Tertullian: A Treatise on the Soul 2

Chapter II.—The Christian Has Sure and Simple Knowledge Concerning the Subject Before Us.

Of course we shall not deny that philosophers have sometimes thought the same things as ourselves. The testimony of truth is the issue thereof. It sometimes happens even in a storm, when the boundaries of sky and sea are lost in confusion, that some harbour is stumbled on (by the labouring ship) by some happy chance; and sometimes in the very shades of night, through blind luck alone, one finds access to a spot, or egress from it. In nature, however, most conclusions are suggested, as it were, by that common intelligence wherewith God has been pleased to endow the soul of man. This intelligence has been caught up by philosophy, and, with the view of glorifying her own art, has been inflated (it is not to be wondered at that I use this language) with straining after that facility of language which is practised in the building up and pulling down of everything, and which has greater aptitude for persuading men by speaking than by teaching. She assigns to things their forms and conditions; sometimes makes them common and public, sometimes appropriates them to private use; on certainties she capriciously stamps the character of uncertainty; she appeals to precedents, as if all things are capable of being compared together; she describes all things by rule and definition, allotting diverse properties even to similar objects; she attributes nothing to the divine permission, but assumes as her principles the laws of nature. I could bear with her pretensions, if only she were herself true to nature, and would prove to me that she had a mastery over nature as being associated with its creation. She thought, no doubt, that she was deriving her mysteries from sacred sources, as men deem them, because in ancient times most authors were supposed to be (I will not say godlike, but) actually gods: as, for instance, the Egyptian Mercury, to whom Plato paid very great deference; and the Phrygian Silenus, to whom Midas lent his long ears, when the shepherds brought him to him; and Hermotimus, to whom the good people of Clazomenæ built a temple after his death; and Orpheus; and Musæus; and Pherecydes, the master of Pythagoras. But why need we care, since these philosophers have also made their attacks upon those writings which are condemned by us under the title of apocryphal,1503 certain as we are that nothing ought to be received which does not agree with the true system of prophecy, which has arisen in this present age; because we do not forget that there have been false prophets, and long previous to them fallen spirits, which have instructed the entire tone and aspect of the world with cunning knowledge of this (philosophic) cast? It is, indeed, not incredible that any man who is in quest of wisdom may have gone so far, as a matter of curiosity, as to consult the very prophets; (but be this as it may), if you take the philosophers, you would find in them more diversity than agreement, since even in their agreement their diversity is discoverable. Whatever things are true in their systems, and agreeable to prophetic wisdom, they either recommend as emanating from some other source, or else perversely apply in some other sense. This process is attended with very great detriment to the truth, when they pretend that it is either helped by falsehood, or else that falsehood derives support from it. The following circumstance must needs have set ourselves and the philosophers by the ears, especially in this present matter, that they sometimes clothe sentiments which are common to both sides, in arguments which are peculiar to themselves, but contrary in some points to our rule and standard of faith; and at other times defend opinions which are especially their own, with arguments which both sides acknowledge to be valid, and occasionally conformable to their system of belief. The truth has, at this rate, been well-nigh excluded by the philosophers, through the poisons with which they have infected it; and thus, if we regard both the modes of coalition which we have now mentioned, and which are equally hostile to the truth, we feel the urgent necessity of freeing, on the one hand, the sentiments held by us in common with them from the arguments of the philosophers, and of separating, on the other hand, the arguments which both parties employ from the opinions of the same philosophers. And this we may do by recalling all questions to God’s inspired standard, with the obvious exception of such simple cases as being free from the entanglement of any pre- conceived conceits, one may fairly admit on mere human testimony; because plain evidence of this sort we must sometimes borrow from opponents, when our opponents have nothing to gain from it. Now I am not unaware what a vast mass of literature the philosophers have accumulated concerning the subject before us, in their own commentaries thereon—what various schools of principles there are, what conflicts of opinion, what prolific sources of questions, what perplexing methods of solution. Moreover, I have looked into Medical Science also, the sister (as they say) of Philosophy, which claims as her function to cure the body, and thereby to have a special acquaintance with the soul. From this circumstance she has great differences with her sister, pretending as the latter does to know more about the soul, through the more obvious treatment, as it were, of her in her domicile of the body. But never mind all this contention between them for pre-eminence! For extending their several researches on the soul, Philosophy, on the one hand, has enjoyed the full scope of while Medicine, on the other hand, has possessed the stringent demands of her art and practice. Wide are men’s inquiries into uncertainties; wider still are their disputes about conjectures. However great the difficulty of adducing proofs, the labour of producing conviction is not one whit less; so that the gloomy Heraclitus was quite right, when, observing the thick darkness which obscured the researches of the inquirers about the soul, and wearied with their interminable questions, he declared that he had certainly not explored the limits of the soul, although he had traversed every road in her domains. To the Christian, however, but few words are necessary for the clear understanding of the whole subject. But in the few words there always arises certainty to him; nor is he permitted to give his inquiries a wider range than is compatible with their solution; for “endless questions” the apostle forbids. It must, however, be added, that no solution may be found by any man, but such as is learned from God; and that which is learned of God is the sum and substance of the whole thing.