Once on the beach at Utica, I saw with my own eyes—and there were others to bear me witness—a human molar tooth so big that it could have been cut up, I think, into a hundred pieces each as big as one of our modern teeth.
I’m trying to think of books that might be equal to this one in importance to Western history: Plato’s Republic? the works of Aristotle? Euclid’s Elements? Homer’s epics? There aren’t many. This book arguably set the tone for the entire Middle Ages that followed. It is a vast, sweeping, powerful, and cockamamie book; it is a true classic.
Augustine wrote The City of God over a period of 13 years. He began the work when he was 59, and finished it when he was 72. The work was occasioned by the capture of Rome in 410 by the ‘barbarian’ leader Alaric, king of the Visigoths. It was a brutal defeat for the Romans, with much destruction, rape, pillage, and death. More than that, it was a symbolic defeat, the first time Rome had been taken by a foreign enemy in hundreds of years. Unsurprisingly, the remaining pagans blamed the newly ascendant Christians for this calamity. If the old gods were worshiped, the critics argued, this never would have happened. Rome was never taken when Jupiter was praised and when Nike, goddess of victory, was gracing the Curia of the Roman Senate. (The statue of Nike, the Altar of Victory, had been removed from the Curia by Constantius II, briefly reinstalled by Julian the Apostate, and then removed again.) In short, the Roman Empire was collapsing and it was all the Christians’ fault.
These accusations were what prompted Augustine to begin this work; but as the book grew, so did Augustine’s ambitions. By the middle, the beginning has been forgotten; and by the end, the middle is a distant memory. Because Augustine frequently interrupts his main points to indulge in lengthy digressions, the reader is often mired in pages and pages of side-issues and curiosities. Yet there does remain one vital central idea. It is therefore quite tough to give a fair impression of this book’s contents. To paraphrase Bertrand Russell, if I focus only on Augustine’s main thesis, then it will make this chaotic jumble seem too unified and focused; yet if I lose myself in the details, then I’ll omit its most lasting contribution. I even have it easier than most readers, since I read an abridgment—meant to cut out much of the extraneous material. Even so, there is a new topic on almost every page. So I think I’ll follow Russell’s approach in his History of Western Philosophy and give you a taste of some digressions before tackling Augustine’s more major themes.
Early on in the book, Augustine considers whether virgins who were raped in the sack of Rome have lost their virginity. He argues that, as long as they did not consent and did not enjoy it, they are still virgins. Augustine even argues that being raped might have been a good thing for some of them, since it taught them not to be haughty about their virginity. (It's frightening that, at the time, this opinion was considered quite progressive.) He considers whether the extremely long lifespans reported of some Biblical figures (such as Adam’s purportedly 900-year long life) should be interpreted literally, or whether, as some argued, 10 years back then was equivalent to 1 of our years, thus arriving at a more realistic figure for Adam’s age, 90. (Augustine thinks Adam did live 900 years.) In resolving this question, Augustine notes that there are several discrepancies in the ages reported of certain people in different versions of the Bible; specifically, the original Hebrew Bible said one thing, and the Septuagint said another. (For those who don’t know, the Septuagint was a Greek translation of the Bible, done by 70 Jewish scribes in the 3rd or 2nd century BCE at the behest of the Egyptian king, Ptolemy II. The legend says that all 70 scribes completed their translations separately, only comparing them at the end, and they turned out to be all miraculously identical.) Augustine concludes that, though the Septuagint was indeed divinely inspired, where it differed from the original Hebrew, the original should be trusted.
In a lengthy section, Augustine attempts to correlate secular history with biblical history, doing his best to place the events of the Old Testament in the context of Greek and Roman history. He even speculates on the possibility that Plato might have read parts of the Old Testament, since parts of Plato’s Timeaus are so similar to the Book of Genesis. Augustine is against judicial torture, thinking it vile and illogical to torture witnesses and the accused. He anticipates Descartes’s cogito ergo sum: “In the face of these truths, the quibbles of the skeptics lose their force. If they say; ‘What if you are mistaken?’—well, if I am mistaken, I am. For, if one does not exist, he can be no means be mistaken. Therefore, I am, if I am mistaken.” (By the by, Augustine also anticipated Kant’s subjective theory of time, which Augustine put forth in the eleventh book of his Confessions.) Augustine attempts to prove that living, physical bodies can, indeed, be tortured endlessly in the fires of hell, since, as everyone knows, salamanders live in fire, and peacock meat never putrefies. So what’s so miraculous about human bodies endlessly burning in the flames?
I actually can’t resist including a bit more about the peacock meat. Apparently, having heard from someone else that peacock meat never spoils, Augustine set aside a piece of roasted peacock meat when he was served it at a friend’s house. He observed this piece of meat for a whole year, noting that even after all that time it never began to stink; it only got dry and shriveled. Now, presumably the piece of meat had been thoroughly cooked and salted, so make of that what you will. While I’m at it, I also want to include a story Augustine tells about a friend of his who had hemorrhoids and had to have surgery. As the man was fearful of going under the knife, Augustine and several other friends had a loud and fervent prayer session before the surgery. (If I had to get surgery back then, I’d be praying too.) And the surgery was a success!
