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 8.14–27.
8.14–15. Augustine begins his discussion of the demons of Platonism and their mediation. Much of his discussion will be a critique of the views of Apuleius. Apuleius lived in the second century after Christ and was a North African, like Augustine. Apuleius was a teacher of rhetoric and was a Platonist, but he’s most famous today for his novel, The Golden Ass.
In early Greek mythology and philosophy, “daimon” didn’t have any negative connotations. A demon was usually understood to be some sort of spirit of nature. By Augustine’s day, however, because of the influence of Christianity, the word had a universal negative connotation.
Augustine contends that the demons ought not be considered superior to humans. Even though they possess immortal bodies of air, better and worse are always matters of virtue. Physicality does not confer virtue. This is another aspect of the same argument that Augustine made when discussing the greatness of the Roman Empire.
8.16–18. Augustine suggests that humans should be considered higher than the Platonic demons. Demons live eternally, but they are subject to passions. Being subject to passions makes one wretched. Demons, therefore, are eternally wretched, but humans are only wretched for their brief lives. Short-term wretchedness is better than eternal wretchedness.
Christians, on the other hand, have true religion, which helps subdue the passions. Christians, therefore, have a better claim to being happy than the demons do. At the end of chapter 17, Augustine touches on the idea that one becomes more like what one worships. It’s necessary to have the right object of worship in order to achieve virtue. Worshiping demons through the theater will make one wretched. He implies that worshiping Christ who is perfect will move one in the other direction.
In Platonism, demons served as mediators between the gods and men. Gods were too remote and pure to deal with humans directly. Augustine begins to logically dismantle the idea that Platonic demons would serve as suitable mediators.
8.19–21. In these chapters, Augustine pretends to allow the Platonists their position on the mediation of demons, but then starts asking questions about its implications.
First he asks why Platonists condemn the practice of magic, along with the rest of the world, since the magicians claim that the demons aid them. If demons are the mediators that the Platonists claim they are, then the Platonists ought to approve magic.
In the Platonists’ idea, the demons mediate between gods and men because gods are too remote. Augustine finds it incredible that good gods would rather deal with demons than men. Remember, Augustine has already decided that demons are eternally wretched because they are immortal creatures who are subject to passions.
Augustine asks a series of questions regarding this mediation. No matter how the Platonists answer these questions, Augustine believes that he has proved that the multiplicity of gods in Platonism are not good gods after all and that demons cannot serve as mediators.
8.22–23. Augustine discusses one of the texts of Hermes Trismegistus. Hermes Trismegistus was credited as the author of the Hermetic texts, which represent a sort of fusion of Greek thought and eastern religion. Hermes Trismegistus never actually existed. These texts were probably written by a number of Greek authors during the Hellenistic period. Perhaps they were written in the second century BC.
In the text Augustine quotes, we see the Pagan philosophical tradition wrestling with the reality of the Pagan civil religion.
8.24. Augustine continues to engage with the text of Hermes Trismegistus. Augustine takes the Hermetic text as a lament that the gods are passing away, but he also finds in it an admission that the gods were worshiped in error. A number of Christian thinkers pointed to this text as a kind of Pagan prophecy of the coming of Christianity.
The idea that the gods could pass away had always been a feature of Greco-Roman religion. Saturn had overthrown Heaven. Jupiter had overthrown Saturn. When would Jupiter be overthrown?
It’s important to note, however, that this version of polytheism is polytheism in the service of approaching the One God, from which everything else derives.
8.25–27. At the end of book eight, Augustine distinguishes between Pagan cults and the Christian cult of the martyrs.
Augustine always approved of the cult of the martyrs, and it seems that one of the big reasons was that he had been handed a tradition that he saw as his duty to maintain. Even so, he seemed to become more enthusiastic about the martyrs later in life, and he’ll discuss martyr-related miracles later in City of God.
Augustine begins this section by explaining what the martyr cult is and isn’t. He’s probably answering charges of the Pagans that Christians worship the dead, but he’s probably also instructing Christians. He’s reining in a too exuberant veneration of the martyrs. Augustine exhibits more restraint in theology and practice than many other bishops.
It’s interesting that he specifically mentions bringing food to the martyrs. This seems to have been common practice in North Africa. In the Confessions Augustine says that while living in Milan his own mother, Monica, brought offerings of porridge, bread, and wine to the saints. Ambrose, the bishop in Milan, forbid the practice and convinced her to give it up. The reasons were it could be an occasion for gluttony and it looked too much like the superstitious practices of the Pagans.
An important point for Augustine, which he doesn’t explicitly state in this passage, is that it’s appropriate to meet with the martyrs for worshiping because the martyrs aren’t really dead. Augustine has a robust theology of the resurrection. Christ’s work has torn the boundary between life and death. The boundary will not totally disappear until the Last Day, but in the meantime the living and the dead can worship together at the tomb of the martyr.