“City of God,” Bks. 1-2: Points of Interest

Book One of De civitate Dei opens with the charge that prompted Augustine to write it, namely, that Christianity was responsible for the sack of Rome. As Augustine notes in the Retractationes, the first five books of City aim to refute the view that worship of the pagan gods aimed at securing temporal security and happiness. This is the challenge that emerges most readily from the pagans’ charge against Christianity: worshipping Jesus doesn’t yield temporal security, but worshipping the old gods does. In Book 1, Augustine is principally playing defense, showing that what had happened in Rome in 410 had happened countless times in the pagans’ history, paradigmatically at Troy, where Minerva and Juno had failed to protect their shrines. The only historical novelty that reasonably could be attributed to Christianity is the unprecedented restraint shown by the invaders in respecting churches as places of asylum – the pagans should be thanking Jesus for saving them, not blaming him for allowing them to be invaded.

About twenty of the book’s 29 chapters are taken up with problems of theodicy, as Augustine attempts to understand, or at least to defend, the LORD’s purposes in allowing wicked pagans to be protected in churches as well as in allowing righteous Christians to suffer torture, murder, and rape. This comes at the pagan objection from a different direction: in addition to maintaining that Christianity isn’t responsible for the loss of temporal goods, Augustine also wants to maintain that it’s foolish and self-defeating to treat temporal goods as ultimate. This section of the text includes some strong avowals of a Christian’s proper indifference to temporal evils such as torture, famine, or even rape, avowals that stand in some tension with his treatment of those evils in Book 19 in particular, in conversation with polar opposite pagan standpoint of Stoicism.

In Book Two, by contrast, Augustine goes on offense, arguing that, far from protecting Rome, the old gods – who are now unmasked as demons – deliberately and systematically rotted Rome from within by corrupting its morals, encouraging lust and avarice and anomie through obscene dramas and spectacles performed for the gods’ honor.

One of Augustine’s favorite rhetorical devices in both Books 1 and 2 is to hoist the pagans on their own petard, by quoting their literary authorities against them. So, Virgil, Cicero, and Sallust are martialed to show that the old gods never actually protected their worshippers, and that pagan Rome had become a “sink of iniquity” long before Christ. It seems to me that this strategy finds marked parallels in the Manichaeans’ attempts to use the OT to undermine Christian doctrines; this is on full display in Augustine’s Contra Faustum, and of course Augustine would have been thoroughly-schooled in this sort of exegesis during his own Manichean days.

Finally, we should note that Augustine clearly envisioned a mixed audience of pagans and Christians, because he occasionally addresses one or the other directly: at 1.35, he exhorts Christians to patient endurance, and at 2.29, he exhorts pagan Romans to conversion.

A schema of Books 1&2:

I.pref.-1: The City of God to be defended against the arrogant calumnies of the City of Man.

I.2-7: The usual practice of sacking cities – which the gods appear to have been impotent to arrest – contrasted with the conduct of the barbarians under the influence of Xianity.

1.8-10: The mercy and justice of the LORD’s providentially allowing the sack to proceed as it did.

1.11-29: Accounting for the all-things-considered indifference or even spiritual benefits of the various ills suffered by Romans (torture, famine, death, corpse-exposure, even rape).

1.12-13: Mini-treatise on the significance of burial vis-à-vis the resurrection.

1.17-27: Mini-treatise on suicide’s impermissibility

1.30-33: Real Roman objection to Xianity is its restraint of luxury and debauchery, which historically fueled Rome’s libido dominandi.

1.34-35: Summary remarks reaching back to the conduct of the sack and the nature of the two cities.

1:36: The plan of following books.

I.pref.-1: The City of God to be defended against the arrogant calumnies of the City of Man.

I.2-7: The usual practice of sacking cities – which the gods appear to have been impotent to arrest – contrasted with the conduct of the barbarians under the influence of Xianity.

1.8-10: The mercy and justic of the LORD’s providentially allowing the sack to proceed as it did.

1.11-29: Accounting for the all-things-considered indifference or even spiritual benefits of the various ills suffered by Romans (torture, famine, death, corpse-exposure, even rape).

1.12-13: Mini-treatise on the significance of burial vis-à-vis the resurrection.

1.17-27: Mini-treatise on suicide’s impermissibility

1.30-33: Real Roman objection to Xianity is its restraint of luxury and debauchery, which historically fueled Rome’s libido dominandi.

1.34-35: Summary remarks reaching back to the conduct of the sack and the nature of the two cities.

1:36: The plan of following books.

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