The City of God by Saint Augustine is one of the most important books in the history of the Christian Church. It also stands as a valuable historical document on the decline of the Roman Empire, and the social and religious tensions that surrounded the fall. Augustine’s work is so significant because it is one of the earliest surviving works of religious theory by a Christian author, a book that uses analytical methods to justify the position of religion in society.
Augustine started writing the twenty two books that make up the City of God in 413 AD. He was inspired by one of the most tumultuous times in the history of both the Roman Empire and Christianity. In 410 AD Rome was attacked and devastated by the Vandals, led by King Alaric. The sacking of Rome by the East Germanic tribe was the culmination of the long decline of the Roman Empire. The ‘barbarian’ tribes throughout Europe had been growing increasingly powerful, dominating huge swathes of the continent and forcing Rome into an increasingly defensive position.
Despite the increasingly desperate position Rome had fallen into, the sacking by the Vandals still sent shockwaves through Roman society. Rome was known as the ‘Eternal City’, it was believed invincible and always safe from attack. As Romans came to the realisation that their capital city and entire way of life was vulnerable, an existential crisis started that dominated thought in the period. The believers of Rome’s declining pagan faith quickly blamed the attack on the Christians, claiming the old Gods had abandoned the city, and the Christian God had failed to protect it, even though Constantine had declared him the one true God.
In the City of God, Augustine confronted the charges made by the pagans against Christianity. Augustine’s work is important as it uses thorough logical historical analysis to back a theological argument. The first three books confront the Pagans belief by arguing that misfortune had befallen societies throughout history, and had nothing to do with divine intervention. In particular he draws attention to previous calamities that had hit the Roman Empire, even in times when the old Gods were still worshipped. The question is asked, if the Old God’s had protected Rome, why didn’t they do so on these occasions?
The next five books see Augustine systematically deconstruct the beliefs and systems of pagan religion. He criticises the stories of the old Gods, arguing that they behaved in a low and base manner compared to the virtuous Christian God. He attacks the Pagan idea of fate, and suggests that rather than the pagan Gods protecting Rome, it was the Christian God rewarding Roman virtue, even if they didn’t worship him. Finally he analyses the writings of pagan authors throughout history, coming to the conclusion that the old Gods were never really held with high regard in Roman culture.
If the first part of the City of God is an attack on paganism, the second advocates the merits of Christianity. Using the Bible as a basis, Augustine describes the City of the World and the City of Heaven. The history of the two cities is explained, as well as a prediction on how he thinks they will end. Augustine argues that the blissful existence of the City of Heaven can be found here on earth. The book explains the importance of pursuing a virtuous life on earth to ensure happiness and the supreme good in life. On the other hand, if people live immoral lives, the City of Earth will come to resemble the City of the Damned.
The City of God was a crucial defence of Christianity at a time when the Roman Empire entered the chaos of decline. Even if one ignores the theological and moral arguments it makes (especially in the second section), it stands as an innovative work of philosophical and historical debate that seems well ahead of its time. Augustine was not a fatalist – a key idea in the City of God is that humanity can be responsible for deciding its own fate, even if it has to be done through a religious framework. He also appreciated the importance of defending ones argument logically and with evidence. Both of these facts make the City of God stand out, what if it being published as Europe stood on the cusp of the Dark Ages.
The City of God
De Civitate Dei
Vol. 2Vol. 2
by Saint Augustine