The City of God (Barnes & Noble Library of Essential Reading)

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Overview

The City of God addresses the thorny but perennially relevant issue of how Christians are to live in this world, while preparing for the next. Augustine presents us with a model of two cities; the City of Man based on human self-love and the City of God based on grace, humility, and religious toleration. He claims that those who make judgments on other people's faith distance themselves from the City of God.
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The City of God (Barnes & Noble Library of Essential Reading)

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Overview

The City of God addresses the thorny but perennially relevant issue of how Christians are to live in this world, while preparing for the next. Augustine presents us with a model of two cities; the City of Man based on human self-love and the City of God based on grace, humility, and religious toleration. He claims that those who make judgments on other people's faith distance themselves from the City of God.
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Product Details

Introduction

Augustine is the most influential theologian of the Latin west, shaping its ideas of human nature, God, and Christ. In his book The City of God, Augustine addresses the thorny but perennially relevant issue of how Christians are to live in this world, while preparing for the next. His analysis of this question has left a deep impression on philosophers, theologians, and political thinkers since his time, shaping Christian ideas on war and peace, earthly prosperity and suffering, and the relation between church and state. Implicitly and sometimes explicitly, Augustine's ideas in The City of God are raised every time a Christian country goes to war, or a natural calamity strikes down innocent people, or when a Christian runs for office or even just goes to the polls.

Most of the facts of Augustine's life are taken from his book the Confessions (written ca. 397-400), in which he includes his interpretation of the first thirty-three years of his life. He was born in 354 C.E. in Thagaste, a North African town in what was then the Roman province of Numidia, present-day Algeria. Outside the metropolis of Carthage, the province was quite isolated and primitive. But its citizens were not unknown in the larger Empire, such as Fronto (second century), the emperor Marcus Aurelius' tutor; Apuleius (second century), author of The Golden Ass, an immensely popular collection of stories about mythology and religion; Tertullian (second to third century), a convert to Christianity, who defended it in many influential writings; and St. Cyprian (third century), the bishop of Carthage and famous martyr. The province was also quite ethnically and religiously diverse. In inland towns like Thagaste, many people would have been Berber (as Augustine's mother may have been) or Phoenician, retaining their languages and vestiges of their ancestral religions. Greek was the language of commerce, while Latin was the language of the army and government, so anyone who traveled or did business would need to know at least one of these international languages. Augustine was schooled in Latin, and only learned some Greek with difficulty. By Augustine's time, Christianity was the dominant religion of the Roman Empire, its primacy beginning in 312, when the emperor Constantine converted. But its supremacy did not mean it was without competitors: Judaism, mystery cults, magic, astrology, and the traditional Roman gods were still often revered by many. Nor was Christianity in Augustine's day homogeneous or uniform: there were in fact several competing forms of it in the fourth century and beyond, a sometimes fierce and violent competition in which Augustine would later play a crucial role.

Augustine's father, Patricius, owned a small amount of land, but his financial situation was not stable or reliable. Only with the help of a wealthy patron was he able to send Augustine away to school, and even then, Augustine had to take a year off due to monetary problems. Patricius was a pagan throughout his life, only converting near the end, under the influence of his wife, Monica, a devout Catholic Christian her whole life. Patricius was also unfaithful to his wife and had a terrible temper, though Augustine claims he was not violent. Patricius died when Augustine was seventeen, a fact Augustine barely mentions in his Confessions. From passing remarks in his writings, we can also gather that Augustine had at least one brother and one sister, but, as with his father, Augustine registers no emotional attachment to them.

Augustine's training at school was in rhetoric, what we would call public speaking and the art of persuasion. In a world like that of the late Roman Empire, dominated by oral rather than written communication, skill at speaking was crucial for a successful career in either politics or law, so Augustine's ability to teach such skills would have been in high demand and could garner him power, influence, and wealth. He seems to have been talented at his profession, attracting students, winning a poetry contest, and finally securing a very prestigious teaching post in Milan. Augustine also seems to have been adept at advancing his career in less noble ways, such as currying favor by dedicating his first written work, "On the Beautiful and the Fitting," to a famous orator in Rome, or arranging a marriage to a wealthy woman to help his situation, even though this forced him to abandon the woman with whom he had been living out of wedlock for thirteen years and who had borne him a son, Adeodatus. Augustine was the quintessential "yuppie" or "Alpha male" of his time: ambitious, talented, driven, striving to advance himself, even if it meant hurting others.

