This post is part of an on-going series in which I and others systematically read through Augustine of Hippo’s City of God in 2014.
City of God 1.16–36
1.16–18. Augustine begins what seems like a digression on suicide. He claims that he’s “not so concerned to answer the attacks of those outside as to administer consolation to those within our fellowship.”
He discusses whether suicide can ever be an appropriate response to calamity. His ideas apply to suicide broadly, but he’s specific about suicide as a response to rape.
A brief survey of how people viewed suicide might be helpful. The Romans had always viewed suicide as an acceptable response to personal disaster. Suicide showed moral fortitude and communicated how serious a person felt about an issue. Jews might also commit suicide rather than submit to oppression. Some of the philosophers disapproved of suicide, but Greco-Roman culture, for the most part, approved.
Christians had a more complicated relationship with suicide. During the persecutions, some Christians, overcome with the moment, threw themselves on the fires. Were Christians who killed themselves martyrs? What about Christians who actively sought martyrdom by giving themselves up to the authorities, forcing the magistrate to kill them? Christians debated these issues, and by Augustine’s day, most communities disapproved of both these behaviors.
But there was a third kind of Christian suicide that gained almost universal approval—women who killed themselves in order to maintain their virginity. Almost all of the bishops lauded these women.
Augustine more or less stands alone in arguing against suicide as rape prevention. His main point is that chastity resides in the mind, not in the body. Augustine does his work well. His argument in these chapters changed the church’s view, paving the way to its universal condemnation of suicide. (It’s worth noting that while I say, “resides in the mind,” Augustine usually used the word anima, which is often translated as “soul.” For Augustine, the human soul is a rational soul, so I think that “mind” gives a better sense of his meaning in this case.)
1.19. In his attack on suicide, Augustine examines the example of Lucretia.
The story of Lucretia was one of the founding myths for the city of Rome. Tarquin, an Etruscan, ruled as king of Rome, and one day his son, Sextus, raped a Roman lady while her husband was away. When her husband returned, she committed suicide in order to prove her innocence in the matter.
Sextus’s crime and Lucretia’s death became a rallying point for the Latin people of Rome, and they drove out their Etruscan masters. Instead of suffering under another king, the Romans decided to found the Republic, which was led by various assemblies and magistrates. “King” became a dirty word. The Romans believed that these things happened around 509 BC. One can read about Lucretia in Livy’s history, which he wrote around the time of Christ’s birth.
The Romans believed that suicide was “noble death,” and Lucretia’s story played no small part in promoting that idea. Augustine, however, questions the rightness of her action.
Lucretia was one of the pillars of Roman identity. Her story taught Romans what it means to be Roman. By questioning the rightness of her actions, Augustine isn’t just telling Christians to avoid suicide. He’s actually being much more subversive. He’s asking his readers to be a little less Roman and a little more Christian.
This subversion is a foretaste of the rest of the book. Christians occupy a sort of dual citizenship in the city of man and the city of God, but allegiance to the city of God ought to outweigh that of the city of man.
1.20. Augustine mentions the Manicheans. Manichaeism was a sort of hodge-podge Gnosticism that promoted a dualist view of the cosmos. It attracted interest because its followers practiced extreme asceticism. Augustine dabbled in Manichaeism as a young man, but he rejected it because it didn’t answer his questions. After becoming a bishop, Augustine spilled quite a bit of ink refuting Manichean ideas.
1.21. At times, Augustine can sound rather cavalier about the inevitability of death (e.g, 1.11), but he takes the act of killing very seriously. Augustine has proscribed killing in the previous sections, but now he suspends his argumentation for a moment to acknowledge that at times it is lawful to kill. He will return to these themes later in the book.
1.22–23. Augustine resumes his attack on the Roman approval of suicide as a “noble death.”
Cato the Younger was a statesman from the last days of the Roman Republic. He adhered to stoic philosophy and was part of the conservative faction of Roman politics. Along with Cicero, he opposed corruption in the government and desired to see the institutions of the Republic strengthened. Cato was most noted for his refusal to give or receive bribes.
