Chapter III:1: The Etymology of “Religion”



The Theology sought from the Scriptures teaches RELIGION; of which word a diverse Etymology is handed down. For it is believed that it was taken,

Either, 1. from relinquendo, leaving behind, because it is separated (from us, namely, because of holiness), or requires the abandonment of all things.  This is the opinion of Massurius Sabinus[1] in AULUS GELLIUS’ Attic Nights,[2] book IV, chapter IX, “That is religious,” says Sabinus, “which because of a certain holiness is removed and separated from us. The word is taken from relinquendo, just as cerimonia/ceremony is from carendo, abstaining from.”  MACROBIUS[3] adduces the same etymon, in book III of Saturnalia, chapter III, page m. 322, and relates that Sulpicius Severus[4] felt similarly:  “Sulpicius Severus,” says he, “related that that is called religion, which because of a certain holiness is removed and separated from us, as if it were derived from relinquendo, as cerimonia is from carendo.”

Or, 2. from relegando, removing, on account of same reasons:  just as Georgius Florus Baldinus, in his compendio de oration, relates that Sulpicius maintains that Religion received its name from relegando/ removing, because it banishes certain things from itself.  But, as was just now seen, Sulpicius in Macrobius derives Religion from another etymon, namely, from relinquendo, leaving behind.  Both are forced, for from these words Relictio/forsaking or Relegatio/banishment would be formed instead; as both these words occur in Cicero as derived from relinquere and relegare.

Or, 3. from relegendo, to read again, on account of necessary re-reading:  thus CICERO, in book II de Natura Deorum, chapter XXVIII, near the end:  “Now, those that diligently go over again, and re-read, as it were, all things that pertain to the worship of the Gods, are called religiosi/religious, from relegendo, as elegantes, choice men, from eligendo/ choosing, and just as diligentes, devoted men, from diligendo/valuing, and intelligentes, understanding men, from intelligendo/understanding:  for in all these words there is the same force of reading that is in religioso.”  But then relectio, re-reading, would like have been used, rather than religio/ religion:  and this rationale of the derivation appears to be too round-about if relegere is used in its common signification, for a great many more things are re-read, than those that have regard especially to Religion; neither do all the religiosi/religious re-read the heads of Religion, since some learn them by hearing alone.  But the verb relego is then taken in a religious sense drawn completely into the service of the Sacred, I am pious:  thus GELLIUS, Attic Nights, book IV, chapter IX, from an ancient song, upon the testimony of Nigidius Figulus,[5] relates the verse,


Religentem esse oportet, religiosum nefas.

It is fitting for one to be religious, but impious to be superstitious.


In which religens is pious, and religiosus superstitious.  So also ARNOBIUS, book IV adversus Gentes, page 148, “For not he that painstakingly relegit/re-reads and slaughters unblemished sacrifices, that gives masses of frankincense to be consumed with fire, is to be reckoned to worship the supernatural, or alone to fulfill the offices of religonis/ religion.  True worship is in the heart, and belief worthy of the Gods.”  And in this manner that Etymology is not destitute of all probability.

Or, 4. from re-eligendo, choosing again, on account of the repeated choice of God, as AUGUSTINE has it, book X de Civitate Dei, chapter III or IV, opera, tome 7, column 183, “For He Himself is the fountain of our blessedness; He Himself is the end of all desire.  Hence eligentes, those choosing, or rather religentes, those choosing again, for we had parted with Him as negligentes, those neglecting:  hence therefore we, being religentes, those choosing again, whence also religio/religion has its name, tend toward Him in dilectione/love, so that in reaching Him we might rest:  therefore we are blessed, because perfected in that end.”  And what things VIVES[6] notes:  “I believe that there is an allusion to the name taken from the occasion at hand.”  And rightly indeed does Vives thus observe; since Augustine elsewhere signifies that another Etymology pleases him, which now follows.

