City of God by Augustine of Hippo

City of God
City of God by Augustine of Hippo
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

City of God was the book that came up for me for the Classics Spin for December. Since I was already reading Ulysses, I probably should have padded my Spin list with lighter fare, but it turned out okay. It only took me eleven days past the end of December to finish City of God, and I found I really kind of enjoyed the book.

It’s not a page-turner, but the translation I read was fairly accessible, despite some passages that made me think of  the scene in The Princess Bride where Vizzini is explaining to the Man in Black how he knows which cup holds the iocane powder. “Truly, you have a dizzying intellect,” says the Man in Black after a long string of pseudo-logic from Vizzini.

“Wait ’til I get going!” replies Vizzini.

Anyway, I liked Augustine’s book. It helped that I read an abridged edition (abridged from the 1958 Fathers of the Church, Inc., translation, published by Image Books). This book has already helped me understand some of the other classics I’ve been reading because it helps me understand the worldview of someone from centuries ago, which is at times a wildly different worldview than mine.

The first part of City of God is devoted to refuting the idea that Christianity is the cause of the fall of Rome. Augustine does this in part by arguing that the Roman gods must not be very good gods because they didn’t help out Rome when it needed them. Augustine argues that Roman gods are actually demons because they try to divert to themselves sacrifices and adulation that should go only to the one true God. I don’t get why Augustine engages in this “my God’s better than your gods” argument when he could just argue that the Roman gods don’t exist. But perhaps this is another of those differences in worldview between a 21st-century stay-at-home mom and a 4th/5th-century Catholic bishop.

Augustine believes that slavery is necessary and sanctioned by Scripture and war is a necessary means by which God acts in the world to punish the wicked (p. 455). This last point helped me understand better why Oliver Cromwell claimed that the fact that King Charles I was able to be captured by the Puritans was proof that it was God’s will that the king be executed, something that kind of confused me when I was reading David Hume’s The History of England, Volume V. That way of looking at things is still very strange to me (i.e., “if I succeed at doing something, then God must want me to do it”), but I think I understand the idea a little better now.

There’s also an odd mix of allegorical and literal thinking in the way Augustine looks at things. For one, he seems to go back and forth between seeing biblical stories as allegorical and as literal. He writes about the allegory of Abraham and his children by both the slave Agar and his wife Sara. Agar, he says, represents the flesh and Sara represents the spirit and that’s why Sara’s son Isaac is the father of the City of God while Agar’s son Ishmael is cast out as a representative (or perhaps the father of?) the City of Man. (p. 312) But then he goes on for ages and ages about how people in the Hebrew bible really did live for hundreds of years, and he gives evidence for why these years are solar years and not counted as seasons or months or some other reckoning of “years.”

I thought an allegory was using fiction to explain a larger truth, in which case, I don’t really understand why Augustine looks at biblical accounts as both allegorical and as literal. Unless maybe the word “allegory” was an imprecise choice on the part of the translators, and I’m incorrectly applying the “fiction” part to Augustine’s thinking.

Maybe it’s not a contradiction or an inconsistency at all but rather is just a symptom of interpreting everything through a religious lens, which Augustine also seems to do. He goes go on and on about the marvels of nature—things that defy natural order, like straw both keeping ice from melting but helping fruit to ripen, or quicklime becoming hot when put in water—and how those things can only be explained as wonders of God.

The miracle of the straw we today understand as the effect of straw’s insulating properties, either maintaining the temperature of ice or keeping ethylene gas in to ripen fruit, and of course we understand that it’s merely a property of calcium oxide that it reacts with water to produce heat, but Augustine dismisses those who claimed in his day that these objects weren’t acting contrary to nature but consistent with their natures. The only explanation, Augustine contends, is that God is working wonders. (p. 494-494) I don’t really understand why it couldn’t be both. I do wonder how Augustine would react if he could audit a 21st-century college chemistry or physics class. Would he just dismiss it as deceptions of the Devil? Maybe, but he talks with so much wonder about his own experiments with peacock flesh and lodestone, and speaks so fervently about the importance of using the intellect to seek truth, I think he might actually really enjoy seeing the intricacies of the unseen world revealed.

