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Rationality and the Gods

PostPosted: Wed Aug 15, 2007 12:17 pm
by Aulus Flavius
* Hello all, I recently sent this in a letter to Piscinus to help with a personal matter of faith. However I thought the topic relevant enough to post it publicly and see what responses I could get from other Romanes. I will not publish any reply Piscinus sends me, for obvious privacy reasons.


Salve Piscinus,

I've got something of a crisis of faith occurring, and I was wondering if being the most learned of our group, you'd be able to provide me with a little guidance. I've recently completed a course at university that dealt with Classical Traditions of Thought, namely the beginnings of philosophy in the Western world up to the writings of Augustine.

Coupled with this I've been hearing many arguments filtered Down Under about the debates in the US over creationism. I've even found people on YouTube who have gone to great theological lengths to prove or disprove their points of view.

Both of these events, learning about Classical thought, and seeing the sort of dialog being exchanged in Christian circles, has led me to wonder if such thought in the religio Romana is somewhat stagnant because it lacks this vigorous arguing. Where do our Gods stand in a wider relationship with the world in which we live?

I know that fundamentally any, for the sake of argument we'll use the term Pagan, faith is conceptually very different from Semetic faiths. And I know that my background in this to a certain extent will always be there with me. There is no, and correct me if I'm wrong, overriding cosmogony to the religio Romana. The religion in its barest form as practiced by a majority of the people in the ancient world, derived from religere, was based on tradition and citizenship.

That, as far as I can tell, is it. Go back to to the third century BC and ask Gaius Manius what he thinks about the nature of the physical world and the eternal world, and you'll get a blank stare.

When it came to the deeper questions, the ancients turned to philosophy. Now as I understand it this was a very small percentage of the population that were affected by these messages. But almost all of these men developed a view of religion that appeared to be markedly different from the one practiced by the mobs around them. So much so that Socrates was executed for preaching a so called atheism. Plato gave us the demiurge of Timaeus and Lucretius gave us materialism at its best.

All of these people seem to espouse reason, Celsus in particular. The Stoics preach the rule of rationality over fear and superstition. This is no secret. These men and their thoughts fueled the Enlightenment. But then you hear Seneca speaking about personal Gods within us, you hear Plato speaking about the Forms, or Heraclitus clamming that the universe was born from, returns to, is composed of, and recycled from a great and ever lasting fire.

My dilemma is, these philosophies have had a profound impact on me. Rome has had a profound impact on me, and always will. But rationally speaking, as I must, how can I believe in a pantheon of Gods, with nothing more then faith? The weakest of all forms of knowledge. Socrates, Lucretius, Celsus, all rail against the depredations of blind and unquestioning faith. How is the religio Romana any different? How can we know the Gods beyond faith? How is sacrificing any different? How is believing in the rational God of Timaeus, or the Genius of Seneca any different? How can someone study philosophy, learning of the rationalities behind it, and still believe in the Gods?

I owe it to my own intelligence to be this honest. We constantly hear of the logical and rational flaws in Christianity. Simply because the religio Romana is not mainstream should not exempt it from this sort of rational inquiry.

I'm sorry if this is blunt or offensive Piscinus, but this is something I have to know.


A. Flavius

Roma Aeterna, Lux Mundi


What I'm basically arguing is the old Edward Gibbon point of view; is the civic religion of the Rome, a religion of rationality?

PostPosted: Thu Aug 23, 2007 8:46 am
by Horatius Piscinus
Salve Aule Flavi

I have, for these past several weeks, been contending with the Di Tempestes, or rather with their results, and more frequently contending with my contractors whom I've engaged to repair the damage caused by hail, flood, and tornadoes.

I will attempt to hold a discussion on the subject on the boards. Western philosophy on the subject revolves around Christian theology. That is, it is based on the assumption that there is only one God who is omnipotent, omniscient, and all-good. Some of the "rational" arguments made to "prove" the existence of God get humg up over this notion, because both the defenders and detractors of such arguments do not see the other possibilities that can exist if one accepts the existence of multiple Gods. We cannot therefore tread into such discussions without contrasting ideas of Christian theology to that of Classical philosophies. This would come out if we go over the various arguments made for and against the existence of God; there really was not much discussion of doubt in ancient philosophy. A few names are mentioned, famed for having questioned whether we could know with any certainty that the Gods exist, and then the Epicurians were accused of atheism from an argumentum ad absurdum, while the Epicurians vigorously denied that their conception of the Gods denied Their existence.

