« Prev Chapter XXII. New Apologies—Athenagoras,… Next »



Never was the struggle more ardent than in those last years of Marcus-Aurelius. Persecution was at its highest period. The attacks and replies crossed each other. The parties borrowed one after the other the weapons of dialectic and irony. Christianity had its Lucian in a certain Hermias, who 220calls himself “philosopher,” and who seems to set himself to the task of adding to all the exaggerations of Tatian on the mistakes of philosophy. His writing, probably composed in Syria, is not only an apology: it is a sermon addressed to the assembled believers. The author has published it under the title of Diasyrmos, or “Tales of the Philosophers outside.” The pleasantry was heavy and weak enough. It recalls the attempts which have been produced in our age, in the bosom of Catholicism, to employing the irony of Voltaire to the profit of the good cause, and to make the apology for religion in the style of a Tertullian in good humour. The sarcasms of Hermias do not only strike at the exaggerated claims of philosophy; they reach to the most legitimate attempts of science, the desire to know the things which are now perfectly discovered and known. According to the author, science has for its origin the apostasy of the angels. These are the unhappy perverse beings who have taught men philosophy, with all its contradictions. The knowledge of the old schools which the author possesses is wide, but not very profound; as to the philosophical spirit, never was a man so completely without it.

The clemency of the emperor, his known love of truth, called forth, year after year, new petitions, where the generous advocates of the persecuted religion tried to show what was monstrous in those persecutions. Commodus, associated with the empire from the end of the year 176, had his part in these entreaties, to which—strange thing!—he later on gave better heed than his father. “To the emperors, Marcus-Aurelius Antoninus and Marcus‑Aurelius Commodus of Armenia, Sarmatia (and whatever was their greatest title) philosophers.” . . . Thus began an apology, written in a very good antique style by Athenagoras, an Athenian 221philosopher, who appears to have been converted to Christianity by his own efforts. The exceptional position allowed to Christians, under a reign full of mildness and happiness, and which had given peace and liberty to the whole world, was scandalous. All the cities enjoyed a perfect self-government. All people were permitted to live according to their laws and their religion. The Christians, although very loyal towards the empire, were the only men who were persecuted for their creed. And even if the authorities had contented themselves by taking away their property and life! But what was still more insupportable was the official calumnies with which they were loaded—atheism, the eating of human flesh, and incest.

If the Christians were guilty of atheism, philosophers were guilty of the same crime. The Christians admitted that supreme intelligence, invisible, impassable, incomprehensible, which is the “last word” of philosophy. Why make that a reproach to them which was praised in others? What the Christians said of the Son and the Spirit complements philosophy—does not contradict it. The Son of God is the Word of God, the eternal reason of the Eternal Spirit. The Christians rejected the sacrifices, the idols and the fables of Paganism. Who can blame them? The gods were often only men deified. The miracles of healing in the temples are the work of demons.

Athenagoras has no difficulty in demonstrating that the crimes with which Christians are reproached have no verisimilitude about them. He affirms the perfect purity of their morals, notwithstanding the objections directed against the kiss of peace.

“According to the difference in age, we treat some as sons and daughters, others as brothers and sisters, others again as fathers and mothers; but these titles of relationship bring with them no stain. 222The Word tells as in fact: ‘If anyone shall repeat the kiss to procure the enjoyment of pleasure . . .’ and it adds, ‘There must be great scrupulousness concerning the kiss, and with stronger reason in that which concerns the proscyneme, since, if it were obtained by the slightest impure thought, it would deprive us of eternal life.’ The hope of eternal life makes us contemn the present life, even as far as the pleasures of the mind. Each of us uses his own spouse according to certain rules we have laid down, and in the manner necessary for the procreation of children; even as the workman, after he had entrusted his grain to the soil, waits for the harvest without sowing above it. You will find among us many persons of both sexes who have grown old in celibacy, hoping thus to live nearer God. . . . Our doctrine is that each one ought to remain as he is born or be content with a single marriage. Second marriages are only adultery decorously disguised. . . .

