Philosophy is Vain! Try philosophy instead.

apparet falsam et inanem esse omnem philosophiam, quia nec instruit ad justitiae munera, nec officium hominis rationemque confirmat. Sciant igitur errare se, qui philosophiam putant esse sapientiam: non trahantur auctoritate cujusquam; sed veritati potius faveant, et accedant. Nullus hic temeritati locus est: in aeternum stultitiae poena subeunda est, si aut persona inanis, aut opinio falsa deceperit. Homo autem,  qualiscumque est, si sibi credit, hoc est si homini credit (ut non dicam stultus, qui suum non videat errorem) certe arrogans est, qui sibi audeat vendicare, quod humana conditio non recipit. Lactantius, Divinae Institutiones 3.15

It appears that all philosophy is false and empty, because it neither builds up for the performance of the duties of justice, nor strengthens the duty and reason of man. Let them know therefore that they err, who think that philosophy is wisdom: let them not be drawn by any man’s authority; but let them rather cherish the truth and pursue it. There is no place here for rashness: The punishment which must be suffered for foolishness is forever, if either a charlatan or a false opinion will have deceived us.

But a man, of whatever sort he is, if he trusts in himself, that is if he trusts in a man, is (not to say a fool, since he does not see his own error) certainly arrogant, to dare to claim that as his own which the human condition does not admit of.

Lactantius, Divine Institutes 3.15


It’s interesting how Lactantius is here attacking “philosophy” (philosophia), when what we would call philosophy today is usually precisely the opposite, that is, the thing which he is suggesting in its place, namely veritati accedere: to seek or move towards the truth.

But this is essential to understanding the late antique notion of philosophy. Philosophy was doctrina; it was doctrinaire. Every philosophy had to have a Logic or epistemology, a Physics or cosmology, and an Ethics or morality. And it had to be transmittable in writing.

Plato would have recoiled.

It’s funny that Lactantius would have agreed with Plato about so much, but a certain attitude would have prevented their being friends, I suppose…

Thanks, dear reader, should you ever find me, for being my gadfly.


About philokalos

Philologist, historian, and lover of great books, I started this blog to keep myself alert to the beauty of what I see amid the demands of my work.
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