Saturday, April 09, 2005

The Octavius of Minucius Felix

My previous comment about intimations of design arguments reminds me of the beautiful little work by Minucius Felix, called Octavius , which really should be more widely known. It is beyond the shadow of a doubt the best written of all the second-century Christian apologetic works. Snippets from Chapters 17 and 18:

For what can possibly be so manifest, so confessed, and so evident, when you lift your eyes up to heaven, and look into the things which are below and around, than that there is some Deity of most excellent intelligence, by whom all nature is inspired, is moved, is nourished, is governed? Behold the heaven itself, how broadly it is expanded, how rapidly it is whirled around, either as it is distinguished in the night by its stars, or as it is lightened in the day by the sun, and you will know at once how the marvellous and divine balance of the Supreme Governor is engaged therein. Look also on the year, how it is made by the circuit of the sun; and look on the month, how the moon drives it around in her increase, her decline, and decay.....Wherefore should I speak of the multiform protection provided by animated creatures against one another?--some armed with horns, some hedged with teeth, and shod with claws, and barbed with stings, or with freedom obtained by swiftness of feet, or by the capacity of soaring furnished by wings? The very beauty of our own figure especially confesses God to be its artificer: our upright stature, our uplooking countenance, our eyes placed at the top, as it were, for outlook; and all the rest of our senses as if arranged in a citadel.

It would be a long matter to go through particular instances. There is no member in man which is not calculated both for the sake of necessity and of ornament; and what is more wonderful still, all have the same form, but each has certain lineaments modified, and thus we are each found to be unlike to one another, while we all appear to be like in general. What is the reason of our being born? what means the desire of begetting? Is it not given by God, and that the breasts should become full of milk as the offspring grows to maturity, and that the tender progeny should grow up by the nourishment afforded by the abundance of the milky moisture? Neither does God have care alone for the universe as a whole, but also for its parts....Now if, on entering any house, you should behold everything refined, well arranged, and adorned, assuredly you would believe that a master presided over it, and that he himself was much better than all those excellent things. So in this house of the world, when you look upon the heaven and the earth, its providence, its ordering, its law, believe that there is a Lord and Parent of the universe far more glorious than the stars themselves, and the parts of the whole world.

Looking over the translation again (it's been quite a while) requires me to modify my previous comment somewhat. I had said that these intimations of design arguments "are put forward as presupposing that we've already proven that there is an intelligent cause, and are used to argue that this intelligent cause is involved in the operation of the world"; this is true of some such arguments, but I was thinking largely of design considerations in the scholastics. In Minucius Felix, however, the argument certainly is an argument to an intelligent artisan; in the sentence just prior to the one I note, he shows that he has in his sights the Epicurean position that the world is constituted entirely by the chance meetings of atoms. I hadn't really been thinking of that; but of course in the earliest versions this would be the bugbear in view. It's providence (the involvement of the deity in the basic operation of the world), however, that's in question here; the dialogue is between a pagan who believes that all things, even the gods, are explained by chance conjunctions of atoms, and a Christian who believes that on the contrary it is divine providence that explains the conjunctions of atoms.

One of the things, by the way, that makes the Octavius so good is that the pagan position is put forward in a very fair way; the occasional odd arguments were standard pagan arguments against the Christians, as can be seen from other cases. Here is Caecilius the pagan talking about the Christians:

The lonely and miserable nationality of the Jews worshipped one God, and one peculiar to itself; but they worshipped him openly, with temples, with altars, with victims, and with ceremonies; and he has so little force or power, that he is enslaved, with his own special nation, to the Roman deities. But the Christians, moreover, what wonders, what monstrosities do they feign!--that he who is their God, whom they can neither show nor behold, inquires diligently into the character of all, the acts of all, and, in fine, into their words and secret thoughts; that he runs about everywhere, and is everywhere present: they make him out to be troublesome, restless, even shamelessly inquisitive, since he is present at everything that is done, wanders in and out in all places, although, being occupied with the whole, he cannot give attention to particulars, nor can he be sufficient for the whole while he is busied with particulars.

The description, "they make him out to be troublesome, restless, even shamelessly inquisitive, since he is present at everything that is done" is delightful; I can't help but find it genuinely funny, because, of course, there is a sense in which Christians believe exactly that: troublesome, restless, even shamelessly inquisitive. The response to it is fairly obvious, and Octavius makes it; but the way it's put forward is a nice touch.

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