“If we were to ask our accusers if they have seen what they say, there would be none impudent enough to assert it. We have slaves, some of us more, some less; we do not think of concealing them, and nevertheless not one among them has made any of these lying statements against us. We cannot endure the sight of a man who has been put to death, even justly. Who can look with cheerfulness upon the spectacles of the gladiators and the beasts, especially when it is you who give them? Ah well, we have renounced these spectacles, believing that there is hardly any difference between looking on at a murder and committing it. We hold as a murderess the woman who procures abortion, and we believe that is to kill a child only to expose it. . . .

“What we ask is the common justice, it is not to be punished for the name we bear. When a philosopher commits a crime they judge him for that crime, and they do not make his philosophy responsible. If we are guilty of the crimes of which they accuse us, spare neither age or sex, exterminate along with us our wives and children. If these are inventions without any other foundation than the natural enmity of vice to virtue, it is for you to examine our life, our doctrine, our devoted submission to you, to your house, to the empire, and to do us the same justice that you do to our adversaries.”

Extreme deference, almost obsequiousness, towards the empire is the character of Athenagoras as of all the apologists. He flatters in particular the ideas of heredity, and assures Marcus-Aurelius that the prayers of the Christians will have the effect of assuring the succession of his son.

“Now that I have replied to all these accusations, and that I have shown our piety towards God as well as the purity of our minds, I ask nothing more from you than a sign from your royal head. Oh! Princes whom nature and education have made so excellent, so moderate, so humane. Who is more worthy of being favourably listened to by the sovereign whose government we pray for, that the succession may be 223established between you and your son according to what is most just, and that your empire, receiving without ceasing new accretions, should reach over the whole earth? And in praying thus we pray for ourselves, since the tranquillity of the empire is the condition through which we may in the bosom of a gentle and tranquil life apply ourselves entirely to the observance of those precepts which have been imposed upon us.

The dogma of the resurrection of the dead was that which caused the greatest difficulty to minds which had received a Greek education. Athenagoras devoted to this a special conference, seeking to reply to the objections drawn from the case where the body loses its identity. The immortality of the soul is not sufficient. Some commandments, such as those which concern adultery and fornication, do not regard the soul, since the soul is not capable of such misdeeds. The body has its part in virtue, it ought to have its part in the recompense. Man is not complete without being made up of body and soul, and all that is said of the end of man is applied to the complete man. Notwithstanding all these reasonings the Pagans obstinately said, “Show us one who has risen from the dead, and when we have seen him we will believe,” and they were not wrong.

Theophilus, Bishop of Antioch, about the year 170, was, like Athenagoras, a convert from Hellenism, who, when he was converted, did not believe that he did anything but change one philosophy for another which was better. He was a very fertile teacher, a catechist endowed with a great talent for exposition, a clever polemic according to the ideas of the age. He wrote against the dualism of Marcion and against Hermogenes, who denied creation and asserted the eternity of matter. He commented upon the Gospels, and he wrote, they say, a concord or harmony. His principal work which has been preserved to us was a treatise in three books, addressed to a certain Autolycus, probably a fictitious 224personage under whose name Theophilus represents the instructed Pagan held in error by the prejudices spread against Christianity. According to Theophilus, one is a Christian by the heart, it is the passions and the vices which keep one from seeing God. God is immaterial and without form, but his works reveal him. The gods of the Pagans are men whom they cause to be adored, and the worst of men.

Theophilus speaks already of the Trinity, but his trinity had not the appearance of that of Nice, it is composed of three persons, God, the Word, and Wisdom. His trust in the reading of the prophets, as a means for the conversion of the heathen, may appear exaggerated. His scholarship is abundant, but his criticism is totally defective, and the exegesis which he gives of the first chapters of Genesis is very weak. What shall we say of the assurance with which he quotes to Pagans as a decisive authority the Judæo-Christian Sibyl whose authenticity he fully admits?