But simultaneous with this life of worldly success, Augustine recounts abiding and growing unease in his life. Unlike most Christian theologians, Augustine reveals a passionate, less-rational side to himself in his writings. It is, indeed, part of what makes him appealing, for he comes across to readers as more of a rounded, complicated person, and not merely a detached observer or theorizer of human life. Augustine made many close friendships, several of which were lifelong. He vividly describes his feelings of grief, first when a friend dies, then when his own son dies, and then when his mother, Monica, dies; he also details a powerful, emotional scene when he and his mother together beheld God in a vision. All are profoundly moving stories that have humanized Augustine for generations of readers.

Augustine's intellectual and emotional conflicts culminated in what he believed was a sign from God in 386, telling him to reject his worldly ways-both sexuality and ambition-and follow Christ. He quit his teaching position and took a group of friends and family to a retreat at a wealthy friend's country estate at Cassiciacum. There they read, discussed, meditated, prayed, and Augustine wrote his first works that have survived until today. The group stayed there a few months, until the following Easter, when Augustine was baptized together with his son, Adeodatus, and his friend Alypius. Monica died soon after this, and Augustine returned to North Africa, intending to live a quiet life of contemplation and study. But the clergy soon realized the value of a former rhetorician to be a spokesperson and defender of the faith, so they forced him-as was fairly common practice at the time-to be first a priest (391 C.E.), and then a bishop (395 C.E.). Augustine was bishop of the port city of Hippo for the rest of his life, until his death from illness during the Vandal siege of the city in 430. While there, he was a tireless and effective minister, counseling parishioners, defending the church against outside detractors and heretics, and leaving a body of written work that is staggering in size-about five million written words of his survive to the present.

Augustine's intellectual and religious odyssey is part of what makes him so fascinating, for he shows us how he worked through a process familiar to most of us as we form our values and beliefs-the process of doubt, investigation, skepticism, belief, and then more contemplation. Although The City of God is one his later works (ca. 412-426), these earlier intellectual influences would stay with Augustine throughout his life and can be seen in his writings right to the end of his life.

The first of these influences was Cicero (ca. 106-43 B.C.E.), a Roman, pagan statesman and philosopher. Augustine read one of his books, Hortensius, when he was nineteen, and depicts its effect as enormous: "This book really changed my temperament, and it changed my prayers to you, O Lord, and gave me different aspirations and desires. Suddenly all my empty hopes were now worthless to me, and with an unbelievable burning in my heart I craved the immortality of wisdom." Although Cicero was not a Christian, Augustine believed that the love of truth and wisdom is universal, and Christians can appreciate and learn from it, even in non-Christian authors. In this case, Cicero's words spurred Augustine to his first serious attempt to study the Christian Scriptures, but he quickly set them aside, the simple prose of the Bible rather bland and unsatisfying in comparison to the Greek and Roman classics on which he had been raised. His reading of Cicero is often referred to as Augustine's first "conversion," as he discovered the joys and rewards of intellectual pursuit, even if he did not immediately renounce his more worldly ambitions, nor wholeheartedly embrace the Christian faith.

Like many young people, Augustine dabbled in a foreign, exotic religion, rather than remain in what seemed the boring faith of his mother. His choice was the mythical and sensual faith of Manicheism, a religion begun in Persia by Mani (216-277) which combines elements of Zoroastrianism and Christianity. It was very successful, spreading as far as China, where it was combined with Buddhism and survived into modern times. Manicheism was a kind of gnosticism, the belief that people are essentially spirit and not body, and that spirit and body are incompatible, the former being wholly good, the latter wholly evil. God for the Manichees and other gnostics is pure spirit and could not have been incarnate in Christ, even though they shared many other beliefs with Christians. Augustine was a member of the group for eleven years during his early adulthood. The Manichees' attraction for many people was aesthetic: Manichean churches, illuminated manuscripts, and hymns were much more beautiful than their Catholic counterparts at the time. But the appeal for Augustine seems to have been more intellectual and moral: believing that evil came from the flesh and was not essentially part of humans made the world a much simpler place to understand-there was no mysterious origin or purpose of evil, nor was there much human responsibility for it, because it was simply a necessary part of the universe. The Manichees made evil rather trivial and easily dispelled. It is his reaction against the Manichean position in his mature thought that would help form the most distinctive and influential element of Augustine's thought-his theory that all humans since Adam and Eve are born with original sin, a sinful predisposition in their souls, not in their bodies. The details and effects of this "fall" take up all of book 14 of The City of God. Further, the Manichean theory of fleshly evil would seem to the mature Augustine to diminish human freewill by making people slaves to a flesh they cannot change or control: Augustine insists on human freewill throughout his works, especially in The City of God, book 5.

