The spirit of persecution in Firmicus Maternus

In Firmicus Maternus, The error of profane religion, 16, we read the following exhortation to the emperors (ca. 350):

3. These temples, very holy emperors, one should call them bonfires. Yes, bonfires of poor wretches, this is the name which is right for them. Because the deplorable servitude of men has led them to raise temples instead of tombs for people charged with crimes. Here we maintain the flames that have burned their bodies, the ashes of the dead are kept in obedience to an impious law; their despicable fate is renewed in the blood of victims daily, the sad lamentations for their death are commemorated by annual ceremonies of mourning, a groan comes to awaken the old pain, the low minds of men learn to honor and to imitate the parricides, incests and murders represented in the rites.

4. These abominations, most holy emperors, must be extirpated radically, in order to destroy them; apply to them the most severe regulations of your edicts, do not allow the Roman world to be sullied any longer by this disastrous error, that the impiety of these practices, a true plague, should not gain in power, and that the domination of that which seeks the ruin of the man of God should last no longer. Some refuse, conceal themselves, and desire with a feverish passion their own death. Come all the same to the assistance of these poor wretches, deliver them: they are perishing! It is so that you might remedy this wound that the supreme God has entrusted the empire to you. We know the danger to which their crime exposes them, we know the punishment reserved for their error: better to release some in spite of themselves than to leave them to their own desires to run to their perdition.

5. The sick like what harms them. When disease has seized the body of a man, the sick clamour for what would prevent them from recovering their health. A spirit oppressed by the languor of a disease always wants what will increase it, it mistakes and scorns the remedies of the experts, it resists the care of the doctor, and tends with an impassioned haste towards its own loss. If evil is gaining ground, it uses the most powerful remedies, the medicine that seeks the good of the patient, is more energetic. The repugnant food, the bitter drinks, those who refuse them are made to take them by force; and, if their disease still progresses, iron and fire are employed. Cured finally, returned to health, the man who underwent against his will the care that was given him because of his disease, recognizes, his spirit once again strengthed, that all these torments were inflicted on him for his good.

This is the authentic language of religious persecution.  “It’s for your own good”, the inquisitor cries.  And who decides what is right for me?  Why, the inquisitor!  We need not suppose Firmicus Maternus insincere; but we know that all too often those who claim this right over us have proven to be very insincere and self-seeking.  The emperors here are Constantius II and his ill-fated nephew, Gallus.  Few of us would willingly live under the rule of either.

So it was during the Cold War.  There were not lacking people who knew what was best for me better than I did.  “The will of people” must prevail, they cried; but somehow “the people” always meant “people other than me”. 

It would be nice to think that we have got past this stage, where a minority — or even a majority — force their views on others, “for their own good.”  Sadly there seems no sign of it.  Those who have power always seem to become arrogant.

Leave a Reply