Posted by: mmkelly | September 20, 2009

St. Augustine, City of God Against the Pagans: Part 1

If anything, St. Augustine is thorough.  He considers a wide variety of evidence, he meticulously deconstructs arguments delving into etymologies and mythologies, and he plucks out every inconsistency he can find in a veritable stable of classical philosophers and religious commentators. Perhaps this need to assiduously dissect every possible flaw or criticism of early christianity stems from insecurity. Writing in the context of a falling empire, an empire whose capital had recently been sacked by the armies of supposedly less sophisticated barbarians and an empire whose decline coincided with the adoption of Christianity as the state religion, Augustine had to combat historical correlations that reflected poorly on his adopted fate. What evidence is there that Christianity, with its visions of an immutable, omnipotent, and benevolent God overlooking the entire course of human action, had granted any sort of temporal benefit to the Romans?

St. Augustine of Hippo

St. Augustine of Hippo

The answer, essentially, is none. Augustine admits as much in the course of his argument: asserting that fealty to neither the Greco-Roman nor Christian gods guarantees worldly success or happiness (the former because they are in fact fake and powerless gods and the latter because he only guarantees eternal happiness to the pious, not temporal happiness). Augustine’s task, therefore, for at least the first third of the book is to attack cultural assumptions that divinities have an effect on the lives of humans, and that these effects might be affected by sycophantic human behavior. He does so, rather successfully, by attacking the various contradictions and idiosyncrasies of the ancient mtyhs; and less successfully by invoking the ineffable nature of the Christian God.

There is something obnoxiously ill-humored about the way St. Augustine approaches the structure of classic Greco-Roman mythology and spirituality. Clearly, these stories are incredibly complex: they derive from a variety of geographic sources and historical inspirations; they are adapative, having evolved over, in some cases, almost a millenia of storytelling and embellishment; they are broad, covering spiritual needs of the broadest sort and temporal needs of the greatest specificity. They are a pluralistic set of historic constructions, with a variety of well-defined uses and applications (St. Augustine reflects rather deeply on the significance of the tripartite representational system of Roman religion–the poetic, the philosophical, and the civic–each with their own sets of legitimizing characteristics). St. Augustine looks deeply into these myths and sees that they are growths–that there is no original source, but rather they are a constantly fluctuating and adapting group of deities. He studies these gods and notes their overlapping responsibilities. He criticizes these gods and decries their moral laxitude, their love of power over virtue, their jealousy and their rapaciousness. He sees them for what they are: human personalities applied to superhuman bodies with superhuman powers. In view of all of this, St. Augustine does  remarkable job of slowly peeling down each piece of the mythological veneer which obscures the fact that these deities are human constructions, that they derive out of human needs, aspirations, and ambitions. He looks into every cranny, he opens every closet, and he refutes every vague and casuist explanation.

In contrast, when discussing the intervention of the Christian God into world affairs, St. Augustine seems to drift. Whereas he came into the study of Greco-Roman religion from a position of cynicism and doubt, he begins his analysis of Christianity with the assumption that the biblical sources are correct, are indeed irrefutable fact. And irrefutable facts, it may be noted, are notoriously hard to argue against.

The question he must answer is why, if the Christian God is so bountiful and omnipotent, are Christians and the Christian empire killed, maimed, raped, and ravished? Why doesn’t this all-powerful shepherd protect his flock. Augustine’s response is unsatisfying: such a God, of such incomprehensible infinitude, cannot be understood nor explained, therefore it would be better not to ask such questions. Indeed, the ineffability of the Christiang God is his greatest strength and his mercurial nature, though constantly couched in terms of compassion and justice, can be explained through a variety of contradictory motives. When the good are punished, it is because they are being tested; when the good are blessed, it is because they deserve it. Why some good are deserving while other good are untested is unclear, but St. Augustine requests that respect divine authority enough to take him at his world. Similarly, some people, who are bad or are non-believers, lead remarkable happy and fulfilling lives. These people of course are enacting the Lords plan as unknowing pawns (for example, the Roman emperors are non-believers who are still spreading justice and law, which is an improvement, to the rest of the world so, even though they do not believe in God, they are aided by God because they are part of his grand plan for the universe). Others are simply punished and discarded for their disbelief. St. Augustine permits no criticism of the inherent unfairness of such a system because his faith forms to a  transitive tautology: God is justice; God is everything: everything is justice. God is good, therefore there can be no bad, and if there is bad, it is merely because we have misinterpreted an actual good because we lack God’s knowledge of past and future.

