chapter  6
The City of God (Augustine of Hippo, A.D. 354–430)
Pages 6

He was born in North Africa in 354 of a Christian mother and a pagan father. Father rather than mother had the greater influence. Christianity had been officially recognized within the Empire for half a century, but paganism was still a powerful force even though forced underground. He was educated at Carthage, the leading African city, where he absorbed Latin literature and rhetoric. Later he became a professor of rhetoric at Carthage. He reveals in his Confessions a taste for pleasures of the flesh that lasted into his early thirties. In The City he alludes also to an early taste for pagan entertainment: “I myself, in my younger days, used to frequent the sacrilegious stage plays and comedies. I used to watch the demoniacal fanatics and listen to the choruses, and take delight in the obscene shows in honor of their gods and goddesses” (II.4). Such admissions gave the “saint” a comfortable human dimension. His Confessions traces steps of experimentation with various philos-

ophies and faiths until he finds in Christ the absolute certainty he was seeking. For some time he was a pagan in his father’s footsteps, and then a brief convert to Manichaeism, which taught a dualism of good and evil derived from Zoroastrianism, a Persian faith. He studied with Bishop Ambrose in Milan as he struggled with his lust for women and pagan delights. By 387 his urges for sensual gratification were overcome, the rhetoric professorship was surrendered, and he was inducted into the Church by Ambrose. His gifts of intellect and service

were recognized in 395 with the bishopric of Hippo in a Roman province. Augustine died in 430 while his city was under siege by Germanic Vandals bent conquering North Africa. In The City of God (Civitate Dei ), his idea of rival cities in heaven

and earth from the beginning of time in the last 12 books was considered sober history for the next 1,000 years. An idea so long consulted and revered was sure to leave traces well beyond its origin. He crystallized two opposed outlooks-the secular and the religious, the material and the spiritual: “Of all visible things, the universe is the greatest; of all invisible realities, the greatest is God” (XI.4). His mentor was Plotinus (d. A.D. 270), a late follower and interpreter of Plato, who argued that timeless truth and meaning lay in a reality beyond reason and the senses. The duality of two cities explained the past from the Assyrian Empire to the breakup of the Western Roman Empire. By the fourth century of our era Augustine’s dualism ended the

Greco-Roman belief that relations of humans to each other and to nature can be understood by reason without supernatural intervention. With his two cities, Augustine shifted the center of gravity to a spiritual world accessible only to faith entailing dependence on powers beyond reason: “What we see … is that two societies have issued from two kinds of love. Worldly society has flowered from a selfish love … whereas the communion of saints is rooted in a love of God … The latter relies on the Lord, whereas the other boasts that it can get along by itself” (XIV. 28). Once more: “In regard to mankind I have made a division. On the one side are those who live according to men; on the other, those who live according to God” (XV.1). The Greco-Roman belief in human self-sufficiency guided by reason eventually fell by the wayside, to be revived a thousand years later in the Renaissance. The two sides of this dualism have remained at odds over the relative weight of worldly and religious ways of life into modern times. An event that inspired the work was Rome’s invasion in 410 by

Alaric the Goth. He allowed troops to loot the city, rape women, and pile up corpses even though he was a Christian. The event sent waves of shock and disbelief through an already crumbling Roman Empire in the west. Given its historic might and longevity, how could an army of barbarians wreak havoc on the legendary capital city? Widespread distress inspired two explanations: neglect of Rome’s ancient pantheon of gods, thus forfeiting their protection, and weakening of Roman strength and spirit by Christian pacifism and otherworldliness: “ … why do the calumniators of Christian civilization

affirm that disaster came upon Rome because she ceased to honor her deities?” (1.15). Critics believed Christianity’s guilt and impotence was compounded because Alaric plundered Rome while the empire was ruled by a Christian emperor. A resurgence of pagan sentiment and its hostility to Christianity

mobilized Augustine’s intellect and energies. A Roman official, also a Christian, invited him to answer charges that Christianity was responsible for the sack of Rome. At the time of Alaric’s raid, Augustine was recognized as a leading churchman and theologian. Until the crisis of 410, his life had been devoted to finding his way to Christ and then defending his faith against heretics. Now he was galvanized to show that Christianity did not create Rome’s troubles: “Let the pagans blame their own gods for all their woes, instead of repaying our Christ with ingratitude for all His good gifts” (III.31). Augustine’s refutation of the charge that Christianity caused Rome’s problems had consequence for historiography-a radical change in how the structure, chronology, and meaning of historical process was perceived. The City of God decisively replaced the tradition of Greco-Roman

historiography. The work was begun in 413 and completed in 426. The first ten books reject the claim that pagan gods were protectors of the Roman Empire, or even cared about it, and the charge that Christian life and teaching were responsible for the barbarian assault on Rome. The foundation and intention of The City are theological, but it contains a wealth of empirical detail about Greco-Roman belief in their gods before the advent of Christianity from lost sources, or from Augustine’s early experience as a pagan believer: “ … I have gone to the books in which their own historians have recorded, for men’s information, the things that happened in the past … ” (IV.1). In the tenth book he makes a transition to his thesis of two cities,

which is then fleshed out in the remaining 12 books. Throughout he contrasts the corruption, violence, and vice of the pagan Empire with the integrity, gentleness, and uprightness of the Church of Christ. He acknowledges that in his time the two realms co-exist and interpenetrate. Virtuous pagans belong in the Church. Self-serving, hypocritical, worldly churchmen belong in the Empire. Stylistically the book is often overblown and repetitive, but he confesses longwindedness attributable to a teacher of rhetoric lured by devices of language that might enhance persuasion. History was regarded as a branch of rhetoric and literature. The historian was expected to preserve important events, dramatize examples of good and evil, and provide a guide to life, all of which Augustine does and more.