Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers: Series I/Volume IV/Manichaean Controversy/Preface to the Anti-Manichaean Writings

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Preface to the Anti-Manichæan Writings.

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No reader of the accompanying volume can be expected to take a very lively interest in its contents, unless he has before his mind some facts regarding the extraordinary genius to whom the heresy of Manichæism owes its origin and its name.  His history is involved in considerable obscurity, owing to the suspicious nature of the documents from which it is derived, and the difficulty of constructing a consistent and probable account out of the contradictory statements of the Asiatics and the Greeks.  The ascertained facts, therefore, are few, and may be briefly stated.[1]

According to the Chronicle of Edessa, Mani was born A.D. 240.[2]  From his original name, Corbicius or Carcubius, Beausobre conjectures that he was born in Carcub, a town of Chaldæa.  He belonged to a Magian family, and while still a youth won a distinguished place among the sages of Persia.  He was master of all the lore peculiar to his class, and was, besides, so proficient a mathematician and geographer, that he was able to construct a globe.  He was a skilled musician, and had some knowledge of the Greek language,—an accomplishment rare among his countrymen.  But his fame, and even his ultimate success as a teacher, was due in great measure to his skill in painting, which was so considerable as to earn for him among the Persians the distinctive title, Mani the painter.  His disposition was ardent and lively but patient and self-restrained.  His appearance was striking, as he wore the usual dress of a Persian sage:  the high-soled shoes, the one red, the other green; the mantle of azure blue, that changed color as he moved; the ebony staff in his right hand, and the Babylonish book under his left arm.

The meaning of his name, Mani, Manes, or Manichæus, has been the subject of endless conjectures.  Epiphanius supposes that he was providentially so named, that men might be warned against the mania of his heresy.[3]  Hyde, whose opinion on any Oriental subject must have weight, tells us that in Persian mani means painter, and that he was so called from his profession.  Archbishop Usher conjectured that it was a form of Manaem or Menahem, which means Paraclete or Comforter; founding this conjecture on the fact that Sulpicius Severus calls the Israelitish king Menahem,[4] Mane.  Gataker supplements this idea by the conjecture that Mani took this name at his own instance, and in pursuance of his claim to be the Paraclete.  It is more probable that, if his name was really given on account of this meaning, he received it from the widow who seems to have adopted him when a boy, and may have called him her Consolation.  But it is also possible that Mani was not an uncommon Persian name, and that he adopted it for some reason too trifling to discover.[5]

While still a young man he was ordained as a Christian priest, and distinguished himself in that capacity by his knowledge of Scripture, and the zeal with which he discharged his sacred functions.[6]  His heretical tendencies, however, were very soon manifested, stimulated, we may suppose, by his anxiety to make the Christian religion more acceptable to those who adhered to the Eastern systems.  Excommunicated from the Christian Church, Mani found asylum with Sapor, and won his confidence by presenting only the Magian side of his system.  But no sooner did he permit the Christian element to appear, and call himself the apostle of the Lord, and show a desire to reform Magianism, than his sovereign determined to put him to death as a revolutionist.  Forced to flee, he took refuge in Turkestan, and gained influence there, partly by decorating the temples with paintings.  To lend his doctrines the appearance of divine authority, he adopted the same device as Zoroaster and Mohammed.  Having discovered a cave through which there ran a rill of water, he laid up in it a store of provisions, and retired there for a year, giving out that he was on a visit to heaven.  In this retirement he produced his Gospel,[7]—a work illustrated with symbolical drawings the ingenuity of which has been greatly praised.  This book Mani presented to Hormizdas, the son and successor of Sapor, who professed himself favorable to his doctrine, and even built him a castle as a place of shelter and retirement.  Unfortunately for Mani, Hormizdas died in the second year of his reign; and though his successor, Varanes, was at first willing to shield him from persecution, yet, finding that the Magians were alarmed for their religion, he appointed a disputation to be held between the opposing parties.  Such trials of dialectic in Eastern courts have not unfrequently resulted in very serious consequences to the parties engaged in them.  In this instance the result was fatal to Mani.  Worsted in argument, he was condemned to die, and thus perished in some sense as a martyr.  The mode of his death is uncertain,[8] but it seems that his skin was stuffed with chaff, and hung up in public in terrorem.  This occurred in the year 277, and the anniversary was commemorated as the great religious festival of the Manichæans.