To sum up, Theophilus approaches much nearer the narrow and malignant spirit of Tatian than the liberal spirit of Justin and Athenagoras. Sometimes he admits that the philosophers and the Greek poets have anticipated revelation, notably in what concerns the final conflagration of the world, but most frequently he finds them stained by enormous errors. The Greeks have plundered Genesis by altering it. The Greek wisdom is but a pale, modern, and very feeble plagiarism from Moses. Even as the sea would dry up if it were not ceaselessly fed by the rivers, so would the world perish by the wickedness of man if the law and the prophets had not established truth and justice. The Catholic Church is like an island prepared by God in the midst of a sea of errors. But let them not be deceived; there are heresies, islands of reefs without 225water, without fruit, full of fierce beasts. Beware of the pirates who would attack and destroy you there. Theophilus is never so triumphant as when he reduces to nothing the absurd calumnies with which they pursued his co-religionists. Otherwise he is feeble, and Autolycus is not wrong after such arguments to persist in his incredulity. The pearl of this apologetic literature of Marcus Aurelius is the dialogue composed by the African, Minucius Felix. It is the first Christian work written in Latin, and one feels already that the Christian Latin literature, theologically inferior, will become greater than the Greek Christian literature, because of the shades and manliness of its style. The author, originally from Cirta, remained at Rome, and exercised there the profession of an advocate. Born a Pagan, he had received a most liberal education, and had embraced Christianity upon reflection. He knew his classics perfectly, imitated them, and occasionally copied them. Cicero, Seneca, and Sallust were his favourite authors. Among his contemporaries no one wrote in Latin better than he. The book of his compatriot Fronton struck him: he wished to reply to the attack. He did so, taking, it would seem, his style from the illustrious rhetorician, and making more than one borrowing. Perhaps he had also read Celsus’ work, and refers to it more than once without naming it.

A learned Pagan, belonging to the leading family of Cirta, Cæcilius Natalis, and two Christians, Octavius and Minucius, went down to the seashore, near Ostium, during the autumn recess. Cæcilius, perceiving a statue of Serapis, put his hand to his mouth, according to custom. A discussion ensued. Cæcilius commences by a long discourse, which one may consider as a nearly textual reproduction of Fronton’s argument. It is a perfect representation of the objections a Roman such as he would have 226to Christianity. The tone is that of a conservative, who does not much disguise his haughty incredulity, and defends his religion without believing in it. Sceptical on the foundation of things, disdainful of all speculation, Cæcilius holds to the established religion only through decency and habit, and because the dogmatism of Christians displeased him. The schools of philosophy have only produced disputes; the human mind knows not how to bridge the space which separates it from God. The wiser give it up. What shall we say of the presumption of certain people, drawn from the basest classes, without education or science, strangers to all literature, pretending to decide questions as to which, for centuries back, philosophy has deliberated? Is it not much wiser, leaving these, the higher questions, in our humility, to follow the worship established by our ancestors? The old ages, thanks to their ignorance and simplicity, had certain privileges, particularly that of seeing the gods near them and having them for kings. In such a matter antiquity is everything; the truth—that is what has been believed for a long time past. Rome has deserved to reign over the world by accepting the rites of the entire globe. How can one think of changing a religion so useful? This old cult has seen the beginnings of Rome, has defended it against the barbarians, has braved at the Capitol the assault of the Gauls. Would you have it that Rome should renounce this to please some factious people who abuse the credulity of women and children?

Thanks to rare skilfulness in language, Cæcilius shows that all is fabulous and yet true in what concerns divination, the cults, the miraculous cures, and the dreams. His position is that of Celsus. At bottom he is an Epicurean; he believes little in Providence or supernatural interventions; but his 227attachment to the religion of the State renders him crafty.

