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From Pagan And Puritan: The “Octavius” of Minucius, Freely Translated by Arthur Aikin Brodribb, London: George Bell & Sons; 1903; pp. 5-25.

Decorated headpiece, black and white engraving of scrollwork, with a finial or vase-like device in the center.


[Part II. Pagan: Caecilius]

THEN Caecilius began:

“I know that you, brother Marcus, have made up your mind on the main subject of our discussion, and that, after honestly trying both ways of life, you have rejected the one 6 and have chosen the other. All the same, your mental attitude for the present must be that of a judge who holds the scales evenly, and you must not lean to either side, or your judgement will seem to result less from our arguments than from your own sympathies. Remember, you are sitting judicially, as a stranger to both parties. Now, that being so, it ought not to be difficult for me to show that all our human speculations are doubtful and provisional; plausible, it may be, but not verified. That makes it all the more surprising that, when people get tired of investigation, so many of them should fall easy victims to almost any theory rather than persevere doggedly in the inquiry. But when uncultivated and illiterate persons, without even a skilled workman’s training, pronounce confidently on the highest and most abstract questions which all schools of philosophy in all ages have debated and are still debating, I suppose that everyone must condemn and regret their presumption. And rightly, for our human limitations render us quite unequal to these theological inquiries. We do not know, and we may not examine, and we cannot without irreverence theorize about what 7 is high above us in the heavens or is buried far below us in the earth.

“Truly, we may think ourselves happy enough, and wise enough, if we take the advice of the old sage, and cultivate a better knowledge of ourselves. However, we are so attracted by the foolish ambition to exceed our limited capacities that, while we grovel on earth, we aspire to penetrate to heaven itself and the very stars. Yet even so we need not aggravate our blunder by wild and dreadful imaginings. Suppose, as the origin of everything, a natural concourse of atoms; why postulate divine agency? Or suppose that a fortuitous concourse of atoms formed and consolidated the various parts of the universe; why introduce a divine artificer? Or say simply that fire kindled the stars, that the heavens float because they are light, that the earth is fixed because it is heavy, and that the sea is an accumulation of water; how do religion, dread of God, and superstition enter into that statement of the case? The fact is that man and every animal that is born and lives and grows, is a spontaneous concretion of elements into which he, with every living thing, is ultimately resolved. All things 8 return to their source in automatic revolution, without any external interference or agency. In this way, when particles of fire are collected, new suns are continually formed; when vapours are exhaled from the land, they become mists; when these thicken and are driven together, they form banks of clouds, and, when these fall, down come rain and squalls and hail, or, if the storm-clouds meet, thunder and lightning and thunder-bolts. And observe, these fall everywhere; they attack the mountains and the trees; they affect all places indiscriminately, whether holy or profane, and strike all men, whether saints or sinners. I need not remind you of the uncertainty and caprice of storms, in which all nature seems to be involved without rule or reason; or of shipwrecks, where good and bad meet a common fate without regard to their deserts; or of fires, in which the guilty and the innocent are alike consumed. In an epidemic, are not all carried off without distinction? In battle, do not the best men generally fall? In peace, on the other hand, wickedness is not only put on an equality with virtue, but is so favoured that in a good many cases one envies the prosperity of the criminal 9 as much as one detests his crimes. No; if the world were governed by divine providence, and were under the supreme authority of any one deity, divine justice would never have awarded thrones to Phalaris and Dionysius, exile to Rutilius and Camillus, and poison to Socrates. Look at the loaded fruit-trees, the ripe cornfields, the juicy vineyards; look at them, and see them ruined by rain, or beaten down by hail. The fact is, either the destined event is hidden and concealed from us, or, as is more probable, lawless chance, with its endless critical contingencies, rules everything.

“But in either case, with destiny so uncertain, and nature so capricious, how much better and more reverent it is for us to take the teaching of our ancestors as the witness of the truth; to keep our traditional religion, to worship the gods whom our parents taught us to fear before knowing them familiarly, and, instead of dogmatizing on theology, to follow our forefathers who, in the first rough ages of the world, rightly esteemed their gods as either servants or kings. That is the reason why every state, province and town has its own sacred rites, and worships its local civic gods. The Eleusinians worship Ceres, the Phrygians 10 Cybele, the Epidaurians Aesculapius, the Chaldaeans Belus, the Syrians Astarte, the Taurians Diana, the Gauls Mercury, the Romans all of them. The Romans have filled the whole world with their power and authority, and have extended their rule beyond the paths of the sun and the bounds of ocean. And why? Because with them religion and valour go hand in hand; because the strength of their city is in the sanctity of religious rites, pure priestesses, and priests of many degrees and titles; because, when the city was besieged and taken, all but the Capitol, they remained true to the gods whom others would have cast off in anger, and, while the Gauls wondered at their confident faith, marched through their ranks with no other arms than religious devotion; because, when they take a city they honour the gods of their beaten foes even in the first flush of victory; because everywhere they seek to make the gods their guests and their own; because they sometimes build altars to unknown gods and spirits. Thus they have adopted the religion, and have earned the dominions, of all nations. And thus the uninterrupted continuance of our religion has 11 endured, not weakened, but fortified by the lapse of ages; and the holiness of our ceremonies and temples has increased with their lengthening antiquity.

