JMC : Pre-Scholastic Philosophy / by Albert Stöckl

Minutius Felix, Arnobius and Lactantius.


1. While the Hellenistic theologians were developing a scientific theology, chiefly with regard to the nature of Christ, the ecclesiastical writers of the West were giving special prominence to the points of Christian teaching which regarded belief in God and the immortality of the soul, as well as the anthropological and ethical elements of Christian belief. Amongst these writers, a foremost place is occupied by Minutius Felix, a Roman lawyer, who lived probably towards the close of the second century. In his work Octavius, he describes the conversion of the heathen Cecilius, by Octavius, a Christian. He defends the belief in the unity of God -- a truth which he finds received by philosophers of the greatest renown; he condemns the polytheism of popular superstition as contrary to reason and to the moral sense, and defends against all objectors the Christian doctrine regarding the mutability of the world, the immortality of the soul, and the resurrection of the body.

2. Cecilius maintains that, in our present uncertainty regarding all that transcends experience, we ought not, with vain self-confidence, to trust to our own judgment; that we ought to remain true to the traditions that have come down to us; that if we will play the philosopher we must be content to deal with human things only; and for the rest be satisfied that our best knowledge is to know that we are ignorant. Against this scepticism Octavius protests. Our knowledge of God is not uncertain; on the contrary, nothing is so evident to the human mind as the existence of God, if we but consider the order established in nature, and in particular, the purposed structure of living organisms, more especially of the human body. There must be a Divine Being who rules and governs the world as well in its totality as in its various parts. The unity of plan in nature is proof of the unity of this God. To this unity of God the consciousness of man spontaneously bears testimony (Si Deus dederit, &c.), and it is distinctly acknowledged by almost all philosophers.

3. God is infinite, omnipotent, eternal; before the world He was a world to Himself -- ante Mundum Sibi Ipse fuit pro Mundo -- He alone has adequate knowledge of Himself; He is beyond the comprehension of our understanding. The gods of the popular superstition are deified kings or discoverers. Impure demons also are worshipped as gods. The true God is not in one place or another, He is omnipresent. The world passes; man is immortal. The immortality of the soul is only half the truth, the body also will rise again, and everything in nature will be renewed. It is just that Christians should enjoy a better fate in the future life than the pagans; for ignorance of God is in itself culpable, and knowledge of God is a claim on forgiveness. Moreover, the lives of the Christians are morally much better than those of the pagans. The sufferings of the Christians serve to test and preserve them in their conflict with hostile powers. They are fully justified in abstaining from worldly pleasures, for these are dangerous in their effect upon the moral and religious character. The doctrine of Divine Predestination does not conflict with the justice of God; God foresees the dispositions of men, and determines their lot according to this foreknowledge. Fate is nothing more than the decree of God.

4. The lines of discussion traced by Minutius Felix were followed by Arnobius in his treatise Adversus Gentes, published soon after A.D. 300. Arnobius, while a pagan, had been a stubborn opponent of Christianity, and, in his profession of teacher of rhetoric, had ample opportunity of expressing this hostility. After his conversion to the Christian Faith, the Bishop of Sicca required him to publish a treatise in defence of Christianity, as proof of the genuineness of his conversion. In compliance with this requirement, he published the treatise Adversus Gentes. In this work, he follows Minutius in his attack upon polytheism, but treats the question with greater fulness of detail. The popular superstition he reprobates as absurd and immoral, and defends the doctrine of one eternal God. He summarily rejects the allegorical significance attributed to the myths of polytheism. Doubt as to the existence of God he does not regard as deserving of serious refutation; for belief in God is inborn in every man; nay, the very beasts and plants, if they could only speak, would proclaim God to be the ruler of the universe. God is infinite and eternal -- the place and space in which all things are.

5. Arnobius proves the Divinity of Christ chiefly from the change wrought by Christ in the opinions and manners of mankind, and from His miracles. On the last argument he lays the chief weight. The philosophers, he says, in whom the pagans put their trust, were, for the most part, men of pure lives and were versed in science, but they could not, like Christ, work a miracle. Wherefore we must hold Christ in higher esteem than the philosophers, and set Him above them all. As to the human soul -- Arnobius assigns it a condition of being intermediate between the divine and material, and on this ground controverts the Platonic view that the soul is, of its nature, immortal. The immortality of the soul, he holds, is not a consequence of the nature of the soul, but is a gracious gift of God. This, however, should not make men doubt of the soul's immortality; for, if the soul were mortal, it would not only be a great error, but also a great folly, to control passion, since no reward in a future life would await so difficult a struggle. But the existence of the soul before the body is not to be admitted. The Platonic argument founded on our recollection of things is futile; the correct answers which we return to questions regarding geometrical figures are not derived from knowledge previously acquired, but from present consideration under the guidance of skilful questioning.