Now for some more meaty issues. Augustine formulates here the idea of original sin, arguing that Adam’s fall changed the nature of humankind, filling us with sinful desires and causing death to enter the world. Augustine thinks, for example, that before the fall, Adam and Eve could choose to have sex without any feeling of sexual desire; all of the physiological prerequisites for intercourse (to use a polite expression) were under just as much control as our arms and legs. In short, Adam could just choose to have an erection without feeling horny. But now, in order to reproduce, we are at the mercy of our desires, which we cannot directly control and which threaten to overwhelm our rational minds. Thus is the sorry state of fallen man. As a consequence of this belief, Augustine also argues that unbaptized infants go to hell; not being cleansed of original sin, they simply must. By the way, there are several memorable passages in Augustine’s extraordinary autobiography, his Confessions, where he chastises his infant self for being so greedy of food and drink, and so selfish of love and attention.
Several other ideas are connected to Augustine’s conception of original sin. Since humankind is fallen, it is impossible for us without God's aid to do good deeds and to achieve salvation; salvation is granted from God, it is a gift of divine grace, not something we earn. Augustine also believed in predestination. God, being omniscient, foreknew which people would end up saved, and which would end up damned. So in addition to anticipating Descartes and Kant, Augustine also anticipates Calvin. (From what I hear, a lot of the Protestant Reformation involved a return to Augustine’s teachings, but I’m not so knowledgeable about this.) I should point out that these ideas weren’t commonly accepted at the time. Just the reverse: many people argued vociferously against these doctrines. Notably, Pelagius, an ascetic from England, argued that humans were not born already damned (or, in other words, there was no ‘original sin’ in the Augustan sense); that humans had absolute free will, and thus were not predestined to be saved or damned; and that the grace of God was not necessary to do good works. Augustine combated Pelagius’s ideas with his typical intolerant zeal, considering them heresies, and succeeded, after a long fight, in making his own opinions orthodox for a long time to come.
As befitting a great Christian thinker, Augustine also tackles some of the perennial problems of Christian philosophy. One of these is free will. Now, without free will, the entire worldview of Christianity collapses, since then there is no fair basis of separating people into the saved and the damned. Yet God is omnipotent and omniscient; this means that when He created the world, He knew exactly what was going to happen. So how can we reconcile these attributes of God with free will? Augustine does so by noting that, although God knows what you will do and whether you will be saved, His knowing doesn’t cause you to make the choices you make.
Augustine also addresses the so-called problem of evil. This is another classic paradox of Christianity, which results from trying to harmonize the undeniable existence of evil in the world with God’s omnipotence and His infinite goodness. If God was truly all-powerful and purely good, why is there evil in the world? Augustine makes several classic replies.
First, he notes that, by allowing some evil in parts of creation, the whole might be, by consequence, even better, as the resulting goodness outweighs the evil. In short, goodness is cheap unless it is tested with temptation; so the presence of some evil is necessary for the existence of good. Augustine also notes that God never causes evil directly, since it is only His creatures that choose evil. For Augustine, as for many others, evil doesn’t really exist; evil is a lack of existence, the same way darkness is a lack of light and cold a lack of heat. Thus, God never created anything evil; all existence, as existence, is good; His creatures, through their own perversity, have sometimes chosen evil. So even Satan himself, insofar as he exists, is good; though his nature has been corrupted by his wicked ways (this corruption presumably being some sort of deficiency in his existence). Augustine even plays with Aristotelian terminology, saying that evil never has an efficient cause (the direct, or proximate, cause of something), but only a deficient cause.
I know that my opinion is not worth nearly as much as Augustine’s in this matter, but I do want to include my thoughts. I don’t find Augustine’s answer to the problem of evil satisfactory. And this is because, even if God is not indeed the proximate cause of evil, He would still be the ultimate cause, since He created the universe with full knowledge that evil would result from His action. It’s like this: If I am a leader of a country, and choose to go to war with another country, I am not the direct cause of people dying—that was presumably the guns and other weapons. And arguably the soldiers on both sides do have some share in the responsibility, since each of them chose to participate, to fight, to kill, to risk their lives, and so on. Yet ultimately it was my decision to send all these people into battle, and I think I would share a large portion of the responsibility and (if the action were unjust) the guilt. If the war was indeed justified and necessary, and the result was good for the world, that would make the action excusable, but it would not negate all of the pain and suffering inflicted on the soldiers, nor would it make me any less responsible for their fate.
Besides, I find this whole business of balancing good and evil, as if weighing a scale, quite absurd. If an innocent person suffers, if a single child is abused or crippled by sickness, how can any amount of goodness elsewhere make that okay? Here’s an example. Imagine there are ten people on an island with very limited food. There is only enough food for each person to stay alive, but not enough to make them energetic and happy. So when all ten people are living there, eating the food available, the total satisfaction-level is around 40%. Now, if nine of them ganged up on the last one, and killed and ate him, it’s possible that, even though there would be a lot of pain inflicted on that one man, the joy experienced by the remaining nine of having real meat, and the extra resources freed up on the island by having one less person, might in the long run make the general satisfaction-level higher—perhaps 60%. Does that justify killing the man? I think not. My point is that the happiness of the many cannot be balanced against the misery of the few, like an accountant balancing an earnings report.
