The city of God

The City of God: Book 6: Chapters 3-5

Chapter 3

Varro wrote forty-one books under the title Antiquities. He divided his matter under two headings, human and divine, devoting twenty-five books to the former and sixteen to the latter. He followed the plan of devoting six books to each of four subdivisions under the heading ‘Things Human’: Persons, Places, Times, and Actions—dealing in the first six with persons, in the second six with places, and the third six with times, in the fourth and last six, with actions. These four sixes make twenty-four. At the beginning he placed one book by itself, as a general introduction to the whole. In general, he followed a similar plan in regard to divine things, as far as the subject matter allowed.

Sacred actions are performed by persons in certain places at definite times. And these are the four topics he treats, giving three books to each. The first three deal with the persons who perform the rites, the next three with places, the third with times, the fourth with the rites. Here, too, he is careful to make the distinctions: Who, Where, When, and What. The main topic he was expected to deal with was: To whom. Hence, the last three deal with the gods; the five threes making fifteen in all. To make up the total of sixteen which I mentioned, he placed one book by itself at the beginning to serve as a general introduction.

Thus, there were five main divisions. Immediately after the introduction came the three books dealing with persons. These were again subdivided, so that the first dealt with the pontiffs, the next with augurs, the third with the Sacred College of Fifteen. Of the second three books dealing with places, the first was about shrines; the second, about temples; the third, about sacred places. The next four dealt with time or holy days. The first of these was concerned with festivals; the next, with circus games; the third, with theatrical performances. Of the fourth trio of books dealing with worship, one concerned consecrations; the next, private worship; the last, public rites.

At the end of this procession, so to speak, of religious observances come the gods themselves, to whom all the observances are directed. They are dealt with in three other books, of which, the first concerned the known gods; the second, the unknown gods; the third and last dealt with the select major divinities.

Chapter 4

Now, in this whole series of volumes, so beautiful in the skillful arrangement of matter, one will look in vain for any mention of eternal life. Indeed, it would be illogical to hope or to wish for any such mention. From what I have already said and, still more from what remains to be said, the reason for this is obvious to anyone who is not blinded by his own obstinacy. Everything here treated of is an invention either of men or of demons—not of ‘good demons,’ to use their own expression, but, to speak plainly, of unclean spirits and manifestly malign spirits. All of these foster the idea that the human soul has so little reality that it is incapable of reaching and finding rest in unchanging and eternal truth. These malign spirits work secretly and with incredible hatred to fill the minds of wicked people. Sometimes, they openly work on people’s senses and call in lying witnesses in their favor.

Varro gives a reason for treating of human things first and of divine things later, namely, because cities came into existence first and only later instituted religious rites, But, the fact is that true religion owed its foundation to no city; it was itself the foundation of a wholly celestial city. True religion is the revelation and teaching of the true God who is the Giver of eternal life to those who worship him truly.

Varro’s justification for treating first of human things and secondly of divine, on the ground that divine worship was instituted by men, is expressed as follows: ‘As a painter comes before the painting and the builder before the building, so do cities come before the things which cities instituted.’ He admits, however, that, if he had been writing a complete treatise on the nature of the gods, he would have treated first of the gods and then of men. He seems to imply either that he had no intention of treating of all but only of some of the gods, or that some, though not all, of the gods need not have existed before men.

But, how then, explain that when, in his last three books, he treats of known, unknown, and select gods he seems to want to include all of the gods? What can he really mean when he writes: ‘If I were writing of the divine and human natures in their totality, I should have first finished the treatment of the gods before entering on a discussion of man’? Is he writing of all, or of some, or of none of the gods? If of all, then the treatment of gods certainly should come first; if of some, there still is no reason why the treatment should not come first. Is it a reproach to man that a few of the gods should be preferred to the whole of humanity? And, even if this is so in regard to the whole of humanity, is it too much of a reproach that a part of the gods should be preferred to the Romans?

His books dealing with human matters do not cover the whole world, but only the city of Rome. These books, he says, rightly came before the books dealing with divine matters, for the reason, so he says, that the painter comes before the painting and the builder before the building. His assumption is always the same, that religion, like a picture or a building, is the creation of men. We are left with the possibility that he had in mind to write of none of the gods and, without wanting to say this openly, made his intention clear enough to those who read between the lines.

