Augustine Project: Week Eleven

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 6.1–12.

Book six is a little shorter than previous books so we were able to tackle it all in one week.

In this book Augustine wants to show his reader that the traditional Roman gods cannot offer eternal life.

6.1. I find Augustine to be quite amusing in this first section. If the gods can’t be trusted to help in temporal affairs (which Augustine has proved in his first five books), then it is absurd to believe that they can give eternal life to anyone.

6.2. Augustine interacts with Varro as he attempts to show that Paganism has nothing to say about eternal life. Augustine notes that many intellectuals looked upon Varro as the authority on Roman religion, even though his style was unexceptional.

6.3–4. Augustine helpfully explains the table of contents from Varro’s Antiquities. This work no longer exists. Augustine says that since Varro discusses human matters before divine matters, one should seriously consider whether the gods had any power whatsoever. Maybe Varro didn’t actually believe in them.

Varro seems to have been analyzing the religious institutions of Rome from a historical perspective.

6.5–6. Augustine begins to discuss Varro’s division of the gods into mythical, physical, and civil. We’ve touched on these ideas in previous readings, but here Augustine fully explains the tripartite system. The gods of the poets, the gods of the philosophers, and the gods of the state are not exactly the same gods.

Augustine mentions three philosophers in this section. Heraclitus and Pythagoras were pre-Socratic philosophers. Of the two, Pythagoras was a generation older. He believed that number was the root of existence, which made number essentially an impersonal god. Heraclitus is famous for his insistence that everything is in a constant state of flux. Epicurus, the founder of Epicureanism, was a materialist, basing his ideas on the earlier speculations of Leucippus and Democritus. Most Epicureans probably didn’t believe in the gods at all, but they suggested that if the gods did exist then they were made of atoms just like all other material.

Augustine suggests that Varro believed the writings of the philosophers approached the truth about the gods. Probably Varro is thinking mostly about the writings of the Platonists and Stoics. Augustine will critique Platonism at length in book eight.

After explaining the tripartite distinction, Augustine criticizes Varro. He suggests that if Varro was totally honest, he would only have one division—theology of human institutions and theology as it really is. Augustine argues that mythical and civil theology are both falsehoods, and Varro and other intellectuals know it. Since they are false, they can offer no eternal life. Augustine claims that the mythical and civil theologies exist because the common person cannot stand to listen to philosophical discussion. Plato made the same point 800 years before in his Republic.

6.7–8. Augustine gives evidence to support his claim that civil religion is no better than mythical religion. The images, traditions, and stories of the two support each other.

As we’ve seen previously, Augustine hates the excesses of the stage, so when he complains that civil religion encourages eunuchs to participate while even the stage disallows them, he’s offering harsh condemnation.

Augustine is at a bit of a disadvantage here. His Christian and philosophical mind demands that truth be truth and falsity be falsity. Most Romans didn’t have the same desire. Most Romans, even intellectual ones, were quite comfortable participating in religions in which they believed to be utterly false. Tradition trumped truth. Many Romans realized that their traditional religions held no hope of eternal life, so they began investigating eastern mystery cults, if they could afford the fees. Even so, they would continue to participate in the old cults too. Romans were religiously promiscuous.

6.9. In the first half of this chapter, Augustine revisits the absurdity of traditional Roman religion. One should keep in mind that the Romans did not actually honor all these gods all at once each time they brought a bride to her marriage bed. Augustine has mined Varro and other sources and included all gods whom he’s ever heard of connected with the wedding night.

Perhaps the traditions of a pious Roman family might include one or two of these gods. When considering these minor gods, Romans operated cafeteria style. Some families and communities would have traditions honoring some of these, and they probably wouldn’t even know of the existence of some others whom Augustine names.

Augustine suggests that Varro intended his audience to realize the similarities between civil and mythical theology and to realize they both are false. This realization would prepare their minds for the theology of the philosophers. It is possible that Varro wrote with this agenda but wrote in such a way as to maintain plausible deniability. We’ll have to take Augustine’s word on it since we don’t have copies of Varro; however, I can think of a number of modern-day writers who have done the same thing with Christianity. Many authors seem to have developed the skill of abandoning the Christ of the Bible while maintaining plausible deniability.

6.10–12. Augustine drags Seneca in as support for his dismissal of civil religion. Seneca was a Roman statesman and Stoic philosopher. He also spent a number of years as a tutor and adviser to Nero.

Seneca doesn’t talk about Christianity in any of his surviving writings, but he was probably at least aware of the existence of Christians. Seneca would have been in Rome the same time that Peter and Paul were, and Seneca’s brother, Gallio, met Paul in Corinth in AD 52 (Acts 18:12). Augustine wants to believe that Seneca would have been sympathetic to Christianity.

It’s very likely, however, that Seneca would not have been able to distinguish a Christian from a Jew. A considerable amount of overlap still existed between the two groups by the time Seneca died in AD 65. Augustine mentions Seneca’s negative opinion of the Jews. Perhaps this negative opinion encompassed the Christian movement too.

Seneca’s essays and letters are worth dipping into. His writings are fairly accessible, and they give glimpses of what Roman life of the first century could be like. Often he’s concerned with moralizing and critiquing popular excesses.

Nero forced him to commit suicide in 65.

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