“Still, for I may venture to make the concession, and in doing so to err on the safe side, our ancestors were well advised in consulting auguries, observing omens, instituting ceremonies, and dedicating shrines. If you look at the record of history, you will find that all religious rites originated in the desire to recompense the gods for their favour, or to avert coming wrath, or to mitigate its threatening violence. I may instance the worship of the Idaean mother, whose coming proved the virtue of a matron and saved the city from the fear of the enemy; the sacred statues of the twin horsemen by the lake, as they appeared, breathless on foaming and smoking steeds, and announced the victory they had won that very day over Perseus; the renewal, in consequence of a country-fellow’s dream, of the games in honour of the offended Jupiter; the determined devotion of the Decii; and Curtius, who closed up a yawning chasm by plunging into it on horseback. Only too often has the neglect of 12 auspices attested the power of the god. For this reason, Allia is a name of evil omen; and the wreck of the fleet of Claudius and Junius, if not their battle with the Carthaginians, is a mournful memory. Flaminius contemned the auguries, and Trasymenus was swollen and reddened with Roman blood; and Crassus laughed at, and deserved, the imprecations of the Furies with the result that we are still recovering our standards from the Parthians.2 I say nothing of a number of old stories, I ignore what the poets have said about the birthdays of the gods, and their gifts and presents; I even pass over instances of fate foretold by oracles, lest you should think ancient history too fabulous. But consider the temples and shrines of the gods, which protect and adorn the Roman state; it is no wealth of decoration, of gifts and offerings, that makes them glorious, but the indwelling, the presence, the tenancy of the gods themselves. There divinely inspired priests dip into the future, give counsel in danger, medicine in sickness, hope to the afflicted, help to the desolate, comfort in calamity, and relief in distress. Deny them, reject them, forswear them as we may in the 13 daytime, in the quiet of night we see and hear and recognize the gods.

“And therefore, as there is a substantial agreement among all nations as to the immortal gods, whatever the explanation and origin of them may be, it is intolerable that anyone should be so puffed up with audacity and profane conceit as to endeavour to destroy or weaken so old, so useful, so wholesome a religion. There were, of course, Theodorus of Cyrene, and his predecessor Diagoras of Melos, who was formerly surnamed the Atheist. They declared that there were no gods, and did their best to abolish the fear and sense of religion by which the human race is influenced. But these sham philosophies, with their blasphemous tenets, will never have any formidable following or authority. Considering that when Protagoras of Abdera was arguing about the nature of the gods, not profanely, but only rationally, the Athenians banished him and publicly burned his writings, well — you must excuse my vehemence — but is it not lamentable that members of an unlawful and hopelessly discredited sect should assail the gods? These are the people who get together the lowest and most ignorant 14 classes, and foolish women with all the gullibility of their sex, and start a profane society of conspirators which meets at night and is bound together by solemn fasts and inhuman food, and not by any holy rite, but by a crime. It is a tribe that loves hiding-places and darkness, says nothing in public, but is talkative enough in secret corners. They despise the temples as mere burial places, spit at the gods, and jeer at holy things. They pity our priests in spite of their own pitiable condition, and look down upon appointments and robes of office, though they are themselves almost in rags. What amazing folly; what incredible impudence! They think nothing of present torture, but dread what is uncertain and future; and they fear death after death, but are not afraid to die in the meantime, the fact being that an illusory hope soothes their terrors and consoles them with the prospect of another life.