At age thirty-one, Augustine read some books by Platonist philosophers. In Augustine's time, this almost certainly did not mean any work by Plato (427-347 B.C.E.) himself. Augustine was probably reading the works of Plotinus (204-270 C.E.) and Porphyry (ca. 232-305 C.E.). Unlike the earlier encounter with Cicero, this seems to have led directly to a deeper appreciation of Christian Scripture and belief for Augustine. Augustine saw in these Platonist writings an intellectual system remarkably close to the Christian explanation of the universe, for both Christians and Platonists described a transcendent realm, of which our world is an inferior, "fallen" (the image used by both Platonists and Christians) version; they both believed this material world was created at a particular moment and was headed for some consummation, in distinction to other philosophers (e.g., Aristotle), who taught that the universe is eternal and changeless; they both believed in a single deity who is benevolent to humans; and both practiced an ethics of moderation, self-denial, and love for others. This realization that the Christian message was not unique or strange in many of its details seems to have made Christianity much more intellectually acceptable to the skeptical, inquisitive Augustine. Throughout his ecclesiastical career, Augustine would never fully abandon Platonist language or philosophy, for he always deemed it an incomplete version of Christian belief, but one that was useful for understanding and interpreting doctrines about God, Christ, and humanity. This can be seen in the huge discussion of both the correct and erroneous doctrines of Platonism in books 8 through 12 of City of God. To this day, Augustine is just as often analyzed and classified as a Neo-Platonist philosopher as he is labeled a Christian theologian.

With the Roman Empire officially Christian following the Emperor Theodosius' banning of other cults in 391, many Christians in Augustine's time dared to hope that it would become like the Kingdom of God, that there would be a Christian Empire obeying and fulfilling God's will on Earth directly, and not just relying on the promise of a pleasant afterlife. The sack of Rome by the Visigoths in 410 dashed such hopes of Christian temporal power and sent waves of anxiety and blame throughout the waning Empire. This is the situation to which Augustine wrote The City of God, an enormous work that occupied him for fourteen years (ca. 412-426).

In book 1, Augustine tackles what he believes is a recurring mistake found in many religions, and unfortunately accepted even by most Christians. The mistake, according to Augustine, is to think that one's religion, or one's zealousness and devotion to one's religion, will somehow translate into worldly success and immunity from physical harm. This is a very common claim indeed, for physical blessings in this life were promised by both the Roman gods and the God of the Hebrews (at least in some Old Testament books, especially Joshua, Judges, Samuel, and Kings, but not in others, especially Job). Augustine addresses two different versions of this theory that are identical in their erroneous assumptions, even if they arrive at opposite conclusions: some Roman pagans claimed that the Empire's conversion to Christianity is what had caused the fall of Rome, while some Christians concluded that those Christians and pagans who were butchered, burned, raped, or even subjected to cannibalism must have been suffering the just punishment of God, while those Christians who survived unscathed must have been receiving the reward for their superior faith. To both theories, Augustine offers the sober and realistic teaching that no religion guarantees worldly success, or eliminates worldly failure. He does claim that Christianity does a better job than other religions of protecting one from the adverse spiritual and moral effects of either success or failure, encouraging humility and gratitude for the former, and patient endurance in the latter. And for those Christians who gloat that their fellow citizens have suffered justly for their lack of faith, Augustine offers the more charitable and humble evaluation that one cannot tell in this world who really enjoys God's favor, so one should only hope and pray for everyone's well-being.

Further, though it is debated in its details, Augustine's counsel on the right relation between the church and state, especially in books 5 and 19, is a useful one of moderation and compromise. To the disappointment of many Christian rulers or theorists since, Augustine claims that one's religion has little bearing on one's fitness to rule, or on one's value as a citizen. Some rulers and citizens will coincidentally be Christians, and as Christians they should act virtuously, but Christian rulers will be no more (or less) successful and effective in governing than non-Christians. Christian citizens should emulate the courage and self-sacrifice of their pagan forebears, obeying whatever government under which they live, and understanding that no government is to be regarded as fully in accord with God's will, as all are the imperfect constructs of a fallen humanity.

