Lactantius – An Original Writer
Lactantius – An Original Writer
Lucius Caelius Firmianus Lactantius was born around the year 255 in North Africa. Quickly earning a reputation for his intellectual prowess, in 290 he was invited by Emperor Diocletian to serve as professor of Latin and rhetoric in Nicomedia of Bithynia (today’s İzmit, Turkey).
We don’t know when Lactantius became a Christian, but in 303, when Diocletian began an empire-wide persecution, Lactantius lost his position and income. Already a renowned writer (although his previous works have been lost), he devoted this time to a defense of the Christian faith.
Freedom of Religion
Ancient Romans were quite tolerant of other religions. Their views were based on syncretism: all gods are basically similar. For this reason, they allowed the worship of other gods (in fact, he often adopted gods from other regions), as long as their worshipers paid homage to the Roman gods and emperor. They persecuted Christians who refused to comply with these restrictions – particularly when adversities seemed to indicate that the Roman gods resented the Christians’ disobedience.
Lactantius’s views of toleration were not based on a supposed equality of gods, but on the fact that religion can’t be forced: “Religion is to be defended, not by putting to death, but by dying; not by cruelty, but by patient endurance; not by guilt, but by good faith: for the former belong to evils, but the latter to goods; and it is necessary for that which is good to have place in religion, and not that which is evil. For if you wish to defend religion by bloodshed, and by tortures, and by guilt, it will no longer be defended, but will be polluted and profaned. For nothing is so much a matter of free-will as religion.”
Living at a time when Christians were still persecuted, Lactantius took them as an example of toleration: “We, on the contrary, do not require that any one should be compelled, whether he is willing or unwilling, to worship our God, who is the God of all men; nor are we angry if any one does not worship Him. For we trust in the majesty of Him who has power to avenge contempt shown towards Himself, as also He has power to avenge the calamities and injuries inflicted on His servants. And therefore, when we suffer such impious things, we do not resist even in word; but we remit vengeance to God, not as they act who would have it appear that they are defenders of their gods, and rage without restraint against those who do not worship them.”
Scholars believe that Lactantius’s teachings on religious toleration influenced Constantine’s decision to legalize Christianity. Lactantius was not the first to make such a proposal. Tertullian had advanced similar thoughts. But Lactantius expounded them most thoroughly, with a lucidity which would reappear only centuries later.
The Importance of Emotions
Another area where Lactantius showed originality was his defense of emotions. Unlike the Stoics and Epicureans, who believed that emotions such as anger were not fitting a divinity, Lactantius defended God’s anger against sin as a necessary part of justice: “For if God is not angry with the impious and the unrighteous, it is clear that He does not love the pious and the righteous.”
And if God can be moved by emotions such as anger and pity, so can his children. In fact, being made in the image of God, human beings should feel pity for each other. Their natural weakness (in comparison with other animals) demands such a care: “He gave him, besides other things, this feeling of kindness; so that man should protect, love, and cherish man, and both receive and afford assistance against all dangers. Therefore kindness is the greatest bond of human society; and he who has broken this is to be deemed impious, and a parricide.”
To Lactantius, the problem with emotions is not, as some philosophers believed, an excess of feeling, but misguided feelings. Anger is appropriate if properly directed. And fear of God removes all other fears.
The Beauty of the Human Body
Equally original is Lactantius’s praise of the human body. At a time when Gnostics and Platonists decried the body as a prison of the soul, an ugly burden tied to this earth, he launched into its praise. (He did, however, retain some Platonism in his belief that the soul is superior to the body).
The essay, written in form of a letter to Lactantius’s disciple Demetrianus, is a pleasure to read for his poetic value. For example, in praise of human hair, Lactanctius said: “Though nakedness itself on the part of man tends in a wonderful manner to beauty, yet it was not adapted to his head. ... [God] clothed the head with hair; and because it was about to be on the top, He added it as an ornament, as it were, to the highest summit of the building. And this ornament is not collected into a circle, or rounded into the figure of a cap, lest it should be unsightly by leaving some parts bare; but it is freely poured forth in some places, and withdrawn in others, according to the comeliness of each place. Therefore, the forehead entrenched by a circumference, and the hair put forth from the temples before the ears, and the uppermost parts of these being surrounded after the manner of a crown, and all the back part of the head covered, display an appearance of wonderful comeliness.”
Lactanctius continued this tribute as he described each part of the body, including the internal organs (as people of his time understood them). Oddly enough, the portions on reproductive organs have been left in Latin in most online copies (the online version by Phillip Schaff states, “It has been judged advisable not to translate this and the first part of the next chapter”), as if Latin speakers had a greater level of maturity, regardless of their age.
In any case, Lactantius’s goal in writing this letter was to help others “to understand with what great power of providence each part has been made” and sustained. And it’s a goal he has met with passion and excitement.
 Phillip Schaff, Fathers of the Third and Fourth Centuries, p. 444, http://www.documentacatholicaomnia.eu/03d/0240-0320,_Lactantius,_De_Opif...