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 4.1–4.20.
4.1–2. Augustine summarizes his work thus far. He has attempted to answer the accusations of the pagans, and he has shown that traditional Roman religion did not prevent moral decline or physical disasters.
Augustine mentions Apuleius. Apuleius was a second-century Roman writer who was also from North Africa. He’s most known for his satire The Golden Ass, which is the only novel to survive in its entirety from antiquity, but he also wrote many works on rhetoric and Platonic philosophy.
4.3–6. Augustine begins to question the benefits of empire. He provides a helpful thought experiment in which he attempts to show that a state satisfied with what it has would be happier than an empire bent on conquest. In dealing with students, I find this bit of political philosophizing useful because most people equate big state with good state.
His assertion that a wicked ruler is more harmful to himself than his subjects is consistent with his overall theological framework. Elsewhere he’s said that a murderer hurts his own soul more than he hurts the person he’s killed.
Justice within the state is necessary. Power without justice makes any association of people criminal, no matter how large that association may be. We see here an Augustinian repudiation of realpolitik.
He illustrates this idea that the difference between a kingdom and a criminal gang is merely one of scale by mentioning Spartacus’s slave rebellion. It seems to me that he might be making a subtle point about the Goths who had recently sacked Rome. The line between a criminal gang and a kingdom on the move was becoming increasingly fuzzy. He’s certainly not condoning their behavior, but, if I’m right and he does have them in mind, Augustine is implying that the Goths aren’t any different than the Romans themselves.
He mentions the legendary Assyrian King Ninus as the person who invented empire building. He notes that his sources for this are not entirely reliable. He is correct that they are not reliable, but they are actually more unreliable than he thought.
4.7. Augustine asks how a kingdom can fall if its gods watch out for it.
The Assyrian Empire ended when the Babylonians sacked Nineveh, its capital city, in 612 BC. A brief period of Babylonian hegemony followed, but the Persians took Babylon in 538 BC. Alexander the Great destroyed the Persian Empire around 330 BC, but the Persians revived their empire after about a hundred years. Throughout Rome’s history Persia was the “other empire” to the east. In Augustine’s day, the Sassanid Empire of Persia was still of great concern to Rome, probably of much more concern than the German Goths.
4.8. Augustine mocks the Roman tendency to personify the world around them. These gods and goddesses that he mentions didn’t necessarily have cults attached to them. They were more like spirits that helped the Romans make sense of their world.
4.9. Jupiter was the supreme god of the Romans, but at times he could get lost in the shuffle of that great divine host. Roman intellectuals often criticized the popular manifestations of Roman piety. Platonism and its idea of one god had influenced many of the thinkers and writers in Rome.
4.10. Augustine pretends that he wants to make sense of Greco-Roman mythology. The stories are contradictory, and Augustine enjoys pointing this out.
When he mentions the gift given to Venus by the Phoenicians, he’s probably referring to child sacrifice.
He also mentions Mars in connection with Venus. The story was that Vulcan caught his wife Venus in the act of committing adultery with Mars.
4.11. Augustine knows that pagan thinkers had the same concerns about traditional religion’s mythology. Many Platonic and Stoic intellectuals suggested that there was just one god, but since this was hard for the common person to understand, the festivals and sacrifices to multiple gods ought to continue. Thus the One would be worshiped through the many. Augustine questions this solution, and of course in doing so he mentions Priapus a couple of times.
4.12–13. Augustine critiques the idea of pantheism, the idea that God is in everything or that God is the soul of the universe. This was a fairly common view of the Stoics. Since he finds pantheism so unconvincing, he believes that a multiplicity of gods is the pagan alternative, so he’ll go back to attacking that idea in the next chapters.
4.15. Here we see more of Augustine’s political philosophy. This chapter is sort of a parenthesis in his attack on the gods. Conquest depends on injustice. Why don’t the Romans worship Injustice rather than Justice as thanks for their empire? He’s being absurd to make his point.
4.17–20. Augustine continues his critical analysis of Rome’s polytheistic religion. He compares what might be considered logical with traditional practice. He keeps asking why the Romans did not just worship Jupiter, instead of all the divine host. In these sections he argues that monotheism is more rational.
The Roman heroes that he mentions in chapter 20 were all men from Rome’s earliest days who sacrificed themselves on behalf of the city. These acts marked them out as prime examples of fortitude. Once again, their deeds can be found in Livy.