Lactantius, Teleology, and American Literature

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IN THE EARLY FOURTH century, Lucius Caecilius Firmianus Lactantius lost his job as a professor of rhetoric, a position he had been invited to assume years earlier by the Roman emperor Diocletian. Lactantius was not native to the area, nor was he native to Christianity, but in the midst of his professional life he had arrived at both. He had been born a pagan in North Africa around 240 A.D. He studied under Arnobius--the renowned rhetor and, later, Christian apologist who taught at Sicca (Tunisia) in Roman Africa--and over time his own reputation as a learned rhetorician caught the attention of the Roman leadership, resulting in an invitation from Diocletian to teach at Nieomedia. All might have gone well for Lactantius had he not subsequently discovered Christianity. His conversion put him at odds with the Emperor, and when Diocletian issued his first edict against Christianity in 303 A.D., it was clear Lactantius's tenure at Nicomedia would be revoked. With the loss of his professorship, Lactantius was soon reduced to abject poverty, from which he would not successfully recover until late in his life when the Emperor Constantine remembered his skills as a teacher and appointed him a tutor to his son Crispus. Having followed his charge Crispus to Trier, Germany, in 317, Lactantius spent his final months in that city and died circa 320 A.D.

Only Lactantius's Christian writings survive, and, although not known for the depth and originality of his theological vision, Lactantius made a lasting mark through his style--he was dubbed the "Christian Cicero" during the Renaissance--and for his work in apologetics. In particular, Lactantius focused on defending Christianity against polytheistic pagan religions, and it is this combination of graceful style steeped in classical learning with his systematic dismantling of the theories and creeds held by the best minds of the classical era that likely resulted in his popularity in the Renaissance and established Lactantius as one of the more oft-quoted and oft-reprinted of the early church fathers. Around 314 A.D., Lactantius wrote a volume entitled De ira Dei (A Treatise on the Anger of God). The stated purpose of this treatise is to refute the arguments of" those who believe God does not act in wrath either because (1) God is all-benevolent, or (2) God is set apart from the direct affairs of humankind. Much of" the text is given over to a point-by-point answer to the Stoics, the Epicureans, and a handful of other classical philosophers who in one form or another argued that God cannot or does not experience wrath. About halfway through his discourse, Lactantius tackles what we would refer to now as the problem of pain. He brings this part of his treatise to a point by introducing a formulation Lactantius attributes to Epicurus. Lactantius writes:

   God, he [Epicurus] says, either wishes to take away evils, and is
   unable; or He is able, and is unwilling; or He is neither willing
   nor able, or He is both willing and able. If He is willing and is
   unable, He is feeble, which is not in accordance with the character
   of God; if He is able and unwilling, He is envious, which is equally
   at variance with God, if He is neither willing nor able, He is both
   envious and feeble, and therefore not God; if tie is both willing
   and able, which alone is suitable to God, from what source then are
   evils? Or why does tie not remove them? (Lactantius, 28)

The problem of pain, as set forth here by Lactantius, is often framed, or answered, with an appeal to questions of teleology. In other words, the dilemma might be reconceived thus: by, revealing some greater design or discovering some remarkable end or purpose--a teleos--for pain, can we explain adequately why, if God is both benevolent and omnipotent, that He does not remove pain from the world? Lactantius thinks so. Having earlier in his treatise argued that the universe is divinely ordered and governed by God's providence, Lactantius proposes that the existence of evil in the world serves the purpose of forcing humanity to exercise wisdom. …