FEW books have given rise to so much misconception as the City of God. By some it is thought to give a philosophy, by others a theology of history. By some it is thought to contain well-developed political theories, to be hostile to the State as such and in particular to the Roman Empire, and to outline the provinces of an established Church and Christian State. By others it is considered to be primarily a Christian reply to the charge that Rome had been sacked because it had become Christian, as identifying the city of God with the Church, and as teaching that justice does not enter into the definition of the State.
More serious still: the teaching of Augustine on predestination, never accepted in its full rigour by the Church, is, although not prominent, grim and sombre in the City of God. The Pelagian controversy had tended to force him into some exaggeration, at least in his expressions, in relation both to Nature and to Grace. Yet when one has studied Augustine’s life and works for long, one finds it difficult to believe that he was mainly a pessimist. One comes to expect, and indeed welcome, clear evidence of a countervailing optimism in keeping with a person so vital and so unreservedly generous in the service of man.
The City of God is no more purely theoretical than it is purely theological. It is, of course, mainly theological; but it is at the same time founded upon Augustine’s own experience. It will be seen that it is an application of the theme of his own development and conversion, as described in the burning pages of the Confessions, to the broader, less immediate, canvas of man’s destiny. Augustine’s reflection upon his experience, especially at the time of his conversion, both in outline and in surprisingly precise details, is the key to much of his characteristic teaching.
We should take warning from this: however much he might regret some of the ingredients of his past, he was happy to recognize that through these experiences Providence had brought him to where, humanly speaking, he felt more secure. His attitude, therefore, to these things could not be wholly negative and condemnatory. On the contrary he formed from the pattern of his life a theory of providential economy that to many might seem both too living and too tolerant. If Rome and the philosophy of the Greeks could, for all their error, not merely not prevent him from accepting Christ and the Christian revelation, but actually encourage him to do so, why should they not be equally as useful to others – to all mankind? It might seem paradoxical, for example, that the bitterest enemy of the Christians, Porphyry, should through his writing play a significant role (along with other Neoplatonists) in Augustine’s conversion. This, however, happened, and Augustine was willing to take account of it in his notions of the dealings of Providence with men.
It can be said that although the scope of Augustine’s writings is immense, they are animated by a few central ideas that came to him from a sensitive brooding on his own life. Thus the leading ideas of both the Confessions and the City of God, as we shall see briefly, are anticipated in his first extant works. There we can see clearly how close life and thought come in the mind of Augustine.
It is a commonplace to say that the age of Augustine was very like our own. We should remember that our view of his times is distorted by over fifteen hundred years of Christian domination, which separate his times from ours. We may not be able to see the present and the future in focus; but at least we can make some attempt to strip the past of the encumbrances which our retrospective vision imposes on it.
Some now speak of our living in post-Christian times, and seem to imply that Christianity as a force in the world can but decline. And, indeed, when one contemplates the defection from Christianity and its disunity on the one hand, and on the other the emergence of the non-Christian peoples, who are as likely to assert their independence of Christianity as they are of Western political powers, one cannot feel a firm confidence in the future of Western Christendom.
And yet, when Augustine was writing the City of God, his confident reading of the future cannot have seemed so justified to many of his contemporaries as it is to us now. The prospects of Christianity in the first quarter of the fifth century may have seemed bright, but we tend to forget that until that time the Church’s history had been one, for the most part, of bare toleration and frequent persecution. Within Augustine’s own life there had been the pagan reaction under Julian the Apostate (361–363 A.D.). Even in the fifth century pagans had not lost all countenance. Again, the decline of the powerful and closely integrated Empire of Rome, evident to all and admitted by Augustine, must have struck its citizens with a chill as great as that which affects in our day the loosely and vaguely associated West.
We should, then, note that our situation is closer to his than, perhaps, is ordinarily realized. And we should take hope from his calm confidence that, even during such a crisis, it seemed feasible to draw up in the City of God a charter for a Christian future, not only for Rome but for all the world. The great lesson of the City of God is that out of all things comes good. Augustine saw clearly that in his time both Christianity and Rome would each benefit by the good that was in the other, and by any good from wherever else it might come. For Christianity, assimilation meant acceptance that was universal in the context of his time. For Rome, it meant a new birth and an even longer future. For Greek thought, it meant transmission and development. The keynote of the City of God is fulfilment, not destruction.
The practical problem with which Augustine had to deal was the problem of a spiritual Church in a secular world: the city of God in the city of this world. It is of the first importance to understand that he did not condemn out of hand the city of this world. It was God’s creation. It was used by God for his purposes. It was not only of practical use to the citizens of God’s city but was also intended by God to give compelling example to them of what efforts they should make in their striving for something greater and something higher. Out of that world and what good it had to offer Christians should take the ‘spoils of the Egyptians’ and should make them their own. They should profit from secular philosophy (which in its own way was a kind of revelation); they should learn from secular history (which in its own way threw prophetic light upon the future).
Speaking absolutely, if things were to be judged only by the canon of the service and worship of the true God, what the Hebrews achieved in their temporal history, the Greeks in their academies and the Romans in the virtues of their worthies, was evil. For evil was merely not-to-do-that-service-and-give-that-worship. In this way what looked like virtue was really splendid vice. But relatively, or in our ordinary way of speaking, all these things were good and should be used by Christianity. Christianity had changed superficially, was no longer the religion of a few fishermen but was, in fact, the religion of an Empire accepting its intellectual responsibility. This superficial change, which was wrought through assimilation, absorption, reaction and, it might be, rejection, was the law of its life.
Almost the only thing that could not be accepted from Rome was her official religion, polytheism. Insofar as the City of God is against anything, it is radically against that. It is unfortunate that Augustine, in placing the positive part of his argument in the final twelve books and the negative in the first ten, gives the impression that he is opposed to Rome and Greek philosophy. If he had stated the basis of his positive doctrine first, it would be seen more immediately that his attitude to Rome and Greece and his general outlook is positive.
Background to the City of God
Augustine, born and reared in Roman North Africa in the second half of the fourth century, grew up in an Empire that was in evident decline. Rome’s marble city, her invincible army, her wide-flung administration, her riches garnered from every corner of the world, but above all her spirit and very heart were failing. The fatal blow came quickly. On a day in August in A.D. 410, Alaric with his Chrsitian–Arian Goths sacked the great city that had not known violation by a foreign enemy for eight hundred years.
One does not need much imagination or sensibility to understand how symbolic of impending doom Rome’s fall might have seemed. Even two years afterwards, St Jerome was still so affected by it that he could not dictate his commentary on Ezechiel. He had, he complained, lost the memory of his own name and could but remain silent, knowing that it was a time to weep: with Rome had perished the human race. This was the reaction of a Christian – but, it should be added, an emotional one. Another Christian, Orosius, a contemporary of the event and the chief source of information on the sack of Rome, judges soberly that the damage to the city was not great.