There is a passage in the Christian gospels that goes, "But first change your mind." Spoken to Gentiles and Jews it meant that first they had to rethink all that they had been taught as children. Today with most of our Gentiles Romani raised in a Judeo-Christian tradition they, too, must first change their minds over to a new perspective. You say that you are having a "crisis of faith." This in itself is a Christian phrasing. Fideism, or reliance on faith in the absence of any proof is itself a Christian response to logical arguments raised against Christian theology. That is, where faith becomes an obstinent continuance in belief in spite of reasoned argument to the contrary.

However, beside logic and blind faith there is another basis to belief in the Gods, one that is now used more frequently by some Christians. John Hicks, for example, a Presbyterian minister who taught theology at Birminham, said that faith "stands ultimately upon the ground of religious experience and is not a product of philosophical reasoning." Among Christians blind faith often devolves to the authority of a book, while among Jews it is just a matter of tradition. Philosophical arguments are offered only secondly as a form of justification. Among the Greeks and Romans, however, while they had some contentions between philosophers, and while practice was based in tradition, belief rested on religious experience. To some extent this relied on traditions about others who had earlier experienced the Gods. The religio Romana, for example, stemmed from Numa Pompilius experiencing Egeria, Faunus, and Jupiter. But then, too, practitioners expected, and often did, see the Gods in visions, so that they would have their own religious experiences with the Gods. I will return to more on this at a later date. But here let me put forward a notion, one that has been obscured in modern thought. When Parmenides used the term "reason" he did not mean it in the same sense as we use it today, to imply thought based on principles of modern logic. Instead "reason" means "to know implicitly," a priori, without the rationalized constructions that modern theologians used today. And further, this "reason" of Parmenides rested upon religious experiences gained during trance, was in fact ecstatic experience produced through ritual and evoked by the mysteries. In truth such experiences have been the basis of all religion, extending back to the beginning of humankind. What has been amazing is how Judeo-Christian-Muslim traditions have generally placed themselves at odds with such experiences.

Well, we can go over some of the arguments that have been raised in the past, pro and con, however the boards would allow us to briefly cover such topics. The philosophical arguments are over whether any gods exist, but our concepts of what is meant by gods and Gods vary so greatly with the views held by most Christians and Jews that we shall probably have to be constantly defining what we mean by God, Gods, and gods.

Vale et vade in pace Deorum
M Horatius Piscinus

BTW if, as you say, I would be the "most learned in our group" then our societas would be in trouble.

PostPosted: Sat Aug 25, 2007 3:38 am
by Horatius Piscinus
Salve Aule Flavi

Where shall we begin on the subject of whether the Gods exist? The subject requires some idea on what is meant by Gods since Their nature is often assumed in the proofs offered.

Let us first consider the ontological proof as this generally involves defining God. The Stoic Zeno said, “That which has the faculty of reason is superior to that which has not the faculty of reason; but nothing is superior to the World, therefore the World has the faculty of reason.” Through a similar argument Zeno went on to claim that the World is a sentient, animate, and rational, wise being that is also virtuous and divine. Here Zeno was reflecting on a God over All, much as Plato was to identify, but Zeno’s unlike Plato’s, was identical with the Universe, not a being transcendent of the Universe. By no means did the Stoics, Platonists, or the Epicureans for that matter, deny the existence of other Gods in the World. Rather, an entire hierarchy of greater and lesser deities were thought as necessarily produced by and in the World as manifestations of still higher Gods. Zeno was said to have observed the order of being, based on their faculties for reason, such that the vegetative was followed by superior animals and humans, and “we shall necessarily arrive in the end at deity.”

A later Stoic, Chrysippus, offered this ontological argument. “If there is something in the World that mind’s mind and human reason, strength, and power are incapable of producing, that which produces it must necessarily be superior to man. Now the heavenly bodies and all those things that display a never ending regularity cannot have been created by man. Therefore that which creates them is superior to man. Yet what better name is there for this than God? Indeed if Gods do not exist, what can there be in the Universe superior to man? For he alone possesses reason, which is the most excellent thing that can exist. But for any human being in existence to think that there is nothing in the whole Universe superior to himself would be an insane piece of arrogance. Therefore there is something superior to man; therefore Gods do exist.”

