Archive Authors Calvin E.J. Hutchinson Lucretius Nota Bene Reformed Irenicism Vergil

Calvin’s Vergil, Calvin’s Lucretius

Continuing an exercise begun the other day

Calvin refers to the Roman poets Vergil and Lucretius exactly once in the Institutes of the Christian Religion, in the same passage of 1.5.5, “The Knowledge of God Conspicuous in the Creation, and Continual Government of the World.”

The passage begins with a criticism of Aristotle, to which we shall return in another post, regarding the immortality of the soul and a certain style of praising nature, particularly physical nature, that, in the end, deifies it and thus suppresses the true knowledge of God.

But my business at present is not with that stye:1 I wish rather to deal with those who, led away by absurd subtleties, are inclined, by giving an indirect turn to the frigid doctrine of Aristotle, to employ it for the purpose both of disproving the immortality of the soul, and robbing God of his rights. Under the pretext that the faculties of the soul are organised, they chain it to the body as if it were incapable of a separate existence, while they endeavour as much as in them lies, by pronouncing eulogiums on nature, to suppress the name of God.

Calvin disagrees, however; the powers of the soul extend beyond the body. He continues:

But there is no ground for maintaining that the powers of the soul are confined to the performance of bodily functions. What has the body to do with your measuring the heavens, counting the number of the stars, ascertaining their magnitudes, their relative distances, the rate at which they move, and the orbits which they describe?

The capacity of the mind for reaching to the heavens, far beyond one’s own bodily existence, shows that man’s mind is not confined to where his body is located, on the earth. In this respect he echoes Boethius in the The Consolation of Philosophy. Calvin does not mean to criticize astronomy; on the contrary, he holds it in high esteem.

I deny not that Astronomy has its use; all I mean to show is, that these lofty investigations are not conducted by organised symmetry, but by the faculties of the soul itself apart altogether from the body. The single example I have given will suggest many others to the reader.

Calvin goes on to list some of these examples that show that the soul is not “chain[ed] to the body.” These include memory, man’s creative capacity and skill in the arts, and the continuing function of the intellect when the body is asleep:

The swift and versatile movements of the soul in glancing from heaven to earth, connecting the future with the past, retaining the remembrance of former years, nay, forming creations of its own—its skill, moreover, in making astonishing discoveries, and inventing so many wonderful arts, are sure indications of the agency of God in man. What shall we say of its activity when the body is asleep, its many revolving thoughts, its many useful suggestions, its many solid arguments, nay, its presentiment of things yet to come?

All of this should be enough to prove an element of the divine–and thus of the immortal–in man, a soul that is given by God. Lest anyone think me to be saying more than Calvin himself does, he goes on explicitly to call man “divine.” The problem, however, arises in that man does not properly recognize and acknowledge that this divine aspect of his nature is predicated upon the existence of a God who is radically independent of creation and thus can serve the radically dependent creation as its foundation. He writes:

What shall we say but that man bears about with him a stamp of immortality which can never be effaced? But how is it possible for man to be divine, and yet not acknowledge his Creator? Shall we, by means of a power of judging implanted in our breast, distinguish between justice and injustice, and yet there be no judge in heaven? Shall some remains of intelligence continue with us in sleep, and yet no God keep watch in heaven? Shall we be deemed the inventors of so many arts and useful properties that God may be defrauded of his praise, though experience tells us plainly enough, that whatever we possess is dispensed to us in unequal measures by another hand?

Man, in so far as he is created in the image of God, is analogous to God, but only in such a way that the distinction between creator and creature is not elided: man’s gifts are derived and thus require a perfect and underived archetype. The fact that this is so curtails any suggestion that God is the soul of the world if it is done in such a way as to destroy God’s absolute transcendence. It is at this point that Vergil comes in for criticism, or rather the “delight” that some readers take in his lines in Aeneid 6.724ff. and Georgics 4.219ff.

