He was a North African adherent of what was a minority religion in the territories in which he lived and traveled. He had seen his faith mocked publicly, with opponents parading cartoonish images in the streets to inflame the animus and contempt already directed against his beliefs. They declared his religion the threat to social order and cherished values, and they blamed its inexplicable increase in followers for the calamities befalling civil society. Many of his fellow believers had already been imprisoned, even tortured. He blamed “ignorance as the chief root of [the] unjustifiable bitterness” toward his faith.
This pious man predicted that a cataclysmic judgment was coming that would dismantle the very civilization that was threatening him, and that only his creed could save it and prevent a chaos and lawlessness heretofore unknown.
He decided the time had come to enter the lists and fight the good fight.
His name was Quintus Septimius Florens Tertullianus. He was a Christian. And his weapon was . . . satire.
Tertullian (ca. AD 165–225) was born in Carthage, in modern-day Algeria. He was a convert to the Christian faith whose contributions to early Christian literature were prolific and profound. He lived during a time of intense persecution of North African Christians, and his apologetical works not only attempted to set straight what it was that Christians actually believed but also emboldened future Christian writers and preserved much early Christian social history.
Moreover, these works are thought to have influenced the satirical work par excellence, A Modest Proposal by Jonathan Swift, in their frank acknowledgment of grotesque treatment at the hands of an enemy—and going it one better.
Swift, of Anglo-Irish heritage and a priest in the established (Protestant) church of Ireland, wrote that the “solution” to the seventeenth-century “Irish problem” was to employ the best social-engineering practices of the day and use Irish children as a source of nutrition:
I have been assured by a very knowing American of my acquaintance in London, that a young healthy child well nursed is at a year old a most delicious, nourishing, and wholesome food, whether stewed, roasted, baked, or boiled; and I make no doubt that it will equally serve in a fricassee or a ragout.
I do therefore humbly offer it to public consideration that of the hundred and twenty thousand children already computed, twenty thousand may be reserved for breed, whereof only one-fourth part to be males; which is more than we allow to sheep, black cattle or swine; and my reason is, that these children are seldom the fruits of marriage, a circumstance not much regarded by our savages, therefore one male will be sufficient to serve four females. That the remaining hundred thousand may, at a year old, be offered in the sale to the persons of quality and fortune through the kingdom; always advising the mother to let them suck plentifully in the last month, so as to render them plump and fat for a good table. A child will make two dishes at an entertainment for friends; and when the family dines alone, the fore or hind quarter will make a reasonable dish, and seasoned with a little pepper or salt will be very good boiled on the fourth day, especially in winter.
I have reckoned upon a medium that a child just born will weigh 12 pounds, and in a solar year, if tolerably nursed, increaseth to 28 pounds.
I grant this food will be somewhat dear, and therefore very proper for landlords, who, as they have already devoured most of the parents, seem to have the best title to the children.
But Tertullian had beaten him to the parodic punch by almost a millennium and a half. Christians in pre-Constantinian days were accused of the most vile practices by their pagan neighbors and were subjected to court trials that sought anything but justice. While ordinary criminals were tortured to compel them to confess to their crimes, and so admit actual guilt,
when Christians, however, confess [to practicing the Christian faith] without compulsion, you apply the torture to induce them to deny. What great perverseness is this, when you stand out against confession, and change the use of the torture, compelling the man who frankly acknowledges the charge to evade it, and him who is unwilling, to deny it? You, who preside for the purpose of extorting truth, demand falsehood from us alone that we may declare ourselves not to be what we are. I suppose you do not want us to be bad men, and therefore you earnestly wish to exclude us from that character. To be sure, you put others on the rack and the gibbet, to get them to deny what they have the reputation of being. Now, when they deny (the charge against them), you do not believe them but on our denial, you instantly believe us. (Ad Nationes, here and below; emphasis mine)
Tertullian acknowledged how
it is said that we are guilty of most horrible crimes; that in the celebration of our sacrament we put a child to death, which we afterward devour, and at the end of our banquet revel in incest; that we employ dogs as ministers of our impure delights, to overthrow the candles, and thus to provide darkness, and remove all shame which might interfere with these impious lusts.
Given how Christian trials were typically prosecuted, rather than entreat the authorities to reform themselves, Tertullian insisted that the pagan authorities take their perverse judicial practices to their logical conclusion. In which case,
how much more consistent were it with your hatred of us to dispense with all forms of judicial process, and to strive with all your might not to urge us to say “No,” and so have to acquit the objects of your hatred; but to confess all and singular the crimes laid to our charge, that your resentments might be the better glutted with an accumulation of our punishments, when it becomes known how many of those feasts each one of us may have celebrated, and how many incests we may have committed under cover of the night! What am I saying? Since your researches for rooting out our society must needs be made on a wide scale, you ought to extend your inquiry against our friends and companions. Let our infanticides and the dressers (of our horrible repasts) be brought out,—ay, and the very dogs which minister to our (incestuous) nuptials; then the business (of our trial) would be without a fault. Even to the crowds which throng the spectacles a zest would be given; for with how much greater eagerness would they resort to the theatre, when one had to fight in the lists who had devoured a hundred babies! For since such horrid and monstrous crimes are reported of us, they ought, of course, to be brought to light, lest they should seem to be incredible, and the public detestation of us should begin to cool. For most persons are slow to believe such things, feeling a horrible disgust at supposing that our nature could have an appetite for the food of wild beasts, when it has precluded these from all concubinage with the race of man.
In due course, Tertullian’s zeal for the Spirit and pursuit of pure living would cause him to condemn the Church as the coming seat of Anti-Christ. Breaking with the majority of his coreligionists, whom he believed insufficiently rigorous, he became an adherent of what many deemed a fanatical sect. A “premillennialist,” he joined the Montanists, a sect of early “enthusiasts,” and even formed a breakaway group of “Tertullianists.” Nevertheless, his theological and apologetic contributions to early Latin Christianity remain invaluable. And his witty, literate, and sophisticated reproach to the Faith’s early tormenters remain a badge of honor for Christians today and a model for satirists of whatever religious and political denomination.