Augustine Project: Week Ten

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 5.13–26.

5.13–16. In this section we see some of Augustine’s pride at being Roman. The Romans were the best example of the earthly city. A love of praise motivated their actions, but that vice served to check other vices. When discussing Augustine’s thinking, people sometimes talk about “splendid vices,” though I don’t believe the phrase actually appears in his writings.

The pagans could not experience true virtue apart from God, but they have a sort of shadow of virtue. Their love of human praise, though technically a vice, caused the old Romans to act in a manner that Augustine more or less approved of.

His point, which he’ll make at other places in City of God, seems to be that apart from true religion, the Romans are as good as it gets. Being a Roman himself, he’s naturally biased, but he has a point. The deeds of the pagan Romans continued to be remembered and lauded through the Middle Ages, the Early Modern Period, and the Enlightenment. The Roman Republic has always been almost universally approved by later generations.

5.17. In this chapter we see more of Augustine’s aversion to conquest. The main result of conquest is to give men glory and praise. Augustine also alludes to the Edict of Caracalla in AD 212. This law gave all inhabitants of the Roman Empire the status of citizen. The Romans periodically struggled with the idea of who counted as a citizen. First it was just people living in Rome itself, and then it included some select allied cities. By the first century BC it included most of Italy. Roman conquest was a bit haphazard, and the Romans rarely had a good plan for the legal status of the conquered, although they generally treated conquered people relatively fairly.

5.18. Augustine catalogs many events that the Romans pointed to as glorious. We’ve already encountered most of these people in book one. These Romans sacrificed either their lives or their prosperity on behalf of Rome, the earthly city. Augustine asks his Christian readers if they should do less for the heavenly city. Christians should act without regard for self, but they should do so without boasting. These virtues are common to the Christian and the Pagan. The Christian can only boast in the heavenly city.

The end of this chapter contains an interesting dig at the Jews. Does Augustine really think that the Pagan Romans were more righteous than the Jews who possessed the Law?

5.19. Augustine notes that pursuit of glory is not the same thing as pursuit of domination. Many Romans needed reminding of this point. Augustine uses Emperor Nero (d. 68) as an example of one the worst Romans ever, suggesting that Nero embodied this spirit of ignoring glory and seeking to dominate others.

Seeking the praise of discerning men is a vice according to the heavenly city, but according to the earthy city it is as virtuous as one can get. It helps curb worse vices. In Augustine’s estimation, this Roman emphasis on glory makes the Romans the best of the Pagans. Of course he’s biased.

5.20. Augustine compares the Stoics, “the philosophers who set up virtue as the highest good of man,” and the Epicureans, who believed that pleasure is the highest good of man. Stoicism, with its emphasis on duty and the good of the commonwealth, was much more popular with the Romans.

The Epicureans were materialists who denied the existence of spirits and the afterlife. This present life is all one has; therefore, one should maximize one’s pleasure. The Epicureans taught that one gained pleasure through avoiding fear and pain. The Stoics, and Augustine seems to follow them in this, often portrayed the Epicureans as hedonists in the worst sense of the word. Epicureans actually tended to emphasize moderation and advocated limitation of desire. These things would help one avoid both physical and emotional pain. The chief fear that one must overcome was the fear of death. Philosophy would help one understand that by definition non-existence could not hurt, so death should not be feared.

5.21. God gives earthly political power to the good and the evil alike. God gave an empire to the Romans, whose Pagan virtues Augustine begrudgingly admires, but he also gave one to the Assyrians, who had a reputation for great cruelty and wickedness.

The same is true for individuals. Augustine provides pairs of good and bad leaders. During the late Republic, God gave rule to Marius, whom Augustine criticized earlier in the book, and Julius Caesar, of whom the Romans generally approved in spite of his bloodthirsty ambition. During the Principate or early Empire, God gave rule to Augustus, who was generally beloved, and Nero, who was universally hated. The Flavian dynasty ruled Rome after the Julio-Claudians. Vespasian and his son Titus ruled well (this is the same Titus that destroyed Jerusalem in AD 70), but the historians portray the rule of Vespasian’s other son, Domitian, as harsh. Augustine pairs Constantine (d. 337), the first Christian emperor, with Julian (d. 363) who returned to Paganism and suffered a great military defeat.

