St Augustine, bishop of Hippo, was one of the central figures in the history of Christianity, and City of God is one of his greatest theological works. Written as an eloquent defence of the faith at a time when the Roman Empire was on the brink of collapse, it examines the ancient pagan religions of Rome, the arguments of the Greek philosophers and the revelations of the Bible. Pointing the way forward to a citizenship that transcends the best political experiences of the world and offers citizenship that will last for eternity, City of God is one of the most influential documents in the development of Christianity.
For more than seventy years, Penguin has been the leading publisher of classic literature in the English-speaking world. With more than 1,700 titles, Penguin Classics represents a global bookshelf of the best works throughout history and across genres and disciplines. Readers trust the series to provide authoritative texts enhanced by introductions and notes by distinguished scholars and contemporary authors, as well as up-to-date translations by award-winning translators.
About the Author
St Augustine of Hippo was the great Doctor of the Latin Church. Born in North Africa in AD 354, he was brought up as a Christian and at 16 went to Carthage to finish his education. Until 387, Augustine followed the Manichean religion and founded his own school of rhetoric in Rome. After his baptism, he returned to Africa and lived in the community he formed there until his death in 430. His written output there includes Confessions and City of God, among over 113 books.
Henry Bettenson (1908-1979) was educated at Bristol University and Oriel College, Oxford. He taught Classics for 25 years at Charterhouse 'Documents of the Christian Church' and 'Early Christian Fathers'.
Dr Gill Evans teaches medieval intellectual history, medieval theology and ecumenical theology in the Faculty of History at Cambridge. She has published widely in this area.
Read an Excerpt
The Pagan Gods and Earthly Happiness
Christianity Did Not Cause the Fall of Rome
M y dear marcellinus:1 This work which I have begun makes good my promise to you. In it I am undertaking noth-ing less than the task of defending the glorious City of God against those who prefer their own gods to its Founder. I shall consider it both in its temporal stage here below (where it journeys as a pilgrim among sinners and lives by faith) and as solidly established in its eternal abode—that blessed goal for which we patiently hope ‘until justice
1 Marcellinus, fervent Christian and, until his death in Septem-ber, 413, close friend of St. Augustine, was appointed by the Emperor Honoring (395–423) as a Commissioner to deal with the dispute between Catholics and Donatists in North Africa. Eager for the conversion of the pagan but well-disposed imperial pro-consul, Volusianus, he sought the help of Augustine and was thus the occasion for the correspondence between the proconsul and the saint which still survives and throws much light on the begin-nings of the City of God. St. Augustine began in 412 ( and finished in 415) the first five Books which, as he tells us in his Retractations (chap. 69), were meant as a refutation of the pagan position that polytheism is necessary for social prosperity and that the prohibi-tion of pagan worship ‘is the source of many calamities.’
be turned into judgment,’2 but which, one day, is to be the reward of excellence in a final victory and a perfect peace. The task, I realize, is a high and hard one, but God will help me.3
I know, of course, what ingenuity and force of arguments are needed to convince proud men of the power of humility. Its loftiness is above the pinnacles of earthly greatness which are shaken by the shifting winds of time—not by reason of hu-man arrogance, but only by the grace of God. For, in Holy Scripture, the King and Founder of the City of which I have undertaken to speak revealed to His people the judgment of divine law: ‘God resisteth the proud and giveth grace to the humble.’4 Unfortunately the swollen spirit of human pride claims for itself this high prerogative, which belongs to God alone, and longs and loves to hear repeated in its own praise the line: ‘To be merciful to the conquered and beat the haughty down.’5
Hence, in so far as the general plan of the treatise demands and my ability permits, I must speak also of the earthly city—of that city which lusts to dominate the world and which, though nations bend to its yoke, is itself dominated by its pas-sion for dominion.
