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Home > Fathers of the Church > Exhortation to the Heathen (Clement of Alexandria) > Chapter 6

Exhortation to the Heathen (Chapter 6)

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Chapter 6. By Divine Inspiration Philosophers Sometimes Hit on the Truth.

A great crowd of this description rushes on my mind, introducing, as it were, a terrifying apparition of strange demons, speaking of fabulous and monstrous shapes, in old wives' talk. Far from enjoining men to listen to such tales are we, who avoid the practice of soothing our crying children, as the saying is, by telling them fabulous stories, being afraid of fostering in their minds the impiety professed by those who, though wise in their own conceit, have no more knowledge of the truth than infants. For why (in the name of truth!) do you make those who believe you subject to ruin and corruption, dire and irretrievable? Why, I beseech you, fill up life with idolatrous images, by feigning the winds, or the air, or fire, or earth, or stones, or stocks, or steel, or this universe, to be gods; and, prating loftily of the heavenly bodies in this much vaunted science of astrology, not astronomy, to those men who have truly wandered, talk of the wandering stars as gods? It is the Lord of the spirits, the Lord of the fire, the Maker of the universe, Him who lighted up the sun, that I long for. I seek after God, not the works of God. Whom shall I take as a helper in my inquiry? We do not, if you have no objection, wholly disown Plato. How, then, is God to be searched out, O Plato? For both to find the Father and Maker of this universe is a work of difficulty; and having found Him, to declare Him fully, is impossible.

Why so? By Himself, I beseech you! For He can by no means be expressed. Well done, Plato! You have touched on the truth. But do not flag. Undertake with me the inquiry respecting the Good. For into all men whatever, especially those who are occupied with intellectual pursuits, a certain divine effluence has been instilled; wherefore, though reluctantly, they confess that God is one, indestructible, unbegotten, and that somewhere above in the tracts of heaven, in His own peculiar appropriate eminence, whence He surveys all things, He has an existence true and eternal.

Tell me what I am to conceive God to be,
Who sees all things, and is Himself unseen,

Euripides says. Accordingly, Menander seems to me to have fallen into error when he said:—

O sun! For you, first of gods, ought to be worshipped,
By whom it is that we are able to see the other gods.

For the sun never could show me the true God; but that healthful Word, that is the Sun of the soul, by whom alone, when He arises in the depths of the soul, the eye of the soul itself is irradiated. Whence accordingly, Democritus, not without reason, says, that a few of the men of intellect, raising their hands upwards to what we Greeks now call the air (ἀήρ), called the whole expanse Zeus, or God: He, too, knows all things, gives and takes away, and He is King of all.

Of the same sentiments is Plato, who somewhere alludes to God thus: Around the King of all are all things, and He is the cause of all good things. Who, then, is the King of all? God, who is the measure of the truth of all existence. As, then, the things that are to be measured are contained in the measure, so also the knowledge of God measures and comprehends truth. And the truly holy Moses says: There shall not be in your bag a balance and a balance, great or small, but a true and just balance shall be to you, deeming the balance and measure and number of the whole to be God. For the unjust and unrighteous idols are hid at home in the bag, and, so to speak, in the polluted soul. But the only just measure is the only true God, always just, continuing the self-same; who measures all things, and weighs them by righteousness as in a balance, grasping and sustaining universal nature in equilibrium. God, therefore, as the old saying has it, occupying the beginning, the middle, and the end of all that is in being, keeps the straight course, while He makes the circuit of nature; and justice always follows Him, avenging those who violate the divine law.

Whence, O Plato, is that hint of the truth which you give? Whence this rich copiousness of diction, which proclaims piety with oracular utterance? The tribes of the barbarians, he says, are wiser than these; I know your teachers, even if you would conceal them. You have learned geometry from the Egyptians, astronomy from the Babylonians; the charms of healing you have got from the Thracians; the Assyrians also have taught you many things; but for the laws that are consistent with truth, and your sentiments respecting God, you are indebted to the Hebrews,

Who do not worship through vain deceits
The works of men, of gold, and brass, and silver, and ivory,
And images of dead men, of wood and stone,
Which other men, led by their foolish inclinations, worship;
But raise to heaven pure arms:
When they rise from bed, purifying themselves with water,
And worship alone the Eternal, who reigns for ever more.

And let it not be this one man alone — Plato; but, O philosophy, hasten to produce many others also, who declare the only true God to be God, through His inspiration, if in any measure they have grasped the truth. For Antisthenes did not think out this doctrine of the Cynics; but it is in virtue of his being a disciple of Socrates that he says, that God is not like to any; wherefore no one can know Him from an image. And Xenophon the Athenian would have in his own person committed freely to writing somewhat of the truth, and given the same testimony as Socrates, had he not been afraid of the cup of poison, which Socrates had to drink. But he hints nothing less; he says: How great and powerful He is who moves all things, and is Himself at rest, is manifest; but what He is in form is not revealed. The sun himself, intended to be the source of light to all around, does not deem it fitting to allow himself to be looked at; but if any one audaciously gazes on him, he is deprived of sight. Whence, then, does the son of Gryllus learn his wisdom? Is it not manifestly from the prophetess of the Hebrews who prophesies in the following style?—

What flesh can see with the eye the celestial,
The true, the immortal God, who inhabits the vault of heaven?
Nay, men born mortal cannot even stand
Before the rays of the sun.

Cleanthes Pisadeus, the Stoic philosopher, who exhibits not a poetic theogony, but a true theology, has not concealed what sentiments he entertained respecting God: —

If you ask me what is the nature of the good, listen:
That which is regular, just, holy, pious.
Self-governing, useful, fair, fitting,
Grave, independent, always beneficial;
That feels no fear or grief; profitable, painless,
Helpful, pleasant, safe, friendly;
Held in esteem, agreeing with itself, honourable;
Humble, careful, meek, zealous,
Perennial, blameless, ever-during:
Mean is every one who looks to opinion
With the view of obtaining some advantage from it.

Here, as I think, he clearly teaches of what nature God is; and that the common opinion and religious customs enslave those that follow them, but seek not after God.

We must not either keep the Pythagoreans in the background, who say: God is one; and He is not, as some suppose, outside of this frame of things, but within it; but, in all the entireness of His being, is in the whole circle of existence, surveying all nature, and blending in harmonious union the whole — the author of all His own forces and works, the giver of light in heaven, and Father of all — the mind and vital power of the whole world — the mover of all things. For the knowledge of God, these utterances, written by those we have mentioned through the inspiration of God, and selected by us, may suffice even for the man that has but small power to examine into truth.

About this page

Source. Translated by William Wilson. From Ante-Nicene Fathers, Vol. 2. Edited by Alexander Roberts, James Donaldson, and A. Cleveland Coxe. (Buffalo, NY: Christian Literature Publishing Co., 1885.) Revised and edited for New Advent by Kevin Knight. <>.

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