Defenders of the Faith (Part 5): The Attack

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Editor’s note: The following comprises the fifth chapter of Defenders of the Faith: The Christian Apologists of the Second and Third Centuries, by the Rev. Frederick Watson. M.A. (published 1879).


The Attack

The Apologists were contending for toleration; that is a fact we must ever bear in mind. So their proper work was Defence, not Attack. But it was very difficult to defend themselves without attacking the heathen. Being Christians, their object was to subvert all the religions of the world, and put Christianity in their place. Christianity claimed to be The Religion for the world. Its God was the only true God. All other religions were false; their gods were evil spirits, or mere men, or powers of nature, or senseless wood and stone.

Doubtless it would have been more politic for those who were asking for permission merely to exist, to have abstained from carrying the war into the enemy’s country. But the Apologists would not, or could not, do this. Attack they must and would. Thus doing, they showed the heathen the intolerant nature of Christianity. At first, the idea of a universal religion was regarded with contempt. Its accomplishment was considered to be beyond all possibility. Later on, the authorities realized their danger, but it was then too late. The Christians had become too powerful, and the battle was virtually won.

When the Apologists attacked the existing heathen religions, they had, so far as argument was concerned, an easy task. The work had been done for them already by the philosophers. The world had out grown the gods of its childhood. Men, or, at any rate, men of cultivated intellects, had ceased to deify brute force and strong passion. Philosophy had taught many that God was not a man, or like a man, in His nature and attributes. The heathen mythology had been examined, and its historical character utterly destroyed. The truth of the heathen religion was given up. It could not, it was confessed, be rationally defended. Popular discussion upon it was to be avoided, as inevitably tending to the overthrow of its influence on the people. Its overthrow was to be deprecated for many reasons. It would break the connection with the past. It would cause a revolution in the State. It would deprive the authorities of a most useful engine of government. It was much better to leave things as they were. It was much better to receive the teaching of antiquity, and to adore without inquiry. The maintenance of a false religion could do no harm. The overthrow of the religion of the State must produce the greatest calamities.

These sceptical opinions were not wholly confined to the learned few. They were popularized for the masses by the poets and actors. The poets were allowed to invent unseemly tales concerning the gods. Or rather invention was scarcely necessary ; they had only to put in an attractive form the disgraceful legends handed down from antiquity. To a still greater degree, the actors in their representations exposed the gods to popular ridicule. At the public games, in the presence of the Priests, the Flamens, the Augurs, and the Vestal Virgins, the gods, in whose honour all were assembled, were so depicted as to expose them to the contempt and abhorrence of all. ” May you have a daughter as wicked as she whom you have described,” said a spectator to an actor, after hearing the catalogue of Diana’s sins. The gods furnished a mark for the low wit and scurrilous jests of the comedians. And this suited the popular taste. When a good hit was made, the spectators, we are told, shouted and rose up, and the whole pit resounded with the clapping of hands and applause. Arnobius remarks that the gods were the only beings unprotected by the laws of libel. To whisper evil of a king was treason. To degrade a magistrate or insult a senator was a crime severely punished. To defame any one in a satirical poem was, by the laws of the Decemvirs, a punishable offence. Even severe affronts had their assigned penalties. Only the gods were unhonoured, contemptible, and vile. About them, and them alone, any one was at liberty to say what he would.

