Fathers of the Church

Letter XVI

Description

In this letter to Augustine, Maximus of Madaura argues there is one supreme God who is worshipped in many forms in traditional Roman religion; he criticizes Christians for abandoning traditional worship and for exalting even the most stubborn of impious persons, the martyrs, above the traditional gods. Augustine responds in letter XVII.

Provenance

The correspondence of St. Augustine that has been preserved includes more than 270 letters, including well over 200 written by him. Those numbered 1-30 span the period between his conversion and his episcopal ordination.

by Augustine of Hippo in 390 | translated by J. G. Cunningham

FROM MAXIMUS OF MADAURA TO AUGUSTIN.

1. Desiring to be frequently made glad by communications from you, and by the stimulus of your reasoning with which in a most pleasant way, and without violation of good feeling, you recently attacked me, I have not forborne from replying to you in the same spirit, lest you should call my silence an acknowledgment of being in the wrong. But I beg you to give these sentences an indulgent kindly hearing, if you judge them to give evidence of the feebleness of old age.

Grecian mythology tells us, but without sufficient warrant for our believing the statement, that Mount Olympus is the dwelling-place of the gods. But we actually see the market-place of our town occupied by a crowd of beneficent deities; and we approve of this. Who could ever be so frantic and infatuated as to deny that there is one supreme God, without beginning, without natural offspring, who is, as it were, the great and mighty Father of all? The powers of this Deity, diffused throughout the universe which He has made, we worship under many names, as we are all ignorant of His true name, the name God being common to all kinds of religious belief. Thus it comes, that while in diverse supplications we approach separately, as it were, certain parts of the Divine Being, we are seen in reality to be the worshippers of Him in whom all these parts are one.

2. Such is the greatness of your delusion in another matter, that I cannot conceal the impatience with which I regard it. For who can bear to find Mygdo honoured above that Jupiter who hurls the thunderbolt; or (Sanae) above Juno, Minerva, Venus, and Vesta; or the arch-martyr Namphanio (oh horror!) above all the immortal gods together? Among the immortals, Lucitas also is looked up to with no less religious reverence, and others in an endless list (having names abhorred both by gods and by men), who, when they met the ignominious end which their character and conduct had deserved, put the crowning act upon their criminal career by affecting to die nobly in a good cause, though conscious of the infamous deeds for which they were condemned. The tombs of these men (it is a folly almost beneath our notice) are visited by crowds of simpletons, who forsake our temples and despise the memory of their ancestors, so that the prediction of the indignant bard is notably fulfilled: "Rome shall, in the temples of the gods, swear by the shades of men." To me it almost seems at this time as if a second campaign of Actium had begun, in which Egyptian monsters, doomed soon to perish, dare to brandish their weapons against the gods of the Romans.

3. But, O man of great wisdom, I beseech you, lay aside and reject for a little while the vigour of your eloquence, which has made you everywhere renowned; lay down also the arguments of Chrysippus, which you are accustomed to use in debate; leave for a brief season your logic, which aims in the forthputting of its energies to leave nothing certain to any one; and show me plainly and actually who is that God whom you Christians claim as belonging specially to you, and pretend to see present among you in secret places. For it is in open day, before the eyes and ears of all men, that we worship our gods with pious supplications, and propitiate them by acceptable sacrifices; and we take pains that these things be seen and approved by all.

4. Being, however, infirm and old, I withdraw myself from further prosecution of this contest, and willingly consent to the opinion of the rhetorician of Mantua, "Each one is drawn by that which pleases himself best."

After this, O excellent man, who hast turned aside from my faith, I have no doubt that this letter will be stolen by some thief, and destroyed by fire or otherwise. Should this happen, the paper will be lost, but not my letter, of which I will always retain a copy, accessible to all religious persons. May you be preserved by the gods, through whom we all, who are mortals on the surface of this earth, with apparent discord but real harmony, revere and worship Him who is the common Father of the gods and of all mortals.

Taken from "The Early Church Fathers and Other Works" originally published by Wm. B. Eerdmans Pub. Co. in English in Edinburgh, Scotland, beginning in 1867. (NPNF I/I, Schaff). The digital version is by The Electronic Bible Society, P.O. Box 701356, Dallas, TX 75370, 214-407-WORD.