Or, 5. rather from religando, binding fast, etc.  SERVIUS,[7] on Æneid VIII:  Religio/Religion, that is, fear, from that which religet/binds the mind, called religio/religion.  Now, understand fear with reverence, just as he also says on book VI: They are religiosi/religious, that fear through reverence.  Now, just as Religio/Religion, that is, fear, is then derived from religare, so also δέος/fear is derived from δέω, to bind:  because, as hope expands the soul, so fear restricts and binds it.  So also AGGENUS URBICUS, book I de Limitibus agrorum,[8] derives Religiosum/ Religious either from relinquendo, leaving behind, or from religando/binding minds, lest men should behave wickedly.  This Etymology is especially pleasing to the Fathers of the Church, who nevertheless do not stay at fear alone as religante/binding the mind.  LACTANTIUS, book IV of his Institutionum, chapter XXVIII, “On this condition are we brought forth, so that we might fulfill our just and owed duties to the God begetting us, know Him alone, follow Him alone.  Bound to God by this chain of piety, we are religati/bound; whence Religio/Religion itself receives its name, not, as Cicero understood, from relegendo/re-reading….  How unsuitable this interpretation is, one may discover from the matter itself….  We said that the name of Religionis/Religion is derived from the chain of piety; because God religaverit/bound man to Himself, and restrained him by piety:  for it is necessary that we serve Him, as Lord; and obey Him, as Father.  Therefore, Lucretius[9] interpreted that name in a better way; for he says that he unties the knots of Religions:[10]”  compare DESIDERIUS HERALDUS’[11] Animadversionem ad Arnobii, book IV, pages 176, 177.  So also JEROME, on Amos 9:6, writes, Religionem/Religion received its name from religando, binding fast, and binding to the bundle of the Lord.  And also AUGUSTINE, de Vera Religione, chapter LV, opera, tome I, column 588: Pressing on toward the one God and religantes/binding our souls to that one, whence religio/religion is believed to have received its name, let us remain free from all superstition. Religio/religion therefore religet, would bind, us to the one omnipotent God.  And, citing these words in book I Retractationum, chapter XIII, he subjoins, opera, tome I, column 15, The reason that is given in these words of mine, whence religio/religion received its name, has given more satisfaction to me.  Although he says that he is not ignorant that authors of the Latin language derive Religionem/Religion from religendo, a word constructed from legendo/reading/selecting, that is, eligendo/choosing.  But it does not so much appear from the citations above that Latin authors that derive Religionem/Religion from relegendo/ re-reading, take the verb legere, to read, to select, in that sense of eligendi/ choosing.

To this Etymology of the word, Religio/Religion from religando/ binding, is opposed,

α. The Authority of Cicero. I respond, In indicating the Etymology of words he did not necessarily always conduct himself with equal success; the Etymology of the word superstitio/superstition is able to be used as an example, which immediately precedes the place already cited in CICERO, but which comes no less to be rejected, when he writes:  “Our ancestors separated superstitionem/superstition from religione/religion.  For those that were spending entire days praying and sacrificing, so that their children might be superstites/surviving them, are called superstitiosi/ superstitious, which name was afterwards extended more broadly:”  consult § 17 below.  In any event, to Cicero one may here oppose Servius the Grammarian, whose authority in these sorts of matters comes not at all to be despised.

