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Home > Fathers of the Church > Exhortation to the Heathen (Clement of Alexandria) > Chapter 7

Exhortation to the Heathen (Chapter 7)

BY CLEMENT OF ALEXANDRIA

Chapter 7. The Poets Also Bear Testimony to the Truth.

Let poetry also approach to us (for philosophy alone will not suffice): poetry which is wholly occupied with falsehood— which scarcely will make confession of the truth, but will rather own to God its deviations into fable. Let whoever of those poets chooses advance first. Aratus considers that the power of God pervades all things:—

That all may be secure,
Him ever they propitiate first and last,
Hail, Father I great marvel, great gain to man.

Thus also the Ascræan Hesiod dimly speaks of God:

For He is the King of all, and monarch
Of the immortals; and there is none that may vie
with Him in power.

Also on the stage they reveal the truth:—

Look on the ether and heaven, and regard that as God,

says Euripides. And Sophocles, the son of Sophilus, says:—

One, in truth, one is God,
Who made both heaven and the far-stretching earth,
And ocean's blue wave, and the mighty winds;
But many of us mortals, deceived in heart,
Have set up for ourselves, as a consolation in our afflictions,
Images of the gods of stone, or wood, or brass,
Or gold, or ivory;
And, appointing to those sacrifices and vain festal assemblages,
Are accustomed thus to practice religion.

In this venturous manner has he on the stage brought truth before the spectators. But the Thracian Orpheus, the son of Œagrus, hierophant and poet at once, after his exposition of the orgies, and his theology of idols, introduces a palinode of truth with true solemnity, though tardily singing the strain:—

I shall utter to whom it is lawful; but let the doors be closed,
Nevertheless, against all the profane. But do you hear,
O Musæus, offspring of the light-bringing moon,
For I will declare what is true. And let not these things
Which once appeared in your breast rob you of dear life;
But looking to the divine word, apply yourself to it,
Keeping right the seat of intellect and feeling; and walk well
In the straight path, and to the immortal King of the universe alone
Direct your gaze.

Then proceeding, he clearly adds:—

He is one, self-proceeding; and from Him alone all things proceed,
And in them He Himself exerts his activity: no mortal
Beholds Him, but He beholds all.

Thus far Orpheus at last understood that he had been in error:—

But linger no longer, O man, endued with varied wisdom;
But turn and retrace your steps, and propitiate God.

For if, at the most, the Greeks, having received certain scintillations of the divine word, have given forth some utterances of truth, they bear indeed witness that the force of truth is not hidden, and at the same time expose their own weakness in not having arrived at the end. For I think it has now become evident to all, that those who do or speak anything without the word of truth are like people compelled to walk without feet. Let the strictures on your gods, which the poets, impelled by the force of truth, introduce in their comedies, shame you into salvation. Menander, for instance, the comic poet, in his drama of the Charioteer, says:—

No God pleases me that goes about
With an old woman, and enters houses
Carrying a trencher.

For such are the begging priests of Cybele. Hence Antisthenes replies appropriately to their request for alms:—

I do not maintain the mother of the gods,
For the gods maintain her.

Again, the same writer of comedy, expressing his dissatisfaction with the common usages, tries to expose the impious arrogance of the prevailing error in the drama of the Priestess, sagely declaring:—

If a man drags the Deity
Whither he will by the sound of cymbals,
He that does this is greater than the Deity;
But these are the instruments of audacity and means of living
Invented by men.

And not only Menander, but Homer also, and Euripides, and other poets in great numbers, expose your gods, and are wont to rate them, and that soundly too. For instance, they call Aphrodite dog-fly, and Hephæstus a cripple. Helen says to Aphrodite:—

Your godship abdicate!
Renounce Olympus!

And of Dionysus, Homer writes without reserve:—

He, mid their frantic orgies, in the groves
Of lovely Nyssa, put to shameful rout
The youthful Bacchus' nurses; they in fear,
Dropped each her thyrsus, scattered by the hand
Of fierce Lycurgus, with an ox-goad armed.

Worthy truly of the Socratic school is Euripides, who fixes his eye on truth, and despises the spectators of his plays. On one occasion, Apollo,

Who inhabits the sanctuary that is in the middle of the earth,
Dispensing most certain oracles to mortals,

is thus exposed:—

It was in obedience to him that I killed her who brought me forth;
Him do you regard as stained with guilt— put him to death;
It was he that sinned, not I, uninstructed as I was
In right and justice.

He introduces Heracles, at one time mad, at another drunk and gluttonous. How should he not so represent the god who, when entertained as a guest, ate green figs to flesh, uttering discordant howls, that even his barbarian host remarked it? In his drama of Ion, too, he barefacedly brings the gods on the stage:—

How, then, is it right for you, who have given laws to mortals,
To be yourselves guilty of wrong?
And if— what will never take place, yet I will state the supposition
You will give satisfaction to men for your adulteries,
You, Poseidon, and you, Zeus, the ruler of heaven,
You will, in order to make recompense for your misdeeds,
Have to empty your temples.

About this page

Source. Translated by William Wilson. From Ante-Nicene Fathers, Vol. 2. Edited by Alexander Roberts, James Donaldson, and A. Cleveland Coxe. (Buffalo, NY: Christian Literature Publishing Co., 1885.) Revised and edited for New Advent by Kevin Knight. <http://www.newadvent.org/fathers/020807.htm>.

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