Ante-Nicene Fathers, Vol VII:Early Church Fathers Index Previous Next
Lactantius: Chap. V.—Of the testimonies of poets and philosophers
Chap. V.—Of the testimonies of poets and philosophers.
But let us leave the testimony of prophets, lest a proof derived from those who are universally disbelieved should appear insufficient. Let us come to authors, and for the demonstration of the truth let us cite as witnesses those very persons whom they are accustomed to make use of against us,—I mean poets and philosophers. From these we cannot fail in proving the unity of God; not that they had ascertained the truth, but that the force of the truth itself is so great, that no one can be so blind as not to see the divine brightness presenting itself to his eyes. The poets, therefore, however much they adorned the gods in their poems, and amplified their exploits with the highest praises, yet very frequently confess that all things are held together and governed by one spirit or mind. Orpheus, who is the most ancient of the poets, and coeval with the gods themselves,—since it is reported that he sailed among the Argonauts together with the sons of Tyndarus and Hercules,—speaks of the true and great God as the first-born, 29 because nothing was produced before Him, but all things sprung from Him. He also calls Him Phanes 30 because when as yet there was nothing He first appeared and came forth from the infinite. And since he was unable to conceive in his mind the origin and nature of this Being, he said that He was born from the boundless air: “The first-born, Phaethon, son of the extended air;” for he had nothing more to say. He affirms that this Being is the Parent of all the gods, on whose account He framed the heaven, and provided for His children that they might have a habitation and place of abode in common: “He built for immortals an imperishable home.” Thus, under the guidance of nature and reason, he understood that there was a power of surpassing p. 14 greatness which framed heaven and earth. For he could not say that Jupiter was the author of all things, since he was born from Saturn; nor could he say that Saturn himself was their author, since it was reported that he was produced from the heaven; but he did not venture to set up the heaven as the primeval god, because he saw that it was an element of the universe, and must itself have had an author. This consideration led him to that first-born god, to whom he assigns and gives the first place.
Homer was able to give us no information relating to the truth, for he wrote of human rather than divine things. Hesiod was able, for he comprised in the work of one book the generation of the gods; but yet he gave us no information, for he took his commencement not from God the Creator, but from chaos, which is a confused mass of rude and unarranged matter; whereas he ought first to have explained from what source, at what time, and in what manner, chaos itself had begun to exist or to have consistency. Without doubt, as all things were placed in order, arranged, and made by some artificer, so matter itself must of necessity have been formed by some being. Who, then, made it except God, to whose power all things are subject? But he shrinks from admitting this, while he dreads the unknown truth. For, as he wished it to appear, it was by the inspiration of the Muses that he poured forth that song on Helicon; but he had come after previous meditation and preparation.
Maro was the first of our poets to approach the truth, who thus speaks respecting the highest God, whom he calls Mind and Spirit: 31 —“Know first, the heaven, the earth, the main,
The moons pale orb, the starry train,
Are nourished by a Soul,
A Spirit, whose celestial flame
Glows in each member of the frame,
And stirs the mighty whole.”
And lest any one should happen to be ignorant what that Spirit was which had so much power, he has declared it in another place, saying: 32 “For the Deity pervades all lands, the tracts of sea and depth of heaven; the flocks, the herds, and men, and all the race of beasts, each at its birth, derive their slender lives from Him.”
