Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers: Series I/Volume II/City of God/Book IX/Chapter 16

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Chapter 16.—Whether It is Reasonable in the Platonists to Determine that the Celestial Gods Decline Contact with Earthly Things and Intercourse with Men, Who Therefore Require the Intercession of the Demons.

That opinion, which the same Platonist avers that Plato uttered, is not true, “that no god holds intercourse with men.”[1]  And this, he says, is the chief evidence of their exaltation, that they are never contaminated by contact with men.  He admits, therefore, that the demons are contaminated; and it follows that they cannot cleanse those by whom they are themselves contaminated, and thus all alike become impure, the demons by associating with men, and men by worshipping the demons.  Or, if they say that the demons are not contaminated by associating and dealing with men, then they are better than the gods, for the gods, were they to do so, would be contaminated.  For this, we are told, is the glory of the gods, that they are so highly exalted that no human intercourse can sully them.  He affirms, indeed, that the supreme God, the Creator of all things, whom we call the true God, is spoken of by Plato as the only God whom the poverty of human speech fails even passably to describe; and that even the wise, when their mental energy is as far as

possible delivered from the trammels of connection with the body, have only such gleams of insight into His nature as may be compared to a flash of lightning illumining the darkness.  If, then, this supreme God, who is truly exalted above all things, does nevertheless visit the minds of the wise, when emancipated from the body, with an intelligible and ineffable presence, though this be only occasional, and as it were a swift flash of light athwart the darkness, why are the other gods so sublimely removed from all contact with men, as if they would be polluted by it? as if it were not a sufficient refutation of this to lift up our eyes to those heavenly bodies which give the earth its needful light.  If the stars, though they, by his account, are visible gods, are not contaminated when we look at them, neither are the demons contaminated when men see them quite closely.  But perhaps it is the human voice, and not the eye, which pollutes the gods; and therefore the demons are appointed to mediate and carry men’s utterances to the gods, who keep themselves remote through fear of pollution?  What am I to say of the other senses?  For by smell neither the demons, who are present, nor the gods, though they were present and inhaling the exhalations of living men, would be polluted if they are not contaminated with the effluvia of the carcasses offered in sacrifice.  As for taste, they are pressed by no necessity of repairing bodily decay, so as to be reduced to ask food from men.  And touch is in their own power.  For while it may seem that contact is so called, because the sense of touch is specially concerned in it, yet the gods, if so minded, might mingle with men, so as to see and be seen, hear and be heard; and where is the need of touching?  For men would not dare to desire this, if they were favored with the sight or conversation of gods or good demons; and if through excessive curiosity they should desire it, how could they accomplish their wish without the consent of the god or demon, when they cannot touch so much as a sparrow unless it be caged?

There is, then, nothing to hinder the gods from mingling in a bodily form with men, from seeing and being seen, from speaking and hearing.  And if the demons do thus mix with men, as I said, and are not polluted, while the gods, were they to do so, should be polluted, then the demons are less liable to pollution than the gods.  And if even the demons are contaminated, how can they help men to attain blessedness after death, if, so far from being able to cleanse them, and present them clean to the unpolluted gods, these mediators are themselves polluted?  And if they cannot confer this benefit on men, what good can their friendly mediation do?  Or shall its result be, not that men find entrance to the gods, but that men and demons abide together in a state of pollution, and consequently of exclusion from blessedness?  Unless, perhaps, some one may say that, like sponges or things of that sort, the demons themselves, in the process of cleansing their friends, become themselves the filthier in proportion as the others become clean.  But if this is the solution, then the gods, who shun contact or intercourse with men for fear of pollution, mix with demons who are far more polluted.  Or perhaps the gods, who cannot cleanse men without polluting themselves, can without pollution cleanse the demons who have been contaminated by human contact?  Who can believe such follies, unless the demons have practised their deceit upon him?  If seeing and being seen is contamination, and if the gods, whom Apuleius himself calls visible, “the brilliant lights of the world,”[2] and the other stars, are seen by men, are we to believe that the demons, who cannot be seen unless they please, are safer from contamination?  Or if it is only the seeing and not the being seen which contaminates, then they must deny that these gods of theirs, these brilliant lights of the world, see men when their rays beam upon the earth.  Their rays are not contaminated by lighting on all manner of pollution, and are we to suppose that the gods would be contaminated if they mixed with men, and even if contact were needed in order to assist them?  For there is contact between the earth and the sun’s or moon’s rays, and yet this does not pollute the light.


  1. Apuleius, ibid.
  2. Virgil, Georg. i. 5.