May 2023 Print

Egyptian Gold or Grecian Gift

The Church Fathers and Pagan Literature

By Patrick Murtha

Two analogies seem particularly suitable to any debate over the Church Fathers’ standpoint towards pagan literature. I say debate, for the use of pagan literature was, in the infancy of the Church, a source of some conflict, and remains the subject of a similar contest. The question was and is, should the Catholic see in pagan literature Egyptian gold or a Grecian gift? The correlation of these analogies is almost paradoxical: the first analogy, favoring Catholic use of pagan literature, resides in Sacred Scripture; and the second analogy, opposing, hails from Virgil, the second of pagan poets. In the first, God commands the Israelites, then captive in Egypt, to take the wealth of Egypt with them: “Therefore thou shalt tell all the people,” says the Lord to Moses, “that every man ask of his friend, and every woman of her neighbor, vessels of silver, and of gold” (Exodus 11:2). This analogy signifies that nominally pagan or non-Catholic things are not necessarily to be rejected, but as St. Paul says, “prove all things”—as Fr. Knox translates, “scrutinize it all carefully”—“hold fast that which is good” (I Thess. 5:21). The second analogy comes to us from Virgil: “Equo ne credite, Teucri. / Quidquid id est, timeo Danaos et dona ferentes” (Aeneid 2.48-49: “Do not trust the horse, Teucrians! Whatever it is, I fear the Danaans and their gift-bearing.”) This horse is the Trojan horse in whose belly lurks death. Can the works of the pagans be trusted? Or hidden within these seemingly innocent poetic disguise is there fire, sword, and destruction? One might ask, are the works of the pagans simply works of the pagans or truly pagan works? Such is the crux of the question.

When the wranglers in this match take to the field, the common tactic is to launch sentences from the Fathers at each other. The weightier quotes from the weightier Father win. And so, if a contender can catapult St. Augustine or St. Ambrose or St. Basil against, let us say, Firmicus or Lactantius or Arnobius, he takes the field. And the quarrel is settled solely on the apparent strength of the munitions, I mean quotations. No inquiry is made into the circumstances in which one Father declares Homer’s poetry deceitful and even demonic and why another asserts that Homer’s poetry complements the Christian life. No examination delves into why one Father will, like Socrates, toss the poets from the civil as well as the spiritual city, and why another will lay the foundation of his spiritual edifice with poetic examples. The quotations, the contenders believe, are supposed to speak for themselves as if a whole letter or chapter in which a Father made his argument, with nuances and explanations, can be contained in a single sentence. But this barrage of passages has become the illogical stratagem of modern contentions: spewing quotations without having digested the words.

If this is the form of argument that I take here, any reader will be deceived into thinking that the Fathers contradict each other regularly on this question. And if this be so, let us say with Virgil, “Let nature cease, and chaos reign!” (Eclogue 8). For this is an example of what we would find. At one point Tertullian writes, “I shall sufficiently refute the heretics if I overthrow the argument of Plato” (De Anima 23); but Arnobius, in his defense of the Faith Against the Heathen, calls Plato “that sublime head and pillar of philosophers” (1.8), and partly proves the errors of paganism by the truths of Plato. Or Theophilus, writing to Autolycus in defense of Christianity against the slanders of the pagans, says, “For indeed the poets—Homer, to wit, and Hesiod, being as they say inspired by the Muses—spoke from a deceptive fancy, and with a pure but an erring spirit” (2.8); and yet, St. Basil, defending both Homer and Hesiod, writes to his students, “Or what else are we to suppose Hesiod had in mind when he composed those verses which are on everybody’s lips, if he were not exhorting young men to virtue… assuredly, if anyone else has sung the praise of virtue in terms like Hesiod’s, let us welcome his words as leading to the same end as our own. Moreover, as I myself have heard a man say who is clever at understanding poetry, all Homer’s poetry is an encomium of virtue, and all he wrote, save what is accessory, bears to this end” (5). One rejects; the other recommends. Where then is modern man to go with his thoughts if the ancient Fathers appear so confused in their own direction?

