This malevolence accounts for the fact that these deities had no concern for the life and morals of the states and peoples that worshiped them. With what result? They failed to restrain their believers by any fear-inspiring prohibitions, but allowed them to sink to the lowest depths of corruption, and into these ghastly and execrable evils which attack not fields and vineyards, house and property, not the body, the soul’s servant, but the master of the body, the soul itself. If the divinities ever issued such a prohibition, give me a hint, a proof of it.
Now, let no one come forward triumphantly and boast that an upright and chaste life was inculcated by mysterious doctrines whispered into the ears of a few chosen spirits as a kind of esoteric religion. Let him point out or name any places ever dedicated to assemblies of that sort—not places where scenes were enacted by obscene words and gestures of players, like the Flight of the Kings, celebrated amid a riot of licentiousness and exhibiting, rather, the flight of shame and decency. Let him show places where the people heard what the gods taught about refraining avarice, curbing ambition, controlling lust, where the unfortunate could learn what Persius emphatically urges they should learn, when he says:
Learn, wretches, and conceive the course of things,
What man is, and why nature forth him brings:
His settled bounds, from hence how soon he strays:
What wealth means; that for which the good man prays;
How to use money: how to give to friends,
What we in earth, and God in us intends.’
Let him tell in what places the gods taught these precepts or their worshipers heard them again and again—as I can indicate churches built for this purpose in every part of the world where the Christian religion spread.
Perhaps they will venture to refer to the schools and discussions of the philosophers. To begin with, these are not products of Rome, but of Greece. If they are to be termed Roman because Greece became a Roman province, then they are not the ordinances of deities, but the creations of human imagination. By the keenness of mind with which they are endowed, these men have striven to fathom the secrets of nature, what is to be aimed at and what avoided in the domain of morals, and in the domain of logic what conclusions are to be drawn with the rigorous sequence demanded by the laws of reasoning, what conclusions do not follow or even contradict their premises.
Some of them, so far as they were guided from on high, made great discoveries; but, as far as they were hindered by human nature, fell into error, especially when Divine Providence justly thwarted their pride in order to show them, even by opposition, that the path of virtue starts from humility and rises to higher things. I shall enquire into and discuss this matter later, the true God and Lord willing. Meanwhile, I may here observe that if the philosophers have discovered anything that can aid one to lead a good life and attain eternal happiness, how much more fitting would it be to adjudge divine honors to such men!
How much more sensible and proper would it be to have Plato’s writings read in a temple dedicated to him than to have the mutilation of the priests of Cybele, the consecration of eunuchs, the slashing of insane men, in the temples of the demons, the perpetration of every cruel and foul, or foully cruel and cruelly foul, abomination that is wont to pass for a religious rite. Far more profitable would it be, for instructing the young in justice, to read the laws of the gods publicly than to give sham praise to the laws and institutions of our ancestors. For, all the worshipers of such gods, when once they are possessed by what Persius calls ‘the burning poison of lust,’ are more captivated by what Jupiter did than by what Plato taught or Cato censured.
Thus, we read in Terence how a dissolute youth looks upon a wall painting, ‘in which the tale was told how Jove sent down a shower of gold into the lap of Danaë.’ He appeals to the authority of this weighty example to justify his own lust, with a boast that he did but imitate a god. ‘And what god?’ he continues. ‘Even he that shakes the loftiest temples with thunder. Since he did thus, should a wretch of a man like me not do the same? Why! I did it with all my heart.’
Augustine of Hippo, The City of God, Books I–VII