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Lactantius’s Plato: Rethinking the Role of Philosophers in De ira Dei

Kristina A. Meinking

In his early fourth-century treatise De ira Dei, the Christian apologist Lactantius defends the existence of God’s wrath, and in so doing he articulates an argument that runs contrary to long-held tenets of Greek philosophical discourse, including the immutability and impassibility of the supreme god. Unlike his predecessors and contemporaries who wrote in Greek, Lactantius ostensibly rejects the option of allegorical reading employed by Plato (among others) and fashions his approach as one superior to those of the philosophers (he targets primarily the Stoics and Epicureans). Lactantius approaches the question of divine wrath from a literal, rather than allegorical or figural, perspective because he was immersed in a Roman rhetorical tradition that stood, or at least saw itself as standing, in contrast and at times in opposition to the tenets of the Greek philosophical tradition broadly construed. Given his education in law and rhetoric, the apologist’s approach is reflexive, and, in light of the degree to which he draws his reader’s attention to his method, also self-conscious. Yet it is problematic: setting aside, for the moment, the apparent novelty of his theological claim, Lactantius’ dismissal of Plato and the philosophers glosses over a long tradition in which Lactantius himself is implicated, most obviously by his dependence on Cicero, whose role in the transmission of Greek philosophical ideas to the world of Roman intellectual culture cannot be overlooked in the consideration of any later Latinate author. 

In the first part of this paper, I explore the moments at which Lactantius appears to engage with Plato or the philosophical traditions he associated with Plato, including Socrates, the Epicureans, and the Stoics. Such a treatment of Plato with other philosophical traditions underscores how Lactantius’ own lumping together of all philosophers from Socrates through Seneca is conceptual and pragmatic, and reflects a perspective that is also mapped onto the structure of the text itself. Lactantius engages with Greek philosophy and philosophers in strategic ways: he selectively quotes and paraphrases specific philosophers and philosophical opinions in an attempt to establish a consensus. In the second part of the paper, I argue that these moments of agreement work to legitimize Lactantius’ own arguments in De ira Dei. Similarly, the points at which Lactantius breaks from the consensus indicate his desire to distinguish his view from those of his predecessors (and, we might add, his contemporaries), most clearly when he argues in favor of divine wrath. In closing, I will suggest that Lactantius’ understanding and representation of Plato and Greek philosophy more generally must be studied through a Ciceronian lens and that the close ties that exist between De ira Dei and De natura Deorum are more than rhetorical: they are instead formative to Lactantius’ intellectual development and his articulation of the divine nature.

De ira Dei is surprising, then, not just for the relatively rare claim its author makes about the reality of divine wrath, but also for the ways in which he plays with individual representatives of and ideas maintained within classical philosophical thought. For Lactantius, God’s wrath does not involve an overturning of all previous philosophy (as one might expect), but rather the reorientation of ethical and practical philosophy based on a re-evaluation of the emotion of anger. Despite his dissatisfaction with philosophers we find in Lactantius’ upholding of key philosophical tenets that Plato and the Platonic tradition survive here in muted and diffused ways. Not least for these reasons, both Lactantius and the treatise merit further consideration alongside other authors and texts of the third and fourth centuries. Lactantius’ upholding of divine wrath, for example, illuminates, by way of contrast, the degree to which one could break from tenets of classical Greek philosophy; similarly Lactantius’ and his Latinate contemporaries’ relationship to Cicero, by way of comparison, can help to elucidate shifts in intellectual culture between Apuleius and Augustine.

Session/Panel Title

The Intellectual Culture of the Second to Fourth Centuries CE: Christians, Jews, Philosophers, and Sophists

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