Ill weeds grow apace, and already, with the daily increase of immorality, there is everywhere an increase of these disgusting and profane meetings. The conspiracy must be cut out3 and utterly uprooted. They recognize each other by private marks and signs; they 15 profess to love one another before they are actually acquainted; everywhere among them there is a quasi-religious strain of grossness, and they call each other ‘brother’ and ‘sister’ promiscuously in order that these hallowed names may give zest to ordinary sin. Thus their vain and insane superstition glories in crime. Nor would rumour, well informed as it is, say the most atrocious unmentionable things of them without a substratum of truth. I hear that they consecrate and worship — I know not with what absurd idea — the head of an ass,4 the most abject of all creatures. Their religion is indeed appropriate to the customs in which it originates! Others speak of a still less decorous object of their veneration.5 This may not be true, but suspicion inevitably attaches to secret and nocturnal ceremonies. And the story that they accord a religious sanctity to a man who was put to death for his crime, and to the wood of the fatal cross, provides very suitable holy things for these wretches, and enables them to worship what they deserve. As for their method of initiating neophytes, the account is as horrible as it is notorious. A baby is completely hidden under a quantity of meal, and 16 is placed before the person who is to be initiated. The unwary novice is directed to stab into what looks like a mass of meal, and in doing so unintentionally kills the child. Then — how shocking it all is — they greedily lap up the child’s blood, and sever his limbs. This is the sacrifice that binds them together; this is the guilty secret that pledges them all mutually to silence. Rites like these are worse than the worst sacrilege. We know, too, about their feasts; it is common talk, and is borne out by the speech of my fellow-countryman, Fronto of Cirta.6 They meet for their feast on an appointed day, with all their wives, children, sisters and mothers; people of both sexes and all ages, and then, after a full meal, when everyone has become excited — but why describe such a scene of debauchery?7

“I pass over many other things deliberately. These are more than enough, and the mere secresy of this corrupt religion proclaims the truth of all, or almost all, of them. Now, why do they take such great pains to conceal what they worship? Honesty loves the light of day; crime hides its head. Why have they no altars, no temples, no famous images, no public addresses, no open meetings, if what they worship 17 so mysteriously is neither illegal nor shameful? And whence, and who, and where is this one solitary lonely God of theirs who is unknown to every free people and kingdom, and even to Roman superstition? The unique and miserable Jewish race had one God, but they worshipped him openly, with temples, altars, sacrifices, and ceremonies; and he had so little power and influence that he and his own peculiar nation have been captured by mere mortal Romans. But the Christians, what portentous monsters they invent! They pretend that this God of theirs, whom they can neither show nor see, diligently scrutinizes the hearts of all, the acts of all, and even words and secret thoughts, in his ubiquitous ramblings. Their conception is of a troublesome and restless deity, who is at once ineffective8 and inquisitive, because, if he is a party to all that goes on, and roams about everywhere, his universal cares would make him useless to individuals, while his attention to individuals would preclude his universal utility.

“Then again, what is to be said for their doctrine that the world itself, and the universe with its stars will some day be burnt up and ruined? As if the eternal order of nature, 18 settled by divine laws, could be disturbed; as if the elements could break their bonds, and the heavenly framework split, and the vast mass in which everything is contained be overthrown! And not content with this absurdity, they tack on to it a parcel of tales fit only for old women. They say that, after death and dust and ashes, they are born again; and they encourage each other to believe their lies with such unaccountable confidence that you would imagine that they had already found them true. These delusions involve the doubly lunatic prophecy of destruction to the heavens and the stars, which we leave exactly as we found them, and of eternity, when we are dead and done with, to ourselves, who die as naturally as we are born. For that reason, I believe, they denounce cremation; as if every copse, whether burnt or not, was not sooner or later resolved into earth; as if it mattered whether wild beasts tore it in pieces, or the sea swallowed it up, or the ground covered it, or fire consumed it. If corpses feel, every way of disposing of them must be painful; if they do not, cremation, as the speediest mode, must be a benefit. With these mistaken ideas they deceive themselves, and look forward to a life 19 of endless happiness after death; while to the rest, that is, the wicked, they assign eternal punishment. On this I might say much, only my argument must hasten on. I need not labour the point that they are morally bad, for by this time I have proved it. And yet, if I pronounced in their favour, I should have to bear in mind the general opinion that both badness and goodness are attributable to fate; and this must also be your own view, because, while we ascribe all human action to fate, you ascribe it to God, and people join your sect, not spontaneously, but when they are called. Your hypothesis, then, is of an unjust judge, who punishes men not for their will, but for their circumstances.

“But as regards this future life, I should like to know, is this resurrection to be without, or with, our bodies; and with what bodies; with our old bodies, or with new ones? Without the body? That, as far as I can see, is neither mind, nor soul, nor life. With the same body? Well, but it has already perished. With another body? In that case it is new birth, not restored existence. And really, in the whole course of time, after all these innumerable ages, is there a single authentic 20 instance of any person’s return from the lower regions, even with the short three hours’ leave of absence granted to Protesilaus? All these figments of a diseased imagination, all these purely ornamental poetical legends you have unblushingly furbished up in order to support your too9 credulous belief in your God.

