Augustine’s The City of God, Part 1

It’s been a very difficult and crazily busy last three weeks since I posted, but I managed to at least read 10 books (out of 22 total) of Augustine’s The City of God, which is slightly under half of it. Augustine himself adds a note at the end of Book X outlining the preceding books as Part I of the work, concerned with refuting the beliefs of pagan Romans concerning deities. So this is a good point to make a post. I hope to read the next half faster than I did this one, so that I’ll still be on schedule to finish my triplet of Great Books volumes this semester.

Augustine states outright that his arguments are not aimed at people who are complete atheists. True to this, there is a lot of comparison between the beliefs and practices of Roman and Greek polytheism and Christianity. To a modern day reader, these arguments might seem completely irrelevant. In fact, they might agree that monotheism is philosophically superior to polytheism, despite ultimately still being false. However, it’s still important to take Augustine’s arguments seriously, as even if one believes that polytheism is merely a phase in civilization to be inevitably superseded by monotheism and then atheism, this act of intellectual development must be pivotal to understand the history of that civilization’s thought. In addition, there are still a substantial number of people who believe in polytheism today (despite their rites and beliefs probably being not as extreme as most of the Greeks), and so these arguments can actually still be very relevant.

Dismantling the Roman Gods: Three Points of Attack

Augustine goes about this business of refuting polytheism by attacking using three broad strategies:

  • Showing inconsistencies between Roman religious beliefs and other aspects of Roman life
  • Showing internal logical flaws in ancient, pagan religious and philosophical thought
  • Arguing for the superiority of Christian belief, practices, and miracles

The first strategy is the broadest. One of the main motifs in his critique of pagan religion are the obscene, immoral, and shameful things which are attributed to the Greek and Roman gods, both in their actions, characteristics, and demands on humans – things which would not be tolerated by pagans if done by normal humans to each other. The plays and stories regularly performed and told concerning the gods are major offenders in this sense. A pagan reader would instantly know what was being talked about – and we’ve gone through that ourselves in this Great Books journey, learning about the behavior of Greek gods through Greek drama. Zeus (Jupiter) is a notorious example, regularly committing adultery with mortal humans and having demigod offspring as a result. The pagan gods are regularly depicted by poets and dramatists as being subject to the same passions, desires, and vices as humans, making them almost indistinguishable from humans, and certainly raising doubt as to their worthiness for worship. Throughout the book, Augustine’s disdain for theater, poetry, and literary art in general shines through, a characteristic which he developed as a Christian after having being attached to them as a young man. In fact, he uses the example of Plato, who in The Republic gave similar reasons to him to banish poets from his ideal city, because they were viewed as deceiving and misguiding the populace.

Moral Arguments Against Polytheism

In the latter half of Part I, Augustine goes into the details of this inconsistency in Roman theology. He takes after Marcus Varro, a famous Roman scholar at the time, in categorizing theology into three aspects: fabulous (fanciful stories and legends about gods), natural (abstract philosophical discussion about the nature of gods), and civil (directions about the sacred rites to be performed by priests and people). Concerning the fabulous, he notes that even many prominent pagan philosophers themselves are ashamed of recounting these stories, regarding these as merely fictions invented by less intellectually able people. Varro certainly thinks this, as well as Plato and his disciple Apuleius. (It’s quite shocking to read that Minerva’s interventions in the Iliad are regarded as shameful and unbecoming for a god, whereas for a modern reader these are probably an integral part of “awesome” and “fascinating” Greek literature.) To bolster his belief that these stories are indeed shameful, Augustine mentions the fact that Roman authorities would persecute stories like these about other human beings. He also spends a substantial amount of time recounting in detail and ridiculing pagan theology.

But dismissing fabulous theology itself is not enough, for civil theology is inevitably connected with the fabulous. Denouncing obscene plays is meaningless when these same poets were also responsible for creating any story about the gods in the first place. And the rituals used to worship these gods are also absurd, obscene, even horrific, Augustine notes. For example, worship of The Great Mother (Maia) involved consecration of “effeminate” men who had been mutilated.

Logical Inconsistencies in Roman Polytheism

Going on to his critique of internal inconsistency in pagan religious thought, Augustine cites Platonists as believing in the importance of propitiating demons (which are immortal spiritual beings lesser than gods), because they serve as messengers between us and the gods. They believe that otherwise, the gods do not communicate directly with humans, because they would be “contaminated” in some way. But Augustine replies, how can demons, who are subject to the same passions and vices as humans, be worthy of worship and our aspirations? Secondly, if the gods are indeed afraid of corrupting themselves when interacting with humans, then why wouldn’t demons be contaminated themselves if they are the messengers? If on the other hand, demons can’t be contaminated by humans for some reason, then doesn’t that make them higher than the gods? Even worse, the Platonists believed that men would turn into demons when they died – good demons if they were good men, and evil demons if they were evil. The implication is that the more evil a man was, the more evil a demon he would be, and the more humans would be motivated to sacrifice and worship him in order to prevent incurring his wrath.