The talk of certain persons concerning a secret inspiration quickening the whole world, is not only silly, but altogether profane. Such persons are delighted with the following celebrated passage of Virgil:—

“Know, first, that heaven, and earth’s compacted frame,

And flowing waters, and the starry flame,

And both the radiant lights, one common soul

Inspires and feeds—and animates the whole.

This active mind, infused through all the space,

Unites and mingles with the mighty mass:

Hence, men and beasts the breath of life obtain,

And birds of air, and monsters of the main.

Th’ ethereal vigour is in all the same,

And every soul is filled with equal flame.”

The meaning of all this is, that the world, which was made to display the glory of God, is its own creator. For the same poet has, in another place, adopted a view common to both Greeks and Latins:—


“Hence to the bee some sages have assigned

A portion of the God, and heavenly mind;

For God goes forth, and spreads throughout the whole,

Heaven, earth, and sea, the universal soul;

Each, at its birth, from him all beings share,

Both man and brute, the breath of vital air;

To him return, and, loosed from earthly chain,

Fly whence they sprung, and rest in God again;

Spurn at the grave, and, fearless of decay,

Dwell in high heaven, art star th’ ethereal way.”

Calvin believes that the position represented in these lines will not “foster piety,” and he quickly criticizes the Epicurean and atomist Lucretius as well who, in De rerum natura, denied the possibility of creatio ex nihilo.2

Here we see how far that jejune speculation, of a universal mind animating and invigorating the world, is fitted to beget and foster piety in our minds. We have a still clearer proof of this in the profane verses which the licentious Lucretius has written as a deduction from the same principle. The plain object is to form an unsubstantial deity, and thereby banish the true God whom we ought to fear and worship.

One could compare this passage from Book 1 of Lucretius’ poem:

This terror, then, this darkness of the mind, 
Not sunrise with its flaring spokes of light, 
Nor glittering arrows of morning can disperse, 
But only Nature’s aspect and her law, 
Which, teaching us, hath this exordium: 
Nothing from nothing ever yet was born
Fear holds dominion over mortality 
Only because, seeing in land and sky 
So much the cause whereof no wise they know, 
Men think Divinities are working there. 
Meantime, when once we know from nothing still 
Nothing can be create, we shall divine 
More clearly what we seek: those elements 
From which alone all things created are, 
And how accomplished by no tool of Gods.

Though Lucretius, as an Epicurean, was very far from identifying the world with God, his speculations, it seemed to Calvin, had the same deleterious effect: whether God is identified with the world or whether his providence is utterly removed from it, in either case the true God has been abandoned.

Given all of this, what Calvin says to conclude will surprise some and make others nervously reach for their Van Tilian amulets. No matter. He writes:

 I admit, indeed that the expression “Nature is God,” may be piously used, if dictated by a pious mind

That is, the pith of what Vergil says (or part of it, anyway) might have been acceptable, had it come from a correct conception of the relation between creation and its creator; alas, this is not the case and so Calvin feels at liberty to criticize the ancient poets. But he is willing to go so far as to admit that the expression itself “Nature is God” can be permitted, though it is improper. Calvin understands poetic and rhetorical diction more than most–and given that many will misunderstand the figure of speech he advises against it and concludes it is “harm[ful],” particularly in so significant a matter as the relation between God and the world:

…but as it is inaccurate and harsh (Nature being more properly the order which has been established by God), in matters which are so very important, and in regard to which special reverence is due, it does harm to confound the Deity with the inferior operations of his hands.

Once again, we see what critical appropriation means for the early Reformers: earlier sources may be used, and used freely; they may also be criticized freely when the situation requires it. The procedure is one that has served Protestants well for several centuries. This is no surprise, for it is just sanctified common sense.


  1. The reference is to Epicurus, a favorite target of the Reformers.
  2. See editor’s n.63.

By E.J. Hutchinson

E.J. Hutchinson is Assistant Professor of Classics at Hillsdale College.