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Home > Fathers of the Church > The Harmony of the Gospels (Augustine) > Book I, Chapter 23

The Harmony of the Gospels, Book I

Chapter 23. Of the Follies Which the Pagans Have Indulged in Regarding Jupiter and Saturn.

31. These narratives of yours, say they, are but fables which have to be interpreted by the wise, or else they are fit only to be laughed at; but we revere that Jupiter of whom Maro says that

All things are full of Jove,
— Virgil's Eclogues, iii. v. 60;

that is to say, the spirit of life that vivifies all things. It is not without some reason, therefore, that Varro thought that Jove was worshipped by the Jews; for the God of the Jews says by His prophet, I fill heaven and earth. But what is meant by that which the same poet names Ether? How do they take the term? For he speaks thus:

Then the omnipotent father Ether, with fertilizing showers,
Came down into the bosom of his fruitful spouse.
— Virgil's Georgics, ii. 325.

They say, indeed, that this Ether is not spirit, but a lofty body in which the heaven is stretched above the air. Is liberty conceded to the poet to speak at one time in the language of the followers of Plato, as if God was not body, but spirit, and at another time in the language of the Stoics, as if God was a body? What is it, then, that they worship in their Capitol? If it is a spirit, or if again it is, in short, the corporeal heaven itself, then what does that shield of Jupiter there which they style the Ægis? The origin of that name, indeed, is explained by the circumstance that a goat nourished Jupiter when he was concealed by his mother. Or is this a fiction of the poets? But are the capitols of the Romans, then, also the mere creations of the poets? And what is the meaning of that, certainly not poetical, but unmistakeably farcical, variability of yours, in seeking your gods according to the ideas of philosophers in books, and revering them according to the notions of poets in your temples?

32. But was that Euhemerus also a poet, who declares both Jupiter himself, and his father Saturn, and Pluto and Neptune his brothers, to have been men, in terms so exceedingly plain that their worshippers ought all the more to render thanks to the poets, because their inventions have not been intended so much to disparage them as rather to dress them up? Albeit Cicero mentions that this same Euhemerus was translated into Latin by the poet Ennius. Or was Cicero himself a poet, who, in counselling the person with whom he debates in his Tusculan Disputations, addresses him as one possessing knowledge of things secret, in the following terms: If, indeed, I were to attempt to search into antiquity, and produce from thence the subjects which the writers of Greece have given to the world, it would be found that even those deities who are reckoned gods of the higher orders have gone from us into heaven. Ask whose sepulchres are pointed out in Greece: call to mind, since you have been initiated, the things which are delivered in the mysteries: then, doubtless, you will comprehend how widely extended this belief is. This author certainly makes ample acknowledgment of the doctrine that those gods of theirs were originally men. He does, indeed, benevolently surmise that they made their way into heaven. But he did not hesitate to say in public, that even the honour thus given them in general repute was conferred upon them by men, when he spoke of Romulus in these words: By good will and repute we have raised to the immortal gods that Romulus who founded this city. How should it be such a wonderful thing, therefore, to suppose that the more ancient men did with respect to Jupiter and Saturn and the others what the Romans have done with respect to Romulus, and what, in good truth, they have thought of doing even in these more recent times also in the case of Cæsar? And to these same Virgil has addressed the additional flattery of song, saying:

Lo, the star of Cæsar, descendant of Dione, arose.
— Eclogue, ix. ver. 47.

Let them see to it, then, that the truth of history do not turn out to exhibit to our view sepulchres erected for their false gods here upon the earth!and let them take heed lest the vanity of poetry, instead of fixing, may be but feigning stars for their deities there in heaven. For, in reality, that one is not the star of Jupiter, neither is this one the star of Saturn; but the simple fact is, that upon these stars, which were set from the foundation of the world, the names of those persons were imposed after their death by men who were minded to honour them as gods on their departure from this life. And with respect to these we may, indeed, ask how there should be such ill desert in chastity, or such good desert in voluptuousness, that Venus should have a star, and Minerva be denied one among those luminaries which revolve along with the sun and moon?

33. But it may be said that Cicero, the Academic sage, who has been bold enough to make mention of the sepulchres of their gods, and to commit the statement to writing, is a more doubtful authority than the poets; although he did not presume to offer that assertion simply as his own personal opinion, but put it on record as a statement contained among the traditions of their own sacred rites. Well, then, can it also be maintained that Varro either gives expression merely to an invention of his own, as a poet might do, or puts the matter only dubiously, as might be the case with an Academician, because he declares that, in the instance of all such gods, the matters of their worship had their origin either in the life which they lived, or in the death which they died, among men? Or was that Egyptian priest, Leon, either a poet or an Academician, who expounded the origin of those gods of theirs to Alexander of Macedon, in a way somewhat different indeed from the opinion advanced by the Greeks, but nevertheless so far accordant therewith as to make out their deities to have been originally men?

