Augustine’s City of God (in Latin, Civitas Dei) is a foundational treatise on basic Christian doctrine, and is an important work in the development of Western Christianity. I’m not a scholar and don’t plan to trace the work’s theological, rhetorical, and historical importance; I read it for pleasure and it delivered.
I love how it has opened my eyes to see beyond my here-and-now, to realize that I am just part of the long history of the City of God, just one of the saints on my journey through this world. We can be so blinkered in our own lives, but our Christianity is not even about us. It’s all about the City of God, the people He has chosen for His own to glorify Him in this life and the next. We are part of something much bigger than ourselves, that reaches back to the beginning and stretches forward into eternity.
Augustine was a fifth-century Christian and a highly intelligent scholar, author, apologist, and theologian. People have parsed his statements for centuries. And yet I find him very relevant. I know my intelligence is nowhere near his, but I think I could talk to him. We love the same Lord and so many times I found myself ardently agreeing with his statements about right living and correct theology. Because his themes are timeless, most of Augustine’s work is still compelling reading for us today. I don’t agree with everything he writes, but I’m happy to have gained some impression of him from this book, as I have not yet read his more personal Confessions. He reminds me of C. S. Lewis in a lot of ways.
There is just so much here; it’s so vast. Augustine’s mission is to trace out the progress of the two cities, that of God and that of the devil, from the very beginning. It starts with Abel and Cain and it just goes from there, all the way through the biblical genealogies into the time of Christ and beyond. To be honest, I was expecting City of God to be heavy and dry, something dutiful to read in between fiction books, but to my surprise it was eminently readable and actually very interesting. Especially fascinating are the glimpses of Augustine’s world and the intellectual climate of the day.
Augustine spends a lot of time defending the Christians against the taunts of the pagans, making this an apologetic work. Augustine often explores pagan legends and characters through the lens of Christianity, finding many things to praise and many others to decry. He is convinced that the Roman gods were demons because of the atrocities and indecencies they demanded in their worshipers, and my guess is that he’s probably right. Really interesting stuff.
This really is a tome of a book; at over a thousand pages in my unabridged paperback copy, it took me quite some time to finish. And there is a point in the middle when Augustine gets very involved with tracing biblical genealogies and explaining what seem to be inconsistencies in the biblical record. All probably valuable in some way, but some of it is, admittedly, tedious to the non-scholar like myself. But I read every word and am glad I did.
One thing I did not care for was the arrogant tone of some of the footnotes in this edition (translated by Henry Bettenson and David Knowles). Not that I believe Augustine’s work is flawless, but how can you call Augustine’s etymology of a particular word “absurd” and then, in the next line, admit that the word’s actual etymology is unknown? How can Augustine’s etymology be absurd when there’s no correct etymology known? And there are other instances like this that just rubbed me the wrong way. If you want to argue with Augustine, write your own book. Don’t snark at him from the footnotes.
Sometimes Augustine’s musings overwhelm him with the incredible beauty, power, and wisdom of God and he bursts out with praise. This paragraph spurred me to adoration; the more I pondered it, the more awed and worshipful I became, in love with the glory of God:
Thus God is the supreme reality, with his Word and Holy Spirit — three who are one. He is the God omnipotent, creator and maker of every soul and every body; participation in him brings happiness to all who are happy in truth and not in illusion; he has made man a rational animal, consisting of soul and body; and when a man sins he does not let him go unpunished, nor does he abandon him without pity. He has given, to good men and bad alike, the existence they share with the stones; he has given man reproductive life which he shares with the plants, the life of the senses, which he shares with the animals, and the life of the intellect, shared only with the angels. From him derives every mode of being, every species, every order, all measure, number, and weight. He is the source of all that exists in nature, whatever its kind, whatever its value, and of the seeds of forms, and the forms of seeds, and the motions of seeds and forms. He has given to flesh its origin, beauty, health, fertility in propagation, the arrangement of the bodily organs, and the health that comes from their harmony. He has endowed even the soul of irrational creatures with memory, sense, and appetite, but above all this, he has given to the rational soul thought, intelligence, and will. He has not abandoned even the inner parts of the smallest and lowliest creature, or the bird’s feather (to say nothing of the heavens and the earth, the angels and mankind) — he has not left them without a harmony of their constituent parts, a kind of peace. It is beyond anything incredible that he should have willed the kingdoms of men, their dominations and their servitudes, to be outside the range of the laws of his providence. (p. 196)