Now, I know this review is already extremely long, but I haven’t even gotten to Augustine’s main thesis—the City of God. Augustine divides up humankind into two metaphorical cities: the City of Man and the City of God. Members of the City of Man are swollen with pride; they think that they can achieve happiness in this life, through satisfying their bodily desires or by practicing human virtue; by creating peaceful cities and just laws; by trade, wealth, power, fame, and wisdom. Yet, noble as some of them may be, this goal is pure vanity. In this life, we are too beset with troubles and uncertainties to have real happiness. States try to create justice, but their laws are frail human creations, constantly failing to attain their goal of absolute justice—since so many sinners go unpunished and so many innocents are unduly condemned—with the result that the laws are always being changed, updated, reformed, and differ from country to country, from place to place, all without getting any closer to their goal. The Stoics attempt to achieve happiness through virtue alone, without any hope of heaven; and yet how often do painful disease, the loss of a loved one, the failure of a scheme, the unquenchable passions in our breast overwhelm our reason and cast us into abject misery? Members of the City of God are not exempt from any of these miseries. However, they know that they are mere pilgrims on this earth. They place their hopes, not in this life, but in the life to come. Thus they are not misled by the vanities of earthly happiness, but act in harmony with God’s will to achieve salvation.
This doctrine, though simple enough, proved to be immensely influential. Augustine not only separates church and state, but subordinates the state to the church. Temporal authority is just the product of consensus, while the authority of the church comes from God. The resultant history of the Middle Ages, with the rising political power of the Catholic Church, owes much to Augustine for its intellectual justification and formulation. Again, the importance and influence of this book could hardly be overestimated.
After spending so much energy reading, summarizing, and responding to this book, I am almost at a loss for how to make a final evaluation. Augustine is obviously a genius of the highest order, and even now it is difficult for me to avoid be sucked into the endless labyrinths of his mind. This is especially impressive to me when I consider that I am not a Catholic, not even a Christian, and disagree with almost everything he says. More than that, although I have immense admiration for his originality and his brilliance, I often find his perspective unhealthy, intolerant, dogmatic, and generally unappealing. Perhaps what I like least about Augustine is his incredible, I would even say his morbid, sense of sin.
In his Confessions, there is a famous section where he berates his child-self for stealing a peach from a peach tree. From his rhetoric, you would think that he committed a genocide; even after all these years, he seems wracked with guilt and filled with shame. To me, as I suspect to many others nowadays, this is absurd, even a bit childish. I admit a part of me wants to admire him for feeling so bad for his misdeeds; but when I really think it over, I do not even find this admirable. The sense of sin is, in my opinion, an unrealistic and unhealthy way of thinking. I think the whole idea of sin is wrong-headed. Sins are not mere bad deeds or mistakes, but, in Augustine’s view, the byproduct of our ‘fallen’ and ‘sinful’ nature, with the power to actively corrupt and taint our immortal souls. In other words, sin is a reflection of our ‘true self’, or at least a part of it, and acting out these evil impulses makes us unworthy human beings, fit for eternal torture.
This makes no sense to me. Sometimes people commit bad actions; but, to me, it is more sensible to focus on why the action was bad, rather than how the person is evil for committing this action. For example, if I get angry and say something hurtful to my friend, I can respond to it by isolating what I said, figuring out why I said it, determining why my friend thought it was hurtful—which requires empathy—and then apologizing to my friend and trying to learn from this experience. Or I might, as Augustine would, start thinking about how I have done an evil thing, pray incessantly, beg God for forgiveness, and for years afterward torment myself with the thought of this wrong action. The first is adult and responsible, the second is self-obsessed and self-absorbed. To me, this endless chastisement for bad actions is immature on many levels.
First, the sin is attributed to your ‘sinful nature’, rather than to a habit of yours or to a mistaken assumption, which I think is plain hogwash, and which also doesn’t help you focus on what really caused the problem; nobody is inherently evil or good: we have bad or good habits, and can change them if we want. Second, since the sense of sin makes people obsess about whether they will be damned or saved, it makes people think about their actions through an intensely selfish lens—their own fate—rather than promoting good behavior through empathizing with those around you. So in summary I find the idea of sin to be counterproductive to living a happy and ethical life.
This is what I find most intensely unattractive about Augustine’s personality. Yet, if I am to practice what I preach, I must not condemn Augustine the man for this behavior, but only a bad habit of thinking he developed. And if I am to weigh everything lovable and unlovable in the scales of my affection, I must admit that I find Augustine to be one of the most compelling personalities and extraordinary thinkers in all of history. This is not a book for just Catholics, or even just for Christians. This is a book for everyone, for all of time. So to repeat the words that lead to Augustine’s conversion to the faith, Pick up and read, pick up and read, pick up and read