LACTANTIUS (260 - 340 CE)

Divinae Institutiones  Book IV: True Wisdom and Religion, xxviii

(Divine Institutes, translated with an introduction and notes by Anthony Bowen and Peter Garnsey

Translated Texts for Historians

Volume 40

Liverpool: Liverpool University Press, 2003


Meaning of Religion

           28.1 Since things are as we have explained, it is plain that man can have no hope of life unless he casts away his silliness and his miserable mistakes and recognizes and serves God; he must renounce this temporal life and teach himself the rudiments of justice in order to cultivate true religion. 2 We are born on the following terms, that we present our just and due obedience to God who creates us, and that we acknowledge and follow him alone.

           3 This is the chain of piety that ties and binds us to God: hence the word religion, and not as Cicero takes it, from re-reading. In book 2 de Natura Deorum he says [71-72], 4 ‘It is not only philosophers who distinguished superstition from religion but also our own ancestors. People who spent whole days in prayer and sacrifice to ensure their own children would survive were called superstitious, 5 while people who reviewed and rethought everything of relevance to the worship of gods were called religious, from relegere, just as the elegant are so called from eligere and the diligent from diligere and the intelligent from intellegere. In all these words there is the same vital element of legere as there is in religious. In the case of superstitious and religious, one is a word of reproof and the other a word of praise. 6 the ineptitude of this interpretation can be learnt from the facts. If both superstition and religion are being practiced in the worship of the same gods, then there is little or no difference between them. 7 What good reason will there be, frankly, for thinking that to pray once for the health of one’s children is the mark of a religious man and to do so ten times is superstitious? If to do so once is very good, all day is better, and if one victim serves to appease, more will appease more, because acts of obedience multiplied gain favour rather than offend. 8 We don’t think servants a nuisance who are ever present to assist and obey; we prize them rather. So why should a man come in for reproach, and get a bad name for loving his sons or honouring God too much, while one who doesn’t is to be praised?

           9 This argument works the other way round too. If praying and sacrificing all day every day is a matter for accusation, so it is to do so once. If to pray regularly for surviving children is a vice, then the man who does so only occasionally is superstitious too. Alternatively, why should the label of vice be applied to a deed that is peerless for its honesty and justice? 10 As for Cicero’s remark that ‘those who carefully reviewed everything of relevance to the worship of gods were called religious from relegere’, why should those who act so many times a day lose the title of religious when as a result of their concentration they are simply marking a much more careful review of the ways in which gods are worshipped? 11 Well? Religion is of course worship of what is true, and superstition is worship of what is false. And what you worship is absolutely important, more so than how you worship or what you should pray. But because worshippers of gods think they are religious when in fact they are superstitious, so they cannot distinguish religion from superstition or explain the meaning of the words. 12 We have observed that the word religion comes from the bond of piety because God had bound man to him and tied him with piety: we simply have to serve him as master and obey him as father. 13 Lucretius interpreted the word much better when he said [1. 932] he was ‘untying religious knots’. People are called superstitious, on the other hand, not for praying for surviving children – we all pray for that – but either for cultivating a surviving memory of the dead or for surviving their own parents and worshipping images of them at home like household gods. 14 Superstitious was the word for people who used to develop novel rituals to divert honors from gods to dead people who they thought had been elevated above human rank to place in heaven; 15 religious was kept for those who worshipped the long-established public gods. Hence Vergil’s line [A. 8.187]: ‘A superstition vain, and ignorant of the ancient gods.’ 16 But since we find that the ancient gods were also consecrated after death in the same fashion, superstitious is the word for those who worship quantities of false gods, and religious is for us who pray to the one true God. 

[Submitted by James A. Santucci]