The Roman policy, and the course of events, had greatly helped to weaken the hold of religion on the minds of men. In ancient times the Romans had had a religion which, however defective, had served many useful purposes. It did not, as one has observed, make men saints, but it made them patriots. There are many noble examples of self-devotion in Roman history. At the command of the gods many died, not, indeed, for their religion, but for their country. The old Roman religion promoted simplicity and morality of life. It made men better citizens. It filled them with feelings of submission and reverence to the power above them, and beyond them, in whose hands they were. But in later times all this was changed. Conquered Greece enslaved its conqueror. Greek philosophy and Greek religion were introduced into Rome together. The Greek mythology was incorporated into the Roman religion and corrupted it. When the lives of the gods were so wicked, and the rites in which they were worshipped so impure, it could not fail but that religion and morality were altogether dissevered. At the same time Greek philosophy leavened Roman thought, and made it utterly sceptical. The idea of an overruling providence was lost. “If there are gods,” Ennius said, and the people applauded, “they do not concern themselves in the affairs of men.” Some of the wisest Romans saw the fearful danger to the State, and sought to avert it. The elder Cato, at the very commencement of the mischief, declared the Greeks to be the parents of every vice, and obtained the dismissal of the Grecian teachers. The mysteries of Bacchus and the Egyptian worship were, in the interest of morality, once and again expelled from Rome by the Senate. But all efforts were in vain. The corruption in morals and faith was too wide-spread. The old Roman religion was too simple and severe to compete with the new, attractive, and sensual worship. And so in the Apologetic period the state of things was this: — There was a religion which would not bear examination, and which taught immorality. It had gods in whom many did not, in any sense, believe; and whom none, whoever they were, could respect. Those who worshipped them did so from a base, and not an ennobling, fear. To them, sacrifice, but not reverence, was due. You might ask them to exercise their power for the vilest objects. If your prayers were unheard, you punished them by overturning their altars and dishonouring their images.

It was evidently not a difficult task for the Apologists to attack such a religion as this; indeed, before their attack was made, the defence on rational grounds had ceased. Nevertheless, though the heathen religion had ceased to have any moral influence on the habits of the people, though it had ceased in any sense to control thought, it still remained a mighty political engine not to be meddled with, and the force of superstition was never more strong. The man who did not believe in the existence of a god, believed in the influence of the stars, and dared not disregard omens. The people who made the gods a laughing-stock in the theatres, believed that life and prosperity were in their power. So the attack, though easy in one respect, was very dangerous in another. You might, if you pleased, like the philosophers, expose the folly of the religion of the gods, but you must not seek to overthrow the religion of the State and the religion of the people.

And now to notice certain points in the Apologetic attack; and first, the Polytheistic nature of the heathen religion.

The Apologists argue the absurdity of supposing that there can be more than one God existing from everlasting. To suppose there are many is to circumscribe the power of each. Division of Deity destroys the perfection of Deity; what belongs to the one god is wanting to the other; just as there is only room for one ruler in an empire, for one general in an army, and one master in a house, so there is only room for one God in the universe. The bees have one king, the flocks one leader, amongst the herds there is one ruler; so He who has ordered and who governs heaven and earth is One. Even the poets have announced “The One Father of gods and men.” The philosophers, though differing in the way they express the truth, teach the unity of the Divine Power, and Mind, and Providence. One of them tells us, “The gods of the people are many, but the God of nature is One.”

The second objection to the heathen religion is that it is a worship of things earthly and material. Some of the Apologists regard it as mere image-worship. Thus Theophilus, writing to Autolycus, says, he had assailed him with empty words, boasting of his gods of wood and stone, hammered and cast, carved and graven, which neither see nor hear, for they are idols, and so the works of men’s hands. So, also, the author of the Epistle to Diognetus, who asks, “Is not one of your gods a stone, similar to that on which we tread? Is not a second brass, in no way superior to ordinary vessels? Is not a third wood, already rotten? Is not a fifth iron, consumed by rust? Is not a sixth earthenware, like the commonest vessel? Did not the sculptor fashion one, the brazier a second, the silversmith a third, and the potter a fourth? Are they not all deaf, blind, with out life, destitute of feeling, incapable of motion, liable to rot? Do not ye mock and insult them far more than the Christians, when ye worship those made of stone and earthenware, without appointing any persons to guard them? But those made of silver and gold ye shut up by night, and appoint watchers to look after them by day, lest they be stolen.”

