It's become a tradition that in December I read a book that I am dreading, which will save me from having to carry a difficult task into the new year. Last year's was The Duke's Children by Trollope, the year before Resurrection by Tolstoy, and I couldn't say what book I chose the year before that: this year it was The City of God (De civitate Dei contra paganos) by St. Augustine, which I was planning to include in my 2018 Challenges but decided quite suddenly I should just go for it in December. Now, as with most of ancient theology and philosophy, it's no use pretending I did very well with it; it actually went very badly indeed, so badly I wouldn't even attempt to do a book by book summary. I'll just whip through it and feel glad I did at least try.
It really is a mammoth book: my edition had over 1,000 pages and I dutifully struggled through about two books a day for ten days (it's divided into 22 books, I must have found the strength from somewhere to read more than two books a day at some point). It was written by St. Augustine in the early 5th Century A.D. towards the end of what we now call the Ancient period: in fact it followed the Sack of Rome in 410, which many regard as a key event in the fall of the Roman Empire. As the people came to terms with what had happened, many suggested it was because Rome had abandoned its Pagan beliefs and was beginning to turn to Christianity. Augustine of course disagreed, and in The City of God he argued that this was not the case, in fact Christianity was responsible for some of Rome's success.
|The Sack of Rome by the Barbarians in 410 |
by Joseph-Noël Sylvestre (1890).
From here Augustine turns his attention to the City of God and its opposite, the Earthly City, constructing the arguments from his extensive knowledge of the Bible. Using Genesis he writes on how the angels were divided and thus how the two cities came about. He goes on to write about the progress of these two cities throughout the Old Testament writing on Cain and Abel, Noah, Samuel, David, and then Christ. He continues by writing on the destiny of the two cities and the idea of supreme good, and how peace and happiness can be found on earth and finishes by writing on the Last Judgement and the eternal punishment of the damned in the City of the Devil as well as eternal happiness in the City of God.
It is as I've said a very difficult work. My way of 'getting in' as it were to consider it along with Plato's Republic (which other people may not find helpful at all) in that both are discussing virtue and an ideal life for a large community. Augustine comes at it theologically using scripture to make his various points. Another aspect I found interesting was the scope: Augustine talked of himself and individuals in Confessions; in The City of God he spoke, as Plato did, of a society in the discussions of the two cities, the Earthly and the Heavenly. St. Augustine writes on so many of the concerns still considered today: evil, reconciling the existence of evil with the existence of God, the concepts of sin and free will, and for that it is a key text in understanding not only theology today but society, and how though Christianity has changed its thoughts in some aspects, its fundamental principles are often unaltered. The City of God is a key work, and I'm glad I've tackled it at last.