“And yet you do not perceive from your present circumstances how you are deceived by false hopes and empty promises. You poor people, learn while you are alive what you may expect after death. Look at the greater part of your people — the ‘better’ part, as you call them — and see how they suffer from want, cold, drudgery and hunger. And God allows it all, and pretends that it is nothing, and is either so powerless or so unjust that he will not, or cannot, help his own! You, who dream of posthumous immortality, when you are unnerved by danger, parched by fever, or racked with pain, are you still unconscious of your own condition? Do you not recognize your weakness? My poor fellow, you are convicted, in spite of yourself, of an infirmity that you will not acknowledge. But these are commonplaces, and I pass on. See what is in store for you, 21 pains and penalties and tortures; and crosses, not to be adored but endured; and fires, too, such as you predict and fear. And where is that God who can help you when you come to life again, but not while you are alive? Do not the Romans rule without any help from your God? Of course they do; they enjoy the whole world, and they are your masters. But as for you, you walk in fear and trembling, you abstain from honest pleasures, you never go to the theatres, you take no part in public processions and feasts, you loathe the sacred contests, and you abhor meat and drink that has been taken from our altars. Apparently you are afraid of the gods whom you deny. You wear no flowers in your hair, and you use no sweet-smelling unguents, but keep them for funerals. You even refuse wreaths of flowers for your graves. Truly, a cheerless, pale-faced set of people, who deserve all pity, even from our own gods; for you are in this unfortunate position, that you neither rise again nor live while you may. If you have any sense or modesty, you will pry no more into the regions of heaven and into the hidden destinies of the world. It is enough for very ignorant and uncultivated 22 people to see what is at their feet. When men cannot understand human affairs, assuredly they must not be allowed to argue about divinity.

“Still, if you positively must philosophize, let any one of your sect who is equal to it imitate, if he can, Socrates, the very prince of wisdom. Whenever he was asked about heavenly things, he gave the famous answer, ‘that which is above us is nothing to us.’ He well deserved the oracle’s testimony to his singular wisdom, and, indeed, suspected what it was that raised him above other men; not that he had discovered everything, but because he had learned that he knew nothing. In this way the confession of ignorance is a very high form of wisdom. From this principle came the unassailable scepticism of Arcesilaus and, a good deal later, of Carneades and most of the Academics on all the most abstruse speculations; and this is the kind of philosophy in which the unlearned may indulge cautiously and the learned with confidence. Surely, we must all admire and try to follow the deliberation of Simonides, the lyric poet. When King Hiero asked Simonides what he thought the gods were, and of what nature, 23 he took a day to consider the question, and on the morrow asked for two days more, and then demanded another. And finally, when the king asked the reason for so much delay, he answered that the more he reflected on the subject the more obscure he found it. That is my own opinion too. When things are doubtful, it is best to leave them alone; and, when so many great men have debated them, you must not come, hastily and presumptuously, to any definite conclusion. Otherwise, the result will be, either some foolish superstition, or the destruction of all religion.”

Such was the speech of Caecilius. His indignation had subsided in the flow of his oratory, and he said with a smile:

“What answer to all this shall we have from our aggressive friend, Octavius, a most eminent man among nobodies, but the last and least of philosophers?”10

“Wait a little before you crow over him,” said I; “your rejoicings will be out of order until both sides have been heard, especially as the object of your discussion is not a personal triumph, but truth. And I must say that, though I was much pleased with your 24 ingenious and varied argument, what impresses me most, not in this particular discussion, but in all controversy, is the way in which even obvious truths are affected by the ability and the eloquence of the speaker. Very often his hearers are too sympathetic. Words fascinate them so much that they are apt to lose their grip of ideas and assent casually to all sorts of propositions, with no real perception of truth and error, and no appreciation of the fact that the incredible may be more or less true, and the probable more or less false. Whatever they assent to, some clever person is sure to prove them in the wrong; and the result is that, after being repeatedly misled by their own hasty conclusions, they fancy that what bewilders them is the inherent uncertainty of the question. Ultimately, with a fine condemnation of dogma, they avoid the risk of error by expressing no opinions at all. This being so, let us try to avoid everything that has brought controversy into disrepute, and has led simple-minded people to detest it. We must remember that some people are easy-going and credulous, and that, when they are misled by their trusted guides, they naturally suspect 25 everybody and fear the evil designs of their best friends. In a controversy that is hard-fought on both sides, truth is often obscure, and, thanks to eloquence, sheer subtleties are often made to look like first principles. I am particularly anxious, then, to weigh every argument carefully, so that, while recognizing ingenuity, we may find out and determine the truth.”

“You are departing,” said Caecilius, “from the duty of an impartial judge, for it is very unfair that you should blunt the edge of my argument by interpolating these important considerations. Octavius has to answer my case, if he can, and he ought to have it before him fresh and untouched.”

“I did what you object to,” I rejoined, “for our mutual advantage, as I thought; and my object was that the scales of justice should be made to respond, not to frothy rhetoric, but to the solid merits of the case. However, there shall be no further digression, since you dislike it. Let us listen quietly to the reply which our friend Octavius is burning to make.”

Decorated tailpiece, black and white engraving of flower and its leaves.


Part III.  Puritan: Octavius