Arnobius, especially, is scathing in his sarcasm on this aspect of the heathen religion. Why is it, he asks, “O men, that you, of your own accord, cheat and deceive yourselves by voluntary blindness? These images which fill you with terror, and before whom you prostrate yourselves, were compacted, it maybe, of a harlot’s gauds or a woman’s ornaments, of camels’ bones or elephants’ teeth, of cooking-pots and little jars, of candlesticks and lamps, or of other less cleanly vessels; and having been melted down they were cast into these shapes, and came out the forms which you see, baked in potters’ furnaces, produced by anvils and hammers, filed down with files, divided with saws, cleft and hewn with axes, hollowed out by the turning of borers, and smoothed with planes. Is it not incredible folly to believe in, to kneel trembling before, a god which you yourself made with care, which is the product of the labour of your hands? Suppose some one were to place copper, silver, gold, etc., in the lump, or bits of broken statues before you, and were to bid you to slay victims and give divine honours to them, would you obey? You answer, No one is so stupid as to class material substances like these among the gods. What then! Do the fashioning and the working-up of the material, the receiving of the form of a man, give the power of deity and the rank of heavenly beings? Does fashioning, even, change copper into gold, or compel worthless earthenware to become silver? And yet you men, rational beings, sink down before pieces of baked earthenware; you adore plates of copper; you beg, from the teeth of elephants, good health, office, power, gain, good harvests, rich vintages. Would that you could only look at your gods from the inside, you would see that they were kept from falling to pieces by dovetails, and clamps, and brace-irons. You would see that lead is run into their hollows and joints to give them permanence. You would find faces without the back parts of the head, hands without arms, wood and stone mixed incongruously. But, after all, it is not necessary to look inside. Do you not see those images, whose feet and knees you grasp at prayer, falling into ruins from the dropping of rain, decaying and becoming rotten, blackened by the smoke of the sacrifices, eaten away with rust? Do you not see that newts, shrews, mice, and cockroaches, which shun the light, build their nests and live in the hollow part of these statues? that they gather carefully all kinds of filth and other things suited to their wants, hard and half-gnawed bread, bones laid up for a time of scarcity, rags, down, and paper, to make their nests soft, and keep their young warm? Do you not see sometimes over the face of an image cobwebs and treacherous nets spun by spiders to entrap imprudent flies? Do you not see the swallows flying within the temples, bedaubing the mouths, beard, eyes, noses of the deities with their excrement? Blush, and learn from dumb creatures that there is nothing divine in images, into which they do not fear or scruple to cast unclean things.

“But you say, These images are not themselves the gods, but the gods dwell in them as dedicated to their use. What! do the gods leave heaven to dwell in gypsum and earthenware? Why should they prefer these prisons to their starry seats? Are they obliged to be there, and always there? or have they free passage to go when and where they please? What more wretched beings than they, if hooks and leaden bonds hold them fast on their pedestals ? If, on the other hand, they can fly forth when they choose, it follows that the images at these times cease to be gods, and sacrifices should not be then offered to them. Before you sacrifice you ought to inquire whether the gods are at home. Then does each god dwell wholly in one image, or is he divided into parts and members? There are ten thousand images of Vulcan in the world: can he be at one time in all the ten thousand? This is utterly impossible, seeing he has the form of a man. The whole cannot exist with out its parts. If, again, the gods dwell in the images, why do you guard, protect, and keep them shut up under the strongest keys, iron bars, and bolts, guarded by a thousand men and a thousand women, lest some thief should by chance enter in? Why do not the gods avenge insults like that which Dionysius committed, when he despoiled Jupiter of his golden vestment and gave him one of wool instead, saying that gold was cold in winter and heavy in summer, whilst wool was fitted for both seasons? Why do they not deliver themselves when their shrines are destroyed by earth quake, and tempest, and fire, or robbed by their own priests from within, or thieves from without?

