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Salvian, On the Government of God (1930) pp.224-231.  Book 8

Book VIII. : That the sins of the Romans are alone responsible for their ruin

[Translated by Eva M. Sanford]


1. I think, nay, I am certain, that the great length of my argument will arouse distaste in many, especially since it upbraids our vicious lives. For most men wish praise, and no one enjoys censure. Worse than this, however evil a man is, however profligate, he would rather be falsely praised than rightly reproved, and prefers to be deceived by the mockery of false praise than healed by the most salutary admonitions. Since this is true, what are we to do? Must we accede to the will of wicked men? Or if they wish even empty praise conferred on them, is it fitting to proffer silly and meaningless eulogies? Surely we must consider that, as men of honor should not mock even those who wish to make themselves ridiculous, so they should not laud in lying phrases those who yearn to be adorned by praise, however false.1 We must not take into account the preferences of individuals, but rather what is fitting for us to say, especially since the prophet said: "Woe unto them that put bitter for sweet and sweet for bitter." 2

We must by every means hold fast to the truth, so that what a thing is in fact, it may also be in words, and those that contain sweetness be called sweet, and those that contain bitterness, bitter. This is the more obligatory in the present discussion of a sacred matter, when our iniquities are made by many a cause of wrath against God, and men try to avoid seeming themselves worthy of |225 accusation by first accusing him. When they blasphemously call him careless and neglectful of human affairs, and say that he does not govern according to justice, or even that he does not govern at all, what else are they doing but accusing God of laziness and abuse and injustice? Alas for the blindness of human folly! for the madness of insane audacity! It is God, O man, that you call careless and neglectful. If you injured any freeborn man with such slanders, you would be accused at law of malicious abuse; if you so attacked any illustrious or eminent man you would be sentenced in the courts. Such slanders are chiefly hurled at prodigal wards; it is the special byword for profligate youths, to call them wastrels and careless and negligent about their property. What sacrilegious words! what profane impudence! We use such terms of God as we would not employ of any men except those of the most abandoned sort. Yet this is not all the abuse given him: as I said before, men even brand him as unjust. If we claim that we do not deserve our sufferings and are unworthy to endure our present misfortunes, surely we are calling God, who bids us endure undeserved evils, unjust. You say, however, that he does not bid, but merely permits us to endure them. Suppose we grant this point, still I ask how far he is from ordering what he permits? For he who knows we endure such woes and can prevent our suffering them, proves beyond a doubt that we ought to endure whatever he permits. From this it is manifest that his acquiescence is part of his judgment, and that we are enduring a sentence from heaven. As all things, are subject to sacred authority and the will of God rules everything, whatever evils and whatever punishments we bear daily are the censure of his divine hand, which censure, indeed, we constantly arouse and kindle by our sins. We kindle the fire of the celestial wrath and arouse the flames by which we are burned, so that the words of the prophet may rightly be used against us as often as we endure such ills: "Make your way into the flames of the fire that you have |226 kindled.'' 3 From this we see that according to the sacred sentence each sinner is preparing for himself the suffering that he endures. None of our misfortunes can be imputed to God; we are the authors of our own misery. For God is gracious and merciful and, as the Scripture says, he wishes no one to perish or be injured. So whatever is done against us is done by our own actions; there is nothing more cruel to us than ourselves; we, I say, are torturing ourselves even against God's will.

But, forsooth, I seem to be contradicting myself; whereas I said before that we are punished by God on account of our sins, now I say that we are punishing ourselves. Both are true; we are indeed punished by God, but we ourselves force him to punish us. Inasmuch as we cause our own punishment, who can doubt that we are chastising ourselves by our crimes? For whoever gives cause for his punishment chastises himself, according to the saying: "Every one is bound by the chains of his sins." 4 If wicked men are bound by the chains of their sins, every sinner doubtless binds himself when he sins.