From this earthly city issue the enemies against whom the City of God must be defended. Some of them, it is true, abjure their worldly error and become worthy members in God’s City. But many others, alas, break out in blazing hatred against it and are utterly ungrateful, notwithstanding its Re-deemer’s signal gifts. For, they would no longer have a voice to raise against it, had not its sanctuaries given them asylum as they fled before the invaders’ swords, and made it possible for them to save that life of which they are so proud.
2 Ps. 93.15.
3 Ps. 61.9.
4 James 4.6; 1 Peter 5.5.
5 Virgil, Aeneid 6.853.
Have not even those very Romans whom the barbarians spared for the sake of Christ assailed His Name? To this both the shrines of the martyrs and the basilicas of the Apostles bear witness: amid the city’s devastation, these buildings gave refuge not only to the faithful but even to infidels. Up to the sacred threshold raged the murderous enemy, but the slayers’ fury went no farther. The merciful among the enemy con-ducted to the churches those whom they had spared even outside the holy precincts, to save them from others who lacked such mercy. Even these ruthless men, who in other places cus-tomarily indulged their ferocity against enemies, put a rein to their murderous fury and curbed their mania for taking cap-tives, the moment they reached the holy places. Here, the law of sanctuary forbade what the law of war elsewhere permitted. Thus were saved many of those who now cry down Christian culture and who blame Christ for the calamities that befell the city. Indeed, that very mercy to which they owe their lives and which was exercised in Christ’s Name they ascribe not to our Christ but to their Fate. Yet, if they only had sense, they would see that the hardships and cruelties they suffered from the enemy came from that Divine Providence who makes use of war to reform the corrupt lives of men. They ought to see that it is the way of Providence to test by such afflictions men of virtuous and exemplary life, and to call them, once tried, to a better world, or to keep them for a while on earth for the accomplishment of other purposes. As for the fact that the fierce barbarians, contrary to the usage of war, generally spared their lives for Christ’s sake and, in particular, in places dedicated to Christ’s Name—which by a merciful Providence were spacious enough to afford refuge to large numbers—this they should have credited to Christian culture. They should thank God and, if they would escape the pains of eternal fire, should turn to His Name with all sincerity—as many have, without sincerity, in order to escape the results of the present ruin.
For, many of those whom you see heaping impudent abuse on the servants of Christ would not have escaped the ruin and massacre had they not falsely paraded as servants of Christ. Now, with ungrateful pride, impious madness, and perversity of heart, they work against that Name. They who turned to that Name with a lying tongue, in order to enjoy this tempo-ral light, deserve the penalty of eternal darkness.
The chronicles are filled with wars waged before Rome was founded, and since it rose and grew to be an empire. Let the pagans read these chronicles, and then adduce one single instance of a city falling into the hands of a foe disposed to spare men seeking refuge in the temples of their gods. Or let them even point to a single barbarian chieftain who captured a town and then ordered his soldiers not to kill those caught in any of the temples. Did not Aeneas see Priam cut down before the altar, ‘polluting with his blood the altar fires of his own consecration’? 1 And did not Diomedes and Ulysses ‘cut down the sentries in the towered height; since they grasped the holy image and dared with bloody hands to touch the maiden chaplets of the goddess’? 2 Nor did that which follows come true: ‘Since
then the hope of Greece ebbed and slid away.’3 For, after this, they conquered; after this, they wiped out Troy with fire and sword; after this, they cut off Priam’s head before the altar to which he fled. Nor did Troy perish because it lost its Palladium—Minerva. And what had Minerva herself first lost that she should perish? The guardians of her statue? To be sure, once they were slain, Minerva could be taken away. It was not the effigy that guarded the men, but the men who guarded the effigy. For what earthly reason was Minerva worshiped as the protector of the land and people, when she could not even protect the guards of her temple?