The truth-seeker will delve into why Tertullian and Arnobius say what they say, and will discover how their contradictions are actually kith and kin to a Catholic spirit: Tertullian is speaking of a certain error of Plato in reference to Plato’s concept of the soul; Arnobius was speaking of Plato’s argument that suffering on earth is a means of purification. Arnobius, Augustine, Jerome, and other Fathers held Plato in a special regard. “The divine Plato, many of whose thoughts are worthy of God,” says Arnobius when the philosopher contended that the pagan gods were, like the world, corruptible. And regarding Homer, Theophilus is responding to the reading of Homer as theology, as if the poet were speaking historical and divine truths and not human stories of mythical gods. If Tolkien’s tales were taken in that same historical and literal sense, his works too would make for deceitful theology. Basil, on the other hand, is seeing in Homer poetic fictions that represent moral behaviors, and the consequences of vice and virtue. And in this sense, Homer, like Tolkien and Shakespeare, is a sound and solid poet.

The Catholic attitude towards all things, as St. Paul says, is to “prove” or “scrutinize” and reject the evil and keep the good. It may appear to be a cop-out or a cowardly dodge to say that the attitude of the Fathers is not merely one or the other; rather it finds both the gold and the gift. But such is the way with all created things, as well as man-made things—movies, motors, phones, tractors. Insofar as any created thing focuses the soul on God, such a thing is synonymous with the gold of Egypt; in as far as it diverts man from God, it becomes an idol, and a Grecian gift, a Trojan horse. For this reason, Augustine writes that those pagan things that are “in harmony with our faith” the Catholic is “to claim it for our own use”:

For, as the Egyptians had not only the idols and heavy burdens which the people of Israel hated and fled from, but also vessels and ornaments of gold and silver, and garments, which the same people when going out of Egypt appropriated to themselves, designing them for a better use, not doing on their own authority, but by the command of God, the Egyptians themselves, in their ignorance, providing them with things which they themselves were not making a good use of; in the same way all branches of heathen learning have not only false and superstitious fancies and heavy burdens of unnecessary toil, which every one of us, when going out under the leadership of Christ from the fellowship of the heathen, ought to abhor and avoid; but they contain also liberal instruction which is better adapted to the use of the truth, and some most excellent precepts of morality; and some truths in regard even to the worship of the One God are found among them. Now these are, so to speak, their gold and silver, which they did not create themselves, but dug out of the mines of God’s providence which are everywhere scattered abroad, and are perversely and unlawfully prostituting to the worships of devils. These, therefore, the Christian, when he separates himself in spirit from the miserable fellowship of these men, ought to take away from them, and to devote to their proper use in the preaching the gospel. (On Christian Doctrine 2.40)

This is common among the Fathers: what cultivates the soul, use; what kills it, shun. So Clement of Alexandria cautions, “From shameful things addressed to the ears, and words and sights, we must entirely abstain” (The Instructor 2.6); and Basil exhorts his students to “associate with poets and writers of prose and orators and with all men from there is any prospect of benefit with reference to the care of our soul” (2). The salvation of the soul—this is the supreme law of the Church (Canon 1752).

And yet, how is pagan literature useful to the soul? Is not Tertullian so opposed to secular literature, poetry and philosophy, that he writes one of his more famous sentences, “What indeed has Athens to do with Jerusalem? What concord is there between the Academy and the Church?” (Against the Heretics 7). Doesn’t Jerome seem to agree with him, saying, “How can Horace go with the psalter, Virgil with the gospels, Cicero with the apostle?… Although ‘unto the pure all things are pure,’ and ‘nothing is to be refused if it be received with thanksgiving,’ still we ought not to drink the cup of Christ, and, at the same time the cup of devils” (Eph. 22.29). The answer again lies in what focuses the soul on Christ and what distracts the soul, what is “pro-Christ” and what is “anti-Christ.” When Jerome spoke his seeming condemnation, he was rebuking his own love of literature which had turned into a type of lust for letters, which he called “adultery of the tongue.” Insofar as he had begun to prefer Cicero and Plautus to the prophets, and had begun to consider Scripture rough and rude in comparison, he made the rhetoric of the Romans into an idol, an end rather than a means to Christ. “He that is not with me, is against me: and he that gathereth not with me, scattereth,” says Christ (Mt. 12:30).

When it comes to the Fathers and profane literature, the Fathers are united in this regard: the good of the soul is first, and literature cannot be separated from this. Literature is therefore commendable when the winds of its words blow the soul to its own good which is God; and reprehensible when either its breezes drift or its tempests drive the soul off course. Or, in the words of Basil, “[Y]ou should not surrender to these men once for all the rudders of your mind, as if of a ship, and follow whithersoever they lead; rather, accepting from them only that which is useful, you should know that which ought to be overlooked” (1). This advice is not only sound to the early Christians, but also to their descendants in all times and places. The Fathers called for discernment. Basil warns against mindlessly following authors, but weigh them and discern their merits in assisting with Faith and with morality. Not all novels or poems have the same merit: some have no value for virtue, and therefore are rejected; others, having some worth, might be read in sections or parts; and others, pregnant with examples of virtue, are worth reading from cover to cover.

