What of Varro himself? We regret that he included stage plays among religious rites, though he did this against his better judgment. When, as a religious man, in many places he encouraged the worship of the gods, does he not admit that he is not of his own conviction following those beliefs, which, he asserts, owed their institution to the Roman state? He does not hesitate to admit that, if he were to found a new state, he would take his gods and their titles from the order of nature. But, since among the ancients it was the custom to hold as accepted fact the names and surnames as handed down by their ancestors, he says that he felt it a duty to write and study diligently, to the end that the common people might desire rather to worship the gods than to despise them. In these words that astute man clearly shows that he has not revealed all those things which would appear despicable, not only to himself, but even to the common crowd, if they were revealed.
Some might think I imagined this, except that he stated elsewhere, speaking of religious matters, not only that many things were true of which the knowledge was of no advantage to the common people, but also that, even if they were false, it was expedient that the people believe them true. For this reason, the Greeks concealed their sacrifices and mysteries by silence and behind walls. Here, he certainly lays bare the schemes of the supposed wise men by whom states and peoples were governed. These falsehoods afford great delight to the evil demons, who take possession of both the deceivers and the deceived, and from whose domination there is no liberation save by the grace of God, through Jesus Christ our Lord.
This brilliant and learned writer also states that it seems to him that only those who believed God to be the soul governing the world through motion and reason realized what God was. This shows that, even though he had not as yet attained the truth that the true God is not a soul, but the Creator and Maker of the soul, yet, had he been free to go against public opinion, he would have admitted and argued that one God, governing the world through motion and reason, should be worshiped. Then there would remain but one dispute with him on this matter—namely, that he should say that God was a soul, and not rather the Creator of the soul.
He states, also, that for more than 170 years the ancient Romans worshiped gods without an image. ‘If this custom,’ he says, ‘had endured to the present, the gods would have been reverenced by a purer worship.’ In favor of this opinion, he brings forward as witness, among others, the Jewish nation, and he does not hesitate to conclude that passage by saying that those who first set up images of the gods for the people took awe away from their fellow citizens and added to their errors. He wisely considered that the gods can be readily despised when seen in the lifelessness of images. He does not say that they transmitted error, but added to their errors, for he wishes it to be understood that there were errors even without the images. Hence, when he states that only those who believed God to be the soul governing the world had realized what God is, and that he considers that religion would be more purely observed without images, who can fail to see how close he has come to the truth? For, if he could have opposed so inveterate an error, it would have been by his belief in one God by whom the world is governed, and by his contention that this God should be worshiped without an image. Having come so close to the truth in this, he might perhaps have been easily reminded of the mutability of the soul, and thus might have recognized as the true God that immutable Nature which created the soul.
Hence, whatever mockeries of the countless gods such men have set forth in their writings, they have been compelled to such admissions by the hidden will of God, but they made no attempt to persuade others. So, whatever arguments we have drawn from their books we have brought forward to refute those who refuse to acknowledge from what mighty and malignant power of the demons we have been set free by the precious sacrifice of the Holy Blood which was shed for us and by the gift of the Spirit which has been bestowed upon us.
Varro also states, regarding the genealogies of the gods, that the people were inclined to follow the poets rather than the philosophers. Thus, their ancestors, the ancient Romans, believed in the sex and generation of the gods, and arranged marriages for them. This seems to have been done for no reason save that it was the business of prudent and wise men to deceive the people in matters of religion, and by this deception not only to worship but to imitate the demons, whose chief desire was to deceive. For, just as the demons have no power except over those whom they lead astray by their deception, so also human rulers—not, indeed, the just, but those who resemble the demons—in the name of religion convince the people of the truth of what they themselves know to be false, thus binding them more closely to the state, that they may hold them subject. What weak and ignorant man could escape the combined deceit of rulers and demons?
Augustine of Hippo, The City of God, Books I–VII, ed. Hermigild Dressler, The Fathers of the Church, (Washington, DC: The Catholic University of America Press, 1950), 8:234–237.