1 Aeneid 2.501.
2 Ibid. 2.166ff.
Just think of the kind of gods to whose protection the Ro-mans were content to entrust their city! No more pathetic il-lusion could be imagined. Yet, the pagans are angry with us because we speak so frankly of their divinities. However, they feel no anger against their own writers. They even pay them a fee to teach such nonsense, and think such teachers worthy of public salary and honors. Take Virgil. Children must read this greatest and best of all poets in order to impress their tender minds so deeply that he may never be easily forgotten, much as the well-known words of Horace suggest:
The liquors that new vessel first contains
Behind them leave a taste that long remains.1
Now, in Virgil, Juno is pictured as the foe of the Trojans and as saying, while she goads Aeolus, King of the Winds, against them:
The nation that I hate in peace sails by,
With Troy and Troy’s fallen gods to Italy.2
Did they act wisely in placing Rome’s immunity from defeat in the hands of such vanquished deities? Even assuming that Juno spoke these words in a fit of feminine anger, not knowing what she said, does not Aeneas himself, so often styled ‘the pious,’ relate how
Panthus, a priest of Phoebus and the Tower,
Rushed with his nephew and the conquered gods
And, frantic, sought for shelter at my door.3
Does he not admit that the very gods, whom he declares ‘con-quered’ are entrusted to his protection rather than he to theirs, when he is
1 Horace, Epistles 1.2.69.
2 Virgil, Aeneid 1.67.
3 Ibid. 2.319ff.
given the charge, ‘To thee doth Troy commend her gods, her all’? 4 If, then, Virgil describes such gods as van-quished, and, because vanquished, needing a man’s help even to escape, surely it is folly to believe that it was wise to entrust Rome to the safe-keeping of such divinities, and to believe that Rome could never be destroyed unless it lost its gods. In fact, to worship fallen gods as patrons and defenders is more like having poor odds5 than good gods. It is much more sensible to believe, not so much that Rome would have been saved from destruction had not the gods perished, but rather that the gods would have perished long ago had not Rome made every effort to save them.
For, who does not see, if only he stops to consider, how futile it is to presume that Rome could not be conquered when protected by conquered custodians, and that the reason it fell was that it lost its tutelary deities? Surely, the only possible reason why Rome should fall was that it wanted vincible pro-tectors. Hence, when all these things were written and sung about the fallen gods, it was not because the poets took pleas-ure in lying, but because truth compelled intelligent men to avow them. However, this matter will be more fitly and more fully treated in subsequent chapters. Here I shall do my best to wind up in few words what I began to say about men’s ingratitude.
These men, I say, hold Christ responsible for the evils which they deservedly suffer for their wicked lives. They have not the slightest appreciation of the fact, that, when they deserved to be punished, they were spared for Christ’s sake. On the con-trary, with impious perversity and bitterness, they attack His Name with those very tongues which falsely invoked that Name to save them. The very tongues which, like cowards, they held in check in the
4 Ibid. 2.293.
5 . . . tenere non numina bona, sed nomina mala. Nomina mala (if that is the correct reading and not omina mala) should be translated as ‘bad debtors,’ in the sense that the pagan gods do not pay back salvation in return for the worship given them; but for the sake of imitating the paronomasia, numina . . . nomina, ‘gods’ and ‘odds’ have been used. See note in De civitate Dei, ed. Emanuel Hoffman, CSEL XXXX (Vienna 1899) 8.
sacred places when safe, protected and unharmed by the enemy for Christ’s sake, they now use to hurl malicious curses against Him.
References to Virgil, Sallust, and Livy indicate that it was never customary for the temples or statues of the gods, in an-cient Greece and Rome, to be spared in time of war.