It is well to bear in mind that, while the sack lasted but three days and was marked by the relative clemency of the conquerors, the overthrowing of the official Roman religion, a form of polytheism, had been prolonged, bitter and serious in its consequences. From the time of Constantine onwards, there had been a succession of edicts against paganism, twenty of them in the last twenty years of the fourth century, and as many as four in the last year of that century, as if it had been determined that with the century paganism should pass from the Empire forever: idols were to be dethroned; temples to be laicized; judges were to be supervised in the enforcement of the edicts; and bishops were to report any laxity in the carrying out of these instructions.
There had, of course, been opposition to such a policy. An instance of this can be seen in the short-lived respite of the reign of Julian the Apostate already mentioned. The symbolical event, however, in this spiritual struggle is usually seen in the confrontation of Symmachus, the Prefect of Rome and the outstanding professed pagan of his day, with St Ambrose of Milan on the question of the Altar of Victory in 384.
The great goddess Victory, associated with Jupiter (Chief of the Roman gods), and with Mars (god of war), worshipped by the army (the instrument of Rome’s dominion), and intimately related to the felicity of the Emperor, had been furnished with an altar, the Altar of Victory, within the Senate House of Rome itself. There she had stood, presiding over the prosperity of Rome, an earnest and an omen of continuing success. This altar had been removed by Constantius, the father of Constantine, replaced by the pagans in due course, removed again under Gratian in 382, replaced for a brief period by Eugenius (392–394), and perhaps on a final occasion by Stilicho, who died in disgrace in 408.
Of Augustine’s acquaintance with one of the protagonists, St Ambrose, in the symbolical confrontation on the Altar of Victory, it will not be necessary to say anything here. On the other hand we should remember that, when Augustine came to teach rhetoric in Carthage in 374 and had some acquaintance with official circles there, Symmachus was not only in residence as Proconsul of Africa but had also been one of the most successful rhetors of his time. It is not unlikely that they met then, but in any case Symmachus knew of Augustine at least later in Rome; for it was he, the most prominent pagan of his day, who recommended Augustine for appointment to the office of Master of Rhetoric at the Imperial Court, then at Milan, the See of St Ambrose. It is well to pause and reflect on the significance that this situation, pregnant as it was to be, must have had for Augustine. Here he was in Milan, a non-Christian as yet, recommended by the champion of the pagans – perhaps for the very reason, among others, that Augustine was not a Christian – at a court subject to the influence of the champion of the Christians. Augustine arrived in Milan in the autumn of 384, only a month or two after the dispute on the Altar of Victory.
Symmachus’s part in the affair was to present a petition for the restoration of the altar, removed, as we have seen, in 382. As Prefect of the city of Rome and Pontifex Maximus, he stressed the necessity for prudence: no one knew the final secret explanation of Rome’s prosperity; it was therefore unwise not to preserve the institutions that had presided over her success: it was perilous to disown them for something new. He brought Rome herself forward to plead her cause: she is old; she has no desire to change her pieties; her religion has civilized the world, driven the Gauls from the Capitol and Hannibal from the city.
St Ambrose, however, was a doughty opponent, as his domination of the Arian Empress Justina in 385–386 and of the Emperor Theodosius (with the imposition of a public penance in 390) was soon to show. His argument was that the valour and virtues of the Romans were sufficient explanation of their successes. Was it not foolish to pretend to believe that the Empire depended on some ‘power’ that one must imagine but could not see? To restrict the future through reverence for the past was to retard progress and civilization. Christianity had, moreover, a positive contribution to make: it held truth and salvation, while polytheism led to perdition and error.
The Christian cause prevailed, and paganism was clearly and definitely, if not finally, defeated. Prudentius, the Christian poet, describes how the Senate in plenary session formally banished Jupiter and the other gods in favour of the Christian God. The senators, many of whom were known to be dissembling, yielded to mounting public approbation of Christianity and abandoned for monotheism the gods of their forefathers. They made haste to disown their ancient pride, submit to baptism, and pay reverence at the tombs of Christian martyrs.
The ordinary people were not slow to show their satisfaction, and soon the temples were mouldering in desolation. Theodosius in his time was relentless in his enforcement of the edicts against polytheism throughout the Empire, and particularly those against sacrifice to the gods. Some indeed in their zeal, fearing that shrines that were merely empty might one day be restored, hastened to destroy the temples themselves – some of them splendid edifices. A few of them were converted to Christian use, the most famous of these being the Pantheon, the temple in Rome of all the gods, which to this day stands as it ever stood.
The decrees of Theodosius, however, reached further even than destruction of the buildings. Sacrifice to idols and divination by inspection of entrails – the commonplaces of public life in Rome – were declared to be high treason and were to be punished by death. Even the most trivial trafficking in garlands and libations was suspected and became liable to fines and confiscation of property.
The collapse of polytheism was in the end sudden, universal within the Empire, and practically absolute. Its absurdity as a religious system had long been accepted by the intelligent. Now the wholesale assault on buildings and institutions, with evident impunity and no retaliation from the ousted and enfeebled gods, delivered the masses from any feelings of fear or obligation. The dismemberment of the representation of the great god Serapis at Alexandria met with no revenge in either the death of a Christian or the refusal of the Nile to grant its annual and blessed inundation. Truly the gods had lost, and Christ had won.
Augustine was by his very circumstances a close observer of this stupendous transformation. As he was torn between the loyalties he owed first to Symmachus and then to St Ambrose, so his feelings and thoughts were divided between sympathy for the Rome that was and the vision of a Christian future. Nevertheless his evident delight at the destruction of the pagan temples at Carthage by Jovius and Gaudentius, for example, and his approval, even, of punishment by death for pagan sacrificing, leave no doubt where his final loyalty lay. He was not unaware that the recent desertion en masse from an enervated polytheism meant that there were Christians, many Christians even, who had yielded to Christ for unworthy motives – to save their lives or canvass official support for their careers and ambitions – but for all that he felt an overflowing happiness, later perhaps to be tempered, in the visible victory of the Christians.
It is hardly surprising, then, if Augustine’s distress at the sack of Rome in 410 was not only much less pronounced than that of St Jerome but was compensated for by a greater optimism. If the pagan historians Zosimus and Rutilius Namatianus, writing of the period, say not a word of the disaster – possibly because they did not find it an attractive topic – we can understand that Augustine’s fondness for a theme, about which he was sometimes teased, was prompted more by its wider significance, as marking a stage in the conflict between Christianity and paganism, than by any preoccupation with the material decline and fall of Rome. The theme was with him an old one even before the sack of Rome.
The question was, however, raised for him directly by a Christian official in Africa, Marcellinus – to whom in fact the City of God is addressed – in a letter in the year 412. Marcellinus mentioned the view put forward by some of his friends that the miracles wrought by Apollonius and Apuleius were greater than those of Christianity. He asked how, if God had been satisfied with the type of sacrifice described in the Old Testament, He could, without changing (which in God is impossible), be dissatisfied with it in the New? Finally there arose the problem of why it was that the Empire appeared to decline when it came to be governed by princes that had forsaken the old, tried religion and embraced a new one that inculcated precepts of tolerating offences and submitting to injury. This did not seem to go well with the interests of the Empire.
One should note carefully that, although this letter was written about two years after the sack of Rome, and purported to give the views and complaints of pagans, there is not one word about the event in question, but rather the whole emphasis is on miracles, sacrifices and religion, as causes or explanations of success in Empire or failure.