Ovid also, in the beginning of his remarkable work, without any disguising of the name, admits that the universe was arranged by God, whom he calls the Framer of the world, the Artificer of all things. 33 But if either Orpheus or these poets of our country had always maintained what they perceived under the guidance of nature, they would have comprehended the truth, and gained the same learning which we follow. 34
But thus far of the poets. Let us come to the philosophers, whose authority is of greater weight, and their judgment more to be relied on, because they are believed to have paid attention, not to matters of fiction, but to the investigation of the truth. Thales of Miletus, who was one of the number of the seven wise men, and who is said to have been the first of all to inquire respecting natural causes, said that water was the element from which all things were produced, and that God was the mind which formed all things from water. Thus he placed the material of all things in moisture; he fixed the beginning and cause of their production in God. Pythagoras thus defined the being of God, “as a soul passing to and fro, and diffused through all parts of the universe, and through all nature, from which all living creatures which are produced derive their life.” Anaxagoras said that God was an infinite mind, which moves by its own power. Antisthenes maintained that the gods of the people were many, but that the God of nature was one only; that is, the Fabricator of the whole universe. Cleanthes and Anaximenes assert that the air is the chief deity; and to this opinion our poet has assented: 35 “Then almighty father Æther descends in fertile showers into the bosom of his joyous spouse; and great himself, mingling with her great body, nourishes all her offspring.” Chrysippus speaks of God as a natural power endowed with divine reason, and sometimes as a divine necessity. Zeno also speaks of Him as a divine and natural law. The opinion of all these, however uncertain it is, has reference to one point,—to their agreement in the existence of one providence. For whether it be nature, or æther, or reason, or mind, or a fatal necessity, or a divine law, or if you term it anything else, it is the same which is called by us God. Nor does the diversity of titles prove an obstacle, since by their very signification they all refer to one object. Aristotle, although he is at variance with himself, and both utters and holds sentiments opposed to one another, yet upon the whole bears witness that one Mind presides over the universe. Plato, who is judged the wisest of all, plainly and openly maintains the rule of one God; nor does he name Him Æther, or Reason, or Nature, but, as He truly is, God, and that this universe, so perfect and wonderful, was fabricated by Him. And Cicero, following and imitating him in many instances, frequently acknowledges God, and calls Him supreme, in those books which he wrote on the p. 15 subject of laws; and he adduces proof that the universe is governed by Him, when he argues respecting the nature of the gods in this way: “Nothing is superior to God: the world must therefore be governed by Him. Therefore God is obedient or subject to no nature; consequently He Himself governs all nature.” But what God Himself is he defines in his Consolation: 36 “Nor can God Himself, as He is comprehended by us, be comprehended in any other way than as a mind free and unrestrained, far removed from all mortal materiality, perceiving and moving all things.”
How often, also, does Annæus Seneca, who was the keenest Stoic of the Romans, follow up with deserved praise the supreme Deity! For when he was discussing the subject of premature death, he said “You do not understand the authority and majesty of your Judge, the Ruler of the world, and the God of heaven and of all gods, on whom those deities which we separately worship and honour are dependent.” Also in his Exhortations: “This Being, when He was laying the first foundations of the most beautiful fabric, and was commencing this work, than which nature has known nothing greater or better, that all things might serve their own rulers, although He had spread Himself out through the whole body, yet He produced gods as ministers of His kingdom.” And how many other things like to our own writers did he speak on the subject of God! But these things I put off for the present, because they are more suited to other parts of the subject. At present it is enough to demonstrate that men of the highest genius touched upon the truth, and almost grasped it, had not custom, infatuated by false opinions, carried them back; by which custom they both deemed that there were other gods, and believed that those things which God made for the use of man, as though they were endowed with perception, were to be held and worshipped as gods.
φάνητα, the appearer.14:31
Æn., vi. 724.14:32
Georg., iv. 221. [These passages seem borrowed from the Octavius of Minucius, cap. 19, vol. iv. p. 183.]14:33
[Fabricatorem mundi, rerum opificem.]14:34
[Concerning the Orphica, see vol. i. p. 178, note 1, and pp. 279, 290. For Sibyllina, Ibid., p. 169, note 9, and pp. 280–289. Note also vol. ii. p. 194, note 2, and T. Lewis, Plato cont. Ath., p. 99.]14:35
Virg., Georg., ii. 325–327.15:36
[See (Sigonius) p. 144, ed. Paris, 1818.]
Next: Chap. VI.—Of divine testimonies, and of the Sibyls and their predictions
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