In the Classical Liberal Arts Academy, we study Pliny’s Natural History. In this course, we study the Roman philosopher’s classic work on nature, but in chapter 5 of the second book, he speaks of God, giving us a window into the religious ideas of wise men as the Church was beginning to preach the Gospel through the Roman empire. Let’s consider ten things that Romans of the first cenrtury thought about God.
1. God, in his essence, is not knowable.
“I consider it, therefore, an indication of human weakness to inquire into the figure and form of God.”
2. Polytheism is the result of human weakness.
“To believe that there are a number of gods…indicates still greater folly. Human nature, weak and frail as it is, mindful of its own infirmity, has made these divisions, so that every one might have recourse to that which he supposed himself to stand more particularly in need of.”
3. The way to immortality is by living virtuously.
“To assist man is to he a God; this is the path to eternal glory.”
4. God is not concerned with human affairs.
“It is ridiculous to suppose, that the great head of all things, whatever it be, pays any regard to human affairs.”
6. While atheism is evil, superstition is also to be avoided.
“We observe some who have no respect for the Gods, and others who carry it to a scandalous excess…[who] torment themselves with their superstitions to no purpose.”
7. Fortune is the only god worshipped by all men.
“All over the world, in all places, and at all times, Fortune is the only god whom every one invokes; she alone is spoken of, she alone is accused and is supposed to be guilty; she alone is in our thoughts, is praised and blamed, and is loaded with reproaches.”
8. Man’s condition is wretched, and death is his chief good.
“This alone is certain, that there is nothing certain, and that there is nothing more proud or more wretched than man. So numerous are the evils of life, death has been granted to man as our chief good.”
9. God has no solution for man’s mortality.
“The Deity cannot do everything. He cannot procure death for himself. Nor can he make mortals immortal, or recall to life those who are dead.”
10. God and the power of Nature are one.
“The power of Nature is shown to be what we call God.”
The religious beliefs seen in Pliny’s Natural History reveal a 1st century mind prepered for the Gospel. The vanity of human superstition and inability for man to know God reveal man’s need for divine revelation. This divine revelation was soon to come in ancient Rome, and these “Christians” were arriving in Pliny’s territory, and the Romans knew that there was something different about them. Even when threatened with execution, Pliny wrote that it was known that:
“None of those who are really Christians can be forced to worship the image of the emperor or the statues of the gods, or to curse Christ.”
Find this study interesting? Join us in studying Pliny’s Natural History and many more ancient works in the Classical Liberal Arts Academy.
William C. Michael, Headmaster
Classical Liberal Arts Academy