Augustine replied in a letter to a friend of Marcellinus and in a further one to Marcellinus himself. The themes of these two letters (Letters 137 and 138) foreshadow very clearly themes of the City of God, and some of them must be briefly mentioned: the Saviour came when the time was ripe for his coming; that coming was foretold not only by the prophets but also by secular philosophers and poets; the true mediator delivered man from the false mediators – the demons; Christ superseded Moses, who was greater than any pagan; the truth of Christianity is seen in its fulfilment of prophecy and its confirmation by miracles; the world is declining and is in its last age; Christians are multiplying everywhere and await the eternal happiness of the heavenly city (Letter 137).
Letter 138 concentrates more on the question of religion and Empire: the gods of polytheism, being by definition many, were discordant and inimical to concord, which was the constituting element of the (Roman) State; this discord issued in civil wars; the gods favour the evils that corrupt man; Christianity, on the contrary, makes men better as soldiers, better as parents, better as children, better as masters, better as slaves, better as princes, better as judges, better as taxpayers and better as tax-gatherers. In short, Christianity was the great salvation for the State; it goes, however, beyond this life below and the harmony of the State, and provides entry to eternal salvation and the heavenly and divine republic of a certain eternal people. The splendid success of the Romans, achieved without the true religion, is perfected in their becoming citizens of another city. The letter goes on to insist that the pagan gods are less powerful than even Apollonius (of Tyana, 4th c. B.C.) or Apuleius (of Madauros, fl. c. 155 A.D.); the demons caused damage to the State and aroused hostility to Christianity; prosperity with the worship of the true God was seen in the temporal history of the Hebrews, whose dispersal, even as enemies of Christianity, aided its spread; the miracles of Christianity are incomparably superior to any others.
Augustine ends this second letter by admitting that he has not managed to treat of all the points that he would wish. If Marcellinus writes for more, he will make it his business to reply either in a letter or in a book.
In the event he wrote a book for Marcellinus. It was the City of God, and it deals with essentially the same topics and with the same attitudes.2
Anticipations of the Theme in Augustine
Of the last stages in the conflict between polytheism and Christian monotheism, Augustine could not but have been conscious, at least from the time of his being recommended by Symmachus to Milan, where he encountered St Ambrose. His conversion in 386 represented in his own regard a victory for Christianity. It would not be surprising, then, if in the earliest compositions of Augustine there were adumbrations and preliminary formulations of what was later the dominating theme of the City of God. Here we shall confine ourselves to a few examples from his first extant works, which reflect very strongly his own personal experiences at the time of his conversion. Our purpose is to show how the main theme of the City of God – salvation, attained by the worship of the one true God and the rejection of all false gods – had already taken on a special significance for him as he reflected upon the pattern of his own life. Even at that stage he had begun to think that what was true for him was true for mankind at large.
Whereas salvation in the City of God is represented by citizenship in a city (ciuitas) – an image explicitly taken from the Scriptures – it is in the earliest formulations represented as arriving in harbour (portus), or at the fatherland (patria), or being on the way (uia). These images are, of course, borrowed from the stock in trade of philosophy, particularly Platonic philosophy, in its eschatological aspects. Other variants used by Augustine at this time are the ‘land of desire’, the ‘land of happiness’, the ‘happy land’ and the ‘shining home’.
The first few pages of Augustine’s first extant work, the Contra Academicos (Against the Academics), written after his conversion in 386, speak of the ‘harbour’ of wisdom, to which Providence, making use of misfortune, brings us. Special emphasis is laid upon the irrelevance and instability of temporal prosperity. Here Augustine alludes directly not only to the apparent misfortunes of the friend to whom the book is addressed, but to his own: prosperity had almost entrapped him, but he had been compelled by illness to give up his profession and betake himself to philosophy, which, as the work makes clear, means philosophy subject to the authority of Christ. One can suppose that Augustine’s views, on the irrelevance of prosperity and the use made by Providence of misfortune, might be applied by him to the Empire as much as to mankind in general or himself and his friend.
The image of the harbour is used again in the first five sections of the De Beata Vita (On Happiness), composed at the same time as the previous work. The major image here, however, is the ‘land of desire’. There are two ‘ways’ to this land, both across a sea. One is the way of reason, which, possible only for the few, brings men to the harbour of philosophy, which is the harbour of the land of desire. The other way is the way of Providence which uses the storms of adversity to bring men, resist and wander in ignorance and folly as they may, to the same harbour. Those who are apparently most successful in life have need of the greatest storms. Some are brought to sanity, however, by the reading of books written by the learned and the wise. And some make their way to the ‘fatherland’ partly by their own use of reason, and partly by providential adversity.
One great hazard threatens all who approach the harbour – a high mountain in front of the harbour itself. It is so enticing that it lures to it not only those approaching the harbour, but even some that have already been in the harbour. The people living on this mountain are full of conceit, and fear that others might share their glory; hence they impress on those approaching the difficulty, because of submerged rocks, of joining them and are happy to advise them how they can get to the land of desire. In this way they are themselves destroyed within sight of the ‘shining home’.
Finally – a most important point – the harbour is wide, and one may still fail to put ashore and so not achieve one’s goal.
There are significant anticipations of the City of God here. The term ‘citizen’ is used, and the phrase ‘on pilgrimage from their fatherland’ is one characteristically applied in the later work to the citizens of the heavenly city in their life on earth. The illusions of prosperity and the transcendent role of Providence in its use of adversity are here fully emphasized. Of particular significance, however, is the special mention of the envious and the proud, who help others to safety, but are themselves destroyed within sight of the fatherland. This, of course, must refer especially to certain Neoplatonists, who approached Christianity, helped others to become Christians, but rejected Christianity themselves. It is to be noted that not all mankind reaches the harbour, and those who are there may still be lost: so too might Christians fail to persevere.
What is of special interest for us here is Augustine’s explicit relation of this theme and image to the circumstances of his own life at the time. Here indeed he gives a summary autobiography, parallel to that given in the Contra Academicos (Bk II, 4f.), and later to be expanded in the Confessions. It is clear that the theme, as set out in the De Beata Vita, is inspired by his own life: the providential use of illness, the effect of reading certain books (a very precise detail that he repeats and applies without hesitation to other men), his own part use of reason and part guidance by Providence, the illusions of prosperity, and the help of the proud Neoplatonists, who did not benefit from their own wisdom.
In short we have here the opportunity of seeing how the theme of the City of God is constructed from the details of his own conversion. To put it another way, the City of God is the application of the Confessions to the history of mankind. The inspiration of Augustine’s themes is in his life.
The image of the way is found first in Augustine in, again, the Contra Academicos (Bk III, 34). Here we are given the story of two men travelling to the same destination, one of whom has too much and the other too little credulity. At a crossroads they meet a humble shepherd whose directions the one accepts without question and proceeds to follow. The other ridicules such credulity and does not move. By the time an elegant gentleman comes along on horseback he is finding his waiting tedious, and accordingly acts upon the directions given by the elegant gentleman, although he does not accept them as necessarily true and they conflict with those given by the shepherd. In the event he gets lost in the woods and trackless mountains – for the elegant gentleman was an impostor. Meanwhile his companion is resting at his destination.