“The images are neither the deities themselves, nor the habitations of the deities, but merely the representations of the deities, was a third hypothesis. Pretty representations they are, was the reply. The wanton fancy of your artist has given forms to your gods at which even the sternest might laugh; and your celebrated courtezans have been models for your goddesses. Under any circumstances, how do you know your representations are correct? It may happen that in heaven one has a beard, who by you is represented with smooth cheeks; that another is advanced in years, to whom you give the appearance of a youth. At the very best you are giving your gods the forms of men. Have, then, the immortal gods the weaknesses and inconveniences inseparable from the bodies of men?

“What shall we say then?” says Arnobius, ” that the gods have a head modelled with perfect symmetry, bound fast by sinews to the back and breast, and that to allow the necessary bending of the neck, it is supported by combinations of vertebrae and by a bony foundation? But if we believe this to be true, it follows that they have ears also, pierced by crooked windings; rolling eyeballs overshadowed by the edges of the eyebrows; a nose, placed as a channel through which waste fluids and a current of air might easily pass; teeth to masticate food, of three kinds, and adapted to three services; hands to do their work, moving easily by means of joints, fingers, and flexible elbows; feet to support their bodies, regulate their steps, and prompt the first motions in walking. But if they bear these things which are seen, it is fitting that they should bear those also which the skin conceals under the framework of the ribs. You say, also, that they have not only bodies but that they have also sex.” “What shall we say then? that gods beget and are begotten? Who, however mean his capacity, does not know that the sexes have been ordained by the Creator to renew and maintain that which is fleeting and transient? Are, then, the gods mortal? If not, countless heavens will not be able to contain the multitude of their offspring.”

“Then again,” he asks, “if the gods have bodies, are these bodies marked by a difference in the contour of their forms? If so, some have big heads, prominent brows, broad brows, thick lips; others of them have long chins, moles, and high noses; these have dilated nostrils, these are snub-nosed; some are chubby from a swelling of their jaws or growth of their cheeks; some are dwarfed, others are tall or of middle size; some are lean, others sleek or fat; some have crisped and curled hair, others are shaven or with bald and smooth heads. Your workshops show and point out that our opinions are not false, inasmuch as, when you form and fashion gods, you represent some with long hair, others smooth and bare; as old, as youths, as boys, swarthy, grey-eyed, yellow, half-naked, bare, or, that cold may not annoy them, covered with flowing garments thrown over them.” “Is not this really degrading, most impious, and insulting, to attribute to the gods the features of a frail and perishing animal?”

“But you say, perhaps, that you have given the gods the appearance of men merely to do them honour, and that they have, indeed, other forms. Supposing that asses, dogs, and pigs had any human skill in contrivance, and wished to do us honour by some kind of worship, should we not be greatly enraged if they determined that our images should bear and assume the fashion of their own bodies? Why do you then insult the gods in a similar way?”

“Then you ascribe to the gods not only human bodies, but also human offices. You represent them, some as artificers, some physicians, others working in wool, sailors, players on the harp and flute, hunters, shepherds, and, as there was nothing more, rustics. And that god, men say, is a musician; and this other can divine. One is instructed in obstetric arts, another trained up in the science of medicine. Is each, then, powerful in his own department? and can they give no assistance, if their aid is asked, in what belongs to another? Why should the gods be acquainted with these human handicrafts, and arts, and sciences? Are there forests in heaven that Diana may hunt? Are the gods liable to diseases and wounds, so that the assistance of Aesculapiusis needed? Do they engage in agriculture or in war, so that they require Vulcan’s tools or weapons? Do they need to be covered with garments, so that Minerva has to spin and weave cloth, and make tunics suited to the season of the year? Surely, neither the divine necessities nor the divine nature require any such ingenuity or mechanical skill.”

