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On the Natural Knowledge of God


Chapter 1. That forgetfulness of reason makes men ignorant of the true God, whom they worship in adversity and despise in prosperity.

For since other animals look down to the ground, with bodies bending forward, because they have not received reason and wisdom, whereas an upright position and an elevated countenance have been given to us by the Creator God, it is evident that these ceremonies paid to the gods are not in accordance with the reason of man, because they bend down the heaven-sprung being to the worship of earthly objects. For that one and only Parent of ours, when He created man — that is, an animal intelligent and capable of exercising reason, — raised him from the ground, and elevated him to the contemplation of his Creator. As an ingenious poet has well represented it:— “And when other animals bend forward and look to the earth, He gave to man an elevated countenance, and commanded him to look up to the heaven, and to raise his countenance erect to stars.”[1]

From this circumstance the Greeks plainly derived the name ἄνθρωπος, because he looks upward. They therefore deny themselves, and renounce the name of man, who do not look up, but downward: unless they think that the fact of our being upright is assigned to man without any cause. God willed that we should look up to heaven, and undoubtedly not without reason. For both the birds and almost all of the dumb creation see the heaven, but it is given to us in a peculiar manner to behold the heaven as we stand erect, that we may seek religion there; that since we cannot see God with our eyes, we may with our mind contemplate Him, whose throne is there: and this cannot assuredly be done by him who worships brass and stone, which are earthly things. But it is most incorrect that the nature of the body, which is temporary, should be upright, but that the soul itself, which is eternal, should be abject; whereas the figure and position have no other signification, except that the mind of man ought to look in the same direction as his countenance, and that his soul ought to be as upright as his body, so that it may imitate that which it ought to rule. But men, forgetful both of their name and nature, cast down their eyes from the heaven, and fix them upon the ground, and fear the works of their own hands, as though anything could be greater than its own artificer.


Chapter 2. What was the first cause of making images; of the true likeness of God, and the true worship of him.

“O souls bent down to the earth, and destitute of heavenly things?”[2] Rather look to the heaven, to the sight of which God your Creator raised you. He gave to you an elevated countenance; you bend it down to the earth; you depress to things below those lofty minds, which are raised together with their bodies to their parent, as though it repented you that you were not born quadrupeds. It is not befitting that the heavenly being should make himself equal to things which are earthly, and incline to the earth. Why do you deprive yourselves of heavenly benefits, and of your own accord fall prostrate upon the ground? For you do wretchedly roll yourselves on the ground, when you seek here below that which you ought to have sought above. For as to those vain and fragile productions, the work of man's hands, from whatever kind of material they are formed, what are they but earth, out of which they were produced? Why, then, do you subject yourselves to lower objects? Why do you place the earth above your heads? For when you lower yourselves to the earth, and humiliate yourselves, you sink of your own accord to hell, and condemn yourselves to death; for nothing is lower and more humble than the earth, except death and hell. And if you wished to escape these, you would despise the earth lying beneath your feet, preserving the position of your body, which you received upright, in order that you might be able to direct your eyes and your mind to Him who made it.[…]


Chapter 5. That God only, the creator of all things, is to be worshipped, and not the elements or heavenly

Whence some persons of dull and obtuse mind adore as gods the elements, which are both created objects and are void of sensibility; who, when they admired the works of God, that is, the heaven with its various lights, the earth with its plains and mountains, the seas with their rivers and lakes and fountains, struck with admiration of these things, and forgetting the Maker Himself, whom they were unable to see, began to adore and worship His works. Nor were they able at all to understand how much greater and more wonderful He is, who made these things out of nothing. And when they see that these things, in obedience to divine laws, by a perpetual necessity are subservient to the uses and interests of men, they nevertheless regard them as gods, being ungrateful towards the divine bounty, so that they preferred their own works to their most indulgent God and Father. But what wonder is it if uncivilized or ignorant men err, since even philosophers of the Stoic sect are of the same opinion, so as to judge that all the heavenly bodies which have motion are to be reckoned in the number of gods; inasmuch as the Stoic Lucilius thus speaks in Cicero: This regularity, therefore, in the stars, this great agreement of the times in such various courses during all eternity, are unintelligible to me without the exercise of mind, reason, and design; and when we see these things in the constellations, we cannot but place these very objects in the number of the gods. And he thus speaks a little before: It remains, he says, that the motion of the stars is voluntary; and he who sees these things, would act not only unlearnedly, but also impiously, if he should deny it. We in truth firmly deny it; and we prove that you, O philosophers, are not only unlearned and impious, but also blind, foolish, and senseless, who have surpassed in shallowness the ignorance of the uneducated. For they regard as gods only the sun and moon, but you the stars also.