The Stoic’s argument is relative. The Gods, whatever They may be, exist relative to humans. The argument does not really prove whether Gods actually exist, but instead identifies Them and defines Them as something greater than mortal humans.

Centuries later, Anselmo of Aosta, Archbishop of Canterbury, put forward an argument similar to Zeno’s progression in his Proslogion, where degrees of perfection found in creatures lead on towards a still more perfect deity. In Anselmo’s Monologion is the more famous of his so-called proofs. There he begins with the presumption of an all-perfect being, which he calls god. Similar to the manner used by Zeno, he makes this god out to be all-powerful, all-knowing, all-good, and so on, thereby describing his characteristic properties. He then goes a step too far in asserting that what exists is superior to what does not exist, and since his fabricated deity is all perfect, this god must also exist.

Well, as Kant pointed out, existence is not a property, characteristic, or quality in the same sense as having blue eyes or being all-powerful. One might as well claim the discovery of a fish with three tiers of teeth and forepaws to grasp its prey, and then say ‘it exists’ as though this were also a quality it possessed. One would still have to demonstrate that such a fish actually existed. Ontological arguments in general do not prove anything. On the one hand, they try to prove what has already been presumed without proof. Generally they set up sequences, which may not be valid in themselves, and then assumes that the sequence would continue further and then define the ultimate end of the series as a god. They sound as though reasoned, but upon examination ontological arguments result from invalid methods. They prove nothing.

Vale et vade in pace Deorum

PostPosted: Wed Aug 29, 2007 6:15 am
by Aulus Flavius
Salve Piscinus,

Don't sell yourself short here Piscinus, you're still our Numa :)

I've read over both of your posts and both of them are certainly understandable. My own studies into philosophy, both at university and privately, have shown me that the ancients concepts of the, for lack of a better term, Gods, was of beings as much a part of this universe as we are.

However if I'm reading your second post right, no ontological argument can ever be formed to prove beyond doubt the existence of the Gods. Since these arguments can be set up to rationally argue themselves to a logical conclusion, this ultimate conclusion is deemed to be 'God'.

So it appears to be the argument is one of convincing yourself that the Gods exist, rather then there being a standard proof of their existence? I'm starting to see the appeal to the Skeptical School and just admit I can't know anything for certain, even that.


A. Flavius

PostPosted: Wed Aug 29, 2007 6:12 pm
by Horatius Piscinus
Salve Aule Flavi

Aulus Flavius wrote:However if I'm reading your second post right, no ontological argument can ever be formed to prove beyond doubt the existence of the Gods. Since these arguments can be set up to rationally argue themselves to a logical conclusion, this ultimate conclusion is deemed to be 'God'.

Certainly not empiracal proof as science would require. As far as an ability to make reasonable, rational, or logical arguments, such arguments only set themselves up to be refuted by logic. THE case in point - I suppose still taught in philosophy - are Thomas Aquinas' so-called Five Ways of prooving the existence of his god. I'll post shortly on them in order to review these kinds of logical arguments. It isn't only Aquinas or Judeo-Christian-Muslim theologians who fall victim to their own exercises. Aquinas relied on Plato, Aristotle, and mostly (although he didn't realize it) on Proclus' Elements of Theology, which was thought at the time to have been an Aristotlan text.

Human rational cannot grasp infinity. Even our astronomers have difficulty grasping the huge expanses they deal with, and the time involved, and though they may speak of infinity the concept just is not part of human experience. So a begining is sought, a source, and by convention such are named a god. Gods created by humans, or human reasoning. Such arguments cannot really prove the existence of gods. Nor can refutations based in human reason really disprove that gods exist.

Aulus Flavius wrote:So it appears to be the argument is one of convincing yourself that the Gods exist, rather then there being a standard proof of their existence? I'm starting to see the appeal to the Skeptical School and just admit I can't know anything for certain, even that.

Logic cannot prove one way or the other whether the Gods exist. Skeptics can at best refute the arguments presented as logical proofs for the existence of God, but they cannot prove that He doesn't exist. Modern atheistic philosophers have used logic to refute just such arguments, and by refuting the arguments of Christian or Muslim theologians for one God's existence they assume that no Gods exist. Well, an error of judgement. There is no good reason to assume that only one God exists. There is no reason to assume that if Gods exist that They would conform to human exectations, Christian or otherwise.

