Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers: Series I/Volume I/Confessions/Book I/Chapter 16
Chapter XVI.—He Disapproves of the Mode of Educating Youth, and He Points Out Why Wickedness is Attributed to the Gods by the Poets.
25. But woe unto thee, thou stream of human custom! Who shall stay thy course? How long shall it be before thou art dried up? How long wilt thou carry down the sons of Eve into that huge and formidable ocean, which even they who are embarked on the cross (lignum) can scarce pass over? Do I not read in thee of Jove the thunderer and adulterer? And the two verily he could not be; but it was that, while the fictitious thunder served as a cloak, he might have warrant to imitate real adultery. Yet which of our gowned masters can lend a temperate ear to a man of his school who cries out and says: “These were Homer’s fictions; he transfers things human to the gods. I could have wished him to transfer divine things to us.” But it would have been more true had he said: “These are, indeed, his fictions, but he attributed divine attributes to sinful men, that crimes might not be accounted crimes, and that whosoever committed any might appear to imitate the celestial gods and not abandoned men.”
26. And yet, thou stream of hell, into thee are cast the sons of men, with rewards for learning these things; and much is made of it when this is going on in the forum in the sight of laws which grant a salary over and above the rewards. And thou beatest against thy rocks and roarest, saying, “Hence words are learnt; hence eloquence is to be attained, most necessary to persuade people to your way of thinking, and to unfold your opinions.” So, in truth, we should never have understood these words, “golden shower,” “bosom,” “intrigue,” “highest heavens,” and other words written in the same place, unless Terence had introduced a good-for-nothing youth upon the stage, setting up Jove as his example of lewdness:—
“Viewing a picture, where the tale was drawn,
Of Jove’s descending in a golden shower
To Danaë’s bosom . . . with a woman to intrigue.”
And see how he excites himself to lust, as if by celestial authority, when he says:—
Who shakes the highest heavens with his thunder,
And I, poor mortal man, not do the same!
I did it, and with all my heart I did it.”
Not one whit more easily are the words learnt for this vileness, but by their means is the vileness perpetrated with more confidence. I do not blame the words, they being, as it were, choice and precious vessels, but the wine of error which was drunk in them to us by inebriated teachers; and unless we drank, we were beaten, without liberty of appeal to any sober judge. And yet, O my God,—in whose presence I can now with security recall this,—did I, unhappy one, learn these things willingly, and with delight, and for this was I called a boy of good promise.
- So in Tract. II. on John, he has: “The sea has to be crossed, and dost thou despise the wood?” explaining it to mean the cross of Christ. And again: “Thou art not at all able to walk in the sea, be carried by a ship—be carried by the wood—believe on the Crucified,” etc.
- Cic. Tusc. i. 26.
- Terence, Eunuch. Act 3, scene 6 (Colman).
- Until very recently, the Eunuchus was recited at “the play” of at least one of our public schools. See De Civ. Dei, ii. secs. 7, 8, where Augustin again alludes to this matter.