The pagan works, therefore, are outright condemnable when the work is either so immoral or so erroneous that it has nothing worth redeeming it. Such is the case when the crimes of the gods or heroes appear as a good or as agreeable to the reader, in such cases when human offenses are defended by the acts of gods and heroes. And in this particular matter, the poets were considered as pagan theologians or historians of the gods and not fiction-writers, with the lecherous gods as paradigms. Firmicus Maternus, writing in the early fourth century, decrying the lewdness of the pagan rituals and certain myths of the gods, says,

Better just move the temples over to the theater and turn the mysteries of those religions into stage productions… A more fitting place for those religions couldn’t be found. There let the vile throng croon about the amours of the gods… There a doomed soul can better learn adultery and crime from impure and crime-besmirched teachers, with gods as exemplars. (12)

Maternus warns that these poets, who by their immoral writings or by their assumed and erroneous position “have led erring souls over headlong precipices into cruel disaster, by giving to human beings who are prone to sin a highroad to wrongdoing with the examples set by the gods as guideposts” (ibid). It would become quickly tedious to list every example of the Fathers denouncing this aspect of pagan literature. That is, when the literature of the pagans “are monuments of madness and intemperance” (Justin, Discourse to the Greeks 1) or the poets are “teachers of religion” (Justin, Hortatory Address to the Greeks 2). Let it suffice, then, to give the fearless apologist Justin the last word on this matter:

With such a mass of evils do you banish shame; and you fill your minds with them, and are carried away by intemperance, and indulge as a common practice in wicked and insane fornication. And this further I would say to you, why are you, being a Greek, indignant at your son when he imitates Jupiter, and rises against you and defrauds you of your own wife? Why do you count him your enemy, and yet worship one that is like him? And why do you blame your wife for living in unchastity, and yet honour Venus with shrines? If indeed these things had been related by others, they would have seemed to be mere slanderous accusations, and not truth. But now your own poets sing these things, and your histories noisily publish them. (Discourse to the Greeks 4)

The imperfect and poetic gods must resemble the perfect God, and mythical men must mirror earthly men. For this reason, Basil will have his students open to their ears to the “deeds and words of good men…to cherish and emulate,” but, when the stories speak well of evil, either in men or in the gods, he says, imitate Odysseus and plug the ears with wax “when he avoided the songs of the Sirens… On this account, then the soul must be watched over with all vigilance, lest through the pleasure the poets’ words give we may unwittingly accept something of the more evil sort, like those who take poisons along with honey” (4). Nevertheless, the Fathers did not shy from benefiting souls even with this point. The immorality of pagan myths were employed to upend paganism by unearthing the lunacy of worshiping impure gods. Such depravities, such decadences, do not conform to the true nature of God, and so the poets, by attributing such debaucheries to even mythical divinities, “have done unrivaled harm to the truth by the weight of their authorities” (Felix, 23). And so, the Fathers used the felonies of the gods to expose the falsity of those gods as merely corrupted men who were divinized to vindicate viciousness. Such delving into pagan literature was not thought to be detrimental, in that they were prudently carried out, as Socrates Scholasticus reasons, “But this we cannot do, unless we possess ourselves of the weapons of our adversaries: taking care that in making this acquisition we do not adopt their sentiments, but testing them, reject the evil, but retain all that is good and true: for good wherever it is found, is a property of truth” (Ecclesiastical History 3.16) So effective was this mode of persuasion and apologetics that Julian the Apostate, when he attempted to re-establish paganism in the empire, barred the Christians from studying secular literature. “For he knew very well that the fables it contains,” writes Scholasticus, “would expose the whole pagan system, of which he had become the champion, to ridicule and contempt” (3.16).