Make known to us, therefore, the mysteries of the stars, that we may erect altars and temples to each; that we may know with what rites and on what day to worship each, with what names and with what prayers we should call on them; unless perhaps we ought to worship gods so innumerable without any discrimination, and gods so minute in a mass. Why should I mention that the argument by which they infer that all the heavenly bodies are gods, tends to the opposite conclusion? For if they imagine that they are gods on this account, because they have their courses fixed and in accordance with reason, they are in error. For it is evident from this that they are not gods, because it is not permitted them to deviate from their prescribed orbits. But if they were gods, they would be borne here and there in all directions without any necessity, as living creatures on the earth, who wander here and there as they please, because their wills are unrestrained, and each is borne wherever inclination may have led it. Therefore the motion of the stars is not voluntary, but of necessity, because they obey the laws appointed for them. But when he was arguing about the courses of the stars, while he understood from the very harmony of things and times that they were not by chance, he judged that they were voluntary; as though they could not be moved with such order and arrangement, unless they contained within them an understanding acquainted with its own duty. Oh, how difficult is truth to those who are ignorant of it! How easy to those who know it! If, he says, the motions of the stars are not by chance, nothing else remains but that they are voluntary; nay, in truth, as it is plain that they are not by chance, so is it clear that they are not voluntary. Why, then, in completing their courses, do they preserve their regularity? Undoubtedly God, the framer of the universe, so arranged and contrived them, that they might run through their courses in the heaven with a divine and wonderful order, to accomplish the variations of the successive seasons. Was Archimedes of Sicily able to contrive a likeness and representation of the universe in hollow brass, in which he so arranged the sun and moon, that they effected, as it were every day, motions unequal and resembling the revolutions of the heavens, and that sphere, while it revolved, exhibited not only the approaches and withdrawings of the sun, or the increase and waning of the moon, but also the unequal courses of the stars, whether fixed or wandering? Was it then impossible for God to plan and create the originals, when the skill of man was able to represent them by imitation? Would the Stoic, therefore, if he should have seen the figures of the stars painted and fashioned in that brass, say that they moved by their own design, and not by the genius of the artificer? There is therefore in the stars design, adapted to the accomplishment of their courses; but it is the design of God, who both made and governs all things, not of the stars themselves, which are thus moved. For if it had been His will that the sun should remain fixed, it is plain that there would be perpetual day. Also if the stars had no motions, who doubts that there would have been eternal night? But that there might be vicissitudes of day and night, it was His will that the stars should move, and move with such variety that there might not only be mutual interchanges of light and darkness, by which alternate courses of labour and rest might be established, but also interchanges of cold and heat, that the power and influence of the different seasons might be adapted either to the production or the ripening of the crops. And because philosophers did not see this skill of the divine power in contriving the movements of the stars, they supposed them to be living, as though they moved with feet and of their own accord, and not by the divine intelligence. But who does not understand why God contrived them? Doubtless lest, as the light of the sun was withdrawn, a night of excessive darkness should become too oppressive with its foul and dreadful gloom, and should be injurious to the living. And so He both bespangled the heaven with wondrous variety, and tempered the darkness itself with many and minute lights. How much more wisely therefore does Naso judge, than they who think that they are devoting themselves to the pursuit of wisdom, in thinking that those lights were appointed by God to remove the gloom of darkness! He concludes the book, in which he briefly comprises the phenomena of nature, with these three verses:— “These images, so many in number, and of such a figure, God placed in the heaven; and having scattered them through the gloomy darkness, He ordered them to give a bright light to the frosty night.”

But if it is impossible that the stars should be gods, it follows that the sun and moon cannot be gods, since they differ from the light of the stars in magnitude only, and not in their design. And if these are not gods, the same is true of the heaven, which contains them all.


[1] Ovidius, Metamorphoses, I, 84-86.

[2] Persius, Satires, II, 61.

Divine Institutes, II, 1-2,5. English transl. by William Fletcher. Source of the English digital text: