The city of God

The City of God: Book 5: Chapters One -Three


WE HAVE NOW SEEN, first, that happiness (or the full possession of all that the heart can long for) is not a goddess but a gift of God and, second, that the only God whom men should worship is the One who can make them happy—so that, if Felicity were in fact a goddess, she alone should claim our worship.

We must now turn to consider why God, who can give such gifts as can be shared by men who are not good and, therefore, not happy willed that the Roman Empire should spread so widely and endure so long. Certainly, as I have already said and, if need be, shall repeat, this cannot be attributed to the multitude of false gods whom the Romans worshiped.

Chapter 1

The cause, then, of the greatness of the Roman Empire was neither fortune nor fate. (I am using these words in the sense of those who say or think that fortune, or chance, is what happens without cause or rational explanation, and that fate is what is bound to happen, in spite even of the will of God or of men.) On the contrary, Divine Providence alone explains the establishment of kingdoms among men. As for those who speak of fate, but mean by fate the will and power of God, they should keep their conception but change their expression. Surely, though, it is best to say at once what one will have to say as soon as one is asked what is meant by fate. Ordinarily, when people hear the word fate they think of nothing but the position of the stars at the moment of one’s birth or conception. This position is for some independent of, and for others dependent on, the will of God. As for those who think that the stars determine, independently of God’s will, what we are to do and have and suffer, they should be given no hearing by anyone—none, certainly, by those who profess the true religion, and none even by those who worship any kind of gods, however false. For, the conclusion from their way of thinking is that no God at all should be either adored or implored.

For the moment, my argument is not directed against sincere pagans, but only against those who, in defense of what they call gods, attack the Christian religion. However, even those who think the stars are dependent on the will of God (in determining what human beings are to be and have and suffer) do the heavens a great wrong, if they imagine that the stars have their power so communicated to them by God’s supreme power that they remain responsible for what they determine. For, how can we suppose—if I may so speak—that the unblemished justice of that brilliant Senate of the Stars could choose to have crimes committed, the like of which no state on earth could command without facing a sentence of suppression at the bar of world opinion?

God is the Lord of both stars and men. But, what kind of rule over men’s actions is left to God if men are necessarily determined by the stars?
On the other hand, suppose, as many do, that the stars have their power from the supreme God, but that, in imposing necessity on men, they merely carry out God’s command without any responsibility of their own. In that case, we should have to impute to the will of God what, as we have just seen, would be monstrous to impute even to the stars.

There are some men who prefer to say that the stars rather signify than cause men’s fate, that a particular position is like a form of words which causes us to know, but does not cause, what happens in the future. This view was shared by men of no mean learning. However, this is not the way that astrologers usually speak. For example, they do not say: ‘Such and such a position of Mars signifies a murder.’ What they say is: ‘makes a murderer.’ Yet, even when we concede that they do not express themselves as they should and that they ought to learn from philosophers the right way to say what they think they have found in the stars, difficulties still remain. For example, they have never been able to explain why twins are so different in what they do and achieve, in their professions and skills, in the honors they receive, and in other aspects of their lives and deaths. In all such matters, twins are often less like each other than like complete strangers; yet, twins are born with practically no interval of time between their births and are conceived in precisely the same moment of a single sexual semination.

Chapter 2

Cicero tells us that the eminent doctor, Hippocrates, once wrote that he suspected two brothers to be twins because they both fell sick, then reached the crisis of the sickness and finally recovered, in each case, at the same time; while Posidonius, the Stoic, who was greatly interested in astrology, used to insist that such brothers must have been conceived and born with identical horoscopes. Thus, what the doctor attributed to a similar predisposition of bodily health, the philosopher-astrologer ascribed to the power and arrangement of the stars at the moment of conception and birth.

In a matter like this, the medical hypothesis is far more acceptable and obviously more credible, since the parents’ condition at the time of conception could easily affect the embryos, and it would be no wonder if the twins should be born with the same kind of health, since they had developed in the same way in their mother’s womb. In the same way, they would be nourished with similar food in the same house, and would share the same climate, environment, and water—all of which, according to medical science, can help or hinder health. Moreover, they would be accustomed to the same kind of exercise, and so, having their bodies in the same condition, they would be likely to get sick at the same time and for the same reason.

On the other hand, it is nothing short of impudence to pretend that the movement of the heavens and stars at the moment of conception and birth can explain such similarity in the matter of sickness. One has only to remember how many beings differing in kind, character, and consequent capacities can be conceived and born in any one time and place and under the same conditions of the heavens. I myself have known twins who not only acted differently and traveled in different places, but were likewise quite unlike in health. And, as far as I can see, Hippocrates could easily explain these differences of health in terms of food and exercise—factors which depend, not on the temper of one’s body, but on the choice of one’s will.

It would be surprising, indeed, if either Posidonius or any other advocate of siderial influence could find any explanation unless he wanted to play on the ignorance of simple minds. I know they may try to explain differences by appealing to the tiny interval of time between the precise moments of twin’s births and, hence, to the precise part of the heavens which marks the hour of birth and which is called the horoscope. But, this is either too little to explain the variety in the wills, actions, character, and fortune of twins, or else it is too much to explain their identity in lowliness or nobility of social class—since the only explanation of class distinctions is supposed to be the hour in which people happen to be born.

And so it is that, if one twin is born so quickly after the other that the same part of the horoscope remains for both, I have a right to expect to find a total likeness, which, as a fact, is never to be found in twins; or, if the delay in the birth of the second twin changes the horoscope, I should expect to find different parents—which, of course, no twins can have.

Chapter 3

It is of no use, therefore, to call in the well-known argument from the potter’s wheel, which Nigidius is said to have invoked when worried by the problem of twins—and which won him the nickname of ‘potter.’ He took a potter’s wheel and turned it with all his might. Then, while it was spinning around, he made two dots with ink as fast as he could and, to all appearances, in the identical spot. When the wheel came to rest, the two dots he had made were found far apart on the surface of the wheel. ‘And so it is with twins,’ he said. ‘Even though they are born in as quick succession as I made the dots on the wheel, the velocity of the heavens would set the horoscopes far apart. This explains,’ he added, ‘the very great differences which are recorded in the characters and fortunes of twins.’

Alas! this figment of the imagination is more fragile than the vessels shaped by the spinning of the potter’s wheel. For, if there is enough gap in the sky between the horoscopes of twins to explain why one gets the inheritance and the other does not, how can anyone dare to predict, from the horoscopes of those who are not twins, differences like sex, which no one can explain, and ascribe these to the factors operating at the moment of birth?

It is no answer to say that such prognostications relate to non-twins where greater differences in time are in question, whereas the tiny differences in time between births of twins explain only such trivial differences concerning which astrologers are never consulted—for example, when one is to sit, or to walk, or when and what one is to eat. The fact is that such trivialities are not in question when you point out the very many and very great differences in the works and ways of twins.

Augustine of Hippo, The City of God, Books I–VII

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