These kinds of moral conundrums that arise from polytheism show the basic difficulty of believing in a pantheon of deities and spiritual beings that more or less act like humans. By this time, Augustine (and perhaps other believers at the time) are looking for a deeper reason to worship the gods other than “might makes right” – the gods must somehow prove themselves worthy of human worship. They must fulfill or exceed the standard of morality and virtue that humans on Earth aspire to. Perhaps we can view this as progress in religious thought which will lead to the Perfect Being of classical theism, where God is the standard by which not just morality, but all kinds of goodness and values stem from.

A second example of a logical argument that Augustine uses against Roman polytheism is pointing out that even the division of tasks and dominions among the gods does not make sense. In Book IV, he mentions that the Romans have an individual god for every single aspect of society and nature: farming, births, femininity, music, beginnings, and so on. Two of these gods are Fortune, who controls general luck and fortune, and Felicity, who gives good luck. But once we worship these two, won’t their favor be enough to ensure success in anything? In fact, we don’t even need to worship Fortune – we can just worship Felicity. Can’t we just build a monotheistic system around Felicity? In any case, Jupiter, the chief of all the gods, doesn’t matter at all. He also notes that the Romans do not worship a god of money, unlike the Greeks, but they seem to not lack in money compared to them at all, showing the ineffectiveness of these gods in affecting real-world outcomes.

Astrology

Arguments are also made against astrology, a favorite topic of Augustine (which was instrumental in his conversion to Christianity, as we saw in The Confessions). Again, Augustine brings up the question of twins, who are born only moments apart, but often have vastly different fortunes in life. Some astrologists counter by saying that even in the brief time between moments of two twins’ birth, the planets and stars would have moved enough as to cause a substantial difference in their fortunes. If it’s true that such minute time differences can cause large differences in fortune, how can astrologists claim to know anything about their connection? Even taking the argument seriously, even if twins are born at different times, they must have been conceived at the same moment, even if they are born differently. Why would the moment of birth affect their fortunes? If conception is actually irrelevant to horoscopes, then that would be contradicting astrologers themselves, who often claim that knowing the moment of conception would give valuable information about people. From here, a more general argument against astrology is put forward: if the position of planets and stars during someone’s birth matters so much, then why would doing any supplication or worship of the gods later affect any outcomes? Why would one bother picking an auspicious day for a wedding, if the good or bad luck of that person’s marriage has already been determined by his horoscope?

Notice that none of these arguments utilize the modern scientific method, with the exception of the twins argument. Some of the purely logical arguments aren’t actually that airtight. An astrologer might reply that while a person’s birth greatly determines the future outcomes of their life, this doesn’t mean that everything is 100% determined – maybe it is 50% determined, and there might be some wiggle room that can be taken advantage of by doing things on days with good omens. They might also say that there is no definite proof that twins were conceived at the exact same moment (I’m not aware what the mainstream belief about this at the time was) – it may be that there are split second differences in their moments of conception, like their births. To a person with a modern-day “rational” and “scientific” view of the world, the problem with astrology is not the logical structure of the claims per se, but the ambiguity and lack of definiteness in their predictions. Because its predictions can be interpreted in any way, they become irrefutable in any outcome and thus meaningless.

Ironically, modern genetics tells us that in the case of identical twins, being susceptible to the same diseases might arise out of their shared identical genes. Augustine takes note of this, too, citing Hippocrates, the pioneering Greek physician, as having noted this phenomenon and attributed it to a similarity of constitution of body or habits between twins, not a similarity of the position of the planets.

Foreknowledge of God

A more intense philosophical discussion occurs when Augustine engages with Cicero’s beliefs on the foreknowledge of God. This is a topic that would have relevance throughout the next millennium, culminating in the split between Ariminians and Calvinists after the Reformation (which theoretically continues until today, though few people in the modern day seem to genuinely care). Cicero believes that God cannot have foreknowledge, because that would imply an absence of human free will, everything being already “fated”. Augustine presents Cicero’s chain of reasoning as follows:

  1. Free will exists.
  2. Then things do not happen according to fate.
  3. Then there is not a certain order of causes.
  4. Things must pass only when preceded by efficient causes.
  5. From 3, there are no efficient causes.
  6. Then there is not a certain order of things that pass.
  7. Then God cannot be said to foreknow things that pass.