Part of the frustration with Augustine's City of God is that is does not present an organized, abstract political theory in the way that later theorists who wished to appropriate Augustine's thought - usually to gain legitimacy and authority for their own ideas - might like. But that has hardly limited the number of times that the book is facilely invoked to show that a given war is a just one, or that it is not, or to support the separation of church and state, or to encourage their integration together into a theocracy. But when not used as a mere rhetorical device, Augustine's influence is crucial to understanding a large number of Christian and non-Christian philosophers and theologians such as Aquinas, Luther, Calvin, Descartes, Pascal, Kierkegaard, Heidegger, Arendt, and Derrida. Augustine's thought has frequently been incorporated into literature as well, such as the works of Dante, Dostoevsky, Flannery O'Connor, and Samuel Beckett.

Augustine's analysis of the calamity of the fall of Rome is as relevant to our present world situation as it was to the frightened Roman citizens of the fifth century. Augustine presents us with a model of humility and religious toleration, in which those who say that they know who is saved and who is damned, or who judge a ruler or a neighbor solely based on the church he attends, only distance themselves from the City of God, while fracturing and damaging the City of Man.

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Customer Reviews

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( 46 )
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See All Sort by: Showing 1 – 20 of 46 Customer Reviews
  • Anonymous

    Posted April 8, 2005

    A thought-provoking book

    I'm a nonbeliever, but I became aware of Augustine and Aquinas when taking Philosophy 100C and Philosophy of Religion at UCLA for my BA in Philosophy. What I enjoy most about Augustine in this work is that he often sounds very rational and open-minded, indeed, almost modern in his frank discussions of human behaviors. For example, he says things about sexuality that you might not expect a Doctor of the Church to say, like sex, being created by God, is not evil but it is lust which is sinful. This work also contains his famous quote about time 'If no one asks me what time is, I know. If someone asks me, I do not.' I suppose that is the mark of a great author, in that they transcend the times they live in and have something to say to all generations. At over 1000 pages, this book definitely requires a time committment on your part, but is certainly worth the investment.

    13 out of 15 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted June 5, 2009

    I Also Recommend:

    You do need this.

    Do not let the atheist and secularist reviewers tell you that you don't need this, or any authoritative teaching. God wants to love us, but does that mean our fate is guaranteed? We can do nothing to win God's love, but we need to do everything to earnestly want God's love. The battle for a compassionate and God-loving heart cannot be won by you alone, but can never be lost by those who never cease to battle. Augustine will teach you this, and so much more. New to this? Despair not: "How late have I loved Thee..." the Saint laments. Savor the place where God has brought you and give thanks for having been preserved to this moment. A great book from a great mind and a great soul. You do need this book.

    9 out of 10 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted December 28, 2011

    Highly Recommended

    Preface and introduction essays are crucial to understanding this brilliant work, an exemplary work from the Church Fathers whose writings helped to unfold the teachings of the Church.

    4 out of 4 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted March 29, 2001

    God is everywhere

    I have a little poem I would like to say about this book: Come sing with sweet rejoicing, come sing with love. We're not afraid of voicing all the things we're dreaming of. Oh, high and low and everywhere we go. We can build a beautiful city, yes we can, yes we can. We can build a beautiful city and call it ours, and call it the city of man. We won't need alabaster. We won't need gold. We've got our special plaster, so take my hand, I'll take you home. Oh, high and low and everywhere we go. We can build a beautiful city and call it ours, and call it the city of man. Such powerful words, but it does tell us we can build the city of God. Read this book. It is really old, written a few later after Jesus' death by St. Augustine. He was very creative for a time of 'oldness' for a writer. I think that this book sends out a good message to everyone, and every Christian person should read it. Buh Bye!

    2 out of 4 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted July 13, 2014

    Rennee to jordon

    Hey

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  • Anonymous

    Posted July 13, 2014

    Lucas

    Hurro.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted July 13, 2014

    Jordan

    Here. Take one. *Tosses you a bottle of pills and some water.* The procedure will be nothing less than excrutiatingly painful, for anyone who's awake, of course. Take that and it'll knock you out in a few minutes.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted March 12, 2014

    Fantastic book

    Excellent...

    0 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted April 14, 2013

    10.48!?

    Tooo expensive..... btw nice poem :)

    0 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted March 20, 2011

    Terrible scan of no value

    Do not waste your time

    0 out of 9 people found this review helpful.

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    Posted August 30, 2010

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