All the destruction, slaughter, plundering, burning, and dis-tress visited upon Rome in its latest calamity were but the normal aftermath of war. It was something entirely new that fierce barbarians, by an unprecedented turn of events, showed such clemency that vast basilicas were designated as places where refugees might assemble with assurance of immunity. There, no one was to be slain or raped; many destined for liberation were to be led there by the compassionate enemy; from there, none was to be dragged away into captivity by a cruel foe. That this was in honor of the Name of Christ and to the credit of Christian civilization is manifest to all. To see this and not acknowledge it with praise is ingratitude. To im-pugn those who give us credit is utterly unreasonable. Let no man with sense ascribe this to the savage ways of the bar-barians. It was God who struck awe into ruthless and blood-thirsty hearts, who curbed and wondrously tamed them. God who long ago spoke these words by the mouth of the Prophet; ‘I will visit their iniquities with a rod: and their sins with stripes. But My mercy I will not take away from them.’1
1 Ps. 88.33,34.
But, someone will say: ‘How, then, is it that this divine mercy was bestowed on impious and ungrateful man?’ Surely, the answer is that mercy was shown by the One who, day by day, ‘maketh His sun to rise upon the good and bad, and rain-eth upon the just and the unjust.’1 For, although some who reflect on these truths repent and are converted from their wickedness, others, according to the words of the Apostle, de-spise ‘the riches of His goodness and long-suffering, in the hardness of their heart and impenitence’ and treasure up to themselves ‘wrath against the day of wrath and revelation of the just judgment of God Who will render to every man ac-cording to his works.’2 Nevertheless, God’s patience is an in-vitation to the wicked to do penance, just as God’s scourge is a school of patience for the good. In like manner, God’s mercy embraces the good with love, just as His severity corrects the wicked with punishment. It has pleased Divine Providence to prepare for the just joys in the world to come in which the unjust will have no part; and for the impious, pains which will not afflict the virtuous. But, as for the paltry goods and evils of this transitory world, these He allotted alike to just and unjust, in order that men might not seek too eagerly after those goods which they see even the wicked to possess, or shrink too readily from those ills which commonly afflict the just.
However, there is a vast difference between the manner in which men use what we call prosperity and adversity. A good man is neither puffed up by fleeting success nor broken by adversity; whereas, a bad man is chastised by failure of this sort because he is corrupted by success. God often shows His intervention more clearly by the way He apportions the sweet and the bitter. For, if He visited every sin here below with manifest penalty, it might be thought that no score remained to be settled at the Last Judgment. On the other hand, if God did not plainly enough punish sin on earth, people might con-
1 Matt. 5.45.
2 Rom. 2.4ff.
clude that there is no such thing as Divine Providence. So, too, in regard to the good things of life. If God did not bestow them with patent liberality on some who ask Him, we could possibly argue that such things did not depend on His power. On the other hand, if He lavished them on all who asked, we might have the impression that God is to be served only for the gifts He bestows. In that case, the service of God would not make us religious, but rather covetous and greedy. In view of all that, when good and bad men suffer alike, they are not, for that reason indistinguishable because what they suffer is similar. The sufferers are different even though the sufferings are the same trials; though what they endure is the same, their virtue and vice are different.
For, in the same fire, gold gleams and straw smokes; under the same flail the stalk is crushed and the grain threshed; the lees are not mistaken for oil because they have issued from the same press. So, too, the tide of trouble will test, purify, and improve the good, but beat, crush, and wash away the wicked. So it is that, under the weight of the same affliction, the wicked deny and blaspheme God, and the good pray to Him and praise Him. The difference is not in what people suf-fer but in the way they suffer. The same shaking that makes fetid water stink makes perfume issue a more pleasant odor.
Table of Contents
City of GodChronology
Arrangements and Contents of the City of God
Abbreviations Used in References
Concerning the City of God, Against the Pagans
Reading Group Guide
City of God opens a vast window on a range of religious, scientific, historic, and aesthetic concerns. E. L. Doctorow’s novel promises to strike readers as a wonderfully unusual novel with a liberating narrative technique that breaks many of the so-called "rules" of the novel and also echoes and riffs on styles and themes from a wide range of literary and historical antecedents. The works of such disparate authors as John Dos Passos, Virginia Woolf, Walter Benjamin, Tony Kushner, Elie Wiesel, and Jorge Luis Borges might be discussed alongside City of God with fruitful results.