Along the lines of fiction versus nonfiction, Augustine later talks about Prometheus and Atlas as real guys who were contemporaries of Moses and claims that the stories of Prometheus creating men out of mud and Atlas carrying the world on his shoulders were just metaphorical for their very impressive though non-divine accomplishments during their lives. (p. 385) Why is it that the Bible must be literal, but Greek mythology can only be metaphorical?

Augustine also believes that Minerva/Athena and Mercury/Hermes were once human beings who were made gods by the Greeks. He goes so far as to say that stories of Athena having sprung from Zeus’ head are “subject matter for poetry and story-telling, not for history.” (p. 386) Set aside that this is the first time I’ve ever heard about there being an historical basis for Greek gods once being mortals, doesn’t Augustine see any parallels between those stories and Jesus being accepted as God? I’m not saying he’s wrong; I take no position at all on the divinity of Jesus or anyone else. I just don’t understand why he doesn’t seem to see that connection.

There’s also the issue of the books in the biblical canon. Augustine stresses that, although there are other contemporary writings that deal with biblical subjects, it was important to include only those books that don’t contradict one another in the biblical canon. (p. 396-397) Later he claims that Egyptian historical writings (especially those claiming that the earth is more than 100,000 years old—how preposterous!) can’t be taken seriously because they contradict one another. (p. 398-399) I’m sure they do contradict each other, but the books of the Bible don’t contradict each other simply because the people who put them together left out anything contradictory. So, if the Egyptians had stayed on message better, we would be able to trust their writings?

So those were some of the things that confused me. But there were also many things about the book that I really liked, and some that were particularly surprising.

One was his idea that everything made by God is inherently good. Evil isn’t a force in itself but simply a turning away from good/God. (p. 235-236) Augustine writes, “Even the nature of the Devil, in so far as it is a nature, is not evil; it was a perversity—not being true to itself—that made it bad.” (p. 450) This is very similar to my personal view of good and evil, and it was surprising to see it in Augustine’s writing.

Another was his views on leisure activities:

The attraction of leisure ought not to be empty-headed inactivity, but in the quest or discovery of truth, both for his own progress and for the purpose of sharing ungrudgingly with others…no one should give up entirely his delight in learning, for the sweetness he once knew may be lost and the burden he bears overwhelm him. (p. 461)

I’m writing this review while my spouse is at the neighbor’s house watching football, which should demonstrate how much I agree with Augustine on this particular point.

And then there was the unexpected beauty of Augustine’s writing. I don’t know enough Latin to read the whole thing in Latin (although I do wonder if some of my confusion might be resolved if I could do my own translating), but even the few little plays on words the translators point out reveal a man who loved the use of language. The most beautiful and moving passages come not when Augustine is sure of himself, but when he’s speaking from his heart about his faith and the beauty he sees in his religious beliefs. For example, in the last chapter, he’s writing about what believers can expect in the afterlife, in particular, what the nature of their physical bodies will be post-resurrection.

And so it is that, when anyone asks me what the activity of the saints in their spiritual bodies will be, I do not tell him what I now see; I tell him what I believe…It is difficult to admit that bodies in heaven will be such that the saints cannot open and close their eyes at will; on the other hand, it is still harder to admit that, if one closes his eyes in heaven, he will cease to see God. (p. 531)

I find this idea heart-breaking, that one might be able to see God and then have that taken away, and I get the impression that Augustine felt similarly.

He also writes eloquently about the struggle between our wills and our bodies.