“Man and the animals are born, live and grow by a sort of spontaneous concretion of elements which divide, dissolve, dissipate. Everything comes back on itself, returns to its source, without any being playing in that the position of fabricator, judge or creator. Thus the reunion of the fiery elements makes suns shine unceasingly, and then other suns still. Thus the vapours which are extracted from the earth are gathered together in masses, rise to the clouds and fall in rains. The winds whistle, the hail rattles, the thunder rolls in the breaking of the clouds, the lightnings shine, the thunderbolts gleam; all this athwart and across; the lightning smites the mountains, strikes the trees, touches without distinction sacred and profane spots, slays guilty men, and often religious men. What shall we say of those blind and capricious forces, which hurry away everything without order and without trial; in shipwrecks, the fate of good and evil confounded, merits made ex æquo; in fires, the innocent surprised by death as well as the guilty; when the sky is infected with pestilential virus, death without distinction to all; in the midst of the fury of battle, the bravest falling; in time of peace, wickedness not only equal to virtue, but privileged so much so that many ask whether it is better to detest their wickedness or to ask the good fortune of these for themselves? If the world were governed by a higher Providence, and by the authority of some divinity, would Phalaris and Dionysius have deserved the crown, Rutilius and Carmilla exile, or Socrates poison? Look at the trees covered with fruits, a harvest, and an exuberant vintage; the rain spoils everything, the hail breaks everything; so true is it the truth is concealed and forbidden to 228us, or rather that chance without law reigns alone across the infinite unreachable variety of cases.”

The picture which Cæcilius, interpreter of the prejudices of high Roman society, made of the Christian morals was most gloomy. They had reason for hiding themselves—these sectaries; it is that they dare not show themselves. Their secret and nocturnal assemblies are only conventicles for infamous pleasures. Disdaining all that is honourable, the priesthood, the purple, public honours, incapable of saying a word in honourable assemblies, they take refuge in corners to dogmatise. These people in rags, and half naked! O height of audacity! despising present torments through belief in torments future and uncertain. Through fear of dying after their death, they do not fear to die now.

“They know each other by marks or secret signs; they almost love each other before being known. Then debauch becomes their religion, the bond which binds them together. They are called without distinction brothers and sisters, so that by the use of this sacred name that which would only be adultery or fornication becomes incest. It is so that this vain and foolish superstition boasts of its crimes. If there had not been in these stories a foundation of truth, it is impossible that public report, always wise, should have spread so many monstrous tales about them. I have heard it said that they worship the head of the most ignoble beast, rendered sacred in their eyes by the most baseless arguments; a worthy religion in truth, and made expressly for such morals! Others tell. . . . If there are falsehoods there I don’t know; there are at least the suspicions which secret and nocturnal rites naturally provoke. And after all, when we attribute to them the worship of a man punished by the last penalty for his misdeeds, as well as the presence in 229their ceremonies of the inauspicious wood of the cross, they only put upon their altars what befits them: they worship what they deserve.

“The picture of the initiation of the neophytes is also known to be abominable. A child, covered with paste and flour to deceive those who are not in the secret, is placed before him who is about to be initiated. He is invited to strike him; the floury crust makes him believe in everything most innocently; the child dies under his secret blind blows; and then—oh, horror!—they greedily lick his blood, they tear in pieces his limbs; henceforth their federation is sealed by a victim—the mutual knowledge they have of their crime is the pledge of their silence. No one knows anything of their feast; they speak of it on all sides, and the discourse of our compatriot of Cirta has made it believed. On solemn days some people of every age, men and women, meet together at a banquet with the children, sisters, and mothers. After a plentiful repast, when the guests are heated, and drunkenness has excited in them the fire of incest, there passes what follows:—A dog is attached to the candelabra; they draw it; they make it leap from the place where it is attached by throwing to it a little cake. The candelabra is overturned; then, disembarrassed of all disagreeable light, in the bosom of the darkness, complaisant to all immodesties, they are confused by the chance or lot in copulation, with an infamous lubricity, all incestuous, if not in actual fact, at least by complicity, since the vow of all pursues that which may result from the act of each.

“I pass on; for already these are enough of allegations, all or nearly all proved by the sole fact of the darkness of that perverse religion. Why, indeed, should they be obliged to conceal the object of their religion, such as it is, when it is 230proved that good loves publicity, and that crime alone seeks secrecy? Why have they not altars, temples, and known images? Why should they never speak in public? Why this horror for free assemblies, if what they adore with so much mystery was not either punishable or shameful? Who is this unique God, solitary in sorrow, who does not know a free nation or a kingdom, nor even the lowest degree of Roman superstition? Alone, the miserable Jewish nationality honours this one God, but at least it honours him openly with its temples, altars, victims, ceremonies: a poor effete God, dethroned, since he is now captive with his nation to the Roman gods. . . . The larger part of you suffer, you confess, from misery, cold, fatigue, hunger, and your God permits it—takes no notice of it! Either he does not wish to, or he cannot, succour his own; he is either powerless or unjust.

