Wednesday, 27 December 2017

The City of God by St. Augustine.

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).
In the first half of the book Augustine addresses these concerns in depth, pointing to other cities who were Pagan who also fell and writing that misfortune was a part of life and not a consequence of religion and angering Pagan gods. Even Rome itself had suffered during its time of being Pagan, which would beg the question why, if Christianity had lead to the downfall of Rome, why were the gods not blamed previously if the reason for the fall was to do with religion. Furthermore Augustine believed that Paganism had lead to moral corruption and spiritual degeneration, which he argued lead to a weakening in the people and thus the state. That Rome had been successful for so long, Augustine thought, was perhaps because of God: though the Romans did not worship God, in their earlier days they were virtuous and God rewarded them for it. He continues by refuting many of the key Pagan beliefs to argue that only belief in Christ leads to eternal life.

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.

8 comments:

  1. Good for you, o, especially for persevering. I'm at the very beginning and giving myself three months to complete it. I did skip The Republic, but maybe I'll be encouraged to try again after this. Maybe not. We'll see.

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    1. I think you'll do well with City of God and I look forward to your post when you do finish. As for The Republic - I think it's a handy one to have read given its influence. If I remember correctly Augustine did refer to it so it might be handy to at least skim through it - or as you say you may find Augustine will inspire you to give it another go :)

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  2. Congratulations! It can be rewarding to finish such a book even if we have to slog through it. I have thought about reading CoG but still haven't actually tried it.

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    1. I must say I was super happy when I finished! It was worth it just for that sense of accomplishment :)

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  3. i admire the persistence and courage involved in tackling this monumental tome... i'm afraid of it, tho, so will remain stodgily in my morass of ignorance...

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    1. Thank you :) I think my trick is to accept my limitations, which makes it a lot easier to tackle. I knew at the very beginning I wasn't going to manage to understand it as well as others have, so there was less pressure!

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  4. You are awesome! Actually you are more than awesome! You say you tackled it, I say you did more than tackle. This book lies on my bedside table's TBR pile staring at me. They very first few chapters drove me up the wall and since August I have not gone back to it! But I should and I must and may be I will make it a bite sized reading through Jan so that I can be over and done with! Not the best approach but I know this is one of those Albatrosses that I must get rid off! I know you feel that you did not summarize the book well enough, but I think you captured the core brilliantly!

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    1. I think you should read it in the easiest possible way for you :) As I said to Mudpuddle above I knew a lot of it was going to be beyond me, which made it less daunting in the end. I got the gist I think but there's a massive amount that I left untouched in this post. I did some reading around as well, that helped enormously - I wouldn't have managed at all otherwise without that reading around :)

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