34. But what is all this to us? Let them assert that they worship Jupiter, and not a dead man; let them maintain that they have dedicated their Capitol not to a dead man, but to the Spirit that vivifies all things and fills the world. And as to that shield of his, which was made of the skin of a she-goat in honour of his nurse, let them put upon it whatever interpretation they please. What do they say, however, about Saturn? What is it that they worship under the name of Saturn? Is not this the deity that was the first to come down to us from Olympus (of whom the poet sings):

Then from Olympus' height came down
Good Saturn, exiled from his crown
By Jove, his mightier heir:
He brought the race to union first
Erewhile, on mountain-tops dispersed,
And gave them statutes to obey,
And willed the land wherein he lay
Should Latium's title bear.
— Virgil's Æneid, viii. 320-324, Conington's trans.

Does not his very image, made as it is with the head covered, present him as one under concealment? Was it not he that made the practice of agriculture known to the people of Italy, a fact which is expressed by the reaping-hook? No, say they; for you may see whether the being of whom such things are recorded was a man, and indeed one particular king: we, however, interpret Saturn to be universal Time, as is signified also by his name in Greek: for he is called Chronus, which word, with the aspiration thus given it, is also the vocable for time: whence, too, in Latin he gets the name of Saturn, as if it meant that he is sated with years. But now, what we are to make of people like these I know not, who, in their very effort to put a more favourable meaning upon the names and the images of their gods, make the confession that the very god who is their major deity, and the father of the rest, is Time. For what else do they thus betray but, in fact, that all those gods of theirs are only temporal, seeing that the very parent of them all is made out to be Time?

35. Accordingly, their more recent philosophers of the Platonic school, who have flourished in Christian times, have been ashamed of such fancies, and have endeavoured to interpret Saturn in another way, affirming that he received the name Χρόνος in order to signify, as it were, the fullness of intellect; their explanation being, that in Greek fullness is expressed by the term χόρος, and intellect or mind by the term νοῦς; which etymology seems to be favoured also by the Latin name, on the supposition that the first part of the word (Saturnus) came from the Latin, and the second part from the Greek: so that he got the title Saturnus as an equivalent to satur, νοῦς . For they saw how absurd it was to have that Jupiter regarded as a son of Time, whom they either considered, or wished to have considered, eternal deity. Furthermore, however, according to this novel interpretation, which it is marvellous that Cicero and Varro should have suffered to escape their notice, if their ancient authorities really had it, they call Jupiter the son of Saturn, thus denoting him, it may be, as the spirit that proceeds forth from that supreme mind— the spirit which they choose to look upon as the soul of this world, so to speak, filling alike all heavenly and all earthly bodies. Whence comes also that saying of Maro, which I have cited a little ago, namely, All things are full of Jove? Should they not, then, if they are possessed of the ability, alter the superstitions indulged in by men, just as they alter their interpretation; and either erect no images at all, or at least build capitols to Saturn rather than to Jupiter? For they also maintain that no rational soul can be produced gifted with wisdom, except by participation in that supreme and unchangeable wisdom of his; and this affirmation they advance not only with respect to the soul of a man, but even with respect to that same soul of the world which they also designate Jove. Now we not only concede, but even very particularly proclaim, that there is a certain supreme wisdom of God, by participation in which every soul whatsoever that is constituted truly wise acquires its wisdom. But whether that universal corporeal mass, which is called the world, has a kind of soul, or, so to speak, its own soul, that is to say, a rational life by which it can govern its own movements, as is the case with every sort of animal, is a question both vast and obscure. That is an opinion which ought not to be affirmed, unless its truth is clearly ascertained; neither ought it to be rejected, unless its falsehood is as clearly ascertained. And what will it matter to man, even should this question remain for ever unsolved, since, in any case, no soul becomes wise or blessed by drawing from any other soul but from that one supreme and immutable wisdom of God?

36. The Romans, however, who have founded a Capitol in honour of Jupiter, but none in honour of Saturn, as also these other nations whose opinion it has been that Jupiter ought to be worshipped pre-eminently and above the rest of the gods, have certainly not agreed in sentiment with the persons referred to; who, in accordance with that mad view of theirs, would dedicate their loftiest citadels rather to Saturn, if they had any power in these things, and who most particularly would annihilate those mathematicians and nativity-spinners by whom this Saturn, whom their opponents would designate the maker of the wise, has been placed with the character of a deity of evil among the other stars. But this opinion, nevertheless, has prevailed so mightily against them in the mind of humanity, that men decline even to name that god, and call him Ancient rather than Saturn; and that in so fearful a spirit of superstition, that the Carthaginians have now gone very near to change the designation of their town, and call it the town of the Ancient more frequently than the town of Saturn.

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Source. Translated by S.D.F. Salmond. From Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, First Series, Vol. 6. Edited by Philip Schaff. (Buffalo, NY: Christian Literature Publishing Co., 1888.) Revised and edited for New Advent by Kevin Knight. <>.

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