5.22. The fortunes of war are guided by divine providence. Some wars are short, and some wars are long. Augustine says that these matters also belong to God. His discussion of the wars is a bit interpretive. Calling Pompey’s action against the pirates in 67 BC a war might be a bit dramatic, but Cicero also called it a war, so I suppose we have to give Augustine a pass. Also, it’s an interpretive stretch to claim that the war against Mithridates lasted forty years. Similarly, the Samnite Wars from Rome’s early history were actually a series of wars rather than one continuous conflict. This would be like declaring that WWI and WWII were one continuous war because the allies fought Germany twice.

5.23. Augustine considers why God denied Radagasius success in his attack on Rome. Radagasius was a Gothic king who believed in the Pagan gods. He moved into Italy with his followers, but the Roman general Stilicho defeated and captured him in 406. At the time Stilicho, who himself was half-barbarian, was the most powerful man in the western half of the empire and the only person keeping the various groups of Goths in check. Stilicho’s assassination by the Roman emperor in 408 allowed Alaric the opportunity to march into Italy.

Augustine argues that God prevented Radagasius because God didn’t want anyone to attribute power to Radagasius’s Pagan gods. God allowed Alaric because Rome needed some merciful chastisement, and Alaric’s Arian Goths recognized the power of the Christian God.

I think Augustine falls prey to what he warns against earlier in the book—trying to understand the inscrutable ways of God. It seems clear to me that if things had turned out differently and Radagasius had succeeded in sacking Rome, Augustine would have still found a way to interpret the event as proof for true religion.

5.24–25. Augustine begins talking about the Christian emperors of Rome. Their position does not make them happy, only Christian virtue can do that. God put Constantine in this exalted position to show that his worshipers can attain whatever Pagan worshipers can attain in this life.

5.26. Augustine approvingly recounts the rule of Emperor Theodosius I. Theodosius reigned over the eastern half of the empire from 379 until 392; from 392 to his death in 395, he reigned over the whole empire. Theodosius was an emperor throughout most of Augustine early adulthood. Augustine probably viewed Theodosius as “his” emperor.

The Valentinian mentioned by Augustine at the beginning of this chapter is Valentinian II. Valentinian II is the Arian emperor who came into conflict with Ambrose over the use of a basilica in Milan. Augustine does not mention Valentinian’s heresy, probably because Valentinian reconciled with Ambrose before he died.

Theodosius, however, had always been a champion of Nicene Christology. Even while Valentinian ruled in the West, Ambrose gave subtle hints that his loyalty was with the Theodosius in the East. Theodosius also actively suppress Pagan cults, though at times his co-emperors tried to check his zeal.

As Augustine notes, Theodosius had to involve himself in western affairs on more than one occasion. Eugenius was the last usurper whom he had to suppress. His battle against Eugenius at the Frigidus was immediately compared to Constantine and the Battle of the Milvian Bridge—Christian emperor overcomes Pagan usurper through divine aid.

Augustine also mentions the massacre at Thessalonica in 390. The citizens of the city rioted and killed Theodosius’s governor. Theodosius ordered his soldiers to retaliate. Ambrose censured Theodosius’s behavior and forced him to do penance before allowing him to take communion. To his credit, Theodosius submitted to the authority of the church. Perhaps the citizens of Thessalonica thought they could get away with a riot since a similar event had happened in Antioch in 387. In that case the bishop of Antioch interceded to Theodosius, and John Chrysostom, who was only a presbyter at the time, preached a series of sermons aimed at convicting his hearers of their wrongdoing. The city expressed contrition, and Theodosius let Antioch off lightly.

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