Certainly, when a man says ‘not all,’ he is usually understood as meaning ‘some (though, of course, he might be taken to mean ‘none’ since ‘none’ is neither ‘some’ nor ‘all’). Judging from what he says, if he had been writing of all of the gods, he should have treated of them before treating of human matters; even though he does not say so, truth demands that he should have treated even of some of the gods—not to insist on all of them—before treating of merely Roman matters. But, what he was dealing with came properly after the discussion of Rome. The conclusion is that he was treating of nothing divine at all.

He had no intention of putting human things before divine things, but he refused to put fictions before facts. In what he writes about human matters, he follows the historians who deal with facts. In what he writes about what he calls ‘divine’ matters, what does he do but give us feelings about fancies? Here, we have the subtle significance of what he did, both in writing about the ‘gods’ in second place and in giving an explanation of why he did it.

If he had given no explanation, it might have been possible to find some other defense of his arrangement. However, in the very explanation which Varro gives, he left no other interpretation open. He made it clear, not that he was preferring the nature of man to the nature of god, but that he was treating of men before treating of human institutions. Thus, he confesses that his books dealing with ‘divine’ matters were based, not on facts concerning the nature of god, but on fancy—which is another name for error. As I pointed out in Book IV, he made this clear in another place, where he says he would have written according to the rule of nature if he himself had founded a new city, but that, since he was dealing with an old city, he could do nothing but follow the tradition he found there.

Chapter 5

What are we to think of his division of theology, or the systematic treatment of the divine, into three kinds, of which the first is called mythical, the second physical, and the third political? In Latin, we should call the first (if the word were in use) ‘fabular’; but, let us call it fabulous, since the Greek mythos is the same as the Latin fabula. We may call the second ‘natural,’ for that word is in common use. The third was given the Latin name ‘political’ by Varro himself. His own explanation runs as follows: ‘What they call “mythical” is what is especially in use among the poets; “physical” theology is used by the philosophers; and “political” by ordinary citizens. In the first of these theologies are found many fictions unworthy of the dignity and nature of immortal beings. For, in this kind of theology one divinity [Minerva] was born from another’s head, a second [Bacchus] from a thigh, a third [Pegasus] from drops of blood; some gods [e.g., Mercury] were thieves, others [e.g., Jupiter] adulterers, and still others [e.g., Apollo] slaves of men, and in general deeds are attributed to gods which are not merely human but abnormal.’

Here he could speak boldly and with impunity—and he did so without a shadow of ambiguity—of the wrong done to divinity by lying fables. He was talking of ‘fabulous’ theology, not of natural or political theology, and he felt free to attack it. But, listen to what he says of the second kind of theology. It is the kind, he says, ‘about which the philosophers have left many books discussing such questions as: Who are the gods? Where are they to be found? Of what kind and character are they? When did they begin? Are they eternal? Do they originate in fire (as Heraclitus thought), or from numbers (according to Pythagoras), or from atoms (as Epicurus said)? There is much else—all of which is more tolerable to listen to inside a classroom than out in the streets.’

He found nothing to blame in this theology of the philosophers—the genus physicon as they call it—save that he mentions the controversies which have made the philosophers the fathers of many dissident sects. He wants the people in the street to have none of this theology. He locks it behind the walls of the schoolrooms. Yet, he did not remove from the man in the street the filthy fancies of the poets!

Oh! how pious are the ears of the people—and, among them, the Roman people! They are too sensitive to listen to what philosophers have to say about the immortal gods, but they listen, and listen gladly, to what poets fancy (because this is counter to the dignity and nature of immortal beings) or to what the actors perform (because on the stage, the gods are not merely men but cads.) And what is worse, to believe the poets and players, such things not merely please, but placate, the gods!

‘Very well,’ someone will say, but let us hear how Varro explains political theology. We want to separate, as Varro himself did, fabulous and natural theology—the genus mythicon and the genus physicon—from political theology which is now in question.’