But the history of the gods is the most favourite field for the Apologetic attack. That history showed that the gods had a beginning, that the world was created before them, and that men lived before them. That history showed that to them belonged all the weaknesses of weak men, the unrestrained passions of bad men, and the most heinous crimes of the worst of men. How could they talk of the immortal gods when their sepulchres were with them unto this day? How could they believe the legends when they were not consistent one with another? The theologians spoke of three Joves, and five Junos, and five Mercuries, and five Minervas. Arnobius pictures the five Minervas hovering over their altar, and each claiming for herself the sacrifice offered to the goddess of her name. Following the various traditions, he represents one claiming as mother of Apollo and Diana; the second, as the offspring of the Nile; the third, as the warlike descendant of Saturn; the fourth, as the goddess who sprang from the head of Jove; the fifth, as the virgin who slew her wicked father Pallas. What judge, he asks, is to decide between such great personages? Would it not be better, on the whole, for a man to have nothing to do with any of them, lest, sacrificing to one, and perhaps the wrong one, he should make enemies of the rest? The Apologists attack the heathen mythology with unnecessary minuteness. We cannot follow them here to any profit. The story of the lives of the gods is too corrupting for men to read. Truly not those who denied, but those who invented and believed such stories, were the real blasphemers of the gods.

The untenability of the heathen mythology in its literal meaning had been seen and confessed by their own writers. Some of them said that it was not intended to be history, but allegory. The gods were the powers of nature personified. According to the Stoic explanation, “Neptune was the sea, Pluto was fire, Hercules represented the strength of God, Minerva His wisdom, Ceres His fertilizing energy.” According as the power of God was manifested, in heaven or on earth, in the sea or in hell, He had different names given Him. The objection to this theory was that it did not account for the facts. You might thus make a pretty little allegory here and there, but the mass of the stories became nothing but nonsense. Besides, why, it was asked, was it necessary to put pure ideas into an obscene dress? The result was, that what was venerable was vilely spoken of, and the basest deeds were ascribed to the gods.

But, after all, said the Romans, the religion of the gods is true, for it is by worshipping them that Rome has reached its present height of prosperity. You put the cart before the horse, is the Apologetic answer. Rome’s prosperity preceded Rome’s worship of the gods. The first Romans were “abandoned, profligate, incestuous, assassins, and traitors”; and the Roman State laid its foundations in blood and rapine. Irreligious Romulus preceded pious Numa. The Romans have ever been wont first to conquer a nation, and then to worship its gods. Is it possible, then, that they owe their prosperity to powers which could not defend their own worshippers? They conquered gods and spoiled their temples, before they professed to adore them and conquer by them. The truth is, the Romans are not so great because they are religious, but because they have been sacrilegious with impunity. But, you say, see what disasters have resulted from neglecting the auguries. Well, it is quite true, Clodius and Flaminius and Julius would not wait for the greedy pecking of the chickens, and afterwards lost their armies. But what about Regulus? He observed the auguries, and was taken captive. Paulus had greedy chickens at Cannae, and yet he was utterly overthrown. Caius Caesar despised the auspices, and conquered all the more easily and quickly. Thus there are facts on both sides.

But what was the secret of the power of the false religions over men? The Apologetic answer is, “The demons or evil spirits.” They describe their origin, nature, and method of working. They reckon them to be the offspring of the intercourse of the sons of God with the daughters of men. They are spiritual beings whose great business is the ruin of mankind, body and soul. Unseen and unfelt, their working can only be traced in its effects. They are everywhere in a single moment, the whole world is as one place to them. They are the poison in the breeze which blights the produce of the earth, in bud, and flower, and maturity. They are the taint in the atmosphere which spreads the pestilence. They breathe into the soul and rouse up its latent corruption. They hung upon the lips of the prophets and learned thus the course of future events, and then set up false Christs and false prophets. They inspired the oracles; hence it was the Pythian at Delphi was able to declare so wonderfully what Croesus was at that moment doing in far-off Lydia; the demon inspiring the oracle had gone and returned in a moment. They give disease in order to have the credit of curing it, and all in order that men should believe in the deity of stones, and not seek after the only true God. Powerful as they are, they quail when adjured by Christians in the most sacred Name. “Fearing Christ in God, and God in Christ, they become subject to the servants of God and Christ. So at our touch and breath, overwhelmed by the thought and realization of the judgment fires, they leave at our command the bodies they have entered, unwilling, distressed, and ashamed before your presence.”

