Nicene and Post Nicene-Fathers, Vol. I:Early Church Fathers Index Previous Next
The Confessions: Chapter XVI
Chapter XVI.—The Fear of Death and Judgment Called Him, Believing in the Immortality of the Soul, Back from His Wickedness, Him Who Aforetime Believed in the Opinions of Epicurus.
26. Unto Thee be praise, unto Thee be glory, O Fountain of mercies! I became more wretched, and Thou nearer. Thy right hand was ever ready to pluck me out of the mire, and to cleanse me, but I was ignorant of it. Nor did anything recall me from a yet deeper abyss of carnal pleasures, but the fear of death and of Thy future judgment, which, amid all my fluctuations of opinion, never left my breast. And in disputing with my friends, Alypius and Nebridius, concerning the nature of good and evil, I held that Epicurus had, in my judgment, won the palm, had I not believed that after death there remained a life for the soul, and places of recompense, which Epicurus would not believe. 479 And I demanded, “Supposing us to be immortal, and to be living in the enjoyment of perpetual bodily pleasure, and that without any fear of losing it, why, then, should we not be happy, or why should we search for anything else?”—not knowing that even this very thing was a part of my great misery, that, being thus sunk and blinded, I could not discern that light p. 101 of honour and beauty to be embraced for its own sake, 480 which cannot be seen by the eye of the flesh, it being visible only to the inner man. Nor did I, unhappy one, consider out of what vein it emanated, that even these things, loathsome as they were, I with pleasure discussed with my friends. Nor could I, even in accordance with my then notions of happiness, make myself happy without friends, amid no matter how great abundance of carnal pleasures. And these friends assuredly I loved for their own sakes, and I knew myself to be loved of them again for my own sake. O crooked ways! Woe to the audacious soul which hoped that, if it forsook Thee, it would find some better thing! It hath turned and returned, on hack, sides, and belly, and all was hard, 481 and Thou alone rest. And behold, Thou art near, and deliverest us from our wretched wanderings, and stablishest us in Thy way, and dost comfort us, and say, “Run; I will carry you, yea, I will lead you, and there also will I carry you.”
The ethics of Epicurus were a modified Hedonism (Diog. Laërt. De Vitis, etc., x. 123). With him the earth was a congeries of atoms (ibid. 38, 40), which atoms existed from eternity, and formed themselves, uninfluenced by the gods. The soul he held to be material. It was diffused through the body, and was in its nature somewhat like air. At death it was resolved into its original atoms, when the being ceased to exist (ibid. 63, 64). Hence death was a matter of indifference to man [ὁ θάνατος οὐδὲν πρὸς ἡμᾶς, ibid. 124, etc.]. In that great upheaval after the scholasticism of the Middle Ages, the various ancient philosophies were revived. This of Epicurus was disentombed and, as it were, vitalized by Gassendi, in the beginning of the seventeenth century; and it has a special importance from its bearing on the physical theories and investigations of modern times. Archer Butler, adverting to the inadequacy of the chief philosophical schools to satisfy the wants of the age in the early days of the planting of Christianity (Lectures on Ancient Philosophy, ii. 333), says of the Epicurean: “Its popularity was unquestioned; its adaptation to a luxurious age could not be doubted. But it was not formed to satisfy the wants of the time, however it might minister to its pleasures. It was, indeed, as it still continues to be, the tacit philosophy of the careless, and might thus number a larger army of disciples than any contemporary system. But its supremacy existed only when it estimated numbers, it ceased when tried by weight. The eminent men of Rome were often its avowed favourers; but they were for the most part men eminent in arms and statesmanship, rather than the influential directors of the world of speculation. Nor could the admirable poetic art of Lucretius, or the still more attractive ease of Horace, confer such strength or dignity upon the system as to enable it to compete with the new and mysterious elements now upon all sides gathering into conflict.”101:480
See viii. sec. 17, note, below.101:481
See above, iv. cc. 1, 10, and 12.
Next: Book VII
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