I am not yet through with reviewing logical arguments. However, as I said before, logic will not provide definitive proof for the existence of Gods or be able to disprove the existence of Gods. There then are what are called Fideistic proofs, where a skeptic can easily say that a person has convinced himself, contrary to logic, that the Gods exist. Fidism rests on (1) personal experience, (2) authority, or (3) tradition. Ultimately all forms of Fidism go back to personal experience. Tradition may be based on the authority of the Qoran or Bible, and these books on the authority of a Muhammed or Moses, but Fidism then trusts in the report of such authorities that they personally had contact with their Gods, just as Numa is said to have conversed with Egeria, Faunus, and met directly with Mighty Jupiter Himself. If you read Cicero's De Natura Deorum he has the Stoic offer a number of rationalized arguments, but rationalized from how Stoics interpreted the cosmos. Cicero's Epicurean, having a very different cosmology than that used by Platonists or Stoics, had really one proof alone to offer for the existence of the Gods, and that, basically, a Fideistic proof.

So, we'll get there eventually as I believe that personal experience is the only proof that an individual will ever find. I also think that there is reason to accept the personal experience of others as a basis for belief, if not as a definitive proof.

Vale et vade in pace Deorum

PostPosted: Tue Sep 18, 2007 11:41 am
by Horatius Piscinus
Salve Aule

Let us briefly go over some of the cosmological arguments.

Lucilius Balbus, the Stoic character in Cicero’s De Natura Deorum, presents an allegorical argument: "If you see a spacious and beautiful house, you could not be induced to believe, even though you could not see its master, that it was built by mice and weasels."

The house to which he refers is the observed cosmos with the stars and planets seemingly moving in an unending order. Later Isaac Newton would hold a similar view, comparing the cosmos to the mechanism of a pocket watch. It is 'so obvious,' continues Balbus, "and so manifest as that there must exist some power possessing transcendent intelligence by whom these things are ruled."

Inference is not proof. Such expressions assume certain things about the Universe, among them being that we live in a determinist universe. Cosmological arguments follow such a view by attempting to trace a series of causes and their effects back to an originating source. We come then to Aquinas' so-called Five Ways of proving the existence of his god.

First, things move and thus Aquinas posed that there must be some first mover, or primus mobile. This was an argument drawn from Plato. Plato’s primus mobile is the World Soul, herself born from the First God who was himself a manifestation of the One. One counter-argument to Aquinas is that he took matters only so far, never arriving at an ultimate source as did the Platonists, and that he confused all deities into his one deity.

Second, Aquinas posed the idea of a first cause, again drawing from Classical philosophers. A first cause, even if granted, would not in itself prove the existence of an omnipotent, omniscient, and compassionate being, call her god or whatever. A first cause would equate with Plato’s demiurge, the seminal seed held in the womb of the World Soul, who is the Second God, the Logos that brought order to the material World, but was not a creator as posed by Gnostic or later forms of Christianity.

Aquinas' third proof is that things that exist are only born from things that existed prior, and thus there must have been a necessary being, one having its own necessary existence in itself and not born from another. Otherwise there is an infinite series of things, all first originating out of nothing or else, since nothing comes from nothing, there must not be anything in existence now, either of which proposition is absurd. Basically Aquinas’ third proof is just a restatement of his second. He begins with the observation nihil ex nihilo creatio but then turns around to contradict himself by saying that something does exist that was not created from another, and that this god created all else ex nihilo creatio, otherwise, if she created everything from herself Aquinas would have entered into a form of pantheism, which he has been accused of doing. His first three arguments suffer from the same misconception. If it is a determinist world, one of cause and effect, how can you then claim the existence of something that wasn't caused, or not created by something else, or moving but unmoved by another? It poses something beyond the universe, or other than the universe, when the claim is that there is only the universe. It is no wonder that people get so befuddled over trying to understand christian rationalizations. Better to start at the beginning, with the ancient philosophers, before christians tried bending this to their own preconceived notions.