This is not the place to attempt any account or criticism of the strange eclecticism of Mani.[9]  An adequate idea of the system may be gathered from the accompanying treatises.  It may, however, be desirable to give some account of the original sources of information regarding it.

We study the systems of heresiarchs at a disadvantage when our only means of ascertaining their opinions is from the fragmentary quotations and hostile criticism which occur in the writings of their adversaries.  Such, however, is our only source of information regarding the teaching of Mani.  Originally, indeed, this heresy was specially active in a literary direction, assailing the Christian Scriptures with an ingenuity of unbelief worthy of a later age, and apparently ambitious of promulgating a rival canon.  Certainly the writings of its early supporters were numerous;[10] and from the care and elegance with which they were transcribed, the sumptuous character of the manuscripts, and the mysterious emblems with which they were adorned, we should fancy it was intended to inspire the people with respect for an authoritative though as yet undefined code.  It is, indeed, nowhere said or implied that the sacred books of the Manichæans were reserved for the eye only of the initiated or elect; and their reception of the New Testament Scriptures (subject to their own revision and emendation) would make it difficult for them to establish any secret code apart from these writings.  They were certainly, however, doctrines of an esoteric kind, which were not divulged to the catechumens or hearers; and many of their books, being written in Persian, Syriac, or Greek, were practically unavailable for the instruction of the Latin speaking population.  It was not always easy, therefore, to obtain an accurate knowledge of their opinions.  Commentaries on the whole of the Old and New Testaments were written by Hierax;[11] a Theosophy by Aristocritus; a book of memoirs, or rather Memorabilia, of Mani, and other works, by Heraclides, Aphthonius, Adas, and Agapius.  Unfortunately all of these books have perished, whether in the flames to which the Christian authorities commanded that all Manichæan books should be consigned, or by the slower if not more critical and impartial processes of time.

Mani himself was the author of several works:  a Gospel, the Treasury of Life (and probably an abridgment of the same), the Mysteries, the Foundation Fpistle, a book of Articles or heads of doctrine, one or two works on astronomy or astrology, and a collection of letters so dangerous, that Manichæans who sought restoration to the Church were required to anathematize them.

Probably the most important of these writings was the Foundation Epistle, so called because it contained the leading articles of doctrine on which the new system was built.  This letter was written in Greek or Syriac; but a Latin version of it was current in Africa, and came into the hands of Augustin, who undertook its refutation.  To accomplish this with the greater precision and effect, he quotes the entire text of each passage of the Epistle before proceeding to criticise it.  Had Augustin accomplished the whole of his task, we should accordingly have been in possession of the whole of this important document.  Unfortunately, for reasons unknown, Augustin stops short at an early point in the Epistle; and though he tells us he had notes on the remainder, and would some day expand and publish them, this promise lay unredeemed for thirty years till the day of his death.  Extracts from the same Epistle and from the Treasury are also given by Augustin in the treatise De Natura Boni.[12]

Next, we have in the Opus Imperfectum of Augustin some extracts from a letter of Mani to Menoch, which Julian had unearthed and republished to convict Augustin of being still tainted with Manichæan sentiments.  These extracts give us some insight into the heresiarch’s opinions regarding the corruption of nature and the evils of sexual love.

Again, we have Mani’s letter to Marcel, preserved by Epiphanius, and given in full by Beausobre;[13] which, however, merely reiterates two of the doctrines most certainly identified with Mani,—the assertion of two principles, and the tenet that the Son of God was man only in appearance.

Finally, Fabricius has inserted in the fifth volume of his Bibliotheca Græca the fragments, such as they are, collected by Grabe.