Augustine denies statement 2 in the above chain of reasoning. He argues that although God is ultimately responsible for all things, including the order of their causes, this is not incompatible with the idea of human free will. In fact, God willed that humans would have free will.

“But it does not follow that, though there is for God a certain order of all causes, there must therefore be nothing depending on the free exercise of our own wills, for our wills themselves are included in that order of causes which is certain to God, and is embraced by His foreknowledge, for human wills are also causes of human actions; and He who foreknew all the causes of things would certainly among those causes not have been ignorant of our wills…
“Wherefore our wills also have just so much power as God willed and foreknew that they should have; and therefore whatever power they have, they have it within most certain limits; and whatever they are to do, they are most assuredly to do, for He whose foreknowledge is infallible foreknew that they would have the power to do it, and would do it.”

(Book V, Chapter 9)

In other words, Augustine does not believe in a truly libertarian free will, but instead some sort of Calvinist conception of free will. He preempts the obvious question of “how can human free will be free if it is ruled by necessity?” by comparing it to the way we view God’s necessary attributes. We don’t think of these necessary attributes as being “ruled by necessity”, but still think of God as omnipotent despite clear stipulations on His character. Therefore, even though our wills may be subject to necessity, there should be no fear that this denies our free will.

The Superiority of the Christian System

In many of the arguments the faults of the polytheistic system are compared directly to the newer, monotheistic Christian system of thought. In response to the polytheistic moral and theological conundrums of sacrificing to evil demons in order to gain access to the higher gods, Christianity is presented as a religion with just One True Mediator, known as Jesus Christ, an actual example of a God reaching out to mankind by assuming human form. Because Christ is truly divine, He does not fear being corrupted by interactions with humans, being capable of freely mingling with men in order to provide them with a means of mediation and then salvation. Augustine’s basic reasoning is echoed by millions of Sunday School teachers and Christian evangelists up to the present day.

In Book X, he argues that the fundamental contrast between Christian and pagan concepts of worship is the Christian God does not have a need for worship at all, because He is already perfect. His command for humans to worship Him is given primarily for the benefit of humans, not Himself. By saying this, it’s assumed that God’s desires for human worship doesn’t imply a need for human worship at all. It’s not entirely clear whether Augustine believes God can benefit from worship at all. As God is already infinitely powerful, glorious, and exalted, this might a meaningless question, as adding a finite amount of elements to an already infinite set doesn’t change anything about that infinite set.

In addition, it’s pointed out that despite the abundance of martyrs in Christianity, these martyrs are never worshiped like gods; instead, their death only brings more glory to the One True God. This is in contrast with the existence of several great Roman figures (such as Asclepius) who became deified after their death.

The purported superiority of the Christian system extends beyond pure religious thought but also to real-world events. Augustine claims that the miracles and signs experienced among Christians are greater and more impressive than those reported among pagans. If anyone doubts Christian accounts of these miracles, he replies by asking why they don’t doubt pagan accounts as well. (He also notes that he is not aiming to engage with atheists who deny both.) Is this comparison fair? Imagine the viewpoint of a Roman polytheist. It would be entirely natural of such a person to rather believe long-standing accounts about the deeds of their own gods rather than that of outlandish, unverifiable accounts from a new religion brought by outsiders. Would it be rational?

I am reminded of how even in science, we are naturally less inclined to accept results from a new experiment that completely contradicts our previous scientific beliefs. A past example is the 2011 purported findings of neutrinos traveling faster than light in the OPERA experiment, which later turned out to be the result of a faulty cable connection. The group presenting the results were fairly well-known, so some people took their claims semi-seriously, with some theorists even writing papers looking for hypothetical phenomena that could explain the effect. But a large majority of physicists were extremely skeptical, noting that “this is probably wrong” even before the cause of the finding was found. A contemporary, still-ongoing example is the EM drive, a new form of electromagnetic propulsion which is claimed to work despite seemingly violating the laws of conservation of momentum. If even scientists with the benefit of advanced technology can be extremely skeptical of unexpected results, then how can we fault polytheists living in the first millennium for being skeptical of the claims of Christianity? The famous adage, “Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence” comes into mind. I think at this point Augustine’s argument doesn’t pass muster.