6. About the same time as Arnobius, lived and laboured the Rhetorician, Lactantius.

Lactantius was appointed teacher of Rhetoric, at Nicomedia, by the Emperor Diocletian. He became a Christian, probably about A.D. 303, and forthwith undertook the scientific defence of Christianity against his former associates. This defence he conducted by positive exposition of doctrine, as well as by refutation of objections. He endeavoured to render the truth of Christianity intelligible to his adversaries by setting forth the philosophical reasons which justified the Christian teaching. At a later period he became tutor to Crispus, son of the Emperor Constantine. He died about A.D. 325. His principal work is the Institutiones Divinae, in which he maintains the right of Christianity to recognition as a religious system, and, at the same time, gives an exposition of many points of Christian doctrine. He also published a compendium of the Institutiones under the title Epitome Divinarem Institutionum, ad Pentadium Fratrem. We have also from his pen: Liber de Opificio Dei, ad Demetrianum; Liber de Ira Dei; De Mortibus Persecutorum; Fragmenta et Carmina. In these writings he unites to a pleasing manner of presenting his subject a purity of style worthy of Cicero, and a tolerably comprehensive and exact knowledge of his subject. It must, however, he allowed that at times his clear and graceful exposition is not accompanied by thoroughness of treatment and depth of thought.

7. To refute polytheism and demonstrate the unity of God, is a primary task with Lactantius. That there is a God who rules the world with foreknowledge and controlling power cannot be denied in view of the marvellous order which reigns on all sides of the universe. It is equally evident that this God is one. For unity is clearly deducible from the notion of God as an infinitely perfect being. If there were several gods, there would be a division of perfections, and so no one of them would be God any longer. Moreover, the one plan of order established in the world supposes one ordaining power and one providence. If there were several gods, a conflict of wills would be possible, and contentions between them would follow, which must disturb the general order. As one spirit rules the body of man, so one God rules the world. Polytheism has its origin only in aberrations of the human mind; in their misfortunes men call instinctively on the one God, it is only when fortunate and happy that they turn to gods and to idols.

8. The world has been created by God: If matter were eternal it would be unchangeable, and the formation of the world would be, by the fact, impossible. The human soul is a luminous or fiery essence, so delicate and subtle that it escapes not merely the eye of the body, but even the glance of the mind. It is not propagated by procreation, each soul is created immediately by God. In the soul, we must distinguish between the animus (mens) by which we think, and the anima by which we live. It is only in a relative sense, however, that the one can be said to be different from the other. Reason has its seat in the head, it is this faculty which perceives by means of the senses; the senses may be said to be the windows through which it beholds the external world. The body has life from the soul, and from the soul only.

9. The highest good attainable by man must be of such a kind, that it is not shared with other living things, and that it is adapted not to the body but to the nobler element in human nature. It must also be be of a kind which is incapable of increase or diminution; otherwise it would not be the highest good. This character of the good in question requires that it should be eternal. It follows that the highest good cannot be sensual pleasure, for this the beasts also enjoy; nor can it be virtue, for virtue requires a courageous endurance of the sufferings and burdens of this life, and sometimes even demands the sacrifice of life itself -- all which is incompatible with the notion of supreme happiness. The highest good cannot, therefore, be anything of the mere temporal order ; it awaits us in a future life -- it is nothing else than immortality, that is, a life of eternal happiness in God.

10. This being so, the supreme good is attainable only through the knowledge and worship of God, that is, through religion. Religion, not philosophy, leads to happiness. Man differs from the beasts essentially in this that he is an animal religiosum. This is his chief excellence. Furthermore, without religion there is no virtue. If there is no immortality, that is to say, no future life, in which reward and punishment are bestowed on the deeds of this life, virtue has no longer any meaning. Since virtue, then, is a thing worth striving for, only in the hypothesis of a future immortality, it is evident there can be no true virtue without religion. Religion is the mother, the soul of all virtues. But virtue must be united to religion, if religion is to lead man to the goal of life. Religion and virtue are the pathway to the sovereign good. Virtue does not consist in an entire suppression of the passions (pathê), such a course would be unnatural, and only a fool would enter upon it; nor does virtue consist in the weakening of the passions, it is rather to be found in a right use of the pathê, i.e., in directing them to the attainment of the supreme good.

11. Lactantius having asserted that the sovereign good of man is immortality, it might have been expected that he would have demonstrated scientifically the immortality of the soul, and proofs to this effect are not wanting in his works; but he holds, like Arnobius, that this immortality does not result from the nature of the soul, but is to be accounted for by the conserving power of God. This being premised, he infers the immortality of the soul from its capacity to know and love God and from its natural destination to these acts. God, the object of its knowledge and love, is eternal; it follows that the soul which is created to know and love Him must also be eternal, i.e., immortal. An analogous argument may be drawn from the notion of virtue: virtue being, in its essence, enduring and eternal, it follows that the soul, which is capable of virtue, must share in these attributes. Finally, the immortality of the soul may be demonstrated from its Divine origin, and from this, further, that its works, in contrast with those of the body, are destined to endure eternally.

12. Into his teaching regarding the resurrection of the body Lactantius introduces the fantastic notions of the Chiliasts. The souls of men, after death, are retained together in one place, till the resurrection. The resurrection of all the dead does not take place at once. The resurrection of the just takes place first, after which follows the reign of a thousand years. Then, comes the second resurrection -- that of the just and the unjust, and, after this, the Last Judgment.

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