A novel as thematically playful, nonlinear, and wide-ranging as City of God invites a similarly atypical approach to discussing it in a reading group. Hardly a narrative suitable for chapter-by-chapter analyses and succinct plot summaries, Doctorow’s novel concerns itself centrally with the kind of capital "M" mysteries (the natures of God, creation, and human destiny) that finally defy satisfying solutions. Casting readers as apprenticing detectives to the Reverend Dr. Thomas Pemberton, the self-anointed Divinity Detective, City of God allows for a lot of intellectual "play" and features what Doctorow has called a "kitchen sink" prose style. The book conflates all sorts of literary forms and genres and serves up a stew of fragmented biographical sketches, Homeric verse poems, prayers, and jazz-like improvisations on pop standards, all of which orbit around the narrative’s central issue—the mystery of the stolen cross.
The plot of City of God, such as it is, will likely seem confusing to readers because it is so fragmented and jittery, and because the narrative, especially at the outset, rarely supplies us with the standard clues to establish who is speaking and what the situation is. A useful metaphor which could be discussed and assigned to the novel is that of an intricate puzzle, the assembly of which is up to the reading group to perform together. Perhaps more than any book since Joyce’s Ulysses, City of God all but defies critical distillation or reduction. And like Ulysses, City of God is more than anything a work of skilled mimesis, mirroring in prose the nature of one New York writer’s consciousness and concerns at the dawn of the twenty-first century.
ABOUT E. L. DOCTOROW
Named for Edgar Allan Poe, Edgar Lawrence Doctorow occupies a central position in the history of American literature. On a shortlist that might also include Philip Roth, Toni Morrison, John Updike, Saul Bellow, and Don DeLillo, E. L. Doctorow is generally considered to be among the most talented, ambitious, and admired novelists of the second half of the twentieth century. Long celebrated for his vivid evocations of nineteenth- and twentieth-century American life (particularly New York life), Doctorow has received the National Book Award, two National Book Critics Circle Awards, the PEN/Faulkner Award, the Edith Wharton Citation for Fiction, the William Dean Howell Medal of the American Academy of Arts and Letters, and the presidentially conferred National Humanities Medal.
Doctorow was born in New York City on January 6, 1931, and, like the novelist Everett in City of God, attended the Bronx High School of Science. After graduating with honors from Kenyon College in 1952, he did graduate work at Columbia University and served in the U.S. Army, which stationed him in Germany. In 1954, he married Helen Setzer. They have three children. Doctorow was senior editor for New American Library from 1959 to 1964 and then served as editor in chief at Dial Press until 1969. Since then, he has devoted his time to writing and teaching. He holds the Glucksman Chair in American Letters at New York University and over the years has taught at several institutions, including Yale University Drama School, Princeton University, Sarah Lawrence College, and the University of California, Irvine.
With The Book of Daniel, his third novel, Doctorow emerged as an important American novelist with a strongly political bent. A fictional retelling of the notorious Rosenberg spy case, the novel deftly evokes the complex anxieties of Cold War America, shuttling back and forth in time from the 1950s, when Paul and Roselle Isaacson are convicted and electrocuted, to the late 1960s, when their troubled son, Daniel, a grad student at Columbia, must deal with the consequences of his unusual birthright. The Book of Daniel was adapted in 1983 into the film, Daniel, starring Timothy Hutton and directed by Sidney Lumet. Four years after The Book of Daniel came Ragtime, a dazzling reimagining of the United States at the dawn of the twentieth century by means of a plot that, like City of God, ingeniously brings together real-life figures—such as Henry Ford, J. P. Morgan, Harry Houdini, and Emma Goldman—with an array of invented characters. Ragtime was named one of the 100 best English-language novels of the twentieth century by the editorial board of the Modern Library and was adapted into a successful Broadway musical in 1998.
