?  Here you have his black snow, and black silver, and his tower round instead of angular, and the oar in the water broken while yet whole, in that I suggested a state of the case which might be conceived, and could not really exist, that the conscience of the giver might be hidden from view, and possibly might be stained with guilt!

25.  Then he continues in the same strain, and cries out:  "What is that what if? what is that possibly? except the uncertain and wavering hesitation of one who doubts, of whom your poet says’—

‘What if I now return to those who say, What if the sky should fall?’" 2376

Does he mean that when I said, What if the conscience of the giver be hidden from sight, and possibly be stained with guilt? that it is much the same as if I had said, What if the sky should fall?  There certainly is the phrase What if, because it is possible that it may be hidden from view, and it is possible that it may not.  For when it is not known what the giver is thinking of, or what crime he has committed, then his conscience is certainly hidden from the view of the recipient; but when his sin is plainly manifest, then it is not hidden.  I used the expression, And possibly may be stained with guilt, because it is possible that it may be hidden from view and yet be pure; and again, it is possible that it may be hidden from view and be stained with guilt.  This is the meaning of the What if; this the meaning of the Possibly.  Is this at all like "What if the sky should fall?"  O how often have men been convicted, how often have they confessed themselves that they had consciences stained with guilt and adultery, whilst men were unwittingly baptized by them after they were degraded by the sin subsequently brought to light, and yet the sky did not fall!  What have we here to do with Pilus and Furius, 2377 who defended the cause of injustice against justice?  What have we here to do with the atheist Diagoras, 2378 who denied that there was any God, so that he would seem to be the man of whom the prophet spoke beforehand, "The fool hath said in his heart there is no God?" 2379   What have we here to do with these?  Why were their names brought in, except that they might make a diversion in favor of a man who had nothing to say? that while he is at any rate saying something, though needlessly, about these, the matter in hand may seem to be progressing, and an answer may be supposed to be made to a question which remains without an answer?


Footnotes

606:2374

Lactantius, Divin. Instit. Book V. c. xv., tells us of the talents of Carneades, recording that when he was sent on an embassy to Rome by the Athenians, he spoke there first in defense of justice, and then on the following day in opposition to it; and that he was in the habit of speaking with such force on either side, as to be able to refute any arguments advanced by anybody else.

606:2375

Ter. Heaut. act. IV. scen. iii. vers. 41.

606:2376

Ter. Heaut. act. IV. scen. iii. vers. 41.

606:2377

In de Civ. Dei, Book II. c. xxi., Augustin mentions L. Furius Philus, one of the interlocutors in Cicero’s Laelius, as maintaining this same view.  From the similarity of the name, it has been thought that here Furius and Pilus are only one man.

606:2378

The Mss. here and below have Protagoras.  Both were atheists, according to Cicero, Nat. Deor. I. i. 2, and Lactantius Divin. Instit. I. c. ii.; de Ira Dei, c. ix.

606:2379

Ps. xiv. 1.


Next: Chapter 22

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