Cato’s stubborn moral integrity put him at odds with Julius Caesar, who was corrupt yet popular. Caesar’s civil war against Pompey began in 49 BC. Cato supported Pompey against Caesar, whom he believed to be the more dangerous of the two. One could justifiably claim that actually Pompey supported Cato’s faction against Caesar.
Caesar, though he was corrupt, had a reputation for clemency. When Caesar’s victory was assured, Cato decided that he’d rather die than live in a Rome dominated by Caesar.
Roman tradition viewed Cato as one of the noblest of the Romans. Cato stood for honesty, integrity, and republican values. When Augustine attacks Cato’s “noble death” he’s not just attacking suicide; he’s calling into question the values of the “city of man.”
1.26. In the midst of his attack on suicide Augustine has to backpedal a bit because of the examples of Christian suicide martyrs whom the church venerated.
One popular example was Pelagia, a teenager in Antioch who threw herself off a rooftop in order to avoid lecherous pursuers. She even supposedly changed into a wedding gown before she jumped. Pelagia had a cult, and both Ambrose of Milan and John Chrysostom promoted her as an example of Christian virtue.
Augustine mentions holy women who threw themselves into rivers to escape rape. There are a number of stories in which this happens. Perhaps Augustine had in mind the story of Domnina and her two daughters, Bernike and Prosdoke. Soldiers caught them during a time of persecution, and they requested the opportunity to go down to the river to freshen up. After entering the river Domnina drowns her two daughters to protect them from the soldiers’ lust. Then she drowns herself. John Chrysostom loved this story.
Even women martyrs who were not suicides often get depicted as such. Augustine loved his native North African martyr Perpetua. She wasn’t a suicide martyr, but the account of her death claims that when her executor looked like he had lost his nerve, she grabbed his hand and guided the knife to her own throat.
Augustine must be sensitive here. He can be a bit subversive, and he doesn’t mind challenging some of the teachings of other bishops. But he likes to remain within tradition. If the church of the previous generation passed down suicide martyrs, then he feels bound to venerate them, even though he might have some big questions about their actions.
Even though the church might have a few example of suicide, these are special cases. Augustine teaches his readers to expect that they themselves will not be special cases.
1.28. This passage of City of God is one of Augustine’s harshest and will undoubtedly make many people uncomfortable. He claims perhaps God allowed the barbarians to rape some women because those women held their chastity in too high esteem. Or perhaps there was a danger that some of them might do so in the future.
Keep in mind his purpose in this opening book. Why does God allow disasters? Augustine is telling us that “why do bad things happen to good people?” is the wrong question because none of us are “good.” We’re all sinners. Even women who have dedicated their lives to religious chastity are susceptible to pride.
Since Christians are not yet perfected, they constantly need tough times to correct the sin in their lives or form their characters to help them avoid future sin. Hardship brings humility, which is one of the key virtues Augustine promotes for the Christian life.
Augustine believes the Bible’s teaching “that for those who love God all things work together for good.” How can rape be good? It’s a cure for pride and causes the Christian to find her worth in God. And as he points out, it doesn’t actually harm her chastity; it merely promotes humility.
It’s still a tough passage to get through. Mostly because it forces me to recognize my own pride lurking around every corner.
1.30–31. Augustine gets his Scipios a bit mixed up here. (Also, one should note that this isn’t the same Cato from the previous passage, it’s his great-grandfather. Augustine assumes that his reader knows this.)
Augustine’s point here is that the good and noble Romans of the past would not approve of what Rome had become. The Republic’s success in its foreign wars, 264–146 BC, left Rome in control of most of the Mediterranean, but it didn’t possess the governmental institutions to manage it. Wealth poured into Rome, with most of it going to the already super-rich. With more disposable income for the rich, governmental corruption increased.
Augustine claims that his critics are more like the wealthy, luxury addicted Romans than the good and noble Romans.
1.32–36. At the end of book one, Augustine voices his disapproval of the theater. Most prominent bishops shared his condemnation. The shows had been tied to the pagan religion, and they tended to be rather licentious in subject matter. Augustine will return to this subject in book two.
He gives a preview at the end of book one concerning the purpose of the entire work. It’s helpful to keep chapters 35 and 36 in mind as we keep reading. These passages will help us make sense of Augustine’s overarching point, when he gets bogged down in digressions.