“Threatenings, punishments, torments, that is your lot; the cross—it is not a question of adoring it but of mounting it; the fire which you predict and which you fear you actually submit to. Where is, then, this God who can save his servants when they live again, and can do nothing for them when they are living now? Is it by the grace of your God that the Romans rule, command, and are your masters?—and you during this time always in suspicion and disquieted. You abstain from all honest pleasures, you desert the fêtes, public banquets, sacred festivals. As if you dreaded the gods whom you deny, you hold in horror the meats from which a part has been cut for sacrifice, the drinks part of which have been poured out. You do not surround your heads with flowers, you refuse perfume for your bodies, reserving them for funerals. Yell deny even crowns to the tombs; pale, trembling, worthy of pity. 231. . . Thus unhappy you shall not rise again, and meanwhile you do not live. If, then, you have any wisdom, any feeling of ridicule, cease to lose yourselves in those heavenly spaces, and to seek anxiously the destinies and the secrets of the earth. It is enough to look at one’s feet, especially for ignorant and unpolished people, without education and without culture, to whom it is not given to comprehend human things, and who with greater reason cannot have the right to speak upon divine things.”

The merit of the author of this curious dialogue lies in having diminished in no way the forces of the reasons of his adversaries. Celsus and Fronton have not expressed with more energy what was contrary to the simplest ideas of natural science in those perpetual announcements of the conflagration of the world by which the simple are frightened. The Christian ideas on the doctrine of the Resurrection are not criticised with less vigour. Whence comes that horror of the pyre and the cremation of corpses, as if the earth would not do in a few years what the pyre does in some hours? What does it matter if the corpse is broken by the beasts, or buried in the sea, or covered by the soil, or absorbed by the flame?

Octavius replies weakly to these objections, inherent in some sort to his dogma, and which Christianity shall carry with it during the whole course of its existence. God, said the advocate of Christianity, has created the world; he can destroy it. If he has made man out of nothing, he can surely raise him from the dead. The doctrine of the conflagration is taught in the philosophical systems. If the Jews have been conquered it is their own fault. God has not abandoned them: it is they who have abandoned God.

Octavius shows himself more subtle still when 232he pretends that the sign of the cross is the basis of all religion, and especially of the Roman religion; that the Roman standard is a gilded cross; that the trophy represents a man on a cross; that the vessel with its yards, the yoke of a chariot, the attitude of a man in prayer, are figures of the cross. His explanation of auguries and oracles by the action of perverse spirits is also a little childish. But he eloquently refutes the aristocratic prejudices of Cæcilius. The truth is the same for all; all can find it and ought to seek it. God is manifest in the mind; Providence follows with a glance of the eye cast upon the order of the world and man’s conscience. This truth is even revealed, although obliterated in the Pagan traditions. At the foundation of all religions and all poetry is found the idea of an all-powerful Being, father of the gods and of men, who sees all, and is the universal cause. Octavius proves his thesis by some passages borrowed from Cicero. Monotheism is the natural religion of man, since he, in his erudition, says simply: “O God!” The providence of God is the “last word” of Greek philosophy, and especially of Plato, whose doctrine would be divine if it were not injured by too much complaisance for the principle of State religion. This principle Octavius attacks with extreme vivacity. The reasons drawn from the grandeur of Rome affect him little; this grandeur is nothing in his eyes but a tissue of violence, perfidies, and cruelties.

