Augustine Project: Week Thirteen

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 7.12–32.

7.12–15. Augustine continues to note inconsistencies within Pagan religion. How are all the gods related to Jupiter? How are they related to the world? How are they related to the deeds of men? How are they related to the stars of the heavens? Augustine finds Pagan explanations both sad and humorous.

Chapter 15 talks of Venus and Juno’s golden apple. In classical myth, the goddess of discord threw a golden apple into the midst of a feast of gods and goddesses. The apple was inscribed with the words “for the most beautiful.” Three goddesses immediately reached out to grab it—Juno, Venus, and Minerva. Jupiter sends Mercury with the three goddess to see Paris of Troy, who will judge which is the most beautiful. Paris chooses Venus because she bribes him with the love of Helen, who is the most beautiful woman in the world. This event triggers the Trojan War. Augustine suggests that the goddesses fight over rights to the Moon in the same way they fought over the apple. Strangely, he doesn’t mention Diana who was frequently associated with the Moon. I suppose that including Diana would have prevented him from making his erudite allusion to the golden apple. He does bring up Diana in connection with the moon in the next chapter.

7.16. In this chapter Augustine describes the physical manifestations of the select gods. When reading Augustine’s thoughts on Sun, Moon, and stars, it is important to keep in mind that he operates with a geocentric view of the universe. The hierarchy of the universe, from earth at the bottom to ether at the top, had theological implications in traditional Roman religion and the religions of the philosophers.

7.17. Augustine cites passages from Varro, in which Varro suggests his uncertainty about his Pagan theology. I think Augustine attributes more uncertainty to Varro than Varro meant to communicate.

7.18. Augustine suggests that Roman polytheism grew from stories about historical men. This attempt to demythologize a story is called “euhemerism.” Some Pagan Greeks and Romans had done this to their stories for hundreds of years. One did not have to believe any particular story to be in good standing with the community. One had to participate in the cult. Skepticism about the stories didn’t hinder many Greeks and Romans from participating.

Varro, on the other hand, is not trying to find a historical root. He is trying to form theological interpretations of the stories. Augustine dismisses this practice as worthless. His dismissal might be surprising considering that he does the same thing with the stories of the Old Testament. He looks for theological and Christological messages behind the text. Since the Pagan stories are false and the Pagan religion is false, Augustine believes that Varro’s interpretations are contrived and tortuous.

7.19. In 7.18, Augustine critiques the practice of interpreting the Pagan mythology to find some theological message. In this chapter, Augustine critiques an example by discussing the symbolism that Varro found in the stories of Saturn. Augustine believes these interpretations to be nonsensical and they aren’t particularly spiritual. He reinforces the idea that Roman religion doesn’t concern itself with anything beyond the material.

7.20. Augustine mentions the Eleusinian mysteries in Athens. The Eleusinian mysteries was an ancient cult, perhaps having roots in the late bronze age, that ritualized the story of Demeter and Persephone (or as Augustine calls them by their Roman names, Ceres and Proserpina). According to the myth, Hades (Orcus), the god of the underworld fell in love with Demeter’s daughter Persephone, and he took her down into his kingdom. Demeter is inconsolable and searches for Persephone. Zeus finally works out a compromise in which Persephone spends part of her time with Hades and part of her time with he mother. The return of Persephone to her mother signified the coming of the growing season. Her return to Hades brought on winter.

In the Eleusinian mysteries, initiates participated in a religious procession and then engaged in some sort of induction rite at the temple in which they would learn the secrets of Demeter. No one bothered to write these secrets down—they were secret after all—so we don’t really know much about what went on. The cult began to fall out of favor as Christianity increased in influence, though it experienced a brief revival under Julian the Apostate. Theodosius closed the cult for good not long before Augustine began writing City of God.

7.21–22. Augustine finds the rites of Liber obscene and the stories of Neptune too inconsistent.

7.23–24. In these chapters, Augustine attacks the notion of the earth itself being a deity. He begins by explaining Varro’s philosophical explanation for how the earth gives birth to both stone and gods. Augustine seems to realize that this explanation might sound reasonable to his reader, so he shifts back to raising inconsistencies concerning civil religion.

The best way to attack the worship of the earth is to remind readers of the shameful aspects of their worship. Varro identified Cybele (the Great Mother) with the earth, and Augustine reminds his readers that Cybele’s castrated priesthood should outrage them. These galli had always been a somewhat controversial group in Rome.

7.25–26. Augustine continues his attack on the worship of Cybele (the Great Mother). Attis was Cybele’s consort who castrated himself (there are various stories about this), and all Cybele’s priests castrate themselves in imitation.

Augustine can’t seem to decide who is worse, Saturn or Cybele. Saturn demands human sacrifice, so someone must kill someone else as part of worship. Cybele demands self-mutilation as part of worship. It’s a toss up.

7.27–28. The shame is that the Romans worshiped the material, created order instead of the transcendent creator. Augustine briefly brings up the supposed point of books six and seven. The Roman gods cannot give spiritual benefit and eternal life.

7.29–32. In this section, Augustine turns a corner in his argument. He explains that Christianity is able to do all those things that Roman religion wasn’t able to do.

In chapter 30, he lists all the various material blessings that he’s talked about in his discussion of the gods. He says each material blessing finds its source in the one true God. Each of these blessings that he lists corresponds to a particular pagan deity that he’s already mentioned.

In chapter 31, he explains that Christians receive the spiritual blessings of forgiveness of sin and eternal life. These are the gifts that in books six and seven he’s been trying to tell us the Roman gods have no power to give.

In chapter 32, he talks about signs and interpretation of events. He’s mentioned a number of times in book seven the fruitlessness of theological interpretations of Roman religious myths and rites. Here he says that theological significance is found in the stories and rites of the Hebrews.

This is an important point to note because it influences Augustine’s understanding of Scripture. Augustine does not believe that God merely had a people for himself called the Hebrews and that God was leading them and protecting them. Augustine believes that God arranged all of Hebrew history in the Old Testament—the stories and the cult practices—to prefigure Christ. The people of Israel are a shadow of the True Israel, who is Jesus. This understanding of the relationship between Israel and Christ allows Augustine to supply theological and spiritual interpretation for all the discrete stories in the Old Testament as well. Augustine is arguing that the method of interpretation that Varro illegitimately applied to Roman polytheism can legitimately be applied to Christianity.

I find this section to be a wonderful bit of rhetoric. He’s spend countless chapters tearing down Roman religion, and in three brief chapters he’s turned everything on its head and said Christ can do what your religion can’t. It’s going to be a somewhat long transition, but we’re moving out of the tearing down stage and moving into the building up stage.

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