Augustine Project: Week Nine

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 5.1–12.

5.1–3. Augustine claims that he will begin to discuss why the Roman state was so successful. He has spent the last four books explaining why one should not attribute Roman success to the gods. It seems that he realizes at the beginning of book five that he left out an important bit. He launches into a refutation of astrology so that his reader will not attribute Roman success to destiny. An explanation of the real foundations of Roman success will have to wait.

“Destiny” as determined by the stars cannot explain the events of history. Augustine argues his point by examining how the Stoics, and others, tried to explain away the different experiences of twins. Even though he has trouble moving on to the main point of book five, I enjoy these passages in which Augustine talks through the absurdity of astrology. Astrology had a fairly serious reputation in ancient Rome.

One side note: notice at the end of chapter one that Augustine marks the beginning of twins’ existence to the single act of intercourse that conceived them. He reiterates this point in the following chapters.

5.4–6. Augustine continues his attack on astrology and uses Esau and Jacob as an example to demonstrate the absurdity of the idea that twins will have the same experiences. He argues that the astrologers can’t have it both ways. Either the stars give twins the same destiny or if the minute unseen differences in the timing of birth account for wide disparity, then it’s impossible for the astrologers to actually know anything.

5.7. The attack on astrology continues. Augustine points out the absurdity of looking for an auspicious day for various occasions. If the stars control our destinies they would also control which day we pick for any event. If people can exercise enough free will to choose an auspicious day, then they should be able to exercise enough free will to alter bad circumstances later.

5.8. Augustine begins thinking about fate, destiny, and the will of God. The stars do not constrain us, but what about God’s will? His quotation from Seneca is not actually from Seneca; it’s from the much older Stoic Cleanthes. In the coming section Augustine will interact chiefly with Cicero on human free will and its relation to God’s will.

5.9. This chapter is one that really needs to be read more than once. Augustine critiques Cicero’s ideas about divine foreknowledge and free will. Cicero did not believe that divine foreknowledge and human free will were compatible, and he felt that he must deny foreknowledge if human life were to make any sense. Augustine accuses Cicero of atheism; God without foreknowledge isn’t God.

Augustine believes that a pious person affirms both these ideas. Augustine does not want to use terms like “fate” or “destiny” because these are open to pagan confusion. Instead he suggests that the discussion is one over God’s personal divine will.

Augustine suggests that all actions ultimately are tied to the divine will, but he argues that this is not determinism. Actions are caused by the will whether it be a human or angelic will. God does not cause the acts of the will, but being God, he allows or denies the actualization of the will. I think the key passage is: “In his will rests the supreme power, which assists the good wills of created spirits, sits in judgement on the evil wills, orders all wills, granting the power of achievement to some and denying it to others.” He continues that the only “cause which is cause only, and not effect, is God,” implying that all other wills are naturally constrained in some way since they are reacting to other causes. Only God’s will is wholly free.

The strength of his argument is that it makes predetermined events more personal. Events are not set in the stars but are decided by God’s stronger will. It only makes sense that God’s will is stronger anyone else’s. His explanation also preserves a layer of separation between God and evil actions. An evil will causes evil actions, and God allows the achievement of that will.

5.10–11. Augustine continues to contemplate the relation between divine will and human will. His thoughts remind me of that classic schoolboy question, “Can God create a rock so big that even he can’t pick it up?” Augustine would say no. God is all-powerful, which means there are some things that he cannot do, such as die or make mistakes. God’s own divine nature constrains his will. Augustine’s point here is that if God’s will is constrained yet free, then we should not complain that constraint on a person’s will abolishes freedom.

Divine foreknowledge and human freedom must be held in tension. Augustine says that the former is necessary for right belief, the latter for right living. But it is right belief, including belief in divine foreknowledge, that allows the human to be really free.

5.12. Augustine feels that he has adequately disabused his reader of the notion that the gods or stars gave Rome its success. He moves on to discuss what he thinks really gave Rome its success.

According to Augustine, Rome’s greatest asset was that its men had a greed for praise and desire for glory. He cites two very different men from the late Republic as examples, Cato and Caesar (see notes on 1.22 for more background on their relationship). These two men were enemies in the civil war, but Romans tended to honor them both. Caesar gained glory through his success in battle, and Cato gained praise through his nobleness of spirit.

Augustine touches on a key component to Roman success, their lack of concern for death. Glory and praise for Rome, along with personal glory and praise, were more important than life itself. Augustine’s comments on a “mere handful of Romans” defeating its enemies is fairly misleading. On more than one occasion, Rome won a war through numbers and sheer determination, sacrificing as many men on the battlefield as necessary to wear out the other side. The glory of Rome was of more importance than the personal safety of any single Roman.

Augustine points out that wicked men could pervert this ideal. The Roman historians moralize a fair bit. They condemn Romans who put personal glory before the glory of Rome.

It might also be worth commenting on those passages of Virgil. Augustine notes that what appears to be a prophecy in the Aeneid is actually the poet recording past events and casting them as having been prophesied long before. We should also consider Virgil’s purpose in writing these lines about Roman dominion. Virgil wrote right after the devastating civil wars that transitioned the Republic into the Empire. He’s not so much writing a description of Rome’s role in the world, but an exhortation. In the Aeneid, Virgil tries to restore Rome’s sense of patriotism. He tells his reader that Rome has had hard times recently, but Rome is still Rome. Experiencing civil war is no reason to abandon greed for praise and desire for glory.

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