This can be very frustrating to read. St. Augustine unfairly deconstructs classical mythology while denying, from the very essence of his beliefs, that one can even question Christian truths. It is even more frustrating because he employs a variety of logical fallacies in his small, self-contained, chaptered arguments. First, he conflates all classical sources as one. When Homer contradicts Virgil, or Cato disagrees with Cicero, St. Augustine sees this as cause for discounting a religious tradition that had flourished among a variety of peoples for an exceptionally long time. Part of this, might be a direct outcome of the relative position of Christianity, a “new” religion with far less time to create a bundle of contradictory dogmas, and the Greco-Roman heritage, an “old” set of superstitions and religious practices that had evolved to meet the needs of diverse demographic populations.

A second logical flaw that St. Augustine employs with some regularity, is to consistently derive his arguments from deductive logic without ever evaluating his premises. Deductive logic is internally accurate: given a set of premises and a set of logical rules, it is impossible to create something that isn’t a true derivation of these premises and rules. However, if you choose the wrong premises, then your entire argument is worthless and should be discarded. Choosing premises then, is the most important step in the process of deductive logic. Augustine constantly breezes by this step, with the consequence that his analysis is clearly biased in favor of Christianity. For example, the assumption that God is good, while an essentially part of the Judeo-Christian viewpoint, does not apply to all religious traditions. Therefore, when Augustine invokes Christian definitions of divinity in his analysis of Greco-Roman religion, he has already decided the argument by his choice of premise. Of course, Greco-Roman religion is immoral when you define morality to be in opposition of Greco-Roman religion.

Third, St. Augustine seems to be a proponent of progressive history. Because of his belief in Christianity and the salvation of Christ, he understands the world to be tending towards an ultimate resolution in God’s grace. Because God has a plan for the world,  a plan that ends with the ultimate judgment of all souls, an underlying millenarianism underlies Augustine’s writing. This becomes problematic when he attempts to understand the philosophers who came before Christ. He automatically assumes that they are part of God’s plan to prepare the world for a better way through Christ, and his understanding of them is therefore biased towards placing them in a coherent progressive framework to a spiritually sanitized world. Consequently, St. Augustine dismisses many philosophers, especially the Platonists, as steps toward Christianity and not as original thinkers in their own right.

While there are many things that are obnoxious about The City of God, there are also many fascinating facets to the book. For me, one thing that constantly festered at the back of my mind, was the fact that for St. Augustine Greco-Roman religion was a real and formidable adversary. From the modern perspective, Christianity is still very much a live proposition–it is something that one can believe to be real and true–whereas Greek mythology is clearly a dead proposition, something that people would deride as superstition or mere culture. This provides a profound perspective on which to view the subjectiviy of human ideas. St. Augustine, though a stalwart believer in the trinity, finds the Greek pantheon to be very real and is unwilling to dismiss them as anything less than demons. Today, such a statement would be unthinkable, and this provides a wonderful window into how perspectives change with years. What today seems to b e a very quaint and overdone argument, was to St. Augustine the most important argument that could be made for the preservation of Christianity as the state religion of Rome.

Finally, it was interesting reading City of God directly after the Metamorphoses. Ovid sees the constant flux and movement of nature as being its most essential aspect: to change is to be real and alive; St. Augustine, on the other hand, uses the phrase immutable over and over to describe God, the one real thing. These dialectical worldviews–Ovid claiming that stability is only a superficial veneer hiding the constant flux of the world and Augustine believing that the entire world balances on the eternal stability of the one true God–form a major chasm in Western thought. Ovid is a writer who understands subjectivity, he is fun, whimsical and free; St. Augustine is a writer who yearns for objectivity, he is earnest and humorless, always trying to pin down the true and immutable nature of things. I think that you can understand a good deal of how people think in Europe for the next two hundred years by understanding the conflict between these two classic authors. They present two broad worldviews that, to this day, continue to grapple with one another.

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