The source of this image may have been epistemological, but Augustine explicitly refers its use here to the deeds and behaviour of men. Philosophers and those interested in religion had done so before him, and amongst those was one especially well known to him, Porphyry. Porphyry’s search for a universal way to salvation, and his rejection of Christ as that way, is the high point of the tenth book of the City of God and, perhaps, of the work as a whole. Although Augustine’s use of the image of the way is undoubtedly at a later stage influenced by Moses’ leading the Children of Israel to the Promised Land and by the description of the Magi’s return by another way into their own country, his treatment of it in the Confessions (Bk VII, 26f.) and the De Trinitate (On the Trinity) (Bk IV, 13ff.) is basically the same as here in the Contra Academicos and later in the City of God (Bk X, 32): the contrasting attitudes of the proud and the humble – the simple and credulous on the one hand, and the pretentious impostor on the other. The Confessions (Bk VII, 26f.) marks the point well:
I should be able to see and understand the difference between presumption and confession, between those who see the goal that they must reach, but cannot see the road by which they are to reach it, and those who see the road to that blessed country which is meant to be no mere vision but our home… It is one thing to descry the land of peace from a wooded hilltop and, unable to find the way to it, struggle on through trackless wastes where traitors and runaways, captained by their prince… lie in wait to attack. It is another thing to follow the high road to that land of peace. (Translation by R. S. Pine-Coffin, Penguin Classics.)
Unlike those in the image of the harbour in the De Beata Vita, the Neoplatonists are here represented as seeking direction but being deceived. Both images complete the treatment of them in the City of God. The clearest and fullest anticipation is to be found in the De Vera Religions (On True Religion) (cf. 48ff.) which was begun at the same time as the works we have been discussing, but was not finished until four years later, in 390. Inasmuch as the City of God is a discussion of religion, both works share the same topic. The De Moribus Ecclesiae Catholicae (On the Ways of the Catholic Church), written in 388–390, has this striking passage on the ‘way’, which is, at the same time, a summary statement of one aspect and much of the contents of the City of God:
the way which God built for us in the segregation of the Patriarchs, the bond of the Law, the foretelling of the Prophets, the sacrament of the Man assumed, the testimony of the Apostles, the blood of the martyrs and the entering into possession of the gentiles: let us heed the oracles (of Scripture) and submit our puny reasonings to divine inspiration (I. 11f.).
Here the gradual revelation of the way is emphasized. Finally the De Catechizandis Rudibus (On Catechizing the Unlearned), written in 399, speaks plainly of two cities, one the devil’s, the other Christ’s.
What we have tried to stress is that the anticipation of the theme of the City of God was not so much dependent upon Alaric’s sack of Rome as rooted in Augustine’s own experience. This will throw light on the theme as it was later set forth. Providence had used adversity to help him, and Providence dominates the life of every man and every Empire. This might be a banal teaching of a philosophical school, but for Augustine it was also a personal realization, and so it tended to colour and affect all his thoughts and all his theories. Implicit in all of this is some regret for that prosperity from which Providence tears us; but there is compensation in the assurance afforded by the fulfilment of prophecies, the miracles of the saints, and the conversion of the multitudes. Even at the temporal level an Empire must benefit from the improved moral character of its citizens, once they had become Christians.
If, then, there is sorrow and regret for the past, there is also joy for the future; and if there is sombre pessimism, there is also hope. The thoughts and images that Augustine uses reflect the experience and life of an artist, the complicated tension of whose anxious spirit reveals to us his large humanity and ardent sensibility.
The Structureof the City of God
There are a few observations that one should make about the structure of the City of God. The first five books deal in the main with the polytheism of Rome, with special reference to Varro. The next five deal mainly with Greek philosophy, more particularly Platonism and especially Apuleius, and the Neoplatonists, Plotinus and Porphyry, with lengthy consideration of the views of the latter. The final twelve books deal in the main with creation, time and eternity as presented in the Bible, which is of Jewish provenance. And here we have the three great focuses of the work: Rome, Greece and Jerusalem. Augustine himself draws attention to this explicitly in one of the dramatic sections of the work (Bk XIX, 22):
But it may be asked in reply ‘Who is this God you talk of, and how is it proved that he is the only one to whom the Romans owed obedience, and that they should have worshipped no god besides him?’ It shows extreme blindness to ask, at this time of day, who this God is! He is the same God whose prophets foretold the events we now see happening. He is the God from whom Abraham received the message, ‘In your descendants all nations will be blessed.’ And this promise was fulfilled in Christ, who sprang from that line by physical descent, as is acknowledged, willy nilly, even by those who have remained hostile to this name. He is the same God whose divine Spirit spoke through the lips of the men whose prophecies I have quoted in my previous books, prophecies fulfilled in the Church which we see diffused throughout the whole world. He is the God whom Varro, the greatest of Roman scholars, identifies with Jupiter; although he did not realize what he was saying. Still, I thought this worth mentioning, simply because a man of such great learning could not judge this God to be non-existent or of no worth, since he believed him to be identical with his supreme god. More important still, he is the god whom Porphyry, the most earned of philosophers, although the fiercest enemy of the Christians, acknowledges to be a great god, even on the evidence of the oracles of those whom he supposes to be gods.
The first sentence in this excerpt indicates Augustine’s overall standpoint in his inquiry: the Roman world. It is not a negative attitude; on the contrary, he is concerned for that world’s future. Rome was to bring together within herself the revelation in the Bible, the wisdom of Greek philosophy, and what was good in her own tradition. Augustine is fully conscious of the fusion of the elements that in fact went to make up the civilization of the West that has endured to this day. In this sense his City of God is a Charter of Christendom, and here lies its greatest significance.
Roman speculation on religion, Greek philosophy, the Bible, all pointed to one God: the God of the Hebrews. This God should now be accepted as the God of Rome. The prophecies in their fulfilment, and the Church in its extension, its martyrs, and its miracles, left no possible doubt about this. The aspirations of Hebrews, Greeks and Romans were to be fulfilled in a Christian Rome. The Christian Era, the tempora Christiana, was already a reality.
Augustine may have come to these pregnant views through reading or argument; but it is likely that once again his own personal experience influenced him. His was a life led in a Roman environment, based on Roman education, drawing importantly upon Greek philosophy at a time most critical to his development, and resting in the main after his conversion on the Christian Scriptures. His Confessions not merely testify to this in contents: in very form they, too, describe a Roman’s background and education (Bks I-VII, 12), the contribution of Greek philosophy (Bk VII, 13 – IX), and life according to the Christian revelation. In particular the last three books of the Confessions cover in part the same ground as is later covered in the fuller and richer canvas of the last twelve books of the City of God.
There are rudimentary traces of the same progress from Rome to Greece to the Scriptures in others of Augustine’s works. The Contra Academicos proceeds from Cicero to the ‘school of Plotinus’, but puts the authority of Christ above that again (Bk III, 43). The preface to the De Beata Vita, with which we have already dealt, implies a similar progression. Its contemporary, the De Ordine (On Order) in its turn discusses more explicitly (Bk II, 25–54) a system of education based on the same lines.
