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Chapter III.—The Physical Philosophers Maintained the Divinity of the Elements; The Absurdity of the Tenet Exposed.

From these developments of opinion, we see that your 814 physical class of philosophers are driven to the necessity of contending that the elements are gods, since it alleges that other gods are sprung from them; for it is only from gods that gods could be born. Now, although we shall have to examine these other gods more fully in the proper place, in the mythic section of the poets, yet, inasmuch as we must meanwhile treat of them in their connection with the present class, 815 we shall probably even from their present class, 816 when once we turn to the gods themselves, succeed in showing that they can by no means appear to be gods who are said to be sprung from the elements; so that we have at once a presumption 817 that the elements are not gods, since they which are born of the elements are not gods. In like manner, whilst we show that the elements are not gods, we shall, according to the law of natural relationship, 818 get a presumptive argument that they cannot rightly be maintained to be gods whose parents (in this case the elements) are not gods. It is a settled point 819 that a god is born of a god, and that what lacks divinity 820 is born of what is not divine. Now, so far as 821 the world of which your philosophers treat 822 (for I apply this term to the universe in the most comprehensive sense 823 ) contains the elements, ministering to them as its component parts (for whatever its own condition may be, the same of course will be that of its elements and constituent portions), it must needs have been formed either by some being, according to the enlightened view 824 of Plato, or else by none, according to the harsh opinion 825 of Epicurus; and since it was formed, by having a beginning, it must also have an end. That, therefore, which at one time before its beginning had no existence, and will by and by after its end cease to have an existence, cannot of course, by any possibility, seem to be a god, wanting as it does that essential character of divinity, eternity, which is reckoned to be 826 without beginning, and without end. If, however, it 827 is in no wise formed, and therefore ought to be accounted divine—since, as divine, it is subject neither to a beginning nor an end of itself—how is it that some assign generation to the elements, which they hold to be gods, when the Stoics deny that anything can be born of a god? Likewise, how is it that they wish those beings, whom they suppose to be born of the elements, to be regarded as gods, when they deny that a god can be born?  Now, what must hold good of the universe 828 will have to be predicated of the elements, I mean of heaven, and of earth, and of the stars, and of fire, which Varro has vainly proposed that you should believe 829 to be gods, and the parents of gods, contrary to that generation and nativity which he had declared to be impossible in a god. Now this same Varro had shown that the earth and the p. 132 stars were animated. 830 But if this be the case, they must needs be also mortal, according to the condition 831 of animated nature; for although the soul is evidently immortal, this attribute is limited to it alone: it is not extended to that with which it is associated, that is, the body. Nobody, however, will deny that the elements have body, since we both touch them and are touched by them, and we see certain bodies fall down from them. If, therefore, they are animated, laying aside the principle 832 of a soul, as befits their condition as bodies, they are mortal—of course not immortal. And yet whence is it that the elements appear to Varro to be animated?  Because, forsooth, the elements have motion. And then, in order to anticipate what may be objected on the other side, that many things else have motion—as wheels, as carriages, as several other machines—he volunteers the statement that he believes only such things to be animated as move of themselves, without any apparent mover or impeller from without, like the apparent mover of the wheel, or propeller of the carriage, or director of the machine. If, then, they are not animated, they have no motion of themselves. Now, when he thus alleges a power which is not apparent, he points to what it was his duty to seek after, even the creator and controller of the motion; for it does not at once follow that, because we do not see a thing, we believe that it does not exist. Rather, it is necessary the more profoundly to investigate what one does not see, in order the better to understand the character of that which is apparent. Besides if (you admit) only the existence of those things which appear and are supposed to exist simply because they appear, how is it that you also admit them to be gods which do not appear? If, moreover, those things seem to have existence which have none, why may they not have existence also which do not seem to have it? Such, for instance, as the Mover 833 of the heavenly beings. Granted, then, that things are animated because they move of themselves, and that they move of themselves when they are not moved by another:  still it does not follow that they must straightway be gods, because they are animated, nor even because they move of themselves; else what is to prevent all animals whatever being accounted gods, moving as they do of themselves? This, to be sure, is allowed to the Egyptians, but their superstitious vanity has another basis. 834





Ad præsentem speciem, the physical class.


Or, classification.


Ut jam hinc præjudicatum sit.


Ad illam agnatorum speciem.






“Quod,” with a subj. mood.


Mundus iste.










i.e., “iste mundus.”


Mundi, i.e., the universe; see above.


The best reading is “vobis credi;” this is one of Tertullian’s “final infinitives.”


Compare Augustine, de Civit. Dei, vii. 6, 23, 24, 28.








Alia sane vanitate.

Next: Wrong Derivation of the Word Qeός. The Name Indicative of the True Deity. God Without Shape and Immaterial. Anecdote of Thales.