At the same time that the pagan poets were rightly condemned for drawing souls from God, the Fathers recognized a further profit of the pagan literature, to demonstrate their consistencies with the true religion and to teach good morals. Several of the Fathers noted that Scripture seemed to give this very approval for the use of profane literature by the examples of Moses and Daniel, both having been educated in the lore and the wisdom of the Egyptians and the Chaldeans, respectively. Added to this, St. Paul himself referenced the pagan poets in defense of Christianity. First, in Athens, he confirmed a similarity between the pagan notion of men being sons of god and the Christian doctrine of men being the sons of God: “For in him we live and move and are; as some also of your own poets said: For we are also his offspring” (Acts 17:28). This “affinity between the two bodies of teaching,” as Basil says, is useful to the Christian, fortifying that which is true and pointing to the perfect by means of the imperfect. Felix follows in the footsteps of St. Paul, explaining how the pagans, in their poetry and in their philosophy, hold likewise to a similar notion of divine unity and paternity: “The poets too I hear proclaiming that there is a unique father of gods and men, and that the thoughts of the mortals are no more than the daylight produced by the father of all… These opinions are pretty well identical with ours: we recognize a God, and we also call Him father of all” (19). When speaking about the philosophers, the similarities being so close between the pagan philosophers and the Christians, Felix wonders, “So it is open to anyone to suppose that either present-day Christians are philosophers or philosophers of the past were already Christians” (20). Justin agrees with this sentiment:

For while we say that all things have been produced and arranged into a world by God, we shall seem to utter the doctrine of Plato; and while we say that there will be a burning up of all, we shall seem to utter the doctrine of the Stoics; and while we affirm that the souls of the wicked, being endowed with sensation even after death, are punished, and that those of the good being delivered from punishment spend a blessed existence, we shall seem to say the same things as the poets and philosophers; and while we maintain that men ought not to worship the works of their hands, we say the very things which have been said by the comic poet Menander, and other similar writers, for they have declared that the workman is greater than the work. (First Apology Chapter 20)

Furthermore, since the true Christian does not merely say “Lord, Lord” but also does the will of God the Father (Mt. 7:21), the positive use of the pagan aids also in demonstrating or supporting virtue and morality. And why would they not have something to offer in way of natural virtue? They too have, as St. Paul reminded the Romans, a conscience with the law of God “written in their hearts” (Romans 2:15). Demonstrating the evils of vulgar speech, St. Paul draws from pagan drama, either Menander or Euripides, “Evil communications corrupt good manners” (I Cor. 15:33). The Apostle to the Gentiles setting the example, the Fathers did likewise. Clement of Alexander, in his work The Instructor, speaks similarly in pointing out that the pagan poets reinforce Proverbs on the destructiveness of drunkenness (2.2). Jerome, after recounting virtuous examples from Virgil, says, “But that I may not seem to quote only profane literature, listen to the mystical teaching of the sacred writings” (Eph. 52.2). So cohesively does the Saint of the Vulgate move from the Virgil’s Georgics and Eclogues to Genesis and Exodus, from Cicero’s Philippics to St. Paul’s Philippians! To defend this service the pagans give to the Christian, Jerome and Augustine catalogue a litany of nearly forty early Christian writers who have employed the pagans in defense of both the Faith and virtue. Such a spirit should be no surprise, for Ecclesiasticus says, “All wisdom is from the Lord God, and has been always with him, and is before all time” (1.1). And if the pagans have some shards of truth, it must come from and belong to Christ who is Truth itself.

As all truths come from Christ, so the pagan letters were to lead to the Word. The gold of Egypt was to build the tabernacle. Homer and Aeschylus were to lay the foundation for Genesis and Apocalypse. The student would probe into Virgil that he might better ponder the Vulgate. Or as Basil writes, “Therefore, just as dyers first prepare by certain treatment whatever material is to receive the dye, and then apply the color… so we also in the same manner must first, if the glory of the good is to abide with us indelible for all time, be instructed by these outside means, and then shall understand the sacred and mystical teachings; and like those who have become accustomed to seeing the reflection of the sun in water, so we shall direct our eyes to the light itself” (2).


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Augustine. On Christian Doctrine. Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers. Vol 2. Ed. Philip Schaff. Scribner’s, 1907.

Basil. “To Young Men, On How They Might Derive Profit from Pagan Literature.” Letters. Vol 4. Leob Classical Library. Trans. Roy J. Deferrari. Harvard UP, 1934. 379-435.

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Justin. The Apostolic Fathers. Ante-Nicene Fathers. Vol 1. Ed. Alexander Roberts and James Donaldson. New York, Scribners, 1903.

Marcus Minucius Felix. The Octavius. Trans. G. W. Clarke. New York, Newman, 1974.

Tertullian. Late Christianity: Its Founder, Tertullian. The Ante-Nicene Fathers. Vol 3. Ed. Alexander Roberts and James Donaldson. Buffalo, Christian Literature Publishing, 1887.

Theophilus. “Theophilus to Autolycus.” The Ante-Nicene Fathers. Vol 2. Ed. Alexander Roberts and James Donaldson. Buffalo, Christian Literature Publishing, 1887.