Aquinas' fourth proof runs along the same line as did Anselmo’s, only Aquinas tried to avoid the idea that existence was itself a quality explained by gradations toward perfection. He poses that all things are relative to one another and that there must therefore be something that is truest, best, noblest, most beautiful, "and something which is uttermost being." But then what is "uttermost being" here if it is not posed as a quality in the same way that Anselmo did? He then goes by convention, saying simply that this assumed being of every perfection, "this we call God." There is no reason to assume, as Christians do, that a single deity would possess every perfection. Minerva, Juno, and Venus are each most beautiful, yet in each Their own way. And there are other qualities of course, which Christians decline to associate with their god, forming the dichotomy between an ultimate good god and an ultimate evil god. In Platonism the One is also the Good, being the source of all that is beneficial, wise, and good. From the Good all things manifest downward so that there are gradations of things further away from the Good, but nothing is so distant as to be absent of the Good or to be an absolute evil. With the Neoplatonist Proclus of Late Antiquity there are the seven Henads, deities in their own right, derived from the One that is. In the Elements of Theology (used by Aquinas) these are described in propositions 152 – 158 as generating, demiurgic, life-giving, protecting, purifying, perfecting, and elevating. Each of these divine henads in turn manifest in other Gods. Thus the life-giving henad manifests as Apollo, Helios, Ceres, Juno, Mana Gerneta, and Rhea-Cybele, while the protecting henad manifests as Uranus, Saturnus, Jupiter, Mars, Quirinus, and Cereus. The henads may be the result of a first cause, not a primus mobile however as they contributed to forming the World Soul. The point here is that an argument of gradations does not necessarily lead back to a single source, nor does such an argument support Aquinas' first three arguments. If anything, the ancient used such arguments to describe the existence of multiple deities.

With his fifth proof Aquinas brings us back to the cosmos as purposely designed by a transcendent intelligence. This is a sustaining god, a directing god. There is really no reason to assume that there is only one sustaining god rather than a collection of gods as Seneca held in his Providentia Deorum, or as the Book of Psalms from Judaism has a Council of Gods. It is only a certain prejudice towards monotheism that identifies a primus mobile, a first cause, a necessary being, and the source(s) of all that is good and beneficial together with this demiurgic designer of the universe. A particular weakness, I think, of Aquinas' arguments is with his assumption that there can be only one God. The Five Ways are otherwise disconnected unless you accept his assumption. However it does not really make a difference whether you believe in one God or a multitude of Gods and Goddesses, this form of proof by design is flawed. Our understanding of Nature today is far closer to Epicurean views than to Plato’s or Aristotle’s. The universe is more of a balance between chaos and order. Atoms come together to form bodies, and then dissolve, not by any design or through the will of some overseeing deity. Celestial bodies tend to crash into one another. Whole species become extinct. Change, transformation, evolution are the true order of Nature. It is a very disorderly house that mice and men find themselves in. And there are Gods dwelling in it as well. Just not the kind of Gods rationalized, invented, imagined by Aquinas.

Now then, if there were a first cause, there is nothing to indicate that what followed was by design. If there is a first mover, there is nothing that shows what he began was designed to lead to what exists today. If there is truly only one thing with necessary being, and all other things draw their being from it, does that show in any way that the Universe is one by design? Likewise, how can gradation from an ultimate Good show design in the Universe? Then, too, if the Universe is designed in some fashion, there is nothing to show that the designer is the first cause, first mover, ultimate Good, or the necessary being assumed by Aquinas. Each of his arguments are assumed to stand on their own, and if any were disproved this would not necessarily mean that his basic assumption is incorrect. Also, when all five are disproved, it does not mean that no Gods exist. The counter arguments of atheists are just as flawed, first because they assume they need only refute the existence of the Judeo-Christian God, and by accepting that mistaken notion they also assume that by refuting one argument that they have disproved the existence of gods. They are flawed because they rely on human logic. Logic has its uses, but it is not the end-all in every matter. The real flaw with Aquinas and others like him is that they use human logic in an attempt to encompass the incomprehensible.

