Augustine, Concerning the City of God Against the Pagans, trans. Henry Betenson (New York: 1984)
Augustine’s City of God was written in the wake of the 410 CE sack of Rome by the Visigoths. It consists of twenty two books and serves several purposes. Primarily, it seeks to distinguish the City of God from the City of Man and, in doing so, offer a Christian theology of history. Secondarily, it aims to show why Christianity cannot be blamed for the sack of Rome. Along the way, Augustine also tries to prove that pagan religion and philosophy are both inferior to Christianity and, in the case of paganism, demonic.
The rough outline of the book: Books I-X, criticism of pagan religion and philosophy; Books XI-XXII, explanation of Christian theology. The two subjects are intertwined and so the focus on criticizing paganism and advocating Christianity can be found in both sections. In a fashion the first part can be seen as giving a history of the City of Man and the second can be seen as giving a history of the City of God. Throughout God is understood as knowing the course of history, “he gives in accordance with the order of events in history, an order completely hidden from us, but perfectly known to God” (176). In addition, what appears evil to humans in only a result of our limited knowledge for “God turns evil choices to good use” (449).
Augustine begins by stating his purpose and method, “the task of defending the glorious City of God against those who prefer their own gods to the founder of that city. I treat of it both as it exists in this world of time, a stranger among the ungodly, living by faith, and as it stands in the security of its everlasting seat.” He defines “the city of this world, a city which aims at dominion, which holds nations in enslavement, but is itself dominated by that very lust of domination” (5).
The balance of the book is spent explaining how the sack of Rome was not the fault of Christians and what Christians should do in the face of the sack. He tries to show that the Christians can’t be blamed because the Visigoths respected Christian churches and did not murder those who sought sanctuary within them. Then he turns his attention to the question of rape and concludes that women who were raped during the sack should not kill themselves since, “There will be no pollution, if the lust is another’s; if there is pollution the lust is not another’s” (27). This argument fits in with Augustine’s major claim about sin, it is the misdirection of the human will from God towards the human. This means that if one is ordered to kill by the authority of the state “it was not an act of of crime, but of obedience” (32).
In this book Augustine also makes an argument about God’s punishment in this life, “the sufferings of Christians have tended to their moral improvement” while “the wicked, under pressure of affliction, execrate God and blaspheme” (14).
The major focus of this book is to show that the worship of pagan gods has never benefited Rome. There is a particular focus on the pagan theater. He argues, “Rome had sunk into a morass of moral degradation before the coming of Heavenly King” (69). Also, “I shall do my best to demonstrate that that commonwealth [the Roman Republic] never existed, because there was real justice in the community… true justice is found only in that commonwealth whose founder and ruler is Christ” (75).
This book continues the previous argument, describing the history of the City of Man through the reign of Caesar Augustus.
Augustine begins this book by emphasizing, “the false gods whom they used to worship openly and still worship secretly, are really unclean spirits; they are demons” (135). Then he offers an account of the growth of the Roman Empire. He sees the empire as just and asks the question, “Remove justice, and what are kingdoms but gangs of criminals on a large scale?” There is good parable here, which Augustine borrows from Cicero: “it was a witty and a truthful rejoiner which was given by a captured pirate to Alexander the Great. The king asked the fellow, ‘What is your idea, in infesting the sea?’ And the pirate answered, which uninhibited insolence, ‘The same as yours, in infesting the earth! But because I do it with a tiny craft, I’m called a pirate: because you have a mighty navy, you’re called an emperor’” (139). Also, “The increase of empire was assisted by the wickedness of those against whom just wars were waged” (154).
He also makes the claim that God is not immanent. God is transcendent.
Here Augustine inquires “why God was willing that the Roman Empire should extend so widely and last so long” (179). Again his purpose is to show that the sack of Rome has nothing to do with the rise of Christianity. There is an important discussion of the nature of free will and God’s knowledge, “Our wills themselves are the order of causes, which is, for God, fixed, and is contained in his foreknowledge, since human acts of will are the causes of human activities” (192). He also begins to make the argument that evil wills result from turning away from God, “they are contrary to the nature which proceeds from him” (193). A good summary of his position: “The fact that God foreknew that a man would sin does not make a man sin; on the contrary, it cannot be doubted that it is the man himself who sins… A man does not sin unless he wills to sin; and if he had willed not sin, then God would have foreseen that refusal” (195).
