Front Page Titles (by Subject) CHAPTER IV.: IDOLATRY IS OF ALL THINGS THE MOST VAIN. - The Triumph of the Cross
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CHAPTER IV.: IDOLATRY IS OF ALL THINGS THE MOST VAIN. - Girolamo Savonarola, The Triumph of the Cross 
The Triumph of the Cross, trans. from the Italian, edited, with an Introduction by the Very Rev. Father John Procter, S.T.L. With a frontispiece portrait of the author (London: Sands & Co., 1901).
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IDOLATRY IS OF ALL THINGS THE MOST VAIN.
We have already shown that the religion of philosophers, who worshipped the First Cause, was insufficient for salvation; and that the teaching of astrologers was most useless and dangerous. How much more contemptible, then, is worship given to images of wood and stone, made in the likeness of men or beasts? Surely, such a religion needs no confutation; since every one can see that it is foolish to honour senseless things.
Some men, however, to excuse their folly, say that they do not honour images themselves, but the gods dwelling in them, just as Christians honour the representations of the Saints. We shall show, therefore, that the worship which they pay to these gods, was, and if it still anywhere exist, is, both impious and superstitious. This is a fitting place to discuss this subject; for, as we have been treating of extremes we ought now to speak of the mean; and midway between God and the heavens, are the separate substances1 which were the gods of the pagans.
But we must remember that God moves the will of man in two ways: either by showing him good, in order to excite him to the love of it; or, by applying His power to the will of man, in order to make that will elicit an act of love or of desire—just as a shepherd may either attract a sheep by showing it pasturage; or he may, with his hand, draw it along. Now, creatures can influence each other in the former of these two ways; but no man can act on the will of another in the second way specified. Because, as the will proceeds immediately from God, it is immediately subject to Him, and He alone can move it to will, or not to will. But, although the will be completely in God’s power, He never acts upon it in such a way as to deprive man of his liberty. He always leaves him his free-will; because God moves all things according to their form and natural propensity. Man, as man, is immediately subject to God; and to Him alone, as to the Prime Mover and Ruler of all things, does he owe the worship of latria.1 He is bound to pay to other immaterial substances, only such honour as is proportioned to their participation in the Divine likeness. Therefore, the Christian gives all his worship to God. He honours the Saints and Angels, not as gods but as the friends of God. He desires that they should pray for him, and impetrate from God the things that he, of himself, cannot obtain from Him. He praises God in His Saints, and thanks Him that He has deigned to bestow such glory upon His creatures. This is a lawful and holy way of honouring God and immaterial substances. But idolaters adored their idols, and burnt incense to them, and implored favours of them, believing them to be true gods.
But, as some may argue that, although the heathens adored many gods, their worship was really referred to Almighty God, whom they adored in all their other gods; we shall show that, even were this the case, it would not justify the folly and evil of idolatry. Firstly, because the masses of the heathen nations could not appreciate such distinctions, and were, therefore, misled; and, secondly, because the heathen ceremonies were largely composed of absurd and unseemly rites. It cannot be maintained that these ceremonies were practised only by impious men who wanted to degrade the worship of their idols, since they were observed throughout the whole world, even amongst great men.
But we will not now argue this point any further. We will confine ourselves to proving, that the idols, worshipped by the heathen, were not gods, but evil spirits, in whose person God could not be honoured. It is proper to every created and well-ordered intellect, not only to submit itself, and to pay homage to its First Cause, which is God; but also to dispose all other intelligences inferior to itself, to do likewise, so that God, the Worker of all good, may be glorified in all things. But the spirits adored by idolaters, whilst frequently giving answers to those who questioned them, never inclined men to true religion, nor to a well-ordered life. In fact, we read that they acted quite contrariwise, subverting all order, deceiving men, and usurping the honour due to God; thus filling the world with so much sin and ignorance, that mankind had no knowledge of Him.
Again, good spirits do not work evil, nor encourage hatred, nor inculcate vice. But we read of the pagan deities, that amongst them, war, dissensions, sacrilege, incest, and many other crimes, which we cannot contemplate without horror, were common; and these fabulous stories of their lives set a bad example to all mankind.
Furthermore, God being perfect and standing in need of nothing, does not, for His own sake, desire our worship. He enjoins it on us for our profit, as a means whereby we may become perfect and blessed. Therefore, every well-ordered intelligence ought to endeavour, as far as possible, to obey this Divine command, and to teach others to worship God, in order thus to gain beatitude. Consequently, had the heathen deities been good spirits, they would have endeavoured to render men virtuous and perfect in the spiritual life, which consists in the knowledge, love, and desire of God. Now, on the contrary, they deceived mankind by so much vanity and falsehood, that, truth and virtue were far better taught in the schools of such philosophers as Pythagoras and Socrates, Plato and Aristotle, than in the temples of the gods. And the philosophers, who despised or ignored the pagan religions, were men of better life than the heathen priests.
Further, if the heathen deities had been good spirits, they would have given to mankind some assurance of obtaining what it desired, to wit, beatitude and true virtue; thereby showing that they watched over the interests of man as guardians, whose duty it was to direct all things to their proper end; and remembering that, even philosophers could not, by reason of this weakness of human intellect, arrive at knowledge of this truth. But, far from acting thus, the pagan gods confused the minds of mortals, and prevented them from attaining to this knowledge.
Good spirits are not liars, and do not deceive men; for falsehood is always evil. But we read of the gods of the ancients, that they frequently misled their questioners by giving them false and ambiguous answers. Again, as we have shown before, the knowledge of things to come is a Divine prerogative, which, had the heathen gods been good spirits, they would not have claimed. For they did not, like our prophets, say, “Thus saith God”. They spoke as of themselves, pretending to prescience of the future, and seducing men into superstition. They also feigned to disclose to them events to come by means of the entrails of animals, or the song and flight of birds, and such like follies. From all this, good spirits would not only have abstained; they would even have forbidden them to their followers. Neither would good spirits have encouraged magical arts, by means of which, gross immorality was often perpetrated, innocent persons were deprived of life, and wicked men were rendered prosperous. On the contrary, they would have loathed such practices, and would have strenuously forbidden them.
Again, no good spirit would take pleasure in cruelty. Now, we read that, for the sacrifices offered to the heathen deities, not only were beasts slaughtered, but even children and young maidens were slain by their own fathers; and this, because the gods desired these massacres, and delighted in them. And, at the destruction of the pagan temples, which ensued on the preaching of the Apostles, there were found innumerable bones of men and women, but mostly of children, of both sexes.
We could recount endless evils which have sprung from idolatry. What we have said will, however, suffice, seeing that, through the mercy of our Lord Jesus Christ, this false teaching has been swept from the face of the earth. The heathen religions have likewise been abundantly confuted and expounded by our forefathers, who were men of learning. Surely if the pagan idols had been gods, their worship could never have been so completely exterminated as it has been.
[1 ]i.e., angels, or else disembodied spirits, or souls which have left this world; to some of which pagans gave Divine worship.—Editor.
[1 ]i.e., Divine worship.—Editor.