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Sons of pride and vessels of wrath

May 19, 2014
Sandro Botticelli - St. Augustine in his Study

Sandro Botticelli – St. Augustine in his Study

[For context, read this post.]

You can’t understand the history of autobiography without Augustine of Hippo’s Confessions, and neither can you understand the history of history without his The City of God against the Pagans. Yet the former is an immensely popular work, assigned in innumerable first-year undergraduate seminars, while the latter is oft-mentioned, little-read, even-less-liked. What gives?

Of course this situation is surely due, at least in part, to their respective lengths. (The latter is at least five times as long as the former.) But it’s also because the latter is just more disagreeable. Though the constant moralizing of the Confessions puts some people off, once you’re acclimated, it becomes obvious that the book is a brilliant, epochal work of relentless self-criticism. It portrays the first first-personal existential crisis in Western literature. It shows the inadequacy of all pagan ways of life, the ability of Christianity to make total sense, and the difficulties pride causes for making sense of that sense. City of God is different. Not only is it full of interminable catalogs of myths, gods, nations, miracles, etc, but it’s specific historical claims and political recommendations are less likely to convince the reader, or even to bring him to a suspension of disbelief, than to make him recoil, respectively, in laughter and in horror. From a certain angle it can be hard to see how the two works were written by the same man.

Yet they were, and, in fact, their projects have much in common. What the Confessions does for a single man, City of God does for an entire civilization. Each can shine a new light on the other. If the former shows us see the worthwhile aim of the latter, and the latter makes us newly suspicious of the former,  I don’t think Augustine would mind too much; after all, he set out to write a confession, not an auto-hagiography, and to write a history, not a piece of political propaganda. He would be the first to say that, whenever we read from a book other than Scripture, our goal should be to separate the wheat from the chaff.

This applies particularly, I think, when we read City of God, as I am doing for my Fundamentals exam. What does he endeavor? Where does he succeed? Where fail? Which failures can we evade? Which are symptoms of a deeper disturbance? Of course, I can’t answer these questions here. I don’t even intend to answer them on the exam; coward that I am, I’m not reading the entire City of God, just a selection: books 1-6 and 14-19. Still, there’s a certain logic to my choice, and one that even relates to the questions at which I’ve been gesturing. The 22 books of the work are divided into five parts, and while I have included on my list a book from each part, I’ve focused primarily on parts one and four. An outline of the whole:

  • 1-5 set out to disprove the claim that paganism can bring happiness in this life, that is, to disprove practical paganism and, particularly, the classical Roman view of political virtue.
  • 6-10 attack the claim that paganism can bring happiness in the next life, that is, attack philosophical paganism, especially (since no one actually believed pagan myths) the Epicureans and Stoics.
  • 11-14 deal with the origins of the City of God and the other city of man, of earth, of evil, etc, that is, deal with with metaphysics, creation, angels, and the origin of evil.
  • 15-18 narrate the cities’ histories, that is, attempt to integrate the Biblical and classical time-lines, and along the way explain various oddities like Noah’s flood and the Jews’ loss of their patrimony.
  • 19-22 tell of the cities’ ends, i.e. show what Biblical prophecies allow us to know of eschatology, and what they do not, and how we can tell that Heaven and Hell make philosophical sense.

As you can see, the scope of the work is enormous. The City of God grew out of Augustine’s larger theological project, and it gives due attention to his favorite themes: original sin and unmerited grace, Christ the true mediator between God and man, the Trinity reflected in all things as being, truth, and goodness, etc. But my selection puts the focus on history, and on Augustine’s Christian account of historical contingency, both the heart of the work and, I think, its most controversial aspect.

For The City of God began as a response to a singular event: the sack of Rome in 410 AD. It had seemed, until then, that the Christianizing of the Roman Empire had been providential, but now–who could tell? Why had this happened? Might not the city have been punished for abandoning its native gods? What sense can Christianity make of contingent historical events? Augustine’s response to this challenge is triple: the fall of Rome proves nothing; the fall of Rome proves paganism false; and the fall of Rome proves Christianity true. That is, (1) it was just a contingent historical event, like any other; (2) the fact of historical contingency proves that the pagan gods can promise nothing, and that belief in them is really worship of one’s own pride; and (3) Christianity offers the only plausible explanation for such inexplicable events: as in the Confessions, God did it, to bring you closer to Him.