In the pages that follow we shall take our cue from Augustine and consider the City of God from the three focuses which he indicates: the attitude to Rome; the attitude to Greek philosophy, (i.e. to Platonism, or more precisely Neoplatonism); and the interpretation of the Bible, in the context of philosophy.
Attitude to Rome
It has been declared quite roundly that the ‘ultimate effect of the City of God is the elimination of the State’;3 or again that the book combines ‘Plato’s theory of ideas and his political blueprints in the Republic’.4 J. N. Figgis5 has castigated several such unfounded notions – repeated, nevertheless, at a later date – such as that Augustine’s purpose in his great work was to develop a theory of Church and State as two swords; or to lay down an industrial and economic programme for the Middle Ages, which was to be discarded in due course in the rise of capitalism; or to condemn not only the institution of the State in general but the Roman Empire in particular. One can only suppose that such misunderstandings have persisted, partly at least, because of the title of the work, which to those who have not read it may well suggest a book in some way or another in line with Plato’s or Cicero’s Republic. Augustine’s attitude to the institution of the State and the Roman Empire in particular, will bear some analysis.
But first it is important to realize how Roman was the attitude of Augustine and how Rome was the centre of his human interest. There has been so much discussion of Augustine the Platonist that Augustine the Romanist has been neglected.
One must recall very briefly that Augustine grew up in North Africa within a family that supported Rome, that he was educated according to Roman methods, and embarked on the characteristically Roman career of rhetor, which often led to high administrative posts within the Empire. Rhetoric marked the very soul of Rome: Rome was pragmatic, eclectic, less interested in metaphysics and eschatology than in ethics and how to achieve happiness. Even the most spiritual of the Romans recoiled from the unambiguous championing of idealism. Virgil for all his wistful mysticism has left us with many doubts as to his ultimate philosophical persuasions. Cicero is hardly more clear. And even these two are less typical than, say, Horace with his aurea mediocritas – his golden mean.
Great as the influence of the Neoplatonists on Augustine’s mind undoubtedly was, it was the influence of Roman rhetoric which was all-pervading and can be seen in almost every paragraph that he wrote, and in many an argument that he used. He is by no means always innocent of the unrealities, exaggerations, and frigidities that characterized the profession he had espoused and practised. ‘If one were asked,’ he remarks in the City of God (Bk XXI, 14), ‘either to endure death or childhood again, who would not be aghast and choose to die?’ Unhappy as his experience of childhood may have been, one would hesitate to conclude that rhetorical exaggeration and unreality had no part in such a terrible declaration. We should take note also of a remarkable use of Roman rhetorical eclecticism in an argument of the gravest import and seriousness.
Therefore Plato and Porphyry, or rather their admirers now living, agree with us in believing that even holy souls will return to bodies (as Plato says), but that they will not return to any evils (as Porphyry says). Now it follows from these premises that the soul will receive the kind of body in which it can live for ever in felicity, without any evil: and this is the teaching of the Christian faith. Then all they have to do is to add, from Varro, the doctrine that the soul returns to the same body as before; and then the whole difficulty about the resurrection of the flesh will be solved for them (Bk XXII, 28).
With regard to this very question of the eternity of the flesh, the Romans, although they might reject it for other reasons, would have had less difficulty than a true follower of Plato, for whom only non-material things could have existence. There was, indeed, a strong materialistic bias in the philosophies that most affected the Romans which would have helped in this. Moreover the Roman, when he was not a materialist, was a sceptic. Basically he was a pragmatist, and his attitude towards the doctrine of bodily immortality would be determined less by fine philosophical reasoning than by more practical considerations. Augustine, as a matter of fact, had been a materialist Manichee for the whole of his twenties and had subsequently professed himself to be a sceptic, a follower of the New Academy. It is too much to assume that his acquaintance with the Neoplatonists obliterated the attitudes of earlier and formative years; his eclecticism from Plato, Porphyry, and Varro on the question of bodily immortality is a significant reminder of how thoroughly Roman Augustine continued to be.
Augustine clearly feels no compulsion to inform the reader throughout the City of God that he is considering his problem from both a personal point of view and from the point of view of Rome. It is characteristic of Augustine to assume that the reader does not need to be told of what, to him, is obvious.
A simple and clear instance of this can be seen in the lack of specific reference to his sources in the City of God. There are hundreds of allusions to Varro’s Antiquitates, but the title is given only once; there are frequent references to Apuleius’ De Deo Socratis, but the title is given only once; there are over seventy references to the Aeneid, but the title is given only once; and there are over a dozen references to Sallust’s Catilina, but the title is not given at all.
So it was with Rome. For his contemporaries, whose outlook on the world was bounded by the Roman Empire and its institutions, it was unnecessary, and might have been tedious, to have constant mention of what for them was the frame of reference of the argument. Rome was the background and the foreground and the whole context of the work. Even when philosophy leads him to Greece and theology to the Hebrews, his purpose is that Rome should be fulfilled in both.
Nevertheless Augustine does make the point most explicitly. We have already seen Chapter 22 of Book XIX, which gives in dramatic and sharpest outline the focuses of the whole work. There the question is asked: ‘Who is this God you talk of, and how is it proved that he is the only one to whom the Romans owed obedience, and that they should have worshipped no god besides him?’ The City of God is basically concerned with that question, and it is asked in the interest, not of the Greeks or the Jews or any other people, but of the Romans. The answer to the question, as we have seen, is that the testimony of the Hebrews, of the Greeks (represented by Porphyry), and of the Romans themselves (represented by Varro) was that the Christian God was that God.
Once again one should not fail to notice in the text just referred to the spirit of eclecticism and reverence for authority. It might be said with some justice that Augustine was aware that there might be difficulty in getting Porphyry and Varro to accept his interpretation of their positions in favour of Christianity – and he did not conceal this. Augustine’s fondness for a synthesis with firm outline, however, is more in evidence here than any purely philosophical argument. Some might see in this a basic Roman scepticism allied to a fondness for action, a preference for will as against intelligence, for authority as against reason. It is not surprising, indeed, that, although Flatonism was received in Rome, the Bible and the Christian Church especially became the instruments for a new glory and a longer life. That this should be so was a positive purpose of the City of God.
Augustine’s attitude to Rome was twofold: theological and seeming historical. From the point of view of Christian theology she must stand by him condemned. She had failed to worship the true God, had thus not given Him what was His due, and therefore lacked true justice – so that if true justice was to enter into the definition of a State, Rome had never been a State. Augustine rather than accept this drastic conclusion considers the possibility that a State might be defined without reference to justice. But in fact it is quite clear that his position here is an absolute one, arising from a theological assumption involving, not simply justice between men, but true justice which must take account of man’s duty to God. Elsewhere (Bk V, 19) he speaks of true virtue which cannot exist without the true worship of the true God. With it he contrasts ‘the virtue which is employed in the service of human glory’ which ‘is not true virtue; still, those who are not citizens of the Eternal City… are of more service to the earthly city when they possess even that sort of virtue than if they are without it’. The very sentence which has been adduced to prove that Augustine declared that States lack justice – ‘Remove justice, and what are kingdoms but gangs of criminals on a large scale?’ – clearly implies that kingdoms (States) are not kingdoms unless they are founded on justice. A parallel sentence – ‘take away national complacency, and what are all men but simply men?’ (Bk V, 17) – again clearly implies that ‘men’ will be ‘simply men’ if they have not the specific of national complacency. Likewise a kingdom is differentiated from a gang of criminals by the specific inclusion of justice. Augustine in his ‘mirror of princes’ (Bk V, 24) puts as the first requirement of a prince that he should rule with justice.
