An Apology

Outside of academia I guess they’re aren’t too many people reading Augustine (particularly for non-religious reasons). But a dear friend of mine and I are the founders and, oftener than not, sole members of a book group in which we are now reading our way, in historical order, through classic poems, plays, histories and autobiographies (we completed the fiction section separately first, which began with Don Quixote). As you can imagine it has been a project spanning many years.

IMG_2585No-one knows the inner motions of man except the Spirit of the man that lies in him (81, XXVII) Augustine, City of God, Book 1

As in Confessions  the power of Augustine’s intellect is impressive. And yet, in this first book of City of God,  my intellect struggled with what he considered a response (apology) to the citizens of Rome that had just been decimated by the Visogoths. Needless to say it was brutal, and the newly converted Christians felt pretty swindled. After all wasn’t this new Christian God suppose to protect the converted worthy?

For among those whom you see wantonly and brazenly insulting Christ’s servants are very many who would not have escaped that death and disaster if they had not pretended that they too were Christ’s servants (19, I).

The circularity of his logic is surprising. There is no argument that he posits that can’t just as easily serve the Pagan’s and their Gods. No God (or Gods), it would seem, protect people from evil, Augustine argues that that is not the point, no matter what happens, one still has the serenity of God within. Whether or not that is true is outside the scope of my quibble, I only ask, isn’t that the same for a person who believes that Zeus is the father of all gods? Wouldn’t a pagan still have the comfort of their beliefs (if that is all one is to have as a comfort)? Furthermore, wouldn’t God know the truth of a person’s heart – can one trick God so easily by “pretending to be Christ’s servant.”

Death is not be thought of an evil preceded by life which is good; the only thing which makes death evil is what follows (45, XI).

Perhaps his is truly just a faith that is focused on the afterlife…but even there, Hades? Hell? Wouldn’t that be the same place to fear going to? But, then again,  what do I know, after all, I spent half my time through this book in state of some confusion: it was presented in Latin on the verso side and English on the recto. I swear, every damn time I turned the page I forgot and was more than halfway into a Latin sentence before saying, huh?

But still, I have to admit that Augustine’s ability to logically dissect any given dilemma is stunning and often, as in his discussion on suicide, or rape, with his conclusion (obvious in this day and age) of a woman’s moral innocence as the victim, leads him to some progressive, for his day, ideas. For Augustine, what is in the heart matters more than any given act.

I do not hear what answer your hearts makes when you question them (83, XXVIII)

But, I apologize, as lovely and stirring as some of his language can be, I am not sure if I want to spend my precious and limited reading hours continuing through the rest of the books, but I suppose I will have to consult the book group (of one). I fear Augustine led many people to states of blind faith, I take umbrage at his disavowal of the woman he loved and their child, and I feel he encouraged a disconnect between body and soul that I find an incomprehensible waste of all that is beautiful here and now. Nevertheless, although I find lacking some of his arguments, I deeply appreciate the depth to which he examines them and examines his own heart, while leaving others to their own.

*Aris and Phillips Classical Text, Augustine De Civitate Dei, edited, introduction, translation and commentary by P.G. Walsh

**photograph taken by Augustus Accardi



15 responses to “An Apology

  1. Very thought provoking. Augustine is an apologist for the silence of God. His position that God is purely good and that evil is introduced through Man’s exercise of free will. This makes salvation only possible through Man’s acceptance of grace through Jesus Christ.

    The Greeks were humanists who accepted good and evil as simply existing in the world. The gods were a reflection of man’s own virtues and vices, the only real difference being one of scale. In other words, the Greeks saw the gods as imperfect and capable of doling out both great good and terrible evil (as opposed to the Christian premise that God is perfect and therefore must have created man in “His image and likeness” — a hugely egotistical claim when one considers that that phrase was written by a man not God). In the end, perhaps the greatest casualty when Rome established Christianity as the one true religion was a sense of humor. The Greek gods may have been flawed, but like man, they recognize the absurdity of life and are capable of laughing at their own transgressions. The Judaic / Christian God is a humorless, vengeful, unbending God who only forgives on His own terms. Little wonder Augustine felt the need to go to such lengths to explain why God would allow the Visigoths to rape Christian Rome.

    In the eleventh book of The Odyssey, Odysseus crosses the River Styx and enters the Land of the Dead where he encounters Achilles, greatest of the Greeks who died upon the battlements of Troy. Seeing his old comrade, Odysseus hails him with: “Blessed in life… blessed in death.” To which Achilles responds that he would rather be a miserable slave to the most terrible of masters than be King of the Realm of the Dead. For the Greeks, it isn’t the hereafter that matters, its the here and now. Life is precious because it is so fleeting. Embrace it for it is the only thing of true value.

    • Very eloquently stated. I agree. I’m still not over Hector’s death so it is hard for me to sympathize with Achilles, but yes, the one thing we know is that we are here, in these bodies. I can’t see worrying about anything else…

  2. I think to read stuff this old, esp on such heavy topics, you really need to immerse yourself i n that world, but even then we are still bound by our own beliefs so will always be hard work.

  3. Don’t most combatants feel they have a god on their side? In the American civil war wasn’t it the same thought to be god on both sides? Christians have never able to connect their view of there being a good god and bad things happening to good people, even some very smart-and good-at-heart ones.
    The skeptic in me doubts the wild tales of more contemporary Christian apologists are little more than a poorly thought out—though effective—marketing scheme. But in my very limited knowledge of Augustine’s writings, they seem both well-argued and sincere. Applicable to today though? It would take a more thorough reading than I have time for to ascertain that. “Quoque plures libri parum vicis” and all that.
    Verso and recto? The artist in me says back and front, but the printer says left and right. Auggie was patron saint of printers—and brewers and theologian—so I’ll go with that. Thanks for the like.

    • Well I’m certainly not an expert, but I recall when reading Confessions that it was the well-argued and sincerity of his thinking that was impressive. While City of God (book I) is sincere, it was the ‘well-argued’ part that, in my mind, suffered. The manuscript handler in me says verso and recto and it would have been the lingo of Augustine’s day. You are most welcome.

  4. Life is short. Bag it.

  5. “I spent half my time through this book in state of some confusion: it was presented in Latin on the verso side and English on the recto. I swear, every damn time I turned the page I forgot and was more than halfway into a Latin sentence before saying, huh?”
    Really enjoyed the above.

    “I feel he encouraged a disconnect between body and soul that I find an incomprehensible waste of all that is beautiful here and now.”

  6. Augustine seems to have been of major importance to medieval thought, but whether his language is sophisticated and arguments subtle, a lot of what he argued turned quickly into a mess of misogenism and intolerant table thumping by lesser theologians….

    • Yes, I agree…certainly it has all been made worse…

      • Haven’t studied them a lot, but what I have seems to suggest all these holy fathers were busy in their own power struggles with rivals. I think it was Augustine and his cronies who ganged up on St Jerome, who seemed to be one of the moderates in the doctrinal wars of the Early Church….

      • A few months ago I attended a fascinating lecture called “Garden of Eden: CSI” haha! The short end of it is this very distorted view most people have of “what transpired” and the distortion is largely based on Augustine’s attempt to grapple with Christ’s suffering on the cross…to justify the necessity of that..he created a God that was in a rage at Adam and Eve, with punishing effect…as it turns out, like most things, that’s just his interpretation…others, like Meister Eckhart took a much more esoteric view…the apple merely revealing moral reasoning, not a shameful thing, but compared to the paradise of Eden perhaps, a bummer. Still, moral reason is what makes us, well, us… was very interesting.

      • Eckhart was, naturally, tried for heresy…yeah…power struggles indeed!

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