Nicene and Ante-Nicene Fathers, Ser. II, Vol. IV:Early Church Fathers Index Previous Next
Against the Heathen. (Contra Gentes.): Heathen arguments in palliation of the above: and (1) 'the poets are responsible for these unedifying tales.' But are the names and existence of the gods any better authenticated? Both stand or fall together. Either the actions must be defended or the deity of the gods given up. And the heroes are not credited with acts inconsistent with their nature, as, on this plea, the gods are.
§16. Heathen arguments in palliation of the above: and (1) the poets are responsible for these unedifying tales. But are the names and existence of the gods any better authenticated? Both stand or fall together. Either the actions must be defended or the deity of the gods given up. And the heroes are not credited with acts inconsistent with their nature, as, on this plea, the gods are.
But perhaps, as to all this, the impious will appeal to the peculiar style of poets, saying that it is the peculiarity of poets to feign what is not, and, for the pleasure of their hearers, to tell fictitious tales; and that for this reason they have composed the stories about gods. But this pretext of theirs, even more than any other, will appear to be superficial from what they themselves think and profess about these matters. 2. For if what is said in the poets is fictitious and false, even the nomenclature of Zeus, Cronos, Hera, Ares and the rest must be false. For perhaps, as they say, even the names are fictitious, and, while no such being exists as Zeus, Cronos, or Ares, the poets feign their existence to deceive their hearers. But if the poets feign the existence of unreal beings, how is it that they worship them as though they existed? 3. Or perhaps, once again, they will say that while the names are not fictitious, they ascribe to them fictitious actions. But even this is equally precarious as a defence. For if they made up the actions, doubtless also they made up the names, to which they attributed the actions. Or if they tell the truth about the names, it follows that they tell the truth about the actions too. In particular, they who have said in their tales that these are gods certainly know how gods ought to act, and would never ascribe to gods the ideas of men, any more than one would ascribe to water the properties of fire; for fire burns, whereas the nature of water on the contrary is cold. 4. If then the actions are worthy of gods, they that do them must be gods; but if they are actions of men, and of disreputable men, such as adultery and the acts mentioned above, they that act in such ways must be men and not gods. For their deeds must correspond to their natures, so that at once the actor may be made known by his act, and the action may be ascertainable from his nature. So that just as a man discussing about water and fire, and declaring their action, would not say that water burned and fire cooled, nor, if a man were discoursing about the sun and the earth, would he say the earth gave light, while the sun was sown with herbs and fruits, but if he were to say so would exceed the utmost height of madness, so neither would their writers, and especially the most eminent p. 13 poet of all, if they really knew that Zeus and the others were gods, invest them with such actions as shew them to be not gods, but rather men, and not sober men. 5. Or if, as poets, they told falsehoods, and you are maligning them, why did they not also tell falsehoods about the courage of the heroes, and feign feebleness in the place of courage, and courage in that of feebleness? For they ought in that case, as with Zeus and Hera, so also to slanderously accuse Achilles of want of courage, and to celebrate the might of Thersites, and, while charging Odysseus with dulness, to make out Nestor a reckless person, and to narrate effeminate actions of Diomed and Hector, and manly deeds of Hecuba. For the fiction and falsehood they ascribe to the poets ought to extend to all cases. But in fact, they kept the truth for their men, while not ashamed to tell falsehoods about their so-called gods. 6. And as some of them might argue, that they are telling falsehoods about their licentious actions, but that in their praises, when they speak of Zeus as father of gods, and as the highest, and the Olympian, and as reigning in heaven, they are not inventing but speaking truthfully; this is a plea which not only myself, but anybody can refute. For the truth will be clear, in opposition to them, if we recall our previous proofs. For while their actions prove them to be men, the panegyrics upon them go beyond the nature of men. The two things then are mutually inconsistent; for neither is it the nature of heavenly beings to act in such ways, nor can any one suppose that persons so acting are gods.
Next: The truth probably is, that the scandalous tales are true, while the divine attributes ascribed to them are due to the flattery of the poets.
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