Rome had not only failed to worship the true God: she had given herself, under the malign influence of demons, to the worship of many gods both to ensure, it was claimed, physical and moral well-being for the State and the person in this life, and happiness for the person hereafter. These gods, Augustine contends at length, did not save Rome from physical disasters; not only did they not promote Rome’s moral well-being: they corrupted Rome through their obscene representations in the theatre and in the temple. The myths of the poets and the theatre were classified as ‘mythical’ theology, as the cult of the gods in the public temples was classified as ‘civil’ theology. Both theologies debauched Rome: ‘The theology of the theatre proclaims the degradation of the people; the theology of the city makes that degradation an amenity’ (Bk VI, 6). The remaining theology was called ‘natural’ – the theological ideas of the philosophers. According to these last, the gods were not superior to man. Hence they could do no more for man’s eternal happiness than he could himself.
One may be puzzled at what seems the inordinate length of Augustine’s attack upon these gods. But, as he says, ‘superior intelligences… will have to possess themselves in patience; and I ask them, for the sake of others, not to think superfluous what for themselves they feel to be unnecessary’ (Bk VII, Preface); ‘we are forced very often to give an extended exposition of the obvious, as if we were not presenting it for people to look at, but for them to touch and handle with their eyes shut’ (Bk II, 1). Augustine was concerned not only with superior intelligences: he was dealing with whole peoples of a vast Empire, and he was trying to break for them their long-inured association with a comforting polytheism, and substitute for it the (for them) strange concept of a single immaterial deity. The radical nature of such a change is almost impossible for us, who have inherited the concept of monotheism, to realize. But Augustine was keenly aware of it and the main burthen of the whole of the City of God is aimed at reinforcing that substitution.
As we have said, Augustine’s attitude to Rome was also seeming historical. He accepted from Sallust the picture of Rome as having once been highly moral. The early Romans were
greedy for praise, generous with their money, and aimed at vast renown and honourable riches. They were passionately devoted to glory; it was for this they desired to live, for this they did not hesitate to die. This unbounded passion for glory, above all else, checked their other appetites. They felt it would be shameful for their country to be enslaved, but glorious for her to have dominion and empire; and so they set their hearts first on making her free, then on making her sovereign (Bk V, 12).
it was other causes that made them great: energy in our own land, a rule of justice outside our borders; in forming policy a mind that is free because not at the mercy of criminal passions (ibid.).
But such human effort and achievement does not escape the embrace of theology:
God decided that a Western empire should arise, later in time [than the kingdoms of the East], but more renowned for the extent and grandeur of its dominion… He entrusted this dominion to those men, in preference to all others, who served their country for the sake of honour, praise and glory… (Bk V, 13). The Roman Empire… had this further purpose, that the citizens of that Eternal City… should fix their eyes steadily and soberly on those examples and observe what love they should have towards the City on high, in view of life eternal, if the earthly city had received such devotion from her citizens (Bk V, 16).
The City of God is not an attack on the Romans or the Roman Empire. On the contrary it sees Rome as a vehicle ordained by Providence for the benefit of Christianity in relation to which she would have a new and enduring future.
Augustine takes note of the conduct of the Christian Emperors, Constantine and Theodosius. He expects rulers who are Christians to rule with justice and ‘to put their power at the service of God’s majesty to extend his worship far and wide’ (Bk V, 24). He does not suppose, nevertheless, that, although Theodosius was ‘constrained by the discipline of the Church to do penance’, and ‘never relaxed in his efforts to help the Church against the ungodly by just and compassionate legislation’ (Bk V, 26), he or any Christian Emperor should be the obedient servant of the institutional Church: Augustine did not prescribe a theocratic State.
Attitude to Greek Philosophy
In Books VIII–X of the City of God Augustine encounters those Greek philosophers who treat of theology, who admit the existence of a Divinity and of his concern for human affairs, but who consider that the worship of one unchangeable God is not sufficient for the attainment of a life of blessedness after death: they suppose that for this end many gods are to be worshipped. The philosophers he has mostly in mind are Apuleius (c. 124–170 A.D.), Plotinus (c. 205–270) and his disciple Porphyry (232–c. 305) – but especially Apuleius and Porphyry, the first of whom was an African who wrote in Latin, and the other the reigning philosopher of Augustine’s day. Plotinus was the founder of Neoplatonism, a revival of the philosophy of Plato, and both he and Porphyry wrote in Greek and lived at Rome.
Augustine starts, however, with the threefold division of philosophy into natural, rational and moral (Physics, Logic, Ethics), a division he attributes to Plato. He expounds briefly and commends the Platonist doctrines under these heads and complements them later with a Christian gloss (Bk XI, 26–28).
But he quickly moves on to Apuleius, whose ideas on demonology were familiar to Augustine and generally current, and which receive considerable attention in the City of God. It is likely that he got some ideas on demons from Porphyry too. For Augustine these demons were really the fallen angels, who did their best to attract men’s worship away from the one true God, were endowed with some qualities, deriving from their angelic nature, superior to those enjoyed by man, and so were capable of helping or hindering man according as he did or did not do sacrifice to them. Apuleius himself treats of their character and says that they are liable to the same emotional disturbances as human beings. They resent injury, they are mollified by flattery and by gifts, they delight in receiving honours, they enjoy all kinds of rites and ceremonies and they are annoyed at any negligence about these. Among their uses he mentions divination by means of auguries, haruspication, clairvoyance, and dreams; and he ascribes to them the remarkable feats of magicians. He gives this brief definition of demons: species, animal; soul, subject to passions; mind, rational; body, composed of air; life-span, eternal. Of those five attributes, they have the first three, says Apuleius, in common with us; the fourth is peculiar to them; the fifth they share with the gods.
Apuleius, according to Augustine, pronounces the demons worthy of divine honours. They are established ‘midway between the ethereal heaven and the earth, so that since ‘gods never mix with men (as Plato is reported as saying), they may carry the prayers of men to the gods and bring back to men the answers granted to their requests’ (Bk VIII, 18). In their beneficent character, therefore, they were mediators, and mediation was a very popular idea at the time. Their role, however, Augustine contends, in procuring eternal felicity for men was useless: by their very nature they were as subject to passions and miseries as were men but, unlike men, their miseries were eternal. It was absurd to believe that they could achieve eternal happiness for men when they could not win it for themselves. Christ, on the other hand, was both eternal and in felicity: he was the true mediator.
The good angels, by contrast, do not seek that worship should be paid by men to themselves: they seek that it should be paid only to God.