And really, the scope of this book is so incredibly vast I can’t do it justice. All I want to do is quote Augustine, so I’ll end with a smattering of the profundities I wrote down as I read:
Thus the wicked, under pressure of affliction, execrate God and blaspheme; the good, in the same affliction, offer up prayers and praises. This shows that what matters is the nature of the sufferer, not the nature of the suffering. Stir a cesspit, and a foul stench arises; stir a perfume, and a delightful fragrance ascends. But the movement is identical.(p. 14)
Among the daily chances of this life every man on earth is threatened in the same way by innumerable deaths, and it is uncertain which of them will come to him. And so the question is whether it is better to suffer one in dying or to fear them all in living. (p. 20)
Now purity is a virtue of the mind. It has courage as its companion, and courage decides to endure evil rather than consent to evil. (p. 27)
The truth is that in the mysterious justice of God, the wickedness of desire is given rope, as it were, for the present, while its punishment is plainly being reserved for the final judgement. (p. 40)
What use is it to give as an excuse the splendid titles of ‘honour’ and ‘victory’? Take away the screens of such senseless notions and let the crimes be seen, weighed, and judged in all their nakedness. (p. 104)
We do not subject the life and foreknowledge of God to necessity, if we say that it is ‘necessary’ for God to be eternal and to have complete foreknowledge; nor is his power diminished by saying that he cannot die or make a mistake… It is just because he is all-powerful that there are some things he cannot do. (p. 194)
It is God who gives happiness; for he is the true wealth of men’s souls. (p. 207)
Is anything more loquacious than folly? But it must not be supposed that folly is as powerful as truth, just because it can, if it likes, shout louder and longer than truth. (p. 224)
It remains true that no one is happy without the enjoyment of what he loves. Even those who set their heart on the wrong thing do not suppose their happiness to consist in the loving, but in the enjoyment. (p. 324)
Surely the supremely important thing in religion is to model oneself on the object of one’s worship. (p. 324)
Only truth and virtue can offer a centre of resistance against turbulent and degraded passions. (p. 345)
As it is, there is one road, and one only, well secured against all possibility of going astray; and this road is provided by one who is himself both God and man. As God, he is the goal; as man, he is the way. (p. 431)
There is no such entity in nature as ‘evil’; ‘evil’ is merely a name for the privation of good. (p. 455)
Thus we say that there is one unchanging Good; and that is the one, true, and blessed God. The things he made are good because they were made by him; but they are subject to change, because they were made not out of his being but out of nothing. (p. 472)
But as it is, the punishment of sin has been turned by the great and wonderful grace of our Savior to a good use, to the promotion of righteousness. It was then said to man, ‘You will die if you sin.’ Now it is said to the martyr, ‘Die, rather than sin.’ (p. 513)
The choice of the will, then, is genuinely free only when it is not subservient to faults and sins. (p. 569)
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. (p. 573)
A brief and true definition of virtue is ‘rightly ordered love.’ (p. 637)
In fact, all the enemies of the Church, however blinded by error or depraved by wickedness, train the Church in patient endurance if they are given the power of inflicting bodily harm, while if they oppose her only by their perverse notions they train her in wisdom… In this manner the Church proceeds on its pilgrim way in this world, in these evil days. Its troubled course began not merely in the time of the bodily presence of Christ and the time of his apostles; it started with Abel himself, the first righteous man slain by an ungodly brother; and the pilgrimage goes on from that time right up to the end of history, with the persecutions of the world on one side and on the other the consolations of God. (p. 833–5)
Indeed, even when men choose war, their only wish is for victory; which shows that their desire in fighting is for peace with glory. For what is victory but the conquest of the opposing side? And when this is achieved, there will be peace. Even wars, then, are waged with peace as their object… Hence it is an established fact that peace is the desired end of war, even in waging war, whereas no one is in quest of war while making peace. (p. 866)
A ‘bishop’ who has set his heart on a position of eminence rather than an opportunity for service should realize he is no bishop. (p. 880)
But things which come before our eyes in everyday experiences are little reckoned of… daily familiarity gradually blunts the edge of wonder. (p. 970)
Evil men do many things contrary to the will of God; but so great is his wisdom, and so great his power, that all things which seem to oppose his will tend toward those results or ends which he himself has foreknown as good and just. (p. 1023)
Brilliant, eloquent, and rich in the love of God. ( )