This is, in brief, the argument of books 1-5. And (1) is quite convincing, at least for those of us with deflationary tendencies. And (2) is executed brilliantly; his attack on Lucretia and Cato’s suicides, and on Roman civil war, are marvelous to behold, and it seems quite correct to compare God’s mercy and justice with the false god Roma’s endeavor to “show pity to the humbled soul, and crush the sons of pride” (as Vergil’s Aeneid has it). But (3) is difficult. It’s one thing to look at one’s own life and see everywhere the hand of God, bringing you closer to him. It’s another to look at another’s life and see the same, and to see their sorrows as punishments for their sins, and their joys as rewards for their virtues. Of course Augustine knows this, and he treads a fine line, always offering a number of possible explanations for events which it would be presumptuous to interpret too quickly. But what does it help to say that we can know that someone suffers for a reason, because he suffers either to punish his sins or to test his virtues? What kind of knowledge is this?

Books 15-18 has many more strange arguments, including a large amount of scriptural analysis meant to prove that everything in Genesis can be taken literally (save the creation narrative itself, which Augustine recognizes as allegorical). It’s hard to know what to do with these. As actual history, they’re nonsense. It’s perhaps more fruitful to ask why the inerrancy is necessary, and what it costs. It’s necessary to secure the historical truth of Christianity, and it costs–in addition to nonsense–a rather disturbing attitude towards the Jewish people, who become “vessels of wrath,” punished in order to prove God’s mercy for those he does not punish, and kept around in order to provide objective proof for the Old Testament’s accuracy (to counter accusations that the Christians made up post factum the prophecies that Christ fulfilled). This attitude towards Judaism is, well, out of fashion at the moment. It’s unclear how much damage to Augustine’s system would result from removing it.

Well, anyway, Augustine’s basic claim seems to be that contingent historical events don’t really, or at least no longer, matter; in a sense, once Christ came, history ended, and we’re just waiting around for the Apocalypse (however many thousands of years that might take). To claim the mantle of history is to be a son of pride–and this goes for Christian as well as pagan emperors. (Augustine sometimes suggests that Constantine’s conversion was a good thing, but attaches to it no necessity.) Except the Jews must be kept around; for the vessels of wrath to vanish would be an event of real historical significance. The Church, too, presumably, must not vanish; but for Augustine, curiously enough, this seems to be of considerably lesser importance.

2 Comments leave one →
  1. CJ Wolfe permalink
    June 4, 2014 12:13 am

    -Well, don’t feel too bad about not taking your exam on the whole “City of God”; most people don’t even read the whole “Confessions,” only the narrative chapters (1-9 or so) not the speculative chapters.

    I was just reading a book that makes this point, Fr. Van der Meer’s “Augustine the Bishop.” Van der Meer says: “men here and there still read the Confessions (or at any rate the first nine or ten books of them), and among such readers there are always those who put the book down deeply moved and ask in a bewildered way for something more. Into the hands of such a one may perhaps come a translation of some other work of Augustine’s, but his awe before those eleven forbidding folios remains. It is in a way natural enough that the ordinary worldly person should see a sort of ‘happy ending’ in a conversion and feel no particular concern in what happens afterwards. That ‘afterwards’ stretches before his mental eye as a sort of monochrome plain, dull after what he conceives to be the manner of all virtue… yet most of such readers would concede that the most important part of this man’s life only begins after the old man has been put off and the new put on. That at least has been the Church’s view.”

    -“his attack on Lucretia and Cato’s suicides, and on Roman civil war, are marvelous to behold” I agree, that is one of the most interesting parts of “City of God.” Especially interesting to compare with Shakespeare’s epic lyric “The Rape of Lucrece.”

    -By the way, my favorite book about Augustine is Vernon J Bourke’s “Augustine’s Quest of Wisdom: His Life, Thought, and Works.” It covers alot of the ground that “the Confessions” does, but retells the story of Augustine’s life in an extremely clear way (no philosophical diversions or stops for prayers like the Confessions takes, in other words). Bourke also gives information the Confessions leaves out such as the dates Augustine probably wrote each of his works and the end of his life story. Added to that, Bourke absolutely nails the most moving parts of the story, and gives what I think is the KEY to Augustine’s self understanding of his conversion- that it happened in two parts. First was a conversion of the intellect, second was a conversion of the emotions and will (in the garden)

  2. June 4, 2014 9:46 am

    Thanks for the recommendation–I’ll check it out. Hm—there’s used copies on Amazon for under $3….

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