Such is the fragmentary character of the literary remains of Mani:  for fuller information regarding his opinions we must depend on Theodoret, Epiphanius, Alexander of Lycopolis, Titus of Bostra, and Augustin.  Beausobre is of opinion that the Fathers derived all that they knew of Manichæus from the Acts of Archelaus.[14]  This professes to be a report of a disputation held between Manes and Archelaus, bishop of Caschar in Mesopotamia.  Grave doubts have been cast on the authenticity of this document, and Burton and Milman seem inclined to consider it an imaginary dialogue, and use it on the understanding that while some of its statements are manifestly untrustworthy, a discriminating reader may gather from it some reliable material.[15]

In the works of Augustin there are some other pieces which may well be reckoned among the original sources.  In the reply to Faustus, which is translated in this volume, the book of Faustus is not indeed reproduced; but there is no reason for doubting that his arguments are fairly represented, and we think there is evidence that even the original expression of them is preserved.[16]  Augustin had been acquainted with Faustus for many years.  He first met him at Carthage in 383, and found him nothing more than a clever and agreeable talker, making no pretension to science or philosophy, and with only slender reading.[17]  His cleverness is sufficiently apparent in his debate with Augustin; the objections he leads are plausible, and put with acuteness, but at the same time with a flippancy which betrays a want of earnestness and real interest in the questions.  In his reply to Faustus, Augustin is very much on the defensive, and his statements are apologetic rather than systematic.[18]

But in an age when the ability to read was by no means commensurate with the interest taken in theological questions, written discussions were necessarily supplemented by public disputations.  These theological contests seem to have been a popular entertainment in North Africa; the people attending in immense crowds, while reporters took down what was said on either side for the sake of appeal as well as for the information of the absent.  In two such disputations Augustin engaged in connection with Manichæism.[19]  The first was held on the 28th and 29th of August, 392, with a Manichæan priest, Fortunatus.  To this encounter Augustin was invited by a deputation of Donatists and Catholics,[20] who were alike alarmed at the progress which this heresy was making in the district of Hippo.  Fortunatus at first showed some reluctance to meet so formidable an antagonist, but was prevailed upon by his own sectaries, and shows no nervousness during the debate.  His incompetence, however, was manifest to the Manichæans themselves; and so hopeless was it to think of any further proselytizing in Hippo, that he left that city, and was too much ashamed of himself ever to return.  The character of his reasoning is shifty; he evades Augustin’s questions and starts fresh ones.  Augustin pushes his usual and fundamental objection to the Manichæan system.  If God is impassable and incorruptible, how could He be injured by the assaults of the kingdom of darkness?  In opposition to the statement of Fortunatus, that the Almighty produces no evil, he explains that God made no nature evil, but made man free, and that voluntary sin is the grand original evil.  The most remarkable circumstance in the discussion is the desire of Fortunatus to direct the conversation to the conduct of the Manichæans, and the refusal of Augustin to make good the charges which had been made against them, or to discuss anything but the doctrine.[21]

Twelve years after this, a similar disputation was held between Augustin and one of the elect among the Manichæans, who had come to Hippo to propagate his religion.  This man, Felix, is described by Augustin[22] as being ill-educated, but more adroit and subtle than Fortunatus.  After a keen discussion, which occupied two days, the proceedings terminated by Felix signing a recantation of his errors in the form of an anathema on Mani, his doctrines, and the seducing spirit that possessed him.  These two disputations are valuable, as exhibiting the points of the Manichæan system to which its own adherents were accustomed to direct attention, and the arguments on which they specially relied for their support.

The works given in the accompanying volume comprehend by no means the whole of Augustin’s writings against this heresy.  Before his ordination he wrote five anti-Manichæan books, entitled, De Libero Arbitrio, De Genesi contra Manichæos, De Moribus Ecclesiæ Catholicæ, De Moribus Manichæorum, and De Vera Religione.  These Paulinus called his anti-Manichæan Pentateuch.  After his ordination he was equally diligent, publishing a little treatise in the year 391, under the title De Utilitate Credendi,[23] which was immediately followed by a small work, De Duabus Animabus.  In the following year the report of the Disputatio contra Fortunatum was published; and after this, at short intervals, there appeared the books Contra Adimantum, Contra Epistolam Manichæi quam vocant Fundamenti, Contra Faustum, Disputatio contra Felicem, De Naturo Boni, and Contra Secundinum.