There is nothing else that now makes a man more miserable than his own disobedience to himself. Because he would not do what he could [by refraining from eating the apple in the Garden], he can no longer do what he would…It is because it was to Him that we refused our obedience and our service that our body, which used to be obedient, now troubles us by its insubordination. (p. 299)

I find that a strangely beautiful idea, that because in the Garden we disobeyed God of whom we are a part, our punishment is that our souls will crave immortality and godliness while our bodies sicken, age, and die. I might not buy into the literal details of this, but I can surely feel that internal conflict. It’s why I can’t have a big bag of potato chips in the house; my will wants to eat healthy, but my body craves fat and salt. In heaven, our bodies and souls will truly be one; that, says Augustine, is the eternal peace God has promised us.

Most surprising to is me is that, even with all of his flaws and rather scary idea about the divine sanction of torture, corporal punishment of children, slavery, and war, I think I kind of like Augustine. He seems like a deep-thinker and a man of great passion and faith. For a while I thought it would be cool to meet him and talk with him and try to better understand where he’s coming from, particularly his ideas on good and evil. But then I realized that not only am I a woman who knows only one language, I’m also, by his definition, a heretic, and he’d likely be uninterested in chatting with me. Maybe he’d chat with my spouse and I could serve them dinner and listen in on the conversation. Except that my spouse wouldn’t ask the right questions because he doesn’t care much about these kinds of things. I’ll just have to make do with reading Augustine’s Confessions to get to know him better.

For more classics I’ve read and those I plan to read, visit my Cavalcade of Classics page.

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10 comments

  1. Pingback: Bookends: January 2014 | Imperfect Happiness
  2. Nemo · January 13, 2014

    Allegory is “a representation of an abstract or spiritual meaning through concrete or material forms” (Dictionary.com). So a story can be both literal and allegorical.

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    • CJ · January 13, 2014

      I was going by Merriam-Webster: 1. the expression by means of symbolic fictional figures and actions of truths or generalizations about human existence; also: an instance (as in a story or painting) of such expression; 2. a symbolic representation : emblem

      I don’t know which the Fathers of the Church, Inc., had in mind when they were translating.

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      • Nemo · January 13, 2014

        As I understand it, Augustine’s hermeneutic is multi-layered. There can be multiple interpretations of the same Biblical passage, literal, allegorical and others, and all are valid as long as they don’t contradict the context of the Scripture and logic.

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      • CJ · January 13, 2014

        That’s certainly what he seems to be doing in City of God. The question I had was about the translators’ choice of the word “allegory,” and whether it was meant to imply a symbolic meaning of a fiction or a symbolic meaning of just whatever, fiction or nonfiction.

        Throughout the book, I had questions about what Augustine meant versus what the translators thought he meant. And of course, Augustine deals with this same issue when he discusses the various translations of both the Hebrew and Greek bibles. It’s like a very complicated game of telephone.

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      • Nemo · January 13, 2014

        I think the Latin word, allegoria, highlights the relation between the basic meaning and another, hidden meaning. It doesn’t say whether the former is fictional or factual. So the translators’ choice of the word “allegory” is appropriate.

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  3. FictionFan · January 12, 2014

    Fascinating review – thanks! I recently read The Cave and the Light by Arthur Herman which, although it was actually about the development of philosophy, in passing gave the clearest account I have ever read of the development of Christianity from the earliest beginnings through to modern times, showing how the great religious thinkers were influenced by their times.

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    • CJ · January 12, 2014

      I’ve read that Arthur Herman writes about history from a very right-wing bent. Did you find that to be the case in The Cave and the Light?

      I’m mostly trying to stick with primary sources (or near-primary sources), but it might be helpful to have a modern overview to put things in perspective (like reading Joseph Campbell helped me to understand Ulysses).

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      • FictionFan · January 12, 2014

        Yes, I think he does have a pretty right-wing bias, though it only really showed through when he got to fairly modern history, by which time he’d got off the subject of religion mostly and onto politics. Overall, I found I learned tons from the book, and his bias was obvious enough that it was fairly easy to compensate for, if that makes sense.

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      • CJ · January 12, 2014

        Makes total sense. It always helps to know where your author is coming from and take that into account when you’re assessing his/her work, especially nonfiction (or so I find).

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