2. Since I have already spoken at length of the unchastity of Africa, let me now briefly discuss its blasphemies, for the paganism of the majority has had no interruption. They have indeed confined within their own walls their native crime, by which of course I mean that "Celestial" demon of the Africans,5 to which I suppose the pagans of old gave so fair-sounding a title in order that having no divinity it should at least have a name, and lacking any virtue derived from actual power should gain honor from its designation. Who among them has not been initiated into the worship of that idol? Who has not been dedicated to it by his very family and birth? I am not speaking now of men who are pagans as much by profession and name as in their way of life, and whose name |227 indicates their heathen error. Paganism is certainly more tolerable and less evil in men avowedly pagan; the more deadly peril lies in the fact that many who have made their vows to Christ continue to give their real devotion to idols. For did not those who were called Christians turn from the worship of Christ to that of the "Celestial deity," or ---- which is far worse ---- worship her even before they paid their devotions to him? Who among them did not cross the Lord's threshold redolent of the odor of demoniacal sacrifices and go up to the altar of Christ reeking with the foulness of very demons, so that it would be less monstrous not to come at all to the Lord's temple than to come in such a fashion? For a Christian who does not come to church is guilty of neglect, but one who comes in such a way is guilty of sacrilege. It is less difficult to atone for failure to honor God than for direct insult to him. So we see that any who have acted thus have not given honor to God, but have taken it away from him. They have even in a way given the attention due to the church of God to an idol, because that to which priority is accorded gains in honor from that which is relegated to second place. See then the faith of the Africans, and especially of the noblest among them! See what their religion and their Christianity have been! It was in scorn of Christ that men called them Christians. Though the apostle cries: "Ye cannot drink the cup of the Lord and the cup of devils; ye cannot be partakers of the Lord's table and of the table of devils," 6 it was not enough for them to drink the cup of the Lord with the cup of devils, but they must take the latter first. It was not enough for them to match the table of devils with the Lord's table, unless they came to the temple of God fresh from the worship of infamous superstitions and breathed on the holy altars of Christ the foul miasma of the diabolical spirit itself.

3. But, you say, they do not all do these things ---- only the highest and most powerful are guilty of these wrongs. Suppose |228 I agree to this. Still, since the greater part of a city is made up of the richest and most powerful households, you see that the whole city was polluted by the sacrilegious superstition of a few great men. No one indeed can doubt that all the households are either like the masters who rule them, or worse, and usually worse! Therefore, since even good masters as a general rule have bad slaves, it is easy to decide what sort of households all of these were, in which servile minds, already disposed to evil, were made more vicious by the wickedness of their masters.

Suppose for the sake of the argument that what we said was true only of all the most powerful and noble. Were the vices that were common to noble and ignoble alike less serious? I mean the hatred and abuse of all holy men, for surely it is a sort of sacrilege to hate those who worship God. Just as the man who injures our slaves thereby harms us, and the man who flogs another's sons tortures the father's affection by his children's suffering, so anyone who injures a servant of God violates the divine majesty, as the Lord said to his apostle: "He that receiveth you, receiveth me, and he that despiseth you, despiseth me.'' 7 Our most gracious and loving Lord shared his honor and disgrace alike with his servants, to the end that no one who injured a servant of God should think that the man alone was hurt by his action, since injury to God would undoubtedly be mingled with the harm inflicted on his followers. Of this God gave us proof, according to his most indulgent love, in these words: "For he that toucheth you toucheth the pupil of my eye.'' 8 To express the tenderness of his love he used the most tender part of the body, that we might clearly understand that God is injured by a contempt of his saints as slight as the touch required to injure the eyesight. So the people of Africa injured and hated the servants of God and God himself in them.

4. But perhaps the question will be asked: "In what ways was |229 their hatred manifested?'' In the same manner, of course, in which also the Jews' hatred of Christ was declared when they said to him: ''Thou art a Samaritan and hast a devil,'' 9 when they mocked and cursed him, when they breathed into his face and gnashed their teeth over his head. Whence also the Savior himself says in the Psalms: "All they that saw me laughed me to scorn; they shot out their lips and shook their heads.'' 10 And elsewhere he says: "They have tempted me and laughed me to scorn, they gnashed upon me with their teeth." 11 So is the hatred of the Africans for the monks ---- that is, for the servants of God ---- proved, because they mocked at and cursed them, because they attacked and execrated them, because they did practically everything against them that the wickedness of the Jews contrived against our Savior before they actually shed his divine blood. But they, you say, did not kill the saints, while we read that the Jews did.