Besides these writings, which are exclusively occupied with Manichæism, there are others in which the Manichæan doctrines are handled with more or less directness.  These are the Confessions, the 79th and 236th Letters, the Lecture on Psalm 140, Sermons 1, 2, 12, 50, 153, 182, 237, the Liber de Agone Christiano, and the De Continentia.

Of these writings, Augustin himself professed a preference for the reply to the letter of Secundinus.[24]  It is a pleasing feature of the times, that a heretic whom he did not know even by sight should write to Augustin entreating him to abstain from writing against the Manichæans, and reconsider his position, and ally himself with those whom he had till now fancied to be in error.  His language is respectful, and illustrates the esteem in which Augustin was held by his contemporaries; though he does not scruple to insinuate that his conversion from Manichæism was due to motives not of the highest kind.  We have not given this letter and its reply, because the preference of Augustin has not been ratified by the judgment of his readers.

The present volume gives a fair sample of Augustin’s controversial powers.  His nine years’ personal experience of the vanity of Manichæism made him thoroughly earnest and sympathetic in his efforts to disentangle other men from its snares, and also equipped him with the knowledge requisite for this task.  No doubt the Pelagian controversy was more congenial to his mind.  His logical acuteness and knowledge of Scripture availed him more in combating men who fought with the same weapons, than in dealing with a system which threw around its positions the mist of Gnostic speculation, or veiled its doctrine under a grotesque mythology, or based itself on a cosmogony too fantastic for a Western mind to tolerate.[25]  But however Augustin may have misconceived the strange forms in which this system was presented, there is no doubt that he comprehended and demolished its fundamental principles;[26] that he did so as a necessary part of his own personal search for the truth; and that in doing so he gained possession, vitally and permanently of ideas and principles which subsequently entered into all he thought and wrote.  In finding his way through the mazes of the obscure region into which Mani had led him, he once for all ascertained the true relation subsisting between God and His creatures, formed his opinion regarding the respective provinces of reason and faith, and the connection of the Old and New Testaments, and found the root of all evil in the created will.

The Editor.

Some knowledge of the Magianism of the time of Mani may be obtained from the sacred books of the Parsis, especially from the Vendidad Sade, an account of which is given by Dr. Wilson, of Bombay, in his book on the Parsi Religion.—Tr.

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Footnotes[edit]