I suppose that there may be other arguments to pose as "logical" proofs, but in the end, susceptable to the counter arguments of logic, they would not amount to anything. Logic itself is a human invention. It has its value in trying to understand the universe, but it does have its limits. You cannot, as many have assumed, rely on logic to pose a proof with any degree of certainity. Logical proofs at best are only rationalizations of belief. The same is true in science, only in science there is a basic realization to the limits of human logic and that scientific paradigms can be changed as new evidence is collected and "rationalized" once more into a scientific theory. The same cannot be done by those religions that rely unquestioningly on the authority of a book. But not all religions do so, and there are other religious authorities with which to consult than some book. Living religions evolve over time just as any other organism, and some of these rely on a different sort of tradition where evolution of the tradition is incorporated in the belief system. I don't know whether we can use the "proof" as you originally intended, but we can take a different approach on the question.

Vale et vade in pace Deorum

Re: Rationality and the Gods

PostPosted: Fri Mar 13, 2009 7:48 am
by Aulus Flavius
Salve amici,

Apologies for the length of time between postings.

You're arguments lead me to ask just what sorts of evidence we should be accepting then Piscinus. Can we accept something like revealed knowledge? When there is no way to independtly verify it, how can something like that be called proof or evidence? The same could be said for critical reasoning. Whilst the methods of determining truth or proof in critical reasoning are more thorough then one would normally find in a people who accept revealed truth, even then the basis from which that truth is determined is usually itself an assumption and the conclusion just as etherial.

How is it that any of this can compare to empirical truth? To be able to test, re-test and examine an established proof. It would seem to me that this is the only solid way to determine proof, and through that truth.


A. Flavius

Re: Rationality and the Gods

PostPosted: Wed Apr 08, 2009 3:23 am
by Valerius Claudius Iohanes
Salve, Aule Flavii -

Forgive this rambling addendum to your thread; it's the end of the day, and my head's on a little crooked, but this old topic got me started trying to sort out my own thoughts again.

Aulus Flavius wrote:So it appears to be [that] the argument is one of convincing yourself that the Gods exist, rather than there being a standard proof of their existence? I'm starting to see the appeal to the Skeptical School and just admit I can't know anything for certain, even that.

In my own little life, which is too often distinguished by a lack of ferocity and drive, my touchstone is just that - we can't know anything with absolute certainty. When we look at ourselves, we find that each of us is limited in his or her reach, vision, brain capacity, and any other sense you can think of. The very fact that we are separate from other things in the world and rely on nerves and senses and synapses as a kind of radar to cope with those suggest a real distance from any Absolute Verity. If I can't see in the dark, or see around the corner, or see that my spouse is cheating, then I have to admit that there are some severe limitations to my measurement of perceived realities.

Then again, the cumulative effect of our senses in combined social effort -- of men taken as a whole -- can produce great things, the capacities and technologies of the human super-organism, and their amazing results. But even that has limits, and we find ourselves still uncertain. Despite the knowledge technologies that preserve and magnify knowledge of all kinds almost to godly levels, people still argue over who killed JFK, people still assert that their sect has the 'Secret' that no one else has, people still can't be knowledgeable beyond a finite number of things, and those imperfectly. Claimants to truth argue back and forth; our own theories and expectations are constantly upset and disproved; the certainty of one generation gives way to the confusion of the next. These built-in limits are paralleled (I think) in the arc of earthly life, which doesn't proceed as a line upward forever but eventually lags and sags and gives up the ghost, returning to the "x-axis" of things. We're not made to understand the Truth.

So we are thrown back onto our own devices. Can anyone prove that Iuppiter Optimus Maximus exists? Can anyone prove that he doesn't? Well, more or less - perhaps. But then the thought recurs - we are not all; there is more in the universe; what is it all about? I think logic can help us trim and critique our Gods, if you will, but it can't ever establish them, fixed and proven, as Real Facts of Life. Not in a sure and unassailable way - for every proof, sophists can challenge it & introduce doubt, rebels can ignore it, and most often the rest of us can't even see it unless we're coached.

I think it comes down to applying yourself to the question and the possibilities while also paying attention to the lessons of (ouch!) reality -- purpose and practice, theory and result. I think we are in a better position to judge of God once we have gotten a taste of the flavor and rhythm of life (so much of it negative) before we can actually trust our own judgement -- invidividual or collective.

So, while we listen to what the different cults are selling, we should for some long time suspend our assent and our commitment, too. In the end, if one wishes to engage God or the Gods, one has to make his or her own judgment call, in lieu of any Definite Proof. The mask we hang on God should be carved out of the important things that we have learned from life.

My thoughts.

Dii inmortales te incolumem custodiant!