Widely acclaimed for the beauty of his prose, his innovative narratives, his feel for atmospherics, and above all for his talent for evoking the past in a way that makes it at once mysterious and familiar, Doctorow has created one of the most substantial bodies of work of any living American writer.
"The greatest American novel of the past 50 years . . . reading City of God restores one's faith in literature."
"Sparkles with Mr. Doctorow's rich language and ideas."
—The Wall Street Journal
"City of God blooms with a humor and a humanity that carries triumphant as intelligent a novel as one might hope to find these days." —Los Angeles Times
The Book of Daniel
City of God
Lives of the Poets
Welcome to Hard Times
- One critic has written that City of God is a story about storytelling—about the ubiquity of narrative; about the whole of language existing as a storytelling tool to reflect and respond to reality; about consciousness perceived as a narrative (hi)story. Do you agree with this characterization? Discuss the dozens of stories that comprise Doctorow's book, from the story of the universe to Yehoshua's ghetto narrative, highlighting the interplay that exists among them.
- Discuss the structure, language, and imagery of City of God. In what ways does it mimic or recreate the rhythms of contemporary thought and life? How might Doctorow's structure—full as it is of spiraling ideas, images, and themes which recur and continually double back on themselves—be viewed as a sort of jazz-like innovation on the Wagnerian leitmotif? To what end do these spiraling repetitions of theme progress? How do they all relate to and riff upon the central mystery of the missing cross?
- When Pem goes to the cancer ward just after leaving the priesthood, he encounters a group of dying people singing twentieth-century standards. Discuss the implications of this scene. Why does it affect Pem the way it does? What does it mean when the pop song, that most "self-referential" and instantly recognizable of all musical genres, is transformed into a sort of secular hymnal?
- Compare and contrast the spiritual and metaphysical quests of Pem, Everett, and Sarah.
- Chart the course of Pem's relationship with Sarah Blumenthal, from their first meeting at the synagogue where the stolen cross is discovered, to their wedding reception at the close of the book. What qualities attract Pem to Sarah? Sarah to Pem? And in terms of the book's major themes, what are the implications of their union? How does their marriage affect Everett? What is it about these two ecclesiastics that Everett finds so fascinating?
- "You say all history has contrived to pour this beer into my glass," says the nameless Vietnam veteran to Everett. Later, Pem speaks of "a great historically amassed communal creation." And finally, much earlier in the novel, Rabbi Joshua asks, "Is time a loop? Do you have the same feeling I have—that everything seems to be running backwards? That civilization is in reverse?at is going on in all of these lines? What theme is Doctorow underscoring here?
- How might the Jewish notion of Messianic time, in which all of history becomes meaningful retrospectively by the sudden and unexpected coming of the Messiah, be linked to the themes in City of God?
- City of God is one of those perfect books for reading clubs and discussions among friends, because much of the power in this novel derives from what the author leaves unsaid, from what lies in the spaces between the characters' perceptions, and from the ways Doctorow invites the reader to draw her/his own conclusions and make her/his own conjectures. Discuss your reactions to Doctorow's characters and their relationships to each other. What techniques does the author use to develop the novel's central characters? What particular qualities make these people so believable and/or affecting?
- Discuss the book's extended portrait of the man who discovers that his life is gradually becoming a movie. What is going on here? Fill in the blanks of Doctorow's metaphor.
- Pem ferociously struggles with the Judeo-Christian tradition—in much the way his real-life forebear, James Pike, did—because it appears to him to be more a narrative about power, genocidal destruction, and the renunciation of human reason and intellect than about faith, hope, and love. "I take the position that true faith is not a supersessional knowledge. It cannot discard the intellect. . . . How can we presume to exalt our religious vision over the ordinary pursuits of our rational minds?" Interpret Pem's remarks here to the bishop's examiners. Then re-read Pem's crowning toast at the wedding, the culmination of his struggle. How does this impassioned and captivating speech serve to bring together the myriad fragments that have preceded it in City of God?