Augustine Project: Week Eight

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 4.21–34.

4.21–22. Augustine continues his argument that one god would have sufficed for all the many things that the Romans expected their divine host to accomplish.

At one point he says, “Men of old defined virtue as ‘the art of good and right living.’” This is probably a pretty good definition of how the ancients looked at wisdom. We say that Minerva/Athena was the goddess of wisdom. For the Greeks, it’s probably better to say that she was the goddess of “skill.” This skill extended to all aspects of life—skill in craft, such as weaving, skill in warfare, especially tactics (not bloodlust, that was for Ares), and skill in living, which we’d call wisdom. Wisdom meant that one knows how to live well.

Augustine loves etymology. Here he claims that the Latin word “ars” comes from the Greek word “arête.” (The two words are actually brothers rather than parent child.) “Ars” means “art” and “arête” means “excellence.” By Augustine’s day when “arête” was applied to people, it carried the connotation of moral excellence. This idea pairs well with the idea of wisdom as skill. The skilled artist produces excellent art. The wise person produces a good life characterized by moral excellence.

Some of the Roman gods in this passage are otherwise unknown. It’s possible that Augustine invented some extra gods to show the absurdity of Roman religion, but it appears from the context that he’s pulled these obscure deities from Varro’s list.

4.23–25. Augustine asks why the Romans didn’t simply worship Felicity instead of their multiplicity of gods. Felicity gives happiness, and a person should be contented with happiness. Often in chapter 23, Augustine is playing with the word “felicity.” He means both the name of the goddess and happiness itself.

He accuses the Romans of becoming confused in their worship. They experience good gifts from God, and since they don’t know his name, they worship the gifts instead. This is a classic definition of idolatry—worshiping the gift instead of the giver, or worshiping the created instead of the creator.

Augustine encourages his reader to look toward the one God who can give all the good gifts. He notes that we ought not look to Jupiter. Jupiter has some moral failings that lead one to believe that he probably can’t give all these good gifts.

4.26–27. It seems that perhaps Augustine gets sidetracked by one of his favorite pet peeves, the theater, but bringing up the theater actually fits here. He has just finished suggesting that the Romans ought to worship only one god.  This section is a reminder that Jupiter is not the best candidate for that position. His worship has proved demonic, and the Romans need to look elsewhere for God.

He mentions the idea that three kinds of gods exist—poetic, philosophic, and civic. As I’ve mentioned before, the intellectuals tended to share Augustine’s criticisms of the poets and their immoral stories of the gods. Intellectuals, however, did not trust the common people to understand their philosophical conception of One God. Thus the state must maintain its cults for the benefit of the community. Marx’s charge of religion being used as an opiate of the masses might be appropriate in this instance.

4.28. As I’ve mentioned before, the Romans had conflicted emotions about their stage spectacles. They loved them and thought them necessary for civilization, but they also felt a little guilty about loving them. The Romans themselves realized the shows were frivolous, and they barred actors from polite society. The Greeks had no such qualms. They fully embraced their theatrical tradition. Augustine asks why the gods failed to give the Greeks a lasting empire if gods are so honored by theater. Surely the Greeks are more pious than the Romans.

4.29. Augustine mentions the times that Rome gave up territory, showing that the gods did not preserve Rome’s boundaries. Hadrian suffered much criticism for compromising with the Persians in the east. Julian tried to restore Rome’s polytheism a couple of generations after Constantine, but he died in battle against the Persians.

Augustine doesn’t mention the loss of Dacia in the third century, the Roman province north of the Danube. When the emperor lost Dacia, he renamed a bit of territory south of the Danube Dacia, I suppose to hide the fact that Rome had lost a province.

4.30. Augustine speaks again of how intellectuals never took the gods seriously. Christians, he argues, are more consistent than the philosophers because we don’t take them seriously, and we’re not afraid to say so.

4.31–4.34. For the time being, Augustine wraps up his attack on polytheism. Notice the rhetorical device he employs here. He concludes this book by coming back to where he started. He names many of the Roman gods and points out that the Hebrews got along just fine without them. The one true God helped them in all their troubles and gave them good gifts.

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