This connection of the heathen idols with devils was a matter of considerable practical importance to the Christians. The philosophers had no objection to offer sacrifice or burn incense to gods which had no existence. They considered such an act to have no meaning in itself, but to be part of their duty as citizens of the State. It did them no harm, and it did others good. They regarded it as we should regard some of the forms of society or ceremonies of public life. But the Christians, believing the temples to be the dwelling-places, and the sacrifices to be the food, of devils, regarded all participation in the ceremonies of the heathen religion as nothing less than devil-worship. They, unlike the philosophers, owed allegiance to a master, Christ they owned as their Lord. To share, to the slightest degree, in any idolatrous ceremony was to forsake that allegiance, and to join in covenant with that devil whom at their baptism they had renounced. They could not, for one moment, take refuge in the plea of the unmeaningness and emptiness of the act. It was to them nothing less than replacing a broken yoke of bondage round their necks. Moreover, why should they worship beings of inferior power to themselves? The weakest Christian, they believed, was by the power of Christ stronger than the strongest devil. Your divinities are subject to us Christians, and we are ready to prove it to you openly any day, is Tertullian’s taunt. God has enlightened our eyes, and delusions of devils have no longer power to deceive us, is the assertion of many Apologists. With such a belief a Christian could have no trifling with any idolatrous ceremony lest he should be again taken captive to do the devil’s will.

Such are the main points of the Apologetic attack on the heathen religion. As we have seen, very real in its power, very noxious in its influence, that religion seemed. To the light and liberty, love and purity, of the religion of Christ, it presented a most fearful contrast. What wonder is it that the defenders of the faith could not help attacking it in season and out of season? The importance of their attack to us lies in this. From it we learn what the world was before the Christian revelation. We see the gods which men invented for themselves, and we learn to prize more highly the light which we enjoy.

But Christianity had a more dangerous enemy than the religion of the gods, viz. the heathen philosophy. To it, and not to religion, the wisest men turned when seeking a remedy for the corruptions of the age.

Pure and noble as much of the heathen philosophy was, it was not difficult to attack it on the practical side. It had destroyed the heathen religion, but it could put nothing in its place. By its own confession it had done nothing, and could do nothing. It disclaimed pronouncing with certainty on any matter. All human things were dubious. Probabilities, not truths, were the results of its inquiries. After many years of inquiry it deliberated still. It was not given to man to know what is above the earth or under the earth. It was not wise for him to wander beyond his earthly limits. The wisest of men had said, “That which is above us concerns us not.” The confession of ignorance is the height of wisdom to which man can attain. The longer the research, the obscurer the truth became.

This was all the wise men of the world could do for it. They could expose error, but they could not discover truth. They searched into the darkness, and they brought back no tidings of a guiding light, they said, The darkness deepens the further we go. The study of philosophy brought with it no joy, but an ever-increasing conviction that man was born to sorrow, and that there was no well-founded hope of a life beyond the grave. “All hope abandon ye who enter here,” was the inscription which first met the eye of the student in the Stoic school. The world and men will be destroyed, because of their wickedness; the new world and new race will soon be just as bad, was Seneca’s teaching. “Let us eat and drink, for to-morrow we die,” was the true philosophy of life. On the tombs are found such inscriptions as these: “What I have eaten and drunk, that I take with me; what I have left behind me, that have I forfeited.” “Reader, enjoy thy life; for after death there is neither laughter nor play, nor any kind of enjoyment.” The old heathen stories of the other world were false. “Pilgrim, stay thee, listen and learn. In Hades there is no ferry-boat, nor Charon, the ferryman; no Aeacus or Cerberus; once dead, we are all alike.” The philosophers could see the whole creation groaning and travailing in pain, but to them the pangs were pangs of death, and not pangs of birth. They were able to discern evil in the world, but they knew of no deliverance. They became doubtful of such a thing as divine justice in life, and incredulous of a retribution after death. They were not certain whether human affairs were set agoing by destiny and immutable necessity, or by hazard. Most, of all things, they needed an example. The Stoics admitted that the ideal man had never yet appeared upon the earth. Cicero describes the rapture with which such an one would be received. There was not amongst them, as amongst the Jews, a well-grounded expectation of “One who should come” to be the Deliverer from evil and the Example of good. The indefinite hope of the coming golden age, which was all any heathen had, was to them but a popular superstition.