Porphyry restricted the service that demons could render to us to the elevation of our ‘spirital’ soul, that is the soul by which we apprehend the images of material things – not the intellectual soul – and even about that, Augustine suggests, he was either ambiguous or unsure:
Porphyry goes as far as to promise some sort of purification of the soul by means of theurgy, though to be sure he is reluctant to commit himself, and seems to blush with embarrassment in his argument. On the other hand he denies that this art offers to any one a way of return to God (Bk X, 9).
(Theurgy is the art of persuading divinities to do or not to do something according to one’s desire.)
Porphyry in fact was seeking some universal way for the soul’s deliverance. In his Philosophy from Oracles he had examined the claims of Christ to be such a deliverer, such a universal way. He accepted the Hebrew-Christian god as the true god; he accepted that Christ was a good man; but he rejected the claims of the Christians. Augustine insisted that pride and his truck with demons prevented him from accepting Christ’s incarnation and crucifixion. Were it not for these, Porphyry and his followers would accept the truth of Christianity.
Deliverance for the soul means not merely escape from this life: it means especially not returning to it again. Augustine agreed with Porphyry (as against Plato) in denying that in a cycle of births man’s soul would return to the body of an animal. It would return to a human body. But he disagreed with Porphyry and the Platonists on whether the soul returned at all. The soul could not be happy in the after-life if it was destined to return to life again. Christianity meant the substitution of the linear for the cyclical concept of human destiny.
There is a sense in which the City of God can be said to centre on Porphyry and his Philosophy from Oracles. On the one hand this book of Porphyry’s represented a serious challenge to Christianity, as is evidenced by the anxious attention it received from so many Christian apologists: Eusebius (died 339) in his Praeparatio Evangelica, the Africans Amobius (fl. c. 300) and Lactantius (fl. c. 304–317), Theo doret (died c. 466), Claudianus Mamertus (died 474), Aeneas of Gaza (died c. 518), and Philoponus (died c. 565), as well as Augustine, in the City of Cod and elsewhere. Augustine compares the ‘oracles’ of the Scriptures to any others, including those of Porphyry, and avers that they are superior in every way: the ‘divine oracles’, expressed through the lips of the holy prophets and scattered by Augustine, as he says throughout the City of God, are more widely diffused, clear and frequent, summary, awesome, fearful but true; whereas the others are obscure and unknown, abstruse and rare. The comparison is made in a chapter (Bk XIX, 23) where Porphyry’s Philosophy from Oracles is in question and is explicitly named.
But Augustine also stresses how close Porphyry came to Christian truth – he believed in the existence of a spiritual Trinity, Providence and even something like grace. Only the demons and pride prevented him from accepting Christ, of whom the Philosophy from Oracles spoke highly, as God.
To win Porphyry, or rather his followers in the time of Augustine, to Christianity would not only eliminate the most worthy and serious opponents of Christianity; it would also fulfil the destiny of Greek philosophy. Even the difficulty that the immaterial Platonists might have about the possibility of an immortalized body in the Resurrection was solved by the declaration in Plato’s Timaeus that ‘this was a boon granted by the supreme God to the deities created by him, the assurance that they would never die, never, that is, be separated from the bodies with which he had linked them’ (Bk XIII, 16).
Interpretation of the Bible in the context of Philosophy
The concept of the City of God, or rather of the two cities – the heavenly and terrestrial cities – receives its fullest treatment in the last twelve books of Augustine’s great work, of which Books XI-XIV deal with their origin, XV-XVIII with their progress from the creation to the coming of Christ, and XIX-XXII with their final destinies.
The inspiration for the idea of the city, of one kind or another, might have come from Plato’s or Cicero’s Republic, or the Commentary on the Apocalypse of his contemporary Tyconius, or from other sources. Augustine, however, tells us plainly that the reference of his title is to Psalm lxxxvi, 3: ‘Glorious things are said of thee, O city of God.’ The inspiration and character of the work is theological, not civic.
When he proceeds to describe what he means by ‘city’, he usually calls it ‘society’ or ‘community’: ‘these two diverse and opposed communities of angels, in which we find something like the beginnings of the two communities of mankind’ (Bk XI, 34). ‘Society’ or ‘community’ is, however, not the only synonym he employs for ‘city’. He also uses, among others, the terms ‘house’ or ‘temple’ or ‘family’.6 The term city means little more than an association held together by some common bond:
This is assuredly the great difference that sunders the two cities of which we are speaking: the one is a community of devout men, the other a company of the irreligious, and each has its own angels attached to it. In one city love of God has been given first place, in the other, love of self (Bk XIV, 13).
A more famous formulation has it:
We see then that the two cities were created by two kinds of love: the earthly city was created by self-love reaching the point of contempt for God, the Heavenly City by the love of God carried as far as contempt of self (Bk XIV, 28).
In fact the cities originated in the choice of the angels to serve or not to serve God. The human component exists to make up for the angels that rebelled, and originated with Seth and Cain, the slayer of Abel. The cities, therefore, are spiritual or mystical cities.
All men are born in the earthly city but can become, if they are predestined to it, members of the heavenly city. Entry to that city is through regeneration in Christ, but people other than Christians can be members of this city. The Erythraean Sibyl,7 for example, is thought by Augustine to belong to it because she attacked the worship of false gods. It would seem that Augustine believed that the number of men that would belong to this city would be small. The character of the earthly city can be divined from its opposition to the heavenly.
The things used in common by the two eternal and mystical cities are good (all created natures – even the Devil – are, according to Augustine, good), but limited and temporal. They do not constitute a third city, for the cities in question have to do with only the wills of men and angels. These cities existed before earthly created nature and will exist when it is no more. In this earthly period, created nature is used by citizens of both cities who can share most things, with the great exception of religion and worship: this is the great practical divide.
Ultimately, being a citizen of the city of God means salvation. Those who are still alive are on the ‘way’ to the fatherland; they are in the harbour whence they may pass to the fatherland itself. Here we see the persistence of Augustine’s earlier ideas on man’s destiny.
And what of the role of the Church in the City of God? In a very general way Augustine identifies the Church with the city of God on pilgrimage here below. Thus he speaks of the ‘City of God, that is to say, God’s Church’ (Bk XIII, 16). But there were serious reservations. First there were citizens of the city of God on earth before the Church was founded, as we have seen in the case of the Sibyl. The Hebrews foreshadowed the city of God and gave it members. The Gospel parables of the cockle among the good seed, the separation of the wheat from the chaff, and the mixed collection of fish in the net, led Augustine to conclude that many existing Church members would not be found to be members of the city of God. Similarly there were some who never belonged to the Church who would be found to be members of that city.
The City of God is formally neither a philosophical nor a theological treatise though it is mainly theological, since it deals with man’s salvation and happiness as related to the worship not of many gods but of the one true God and uses the Bible as its supreme authority. Nevertheless it treats of formal philosophical and theological matters passim.
Augustine’s general philosophical viewpoint is Platonic (Bk VIII, 6–9 and Bk XI, 25). He accepts the traditional Platonic division of philosophy into physics, logic and ethics – in which he sees a vestige of the Trinity – but transforms it into a Theodicy in which God, ‘the cause of existence, the principle of reason and the rule of life’ (Bk VIII, 4), is the explanation of all.