β. That no noun in –io– is derived from a verb of the first Conjugation, but rather of the second or third, and so Religionem/ Religion is not able to be derived from religando/binding,[12] but ought to be derived from relegendo/re-reading.[13] I respond, On the other hand, neither is there any noun, as far as I can remember, derived from the verb lego, to read, or from compounds of it, that is terminated in a similar manner if –ligio; not even when in a compound verb –le– has been changed into –li-, where contrariwise you see nouns formed from the supine, which picks up the –e– again, as, just as we use lectio/reading, similarly from diligo, to select, and eligo, to choose, dilectio/delight and electio/election are formed, not diligio and eligio; so also relectio ought to be used analogically, if Religio/Religion is derived from relego, to re-read:  or if you wish to compare the noun Religio/Religion with the noun Legio/Legion, derived from lego, to read, to gather, Relegio ought to be used, not Religio/Religion. Religio/Religion is now truly best referred to the verb religare, to bind fast, after the likeness of the noun opinio/opinion, which is to be referred to the verb opinari, to suppose; just as also optio/option is derived from optare, to choose, potio/drink from potare, to drink; whence it is evidently false that names in –io– are not also derived from verbs of the First Conjugation.  But if you staunchly maintain that the noun Religio/Religion is from a verb of the Third Conjugation, it is to be said that of old a twofold Conjugation of the verb ligo, to bind, was used, ligo, ligare,[14] and ligo, ligere,[15] both with the same signification of binding; and, just as lictor[16] is formed from ligere, so Religionem/Religion is able to be derived from religere:  which is able to be confirmed from the verse of Nigidius Figulus cited above.


Religentem esse oportet, Religiosum nefas.

It is fitting for one to be religious, but impious to be superstitious.


To this Etymology from the verb, which enjoys the sense of binding, the use of the expression is also joined, in which we say, Religio mihi est, quo minus id faciam, It is Religion to me, that I should not do this; that is, I feel myself constrained and bound, as it were, by chains, which hinder me, so that I might not dare to do this or that thing.  And also what Lactantius cites from Lucretius concerning untying the knots of Religion.

[Insofar as through this, α. God to man…is bound fast]  Consult SPANHEIM’S[17] Decadum Theologicarum, primam, de Religione, § 1, opera, tome 3, column 1198.

[1] Massurius Sabinus (first century AD) was a Roman jurist.

[2] Aulus Gellius (c. 125-c. 180) wrote Attic Nights, a collection of diverse notes on grammar, philosophy, history, etc., in twenty books.  This work finds its principal value in their preservation of quotations of earlier writers, which quotations would be otherwise lost.

[3] The writings of Ambrosius Theodosius Macrobius (395-423), a Roman grammarian and Neoplatonist, find their principal value in their preservation of the quotation of earlier writers, which quotations would be otherwise lost.  Macrobius wrote Saturnalia, an account of discussion held at the house of Vettius Agorius Prætextatus during the festival of Saturnalia about Roman festivals and worship, etc.

[4] Sulpicius Severus (c. 360-425) was a member of the Roman senatorial aristocracy, who renounced all for the monastic life.  He wrote the first biography of Martin of Tours and the Chronicorum Libros Duos (or Historiam Sacram), providing a history from the creation to 400 AD.

[5] Publius Nigidius Figulus (c. 98-45 BC) was a scholar of the Late Roman Republic.  Gellius esteems him to be second in learning to none, with the exception of Marcus Varro.

[6] John Louis Vives (1492-1540) was a Spanish classicist.  He wrote a commentary on Augustine’s City of God.

[7] Maurus Servius Honoratius was a fourth century Roman commentator on Virgil.

[8] Aggenus Urbicus (flourished probably toward the end of the fourth century) wrote on the science of land surveying.  He may have been a Christian.

[9] Titus Lucretius Carus (c. 99-c. 55 BC) was a Roman poet and Epicurean philosopher.  He was a proponent of a materialistic atomism, and thus a critic of religions.

[10] De Rerum Natura, book I, line 931.

[11] Didier Herauld (c. 1579-1649) was a French lawyer and philologist.  He annotated Tertullian’s Apology, Minutius Felix, and Arnobius.

[12] A First Conjugation Verb.  The principal parts:  religo, religare, religavi, religatus.

[13] A Third Conjugation Verb.  The principal parts:  relego, relegere, relegi, relectus.

[14] That is, First Conjugation.

[15] That is, Third Conjugation.

[16] A lictor was an attendant upon a Roman magistrate, usually having the responsibility of executing punishments.

[17] That is, the Younger’s.

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