Friday, August 21, 2009

Observations on the City of God

Over the last month or so, I've been working through Augustine's massive, but justly revered, work, the City of God. It has been a good, if slow read. That is a dramatic change from the last few times I've tried to return to this classic. Over the last ten years, I think I've started the City of God at least three or four times. Each time, I've tried, I easily worked through the fun (for me) historical sections, but I bogged down in the Greek religion/Platonist philosophy section in books 6-10 (not fun for me!). This time, I've made it to the second section in which St. Augustine builds his case for the two cities in history- the City of Man and the City of God. I'm just winding up Book 11.

My first encounter with the City of God was way back in the fall of 1991, when I was a new M.A. student enrolled in a course which we jokingly called Beginners Intensive Augustine (really, it was Topics in Mediaeval History). In one term, we read the Confessions and the City of God at what could only be called a breakneck speed. Wow! Thinking back on it, I can't say we did anything but skim over both works as only source-mining historians can. Forget the theology, kids. We focused primarily on issues of audience, historiography and influence. Perhaps that is why I don't recall much about what I did besides a rather lacklustre research paper I wrote on Augustine's historical sources and building 'ramparts' of quotations to defend my interpretations in class on key questions (it was a little bit of combative class). So, what I thought might be helpful is to give some general impressions I've had on the first ten books this time.

First, what has really struck me this time around is just how effective St. Augustine was in appropriating his contemporary cultural inheritance and refracting it through an entirely different Christian lens. His use of the moralizing Roman historiographical tradition, exemplified by Sallust, against the contention that neglect of the gods was what responsible for the sack of Rome in AD 410 is the obvious example, especially his use of the moralizing digressions found in the Bellum Catilinae. Perhaps unnoticed by most people is the exploitation of the moral exemplars used in Latin rhetorical education for a similar end. Using Lucretia, the very model of a noble Roman matron, as a negative example of virtue not trusted is an impressive reversal of a time-worm exemplar. We could multiply the examples all night.

Second, having fought my way through the religion and philosophy section, it is interesting to notice a similar methodology to Augustine's handling of his historical sources. He uses a philosophic critique, first, to undermine both the poetic and civic versions of Graeco-Roman religion by condemning them as superstitious and, then, uses it to undermine the very philosophers he used earlier by condemning them for cowardice and tolerance of superstition. In the first case, he uses the Platonic concept of a natural theology to condemn the morally questionable tales of the gods found in poetry and, particularly, in stage shows and, then, transfers this opprobrium onto the civic cult which, Augustine argues, repeats the same stories as part of their sacred stories. The reluctance of even the Platonist philosophers (the school of philosophy which Augustine believed was closest to the truth represented by Christianity) to condemn the civic religion or even the magical art of theurgy is, in Augustine's eyes, mere cowardice and shows the limits of philosophical religion which might apprehend the truth in its reasoning, but didn't have the courage of its own convictions.

Third, Augustine's theories about daemones and the gods also struck me as interesting, partly in their own right and partly because of conversations I was having with a friend on the subject. Augustine develops a modified Euhemerism when he deals with the nature of the Greek and Roman gods. He argues that the major gods were really historical persons who committed adultery, murdered and such like in their lifetimes, but which were so revered by members of their community that they were considered gods, likely in an analogous form to emperor worship in the pre-Christian Roman Empire. He, then, adds that daemones, which he defines as made of ether and with an eternal life-span, but filled with passions and deceit, exploited this worship and began to perform wonders and portents to transfer the devotion felt to these dead heroes to them. Thus, practices such as sacrificing, telling the sacred, if obscene sacred stories and, eventually, the morally corrupt stage shows come from. What interested me was just how real Augustine felt the daemones were in contrast with our own modern tendency to dismiss such creatures as needless superstition. Personally, I don't know what to do with this. but I'm not comfortable with either tendency.

That, I think, is enough to chew on. I'll probably post again on the City of God, but after I've worked further into the second section.




Maureen said...

I was fascinated, absolutely, by the mythology section, and by hearing about the things that pagan Romans thought about their own religion. I got a lot of Justin Martyr vibes.

It was interesting too that the impression of euhemerism was so negative, whereas a lot of writers treat it very kindly. But then, it was sort of a pagan atheist argument, in some ways....

I probably should read City of God again soon, or rather, listen to it. It's been a while.

Fr. Robert said...

I have an older English work, The City of God, A Study of St. Augustine's Philosophy, by John H.S. Burleigh, D.D. (1949)
AS he says,"he is to be regarded properly as a representative of classical antiquity rather than of the Middle Ages...but coined the category "Late Antiquity". At all events he stands as the great figure between the two ages - Graeco-Roman and Christian - knitting them together." In reality, Augustine is a beginning and end of an era in the West!