Whether they killed or not, I do not know; I make no claims of that, but yet how great a defence is it that the only element of pagan persecution lacking was the very end of persecution? Let us assume that the saints were not killed there; what then shall we make of the fact that they are not far from killing who hate with the desire to kill, especially as the Lord himself says: ''Whosoever hateth his brother without a cause is a murderer?" 12

Yet it was not without cause that they persecuted the servants of God. For who can say that it was without a cause, seeing that these men differed from them in all the characteristics of their life and habits, that in them they saw nothing that was theirs, since all was God's? The greatest cause of discord is diversity of interests, because it is nearly or quite impossible that a man should love in another that with which he himself is at variance. So it was |230 not without cause, as I said, that they hated those in whom they saw everything hostile and inimical to them. For they lived in constant wickedness, but the saints in constant innocence; they lived in lust, these in chastity; they in evil dens, these in monasteries; they almost constantly with the devil, and these incessantly with Christ. It was not without cause that within the cities of Africa, and especially within the walls of Carthage, a people as unhappy as they were unfaithful could scarcely look without reviling and curses at a man pale and in monkish garb, his flowing locks cut even to the shaved skin. And if ever any servant of God from the monasteries of Egypt or the sacred places of Jerusalem or the holy and venerable retreats of the desert came to that city in performance of his sacred mission, as soon as he appeared to the people, he met with contumely, sacrilege and curses. Nor was this all, he was flayed by the vile derision of dissolute men and hissing mockery of the coarsest sort; so that if any man uninformed of these things witnessed the scene, he would not think that a man was being mocked, but that some strange and unheard-of monster was being expelled from the city.

5. Consider the faith of the Africans and especially the people of Carthage. It was safer for the apostles of old to enter the cities of the pagans, and those wild and barbarous assemblies had less hatred of their arrival and presence. The holy vessel of election, Paul the apostle, spoke of the worship and majesty of one God, and the people of the Athenians, most superstitious though they were, heard him patiently.13 The Lycaonians also so marvelled at the apostles that, seeing their divine strength, they thought they were not men.14 But in Carthage the servants of God were scarcely allowed to appear in the streets and public squares without mockery and cursing. Certain men think that this was not persecution |231 because they were not actually killed. You know that brigands have a proverb that those they spare owe their lives to them.15 But in Carthage this benefit was due less to the men than to the laws, for the laws of the Twelve Tables forbade a man to be put to death without a trial. Hence we see that the power of the Lord's religion was indeed great in a place where his servants were only permitted to escape death at the hands of Christians because they were defended by pagan law. Yet we wonder that such Christians are now suffering at the hands of the barbarians, when they themselves inflicted barbarous treatment on the saints.

So God is just and his judgments are righteous, for, as the Scripture says: "What men have sowed, that shall they also reap." 16 God seems to have referred to the wickedness of the people of Africa, when he said: "Recompense her according to her work; according to all that she hath done do unto her; for she hath been proud against the Lord." 17 Let us 18 then be surprised and angry that they now endure some few trials at the hands of men! Their conduct toward God has been far worse than any treatment they have received, especially if one compares their sufferings and their misdeeds with due consideration of the distinction between the persons concerned.19 |232 

[Footnotes moved to the end]

1. 1 Compare Sidonius Ep. VIII. 10: "If you had had any consideration for my modesty you would have kept in mind the saying of Symmachus: 'as true praise adorns, so false praise reproves.' " The saying is not found in Symmachus' writings, but Gregoire and Collombet cite it as used by Caesarius of Arles in his 25th homily to the monks of Lerins, which I have been unable to trace, and by Pope Pelagius I in a letter to Sapaudus, bishop of Aries, as the saying of a vir doctissimus.

2. 2  Isaiah 5. 20.

3. 3 Ibid.. 50.11. 

4. 4 See Proverbs 5. 22.

5. 5 That is, the goddess Tanit, frequently called Dea Caelestis by Latin authors.

6. 6 1 Corinthians 10. 21.

7. 7 Matthew 10. 40 ; Luke 10. 16. 

8. 8 Zechariah 2. 8.

9. 9 John 8. 48.

10. 10 Psalms 22. 7.

11. 11 Jeremiah 20. 7; Psalms 35. 16.

12. 12 1 John 3.15.

13. 13 Acts 17.16-34. One scarcely expects to find the Athenian Ecclesia cited as an example of a wild and barbarous assembly.

14. 14 Acts 14.

15. 15 See Cicero Or. Philippica II. 3. 5.

16. 16 Galatians 6. 7.

17. 17 Jeremiah 50. 29.

18. 18 Here Pauly inserted the negative minime, for which the MSS give no authority. I have omitted it as unnecessary; without it the sentence furnishes a characteristic example of Salvian's irony. See H. K. Messenger, op. cit., sec. 48.

19. 19 Here ends the text as it is preserved in the MSS. Whether the succeeding chapters have been lost, or the author left his work unfinished, cannot now be determined. In view, however, of the many years between the composition of the book and Salvian's death, the former alternative seems the more probable.

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