This book presents a critique of pagan religion and philosophy, primarily as presented by the philosopher Marcus Varro. He tries to show here that both are insufficient for creating righteousness in this life.
This book follows the argument of the previous. However, the emphasis here is on why pagan religion and philosophy offer inadequate account of how the divine operates in this life.
This book focuses more exclusively on pagan philosophy and makes the claim “the true philosopher is the lover of God” (298). He tries to show the Platonist school got things mostly right, “There are none who come nearer to us than the Platonists” (304).
This book continues the previous discussion of Platonism. He also makes the claim that humans need a mediator, i.e. Christ, because “there can be no direct meeting between the immortal purity on high and the mortal and unclean things below” (364). He begins to describe angels and demons, both of which he believes to be real.
Augustine begins this book by summarizing his agreements and disagreements with the Platonists, “they have been able to realize that the soul of man, though immortal and rational… cannot attain happiness except by participation in the light of God… [yet] they have supposed… that many gods are to be worshipped” (371). He then moves onto a discussion of the nature of true religion and Christ. Christ is “our priest, his only-begotten son” through him people learn to offer God, “on the altar of the heart, the sacrifice of humility and praise” (375). Further, true love of self is understood to be love of God, “For if a man loves himself, his one wish is to achieve blessedness” (376). In addition, acts are understood to be righteous only if they are “directed to that final Good” (i. e. God) (379).
This is followed by a discussion of the nature of God, “he moves events in time, while himself remains unmoved by time” (390).
This book concerns the origins of both cities. Augustine claims, “the existence of the world is a matter of observation: the existence of God a matter of belief” (432). He discusses the nature of time, “there can be no doubt that the world was not created in time but with time. An event in time happens after one time and before another, after the past and before the future” (436) and provides an account of the creation, including the creation of the angels and the fall of “some angels who turned away from… illumination” (443). These fallen angels “fell, by their own choice” (445). He claims that evil can be understood as necessary because it enriches “the course of the world history by the kind of antithesis which gives beauty to a poem” (449).
The City of God exists because God “founded it” and its structure can be found in the Trinity, “It exists; it sees; it loves” (458). Human beings mirror this as well, “We resemble the divine Trinity in that we exist; we know that exist, and we are glad of this existence and this knowledge” (459).
In this book Augustine further explains the origins and natures of both cities, “We may speak of two cities, or communities, one consisting of the good, angels as well as men, and the other of evil.. We must believe that the difference had its origin in the wills and desires” (471). Evil is understood to be good which has turned away from God, “the turning is itself perverse” (478).
A second part of the book makes argument that human history is only 6,000 years old and that those who believe otherwise are following a false teaching. Furthermore, true history is to be found in the Bible. The when God’s creation of the world is understood to be a mystery, “it is certainly a profound mystery that God existed always and yet willed to create the first man, as a new act of creation, at some particular time, without any alteration in his purpose and design” (490). Various other theories of history are then rejected.
Here Augustine is concerned with the problem of death. He makes a distinction between the death of the body, “the first death,” and the death of the soul, “the second death” (511). Death begins “from the moment that… bodily existence” begins” (519). While asserting that the Fall was real, he also reads the Fall and paradise allegorically, “paradise stands for the Church itself” (535).
This book focuses primarily on the Fall and human nature. He begins by underscoring the differences between the “two cities… one city of men who choose to live by the standard of the flesh, another those who choose to live by the standard of the spirit” (547). The Fall be understood, in part, as a decision to reject the spirit for the flesh. This decision originates, however, not in the flesh itself but in the will, “it was the sinful soul that made the flesh corruptible” (551). Further, the “important factor in those emotions is the character of a man’s will. If the will is wrongly directed, the emotions will be wrong; if the will is right, the emotions will be not only blameless, but praiseworthy” (555). Because of these two factors the human life must be seen as full of sin, “anyone who thinks that his life is without sine does not succeed in avoiding sin, but rather in forfeiting pardon” (564).
