Ante-Nicene Fathers/Volume III/Apologetic/A Treatise on the Soul/Chapter I
A Treatise on the Soul.
[Translated by Peter Holmes, D.D.]
Chapter I.—It is Not to the Philosophers that We Resort for Information About the Soul But to God.
Having discussed with Hermogenes the single point of the origin of the soul, so far as his assumption led me, that the soul consisted rather in an adaptation of matter than of the inspiration of God, I now turn to the other questions incidental to the subject; and (in my treatment of these) I shall evidently have mostly to contend with the philosophers. In the very prison of Socrates they skirmished about the state of the soul. I have my doubts at once whether the time was an opportune one for their (great) master—(to say nothing of the place), although that perhaps does not much matter. For what could the soul of Socrates then contemplate with clearness and serenity? The sacred ship had returned (from Delos), the hemlock draft to which he had been condemned had been drunk, death was now present before him: (his mind) was, as one may suppose, naturally excited at every emotion; or if nature had lost her influence, it must have been deprived of all power of thought. Or let it have been as placid and tranquil so you please, inflexible, in spite of the claims of natural duty, at the tears of her who was so soon to be his widow, and at the sight of his thenceforward orphan children, yet his soul must have been moved even by its very efforts to suppress emotion; and his constancy itself must have been shaken, as he struggled against the disturbance of the excitement around him. Besides, what other thoughts could any man entertain who had been unjustly condemned to die, but such as should solace him for the injury done to him? Especially would this be the case with that glorious creature, the philosopher, to whom injurious treatment would not suggest a craving for consolation, but rather the feeling of resentment and indignation. Accordingly, after his sentence, when his wife came to him with her effeminate cry, O Socrates, you are unjustly condemned! he seemed already to find joy in answering, Would you then wish me justly condemned? It is therefore not to be wondered at, if even in his prison, from a desire to break the foul hands of Anytus and Melitus, he, in the face of death itself, asserts the immortality of the soul by a strong assumption such as was wanted to frustrate the wrong (they had inflicted upon him). So that all the wisdom of Socrates, at that moment, proceeded from the affectation of an assumed composure, rather than the firm conviction of ascertained truth. For by whom has truth ever been discovered without God? By whom has God ever been found without Christ? By whom has Christ ever been explored without the Holy Spirit? By whom has the Holy Spirit ever been attained without the mysterious gift of faith? Socrates, as none can doubt, was actuated by a different spirit. For they say that a demon clave to him from his boyhood—the very worst teacher certainly, notwithstanding the high place assigned to it by poets and philosophers—even next to, (nay, along with) the gods themselves. The teachings of the power of Christ had not yet been given—(that power) which alone can confute this most pernicious influence of evil that has nothing good in it, but is rather the author of all error, and the seducer from all truth. Now if Socrates was pronounced the wisest of men by the oracle of the Pythian demon, which, you may be sure, neatly managed the business for his friend, of how much greater dignity and constancy is the assertion of the Christian wisdom, before the very breath of which the whole host of demons is scattered! This wisdom of the school of heaven frankly and without reserve denies the gods of this world, and shows no such inconsistency as to order a “cock to be sacrificed to Æsculapius:” no new gods and demons does it introduce, but expels the old ones; it corrupts not youth, but instructs them in all goodness and moderation; and so it bears the unjust condemnation not of one city only, but of all the world, in the cause of that truth which incurs indeed the greater hatred in proportion to its fulness: so that it tastes death not out of a (poisoned) cup almost in the way of jollity; but it exhausts it in every kind of bitter cruelty, on gibbets and in holocausts. Meanwhile, in the still gloomier prison of the world amongst your Cebeses and Phædos, in every investigation concerning (man’s) soul, it directs its inquiry according to the rules of God. At all events, you can show us no more powerful expounder of the soul than the Author thereof. From God you may learn about that which you hold of God; but from none else will you get this knowledge, if you get it not from God. For who is to reveal that which God has hidden? To that quarter must we resort in our inquiries whence we are most safe even in deriving our ignorance. For it is really better for us not to know a thing, because He has not revealed it to us, than to know it according to man’s wisdom, because he has been bold enough to assume it.
- [It is not safe to date this treatise before a.d. 203, and perhaps it would be unsafe to assign a later date. The note of the translator, which follows, relieves me from any necessity to add more, just here.]
- In this treatise we have Tertullian’s speculations on the origin, the nature, and the destiny of the human soul. There are, no doubt, paradoxes startling to a modern reader to be found in it, such as that of the soul’s corporeity; and there are weak and inconclusive arguments. But after all such drawbacks (and they are not more than what constantly occur in the most renowned speculative writers of antiquity), the reader will discover many interesting proofs of our author’s character for originality of thought, width of information, firm grasp of his subject, and vivacious treatment of it, such as we have discovered in other parts of his writings. If his subject permits Tertullian less than usual of an appeal to his favourite Holy Scripture, he still makes room for occasional illustration from it, and with his characteristic ability; if, however, there is less of his sacred learning in it, the treatise teems with curious information drawn from the secular literature of that early age. Our author often measures swords with Plato in his discussions on the soul, and it is not too much to say that he shows himself a formidable opponent to the great philosopher. See Bp. Kaye, On Tertullian, pp. 199, 200.
- Suggestu. [Kaye, pp. 60 and 541.]
- Flatu “the breath.”
- Externata. “Externatus = ἐκτὸς φρενῶν. Gloss. Philox.
- Fidei sacramento.
- The allusion is to the inconsistency of the philosopher, who condemned the gods of the vulgar, and died offering a gift to one of them.