Octavius excels in showing that the Christians are innocent of the crimes of which they are accused. They have put them to the torture; not one has confessed, and yet the confession would have saved them. The Christians are neither statues, nor temples, nor altars. They are right. The true temple of the Divinity is the heart of 233man. What sufferings are equivalent to a good conscience, an innocent heart? To practise righteousness is to pray; to cultivate virtue is to sacrifice; to save one’s brother is the best of offerings. Among Christians, the most pious is the most righteous. Octavius triumphs especially in the courage of the martyrs.

“What a fine spectacle for God, when the Christian fights with sorrow; when he gathers himself up against all menaces, punishments and torments; when he laughs at the horrible noise of death and the terror of the executioner; when he maintains his liberty before kings and princes; bends only before God, to whom he belongs; when, as triumphant and conquering, he braves him who pronounces on him his sentence of death! To conquer, in fact, is to know how to attain one’s end! . . . The Christian may, therefore, appear unhappy; he never is so. You raise to heaven such men as Mucius Scævola, whose death was certain if he had not sacrificed his right hand. And how many of us have suffered without a complaint not only that their right hand, but that their whole body should be burned, when it was in their power to have saved them! . . . Our children, our wives play themselves with the crosses, the torments, the beasts, all the utensils of punishment—thanks to a patience which is inspired in them from on high.”

How the magistrates who preside at these horrors tremble. God does not allow honours and riches but to cause them to be lost; raised the higher, their fall shall be the heavier. There are some victims fattened and already crowned for death. Escorts, fasces, purple, nobility of blood, what vanities! All men are equal, virtue alone makes the difference between them.

Conquered by these arguments, Cæcilius, without 234allowing Minucius time to conclude, declares that he believes in Providence and the religion of the Christians. Octavius, in his explanation, scarcely leaves pure Deism. He mentions neither Jesus, nor the Apostles, nor the Scriptures. His Christianity is not that of which the Shepherd dreams; it is a Christianity of men of the world who do not shun gaiety, or talent, or an amiable taste for life, nor a search for elegance in style. How far are we from the Ebionite or even the Jew of Galilee! Octavius is Cicero, or better, Fronton become Christian. It is really by intellectual culture that he arrives at Deism. He loves nature, he is pleased by the conversation of well-educated people. Men made upon this model would not have created either the Gospel or the Apocalypse, but, on the other hand, without such adherents, the Gospel, the Apocalypse, the Epistles of Paul, would have remained the secret writings of a narrow sect which, like the Essenes or the Therapeutics, would have finally disappeared.

Minucius Felix gives even more than the Greek Apologists the tone which prevails among the defenders of Christianity in all ages. He is a skilful advocate addressing himself to people less versed in dialectics than the Greeks of Egypt or Asia, concealing three-fourths of his dogma to secure the adhesion to the whole without discussion of detail, using the appearances of the lettered to convert the lettered, and to persuade them that Christianity does not compel them to renounce the philosophies and the writers whom they admire. “Philosophers, Christians . . . . but what? it is only one and the same thing. Dogmas repugnant to reason! . . . . come, then! but the Christian dogma is in its own terms what Zeno, Aristotle, Plato said, and nothing more. You treat us as barbarians; but 235we cultivate the good authors as well as you do.” Of special beliefs in religion as it is preached, not a word; to inculcate Christianity they avoid pronouncing the name of Christ. Minucius Felix is the preacher of Notre Dame, speaking to people of the world easy to please, making himself all things to all men, studying the weaknesses and the fancies of the people he wishes to conquer, affecting under his cope of lead the behaviour of the easy man, straining his symbol to render it acceptable. Make a Christian upon the faith of this pious sophist, nothing could be better, but remember that all this was a bait. The next day he who was represented as accessory shall become the principal; the bitter bark which they have wished to make you swallow in small compass and reduced to its simplest expression shall recover all its bitterness. They had told you that the gallant man, to be a Christian, has scarcely any need to change his maxims; now that the trick is played, they tell you to pay as superaddition an enormous sum. This religion, which was, they say, only natural morals, implies over the market price an impossible physique, a bizarre metaphysic, a chimerical history, a theory of divine and human things which is in everything contrary to reason.

« Prev Chapter XXII. New Apologies—Athenagoras,… Next »
VIEWNAME is workSection