And, indeed, philosophy in early Christian times, had, like all other things, degenerated. The Apologists constantly describe the vices of its professors. In the case of many, the philosophic garb was their only claim to the name philosopher. Tatian describes them as men who left uncovered one of their shoulders, who let their hair grow long, who cultivated their beards, and who allowed their nails to become like the claws of wild beasts. They said they wanted nothing, and wanted many things. They spoke with an assumption of authority, and revenged themselves if contradicted; they indulged in abuse if they were unpaid, and their philosophy was but the art of getting money. Lactantius gives Seneca’s definition of philosophy, viz., “The right method of living, or the art of passing a good life “; and then he goes on to say that of philosophers there has been seldom one who has done anything praiseworthy in his life. “Who is there,” he asks, “who does not see those men are not teachers of virtue, who are themselves destitute of virtue? for if any one should diligently inquire into their character, he will find they are passionate, covetous, lustful, arrogant, wanton, and concealing their devices under a show of wisdom, doing those things at home which they had censured in the schools.”

This defect in the philosophers was confessed by the heathen. Cicero said there were few who thought true instruction, not a display of knowledge, but a law of life; few who were obedient to themselves and submitted to their own decrees. Some were so filled with levity and ostentation, that they had better not have learned at all. Some were eagerly desirous of money, others of glory. Many were the slaves of lusts, so that their speech wonderfully disagreed with their life. Cornelius Nepos said, none had greater need of teachers of living than those who discussed a rule of life. Seneca said, that philosophers denouncing avarice, lust, and ambition, seemed to be making a description of themselves. They were like physicians whose advertisements contained medicine, and their medicine-chests poison. Most clever were they at inventing excuses for committing unphilosophic crimes in a philosophic manner. Seneca also said, the philosophers were not ashamed of their vices, but invented defences for their baseness, that they might appear even to sin with honour. They would not abandon good morals, but adapt them to the occasion; all things which the luxurious and ignorant do, the wise man also will do, but not in the same manner, and with the same purpose. Aristippus, the philosopher, defended his own immoralities by saying he committed them in a spirit differing from that of the really immoral. So the criticism of Cicero was just; — that the disputations of the philosophers, though containing most abundant fountains of virtue and knowledge, when compared with their practice, seemed to be rather a pleasant occupation to pass the time, than advantage in the business of life. The verdict of Aristides was fully borne out when he said:— “Their greediness is insatiable, their pillage of others’ property they call community of goods; their envy is nicknamed philosophy, they call beggary, contempt of money. Haughty to all others, they creep before the rich, nay, before the very cooks and bakers of the rich. Their strength lies in impudence, and asking, in abuse, and in calumny.” And again, Quintilian, “In our days most people hide their worst vices under the names of old philosophers.”

Besides all this the philosophers were not agreed amongst themselves. There was no necessity for the Christians to refute them, they refuted one an other. Their teaching was nothing but a confused babble of conflicting voices. Lactantius describes them as mad with the desire of contradiction. The disciples of one school condemned all others as false and vain, and they armed themselves for battle, neither knowing what they ought to defend or what to refute; and they made attacks everywhere, with out distinction, upon all the views of their opponents.