Augustine recounts the Fall as told in Genesis. A fallen angel is seen as tempting Adam and Eve to leave the City of God. Disobedience understood as originating Satan then being transfered to Eve and finally, through Eve, to Adam. The Fall is also understood as a movement from being to nonbeing, “although the will derives its existence, as a nature, from its creation by God, its falling away from its true nature is due to its creation out of nothing” (572).
Augustine focuses on the orgasm and the erection as both proof of, and a symptom, of humanity’s fallen nature, “So intense is the pleasure that when it reaches its climax there is an almost total extinction of mental alertness” (577). The erection shows that lustful sinful men cannot control their own bodies. As a result, sex is shameful because it demonstrates a loss of control. When humanity is reconciled with God this will no longer be the case.
In this book Augustine traces the history of the City of Man, and the City of God, from the story of Cain and Able through the Flood. He sees the Ark as a symbol of the City of God, “this is a symbol of the City of God on pilgrimage in this world, of the Church which is saved through the wood on which was suspended ‘the mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus’” (643).
This book continues the histories of the City of Man and the City of God through the start of the time of the prophets.
This book continues the histories of the City of Man and the City of God from the time of the prophets to the birth of Christ. The history of the City of God in the world is to be understood, in part, as the story of “two things promised to Abraham… that his descendants would possess the land of Canaan… [and that he would be] the father… of all nations follow in the footsteps of his faith” (712). A great number of pages are spent trying to prove that the Hebrew Bible contains passages foretelling the coming of Christ.
This book continues along the lines of the previous three. The last chapters begin to explain the nature of Christ and the Church. People born before Christ had the possibility of belonging to the City of God, “I have no doubt that it was the design of God’s providence that… we should know that there could also be those among other nations who lived by God’s standards and were pleasing to God, as belonging to the spiritual Jerusalem” (829). Augustine sees the Christ event as, “After sowing the seed of the holy gospel, as far as it belonged to him to sow it through his bodily presence, he suffered, he died, he rose again, showing by his suffering what we ought to undergo for the cause of truth, by resurrection what we ought to hope for in eternity, to say nothing of the deep mystery by which his blood was shed for the remission of sins” (832).
In this book Augustine defines “Final Good is that for which other things are to be desired, while it is itself to be desired for its own sake. The Final Evil is that for which other things are to be shunned, while it is itself to be shunned on its own account” (843). This is the book that most clearly articulates Augustine’s ethics. The primary emphasis here is on the kinds of virtues and vices and what the good Christian life consists of, “eternal life is the Supreme Good, and eternal death, the Supreme Evil” (852). Happiness can never be found in this life. It will only come in the next “we are saved in hope, it is in hope that we have been made happy; and we do not yet possess a present salvation, but await salvation in the future, so we do not enjoy a present happiness, but look forward to happiness in the future” (857). Augustine returns to arguing against Marcus Varro. The themes of peace and justice, both of which have to do with alignment with God, are visited. Just war theory is partially articulated. And slavery to lust is described as a greater evil than slavery to a human being. Augustine summarizes his ethics thus, “In this life, therefore, justice in each individual exists when God rules and man obeys, when the mind rules the body, and reason governs the vices even when they rebel, either by subduing them or by resisting them, while from God himself favour is sought for good deeds and pardon for offences, and thanks are duly offered to him for benefits received” (893).
The subject of this book “is a belief held by the whole Church of the true God, in private confession and also in public profession, that Christ is to come from heaven to judge both the living and the dead, and this is what we call the Last Day, the divine of divine judgement” (895). Much of the focus is on the scriptural evidence for the judgement and nature of “the resurrection of the dead” (900). The judgment is include a purifying fire.
This book focuses on “the kind of punishment which is in store for the Devil, and for all those of his party” (964). The “bodies of the damned [are] to suffer torment in the everlasting fire” (976). About the metaphysical conflict between the two cities he writes, “Better war with the hope of everlasting peace than slavery without any thought of liberation” (993). A small section is devoted to arguing against Origen and universal salvation.
The final book describes what will happen when the City of God comes, “in this City all citizens will be immortal, for human beings also will obtain that which the angels have never lost” (1022). Human will will be restored to its proper orientation and people will no longer sin, “this last freedom will… bring the impossibility of sinning… [it will be] that condition of liberty in which it is incapable of sin” (1089). He concludes by claiming that humans live in the sixth epoch and that the last judgement will bring about the seventh.