Augustine Project: Week Twelve

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 7.1–11.

7.1–2. In book seven, Augustine criticizes Roman civil religion from a different perspective. In book six, he tried to show how it was no better than the shameful stories of the poets. In this book he’ll attempt to undermine faith in the “select gods.”

He realizes that some of his opponents might grant that his previous book contains a valid criticism against the minor gods. Yes, Rome had too many gods and their tasks tended to overlap too much. In book seven, Augustine wants his reader to see that those same criticisms apply to the major gods as well.

The select gods: Janus, a god of beginnings. Jupiter, king of the gods. Saturn, father of Jupiter and a god of agriculture and time. Genius, like a guardian angel, which could guard a person or a place. Perhaps this Genius is the Genius of Rome. Mercury, god of commerce and communication. Apollo, god of light and truth. Mars, god of war. Vulcan, god of fire. Neptune, god of the waters. The Sun, the sun. Orcus, god of the underworld. Father Liber, god of wine and freedom. Earth, the earth. Ceres, goddess of agricultural fertility. Juno, queen of the gods. The Moon, the moon, but often associated with other goddesses. Diana, goddess of the hunt and pregnancy. Minerva, goddess of wisdom. Venus, goddess of love. Vesta, goddess of the hearth.

7.3. Augustine highlights some inconsistencies in Roman worship that question the status of these so-called select gods. His style of arguing should be familiar to the reader by now. He’s tongue-in-cheek through most of this section.

A side note, Augustine says that artists create for the sake of money. Most readers will be familiar with the phrase “art for art’s sake.” The idea of the idealistic starving artist doesn’t begin until the modern era. Ancient artists were a subset of craftsmen who worked for pay. Even in the Renaissance, when individual artists begin to gain celebrity status, artists usually didn’t start working on a piece until they were sure of their commission. The promise of money came first, and then work began. Today artists usually make something, and then try to find a buyer for it.

7.4. Augustine has more fun at the expense of the gods. Since he can’t think of any scandalous stories about Janus, he turns it into a joke. Janus was one of the oldest gods in Rome and had no counterpart in the Greek pantheon.

7.5. Varro seemed to advocate a type of Stoic Pantheism in his work. The universe has a divine mind or soul that animates it. The human soul is a small piece or spark of the World Soul. Varro defends civil religion because it represents the rationality of the divine by fashioning human bodies for the gods.

Varro is making an argument that is somewhat similar to the argument made by early Christians. Early Christians argued that the sacrificial system of Israel represented and prepared the way for Christ. Varro said that the gods represent the World Soul to the people. The key distinction is that the Jews worshiped God through the representation and the pagans merely worshiped the representation.

7.6. Augustine discusses Varro’s conception of the World Soul. The cosmos has one body and one soul, but just as the physical world has divided parts, so too the World Soul is divided into smaller parts. This idea allows Varro to affirm the single god of the philosophers and also affirm civil religion. In this idea, humans too are part of the divine because the individual human soul is a part of the World Soul.

Varro suggests that one can see the soul of the gods in the movements of the planets. He also mentions the invisible souls of the aerial realm. Heroes are the mortals who feature in the mythology. Lares were guardian spirits who protected a particular place. Most Roman households had their own lares, and the lares became a form of ancestor worship. Genii (singular genius), as noted in 7.2, are like guardian angels for a person or place. Sometimes the genius could be conflated with the person’s soul or rationality. When Romans worshiped the emperor, they technically worshiped his genius.

7.7. The Roman calendar is a bit of a mystery. Originally, the calendar year began in March, which is why the later months are named after numbers that don’t seem to fit their place. Once upon a time, December really was the tenth month. Also, July was originally called Quintilis but was renamed in honor of Julius Caesar. Similarly, August was originally called Sextilis but was renamed in honor of Augustus. At some point during the Republic (509–27 BC), January became the first month, but the Romans left all the names the same. There’s much conjecture on the Roman calendar, but we don’t get good evidence until the reforms of Julius Caesar in 46 BC.

7.8. Augustine gives us some popular explanations for why Janus had two faces and sometimes four. The truth of the matter is that we don’t know, and neither did the ancient Romans. They forgot why they did this, and then started making up stories to justify the practice after the fact. Janus was one of Rome’s oldest gods.

7.9–11. In these chapters Augustine wonders why Janus and Jupiter are distinct gods and why Janus comes before Jupiter, even though Jupiter is superior.

If all the gods are really all just different parts of Jupiter, why do the Romans also worship Jupiter in different functions? Shouldn’t it be one way or the other? Augustine is trying to show that Roman civil religion has no rationality behind it, even though some philosophers have tried to fit rationality on it after the fact.

The Romans accumulated gods, but they had trouble getting rid of them. Every time they encountered a new city or people, the Romans looked for a way to incorporate their gods into the Roman system. Sometimes new gods were added, but often an old god would just get a new attribute.

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