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In concluding a work which has cost me many years of labour, it may not be out of place to state why I first undertook it and what I have tried to accomplish. Believing that the entrance of Christianity into the world is the central fact of man's history, the key to all that preceded and all that has followed it, I have always esteemed it to be the highest office of classical scholarship to throw light upon the state of thought and feeling in the two great nations of antiquity at the time of the birth of Christ. It is as a contribution to such an inquiry that the treatise on the Nature of the Gods seems to me to possess a unique interest and value ; not because Cicero was himself the most original, the most earnest, or the most religious thinker of his time; but because he, more than any other, reflects for us the best tone of his time, because he represents to us most truly its highest level of intelligence and morality. To what extent then do we find in his writings any anticipation of the religion which was to establish itself, not in Judaea alone but in Greece and Italy also, within a hundred
of his death? We find in the first place the way prepared for Christianity by the abandonment of the old polytheism. The arguments used against the later Paganism by such men as Minucius, Tertullian, Arnobius, Lactantius and even Augustine himself are largely borrowed from this very dialogue. Nor is it only in the negative direction that Cicero exhibits to us philosophy preparing the way for Christianity. That God is perfect in wisdom, power, and goodness, that men are his children, partakers of his Spirit, that his Providence overrules all things to the best end, that the only acceptable worship is that in spirit and in truth, that virtue is a Divine gift, that God is the animating Spirit of the universe and yet has his peculiar abode in the heart of the virtuous, who shall hereafter be partakers of eternal" blessedness in heaven,—this is the teaching of Balbus, as modified by the criticisms of Cicero, and this is also the foundation of the teaching of the New Testament; it is Bishop Butler's ‘Natural Religion' in its purest form. That Christians themselves recognized a positive element of Christianity in the writings of Cicero is strikingly shown by the passage given as the motto of this volume, in which St Augustine describes the impression produced upon his own mind by the study of the Hortensius”.
1 Cf. V. D. II 62, 111 12.
2 Confess. ii 4.
But Cicero's treatise is not only interesting from a historical point of view. It gains a further practical interest when we see him contending on behalf of rational religion against superstition on the one side and atheism on the other; when we find him upholding the union of reason and religion, both against those who placed religion outside the bounds of reason, making it rest on authority alone, and against those who maintained that the belief in a Divine Governour of the world was contrary to reason and detrimental to virtue and happiness. And then when we look onward to the further development of this contest, and see how the agnosticism of Cicero's time, after it had served its purpose in purifying the religious idea from its incrustations, itself disappeared before the vast influx of a religion which satisfied heart and mind alike, may not this suggest a similar issue for the struggle in which we ourselves are engaged, and may we not recognize, under the materialistic and agnostic tendencies of the present, the hand of God's Providence clearing the way for a purer and more enlightened Christianity in the future?
While however my chief aim has been to illustrate and explain the general argument of Cicero, I have not knowingly passed over any minor difficulty without doing my best to clear it up. For this end I have carefully studied all that has been written by my predecessors in the same field, and I have incorporated in my own commentary whatever seemed of value in
their writings. I hope that something has also been done for the improvement of the text in my critical notes, and something in the commentary and index to advance the knowledge of Ciceronian Latin. As regards the text I have always named the originator of any improvement; in the explanatory notes I have followed the example of Schömann, treating as common property all that had been collected up to the date of the last variorum edition (A.D. 1818), but naming my authority wherever I have borrowed from later writers, such as Allen or Schömann himself.
In conclusion I have only to repeat my thanks to Mr Roby and to my brother, Prof. J. E. B. Mayor, for looking over the proofs of this as of my former volumes, and to the Syndicate of the Cambridge University Press for undertaking the expense of publication.