Roman Corruption and Decadence

In the early Books of this Part I, Augustine also goes on a lot about the corruption and vices of Rome, noting especially the prominence of theaters, which he has always identified with vice and licentiousness. In Books II and III, he goes through a running list of the various horrific tragedies that have occurred in Rome, such as the rape of the Sabine women, the mass executions in the aftermath of the Gracchi agrarian rebellion, disastrous civil war between Marius and Sylla, and abandoning of the loyal town of Saguntum to be overrun by Hannibal in the Second Punic war. He also cites the bevy of Roman figures who admit this decadence, such as Cicero, and also Scipio Africanus (the general who led the destruction of Carthage in the Third Punic War) declaring that it’s impossible to rule without injustice. He points out that the Roman civil War between Marius and Sylla resulted in more deaths and destruction than any attacks by barbarians, raising questions about how much better the Romans were compared to them.

He also defends Christianity from the attacks of these polytheists, who presumably argued that various tragedies also befell Christians during the course of Roman history. For example, some Christians were taken captive by the barbarians during the sack of Rome by Alaric (410), but Augustine argues that being taken captive isn’t necessarily a complete bad thing, as shown by the example of Daniel. Some Christian women were raped during the sack, and here he goes onto an extended defense of how rape cannot result in any sort of blame on the victim – people cannot prevent what is physically being done to them, but as long as they keep their minds virtuous and pure they cannot be spiritually corrupted. If this were not the case, then chastity would be purely physical virtue, not one of the soul – which is absurd. He contrasts this with the story of the Rape of Lucretia, where the titular character is forced to commit suicide after being raped. This is a perversion, as suicide is an evil act. Augustine then also starts an extended argument about why this is so: he argues that it is included in the general prohibition to murder in the 10 commandments and that there are absolutely no situations in which suicide is a preferable option (not even to prevent oneself from committing future sin).

Rome’s Redeeming Points

With all of this in mind, we should also note that Augustine doesn’t view Romans completely negatively. He speaks highly of the Platonists, especially due to their agreement about God’s necessary attributes (such as being immutable and the Creator of all things), despite ultimately still being mistaken in their polytheistic beliefs. He notes the virtue and nobility of Roman figures such as Regulus, a Roman general who gave Carthage his personal guarantee that he would go back to Rome and negotiate release of their prisoners. When that didn’t happen, Regulus freely chose to go back to Carthage (despite being under no force) to honor his promise, resulting in him being tortured to death. In fact, Augustine uses this as an example of the futility of worshiping Roman gods, because why didn’t they prevent this tragedy from happening if he were so virtuous? This argument falls flat because the same could be used against the horrible deaths of Christian martyrs suffered at the hands of Roman authorities.

Augustine also takes not of the several good virtues of Rome, namely the love of glory and praise from fellow humans, which is responsible for the great extent of their empire. A surprising point is that he exhorts Christians not to boast about being willing to sacrifice for the sake of a Kingdom of Heaven: because the Romans are actually greater, being willing to die for a limited kingdom on Earth, such as in the case of Regulus. He concludes by observing that this virtue of the Romans has resulted in its own reward in being able to have such great power and wealth; but now these virtues are no longer present, being replaced by general decadence and corruption. He even believes that the current Roman empire is only allowed to stand due to the presence of Christianity. Christianity, he argues, is what made Alaric surprisingly soft in his sack of Rome, refusing to attack anyone who took refuge in the churches.

Conclusion

Part I of COG has been mixed for me. The arguments against polytheism are sometimes mundane and unfairly (in the rational sense) biased towards Christianity, but more often they clearly point out the awkward mental gymnastics one has to go through in order to believe in the worthiness of worshiping gods that act no different than humans. One takeaway is that traditional polytheism seems to have come from a general fear or lack of understanding about the natural world: thus having gods for the sun, moon, planets, sea, rivers, and even everyday activities and phenomena such as farming, hunting, and music. These gods are worshiped because they are claimed as being real masters of these aspects of life, not because they are morally worthy in some way: thus a true “might makes right” theology. When some militant atheists claim that science has “explained away the need for the supernatural,” they are perhaps right with regards to polytheists and animists. But the matter changes entirely when society progresses to a more advanced stage of religious thinking, where God is identified as the Perfect Being and Standard by which to measure all other values. This is the god of classical theism, which the Platonists seemed to be approaching (at least according to Augustine, and somewhat evident in my hazy memory of reading Plato).

Overall, however, Augustine’s writing is cogent and rationally sound, although the paragraphs are often very long and difficult to decipher. The Christian bits are surprisingly very close to what I’ve been hearing in Sunday School classes for most of my life – points on the uniqueness of certain beliefs in Christianity, and how different it is compared to other religions. Perhaps Augustine is where ultimately all these theological notions stem from. That is the extent of the influence of his thought.

Stay tuned for the next part of The City of God!

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