  1. Beausobre (Histoire Critique de Manichée et du Manichéisme, Amst. 1734, 2 vols.) has collected everything that is known of Mani.  The original sources are here sifted with unusual acuteness, and with great and solid learning, though the author’s strong "bias in favor of a heretic" frequently leads him to make unwarranted statements.  Burton’s estimate of this entertaining and indispensable work (Heresies of Apostol. Age, p. xxi.), is much fairer than Pusey’s (Aug. Conf. p. 314).  A brief account of Mani and his doctrines is given by Milman with his usual accuracy, impartiality and lucidity (Hist. of Christianity, ii. 259, ed. 1867).  For any one who wishes to investigate the subject further, ample references are there given.  A specimen of the confusion that involves the history of Mani will be found in the account given by Socrates (Hist. i. 22).
  2. [For the Oriental accounts of Mani’s parentage and youth, see the Introductory Essay, and the works there referred to.—A.H.N.]
  3. See also EusebiusHist. Eccl. vii. 31, with Heinichen’s note.
  4. 2 Kings xv. 14.
  5. "Peut-être cherchons nous du mystere, ou il n’y en a point."—Beausobre, i. 79.
  6. [This is in the highest degree improbable.—A.H.N.]
  7. Called Erteng or Arzeng, i.e., according to Renaudot, an illustrated book.
  8. Böhringer adopts the more horrible tradition.  "Sein Schicksal war, dass er von den Christen, von den Magiern verfolgt, nach mannig fachem Wechsel unter Bahram lebendig geschunden wurde" (p. 386).
  9. Böhringer characterizes it briefly in the words:  "Es ist der alte heidnische Dualismus mit seiner Naturtheologie, der in Mani’s Systeme seine letzten Kräfte sammelt und unter der gleissenden Hülle christlicher Worte und Formen an den reinen Monotheismus des Christenthums und dessen reine Ethik sich heranwagt "
  10. Aug. c. Faustum, xiii. 6 and 18.  [See full list of Mani’s writings in Kessler’s art. in Herzog, R.E.—A.H.N.]
  11. Lardner, however, seems to prove that Hierax was not a Manichæan, though some of his opinions approximated to this heresy.  The whole subject of the Manichæan literature is treated by Lardner (Works, iii. p. 374), with the learning of Beausobre and more than Beausobre’s impartiality.
  12. The De Natura Boni, written in the year 405, is necessarily very much a reproduction of what is elsewhere affirmed, that all natures are good, and created by God, who alone is immutable and incorruptible.  It presents concisely the leading positions of Augustin in this controversy, and concludes with an eloquent prayer that his efforts may be blessed to the conversion of the heretics,—not the only passage which demonstrates that he wrote not for the glory of victory so much as for the deliverance of men from fatal error.
  13. Histoire, i. 91.
  14. Published by Zaccagni in his Collectanea Monumentorum Veterum, Romæ, 1698; and by Routh his Reliquiæ Sacræ, vol. v., in which all the material for forming an opinion regarding it is collected.
  15. Any one who consults Beausobre on this point will find that historical criticism is not of so recent an origin as some persons seem to think.  It is worth transcribing his own account of the spirit in which he means to do his work:  "Je traiterai mon sujet en Critique, suivant la Regle de S. Paul, Examinez toutes choses, et ne retenez que ce qui est bon.  L’Histoire en general, et l’Histoire Ecclesiastique en particulier, n’est bien souvent qu’un mélange confus de faux et de vrai, entasse par des Ecrivains mal instruits, credules ou passionez.  Cela convient surtout a l’Histoire des Heretiques et des Heresies.  C’est au Lecteur attentif et judicieux d’en faire le discernement, a l’aide d’une critique, qui ne soit trop timide, ni temeraire.  Sans le secours de cet art, on erre dans l’Histoire comme un Pilote sur les mers, lorsqu’il n’a ni boussole, ni carte marine" (i. 7).
  16. Beausobre and Cave suppose that we have the whole of Faustus’ book embodied in Augustin’s review of it.  Lardner is of opinion that the commencement, and perhaps the greater part, of the work is given, but not the whole.
  17. See the interesting account of Faustus in the Confessions, v. 10.
  18. [This estimate of Faustus is somewhat too disparaging.  For fuller bibliography, see Introductory Essay.—A.H.N.]
  19. His willingness to do so, and the success with which he encountered the most renowned champions of this heresy, should have prevented Beausobre from charging him with misunderstanding or misrepresenting the Manichæan doctrine.  The retractation of Felix tells strongly against this view of Augustin’s incompetence to deal with Manichæism.
  20. Possidius. Vita Aug. vi.
  21. This cannot but make us cautious in receiving the statements of the tract, On the Morals of the Manichæans.  There can be little doubt that many of the Manichæans practiced the ascetic virtues, and were recognizable by the gauntness and pallor of their looks, so that Manichæan became a by-word for any one who did not appreciate the felicity of good living.  Thus Jerome says of a certain class of women, "quam viderint pallentem atque tristem, Miseram, Monacham, et Manichæan vocant" (De Custod. Virg. Ep. 18).  Lardner throws light on the practices of the Manichæans, and effectually disposes of some of the calumnies uttered regarding them.  Pusey’s appendix to his translation of the Confessions may also be referred to with advantage.
  22. Retract. ii. 8.
  23. Epist. August. xxv.
  24. Retract. ii. 10:  "quod, mea sententia, omnibus quœ adversus illam pestem scribere potui, facile præpono."  The reason of this preference is explained by Bindemann, Der heilige Augstinus, iii. 168.
  25. "Wo Entwickelungen, dialektische Begriffe sein sollten, stellt sich ein Bild, ein Mythus ein."—Böhringer, p. 390.
  26. Some have thought Augustin more successful here than elsewhere.  Cassiodorus may have thought so when he said:  "diligentius atque vivacius adversus eos quam contra hæreses alias disseruit" (Instit. i. quoted by Lardner).