Of course, the consequence was, their teaching had no power to influence the masses, who require a guide speaking with authority and clearness. And, indeed, philosophy did not address itself to the many, but to the rich who could afford a fee, or to the well-educated in science, or to those capable of abstract thought. As for all the rest they were looked down upon in contempt, and left to their irrational superstition. They were as the people who knew not the Law amongst the Jews. Even to its disciples philosophy was not a practical guide. The questions it discussed were words and names. It did not speak to the heart, or to the senses, but only to the intellect of a man. It enunciated certain laws, but they were based on no rewards or punishments. It was a school of opinions, not a discipline of life.

And if to the Stoic philosophers many of these criticisms do not apply, if there were amongst them many who spoke to the conscience and heart, still remonstrances of vice were more common with them than exhortations to virtue. They uttered them, despairing of any good result. Their teaching, no less than that of the other philosophers, was utterly unfit for the many, and the basis of their morality was pride.

Against these slight aims and slighter results of philosophy, its partial application and its unpractical nature, the Apologists contrasted the Christian revelation: of divine nature and origin; speaking with authority and consistency; appealing to all, learned and unlearned, rich and poor, young and old; in its very essence practical, for those ceased to be Christians in name who were not Christians in life. They have an Example of virtue, they have rewards of virtue. Their morality is based not on pride but on love. They have learned the truth, God has revealed it to them.

The Apologists find some germs of truth in the writings of the philosophers, and they explain the fact in various ways. Sometimes they charge them with borrowing from the Hebrew prophets; Plato especially is accused of borrowing from Moses. Others say the demons inspired them with their knowledge. But the most beautiful account is given by Justin. He had in turn tried all the principal systems of philosophy, and insufficient as they were to satisfy him, he still retained them in his affection. He loved to see in them the germs of Christianity, and to see in Christianity their full development. He was not satisfied with viewing Christianity alone; he viewed it in relation to all other systems. The Incarnation of Christ was to him the centre point of history, to which all the teaching of Prophets and philosophers converged, from which all truth radiated. God had never left Himself without a witness; He had been working in the minds of men who knew Him not by name. All this was done by His Word. The Incarnate Word brought to their full development those truths of which the Seminal Word had been depositing the germ. All men, he believed, had been partakers of the Word. The proof of this lay in the lives of men. Not all were partakers alike; the communication was according to capacity. The demons hate and persecute all who have in any manner been partakers of The Word.

Not all the Apologists can see so much to admire in the philosophic system. Tertullian especially regards it as a thing utterly alien from Christ and Christians. He never refers to it except to denounce it. Its wisdom can do nothing but corrupt. He asks, “Is there any likeness between the Christian and the philosopher? Between the disciple of Greece and the disciple of Heaven? Between the man whose object is fame and the man whose object is life? Between the talker and the doer? Between the man who builds up and the man who pulls down? Between the friend and the foe of error? Between one who corrupts the truth and one who restores and teaches it? Between its thief and its guardian?”

Tertullian looks at philosophy from its practical side and in his narrow spirit, and he can see nothing but its defects. To those who realize the truth of St. John’s teaching, that The Word “was the true Light which lighteth every man that cometh into the world,” Justin’s theory will appear to be nearer the truth. Still we have seen enough to assure us also of the truth of St. Paul’s words, “The world by wisdom knew not God.”

Lactantius gives to us a very apt conclusion to this chapter. “The sum of the matter is this: the unlearned and the foolish esteem false religions as true, because they neither know the true nor understand the false. But the more sagacious, because they are ignorant of the true, either persist in those religions which they know to be false, that they may appear to possess something; or worship nothing at all, that they may not fall into error; whereas this very thing partakes largely of error, under the figure of a man to imitate the life of cattle. To understand that which is false, is truly the part of wisdom, but of human wisdom. Beyond this step the man cannot proceed, and thus many of the philosophers have taken away religious institutions, as I have pointed out; but to know the truth is the part of divine wisdom. But man of himself cannot attain to this knowledge unless he is taught by God.”

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Raised in a home filled with books on Western civilization, P.G. Mantel became a lover of history at an early age. An amateur writer of verse, he makes himself useful as an editor for Men of the West.

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