His practical approach to physics, however, requires some explanation. Pierre Duhem judged that of all the Fathers of the Church Augustine alone did not disdain the doctrines of profane science. Galileo commended his ‘circumspection’ in the matter. Augustine depended for his scientific information on the works of Varro, Cicero, Pliny, Posidonius, Apuleius and the Neoplatonists. He seems to have a special acquaintance with mathematics, astronomy and medicine.8 When there appeared to be a clear conflict between what he took to be the historical account of the Bible and an ascertained fact of rational science, he accepted the fact of science and understood the Bible allegorically. He was embarrassed by some fellow Christians:
It happens often that a non-Christian too has a view about the earth, the heaven, the other elements of this world, the movement and revolution or even the size and distances of the stars… the natures of animals, plants, stones and such things which he derives from ineluctible reason and experience. It is too shameful and damaging and greatly to be avoided that such a one should hear a Christian talk such utter nonsense about such things, purporting to speak in accordance with Christian writings (de Genesi ad litcram 1, XIX, 39).
On the other hand no mere hypothesis of science was accepted by him in preference to an account in the Bible. He believed that one could also follow the Bible as an historical account:
Now in my opinion it is certainly a complete mistake to suppose that no narrative of events in this type of literature (i.e. the Bible) has any significance beyond the purely historical record; but it is equally rash to maintain that every single statement in those books is a complex of allegorical meanings (Bk XVII, 4).
The flood of Eastern religions into the West and the mainly spiritualist character of the dominant Neoplatonist philosophy – not to say the theurgic beliefs and practices associated with Porphyry and, especially, Iamblichus and others – had a markedly regressive effect in relation to scientific matters which Christians, including Augustine, shared with their contemporaries. Thus whereas the theory of the spherical nature of the earth put forward by Eudoxus of Cnidus (c. 408–337 B.C.) was accepted by Plato and Aristotle and their successors down to the second century A.D., there was a reversion in the third and fourth centuries A.D.to the earlier Homeric and Biblical theory of the earth as a flat disc surrounded by Ocean. And so whereas Plato and Cicero accepted the existence of the antipodes, Augustine demurred (Bk XVI, 9). He is careful, however, to indicate the possibilitythat the world might be a suspended sphere, and that the existence of the antipodes was simply not proved rationally. His reason for rejecting the theory of the antipodes was that it seemed to threaten the unity of the human race – which was the teaching of the Bible.
Augustine, therefore, found himself from time to time amongst those for whom the marvels related in Pliny the Elder’s Natural History were science. Hence there is a fair share of marvels, metamorphoses and monstrosities to be found in the City of God: they should be placed – with the demons – in the context of their times. Nevertheless his position vis-à-vis science was clear and acted upon:
Whatever the [scientists] themselves can demonstrate by true proofs about the nature of things, we can show not to be contrary to our scriptures. But whatever they advance [i.e. as an hypothesis] in any of their books that is contrary to our scriptures… we should either indicate a solution or believe without hesitation that it is false (De Genesi ad Litteram 1, XXI, 41).
He shared with the Roman world the belief that the end of philosophy was happiness. Happiness was possible in this life, but only by future hope rather than present reality (Bk XIX, 20). Our lives can be led in peace if we observe due order in submission:
The peace of the body… is a tempering of the component parts in duly ordered proportion; the peace of the irrational soul is a duly ordered repose of the appetites; the peace of the rational soul is the duly ordered agreement of cognition and action. The peace of the body and soul is the duly ordered life and health of a living creature; peace between mortal man and God is an ordered obedience, in faith, in subjection to an everlasting law; peace between men is an ordered agreement of mind with mind; the peace of a home is the ordered agreement among those who live together about giving and obeying orders; the peace of the Heavenly City is a perfectly ordered and perfectly harmonious fellowship in the enjoyment of God, and a mutual fellowship in God; the peace of the whole universe is the tranquility of order and order is the arrangement of things equal and unequal in a pattern which assigns to each its proper position (Bk XIX, 13).9
Augustine’s idea of philosophy is one that he attributes to Plato: ‘to philosophize is to love God’ (Bk VIII, 8). For him philosophy is affective – even mystical. If the end of philosophy is happiness, its agent is the will. Turning to God or turning away from God is the first and final divide. The expression of philosophy is love; its explanation likewise is love: Augustine’s absorption in the idea of love must arise from his temperament which he so passionately delineates in his Confessions. He is so insistent on the value of even human love that he refuses to follow the distinction between it, ‘charity’ and ‘friendship’ maintained by other Church Fathers (Bk XIV, 7).
Some, therefore, have concluded that Augustine was not a phlosopher in the strict sense of the word. Although he treats philosophically of problems throughout the whole range of traditional philosophy – time, space, matter, form, knowledge, problems in psychology both rational and experimental, happiness, virtue and so on – he would not have claimed to be a philosopher in the strict sense. He was more concerned to know and love God and to bring his fellowmen to do the same.
The theological content of the City of God is found in his handling of Scripture. He shows how the Old Testament, which he follows in the main in the Septuagint version, is one long prophecy and symbolization of Christ’s coming. Its prophecies, which he repeatedly calls ‘oracles’, are superior in every way to the oracles of the pagans, especially to the oracles consulted by Porphyry. Its miracles and the Christian miracles since Christ’s coming are likewise superior. One has to accept that Augustine felt it necessary in his apostolate to beat the pagans at their own game.
The great problems of creation, of the creation and fall of the angels, of predestination, of evil, of the last judgement, of eternal punishment, of eternal felicity, of the vision of God and many other questions come up for treatment – on the basis of the evidence of Scripture – in the parts of the City of God dealing with the origin (Bks XI-XIV) and the destinies (Bks XIX-XXII) of the two cities. The intervening books give a history of man’s progress and development from the creation to the coming of Christ. It is based on the rather legendary Chronicle of Eusebius and the Bible itself, and in fact deals mainly with the Assyrian and Roman Empires.
Neither in Books XV-XVIII of the City of God, nor elsewhere in the work, is there any serious attempt at a philosophy of history other than his repudiation of the Platonic theory of the cycle of existences and the substitution for it of the linear progress implicit in the Christian view of the creation, fall, redemption and final destiny. More might be said for Augustine’s having some kind of a theology of history, but this means little more than the view of history as given in the Scriptures, that is the prophesying of redemption and its fulfilment.10
In addition to the topics we have already seen, Augustine covers a wide range of other subjects in the course of the City of Cod, including beauty, slavery, war and a discussion rather similar to Descartes’s ‘I think, therefore I am’. It must be added that the treatment of such topics in the Ciy of God is best considered alongside their treatment in other works by Augustine.
The style of the City of God approaches very nearly to the classical ideal as seen in Cicero. While it lacks, except on occasion, the passion and rhetoric of the shorter and more personal Confessions, it is on the whole in the grand manner; but for all that it shows great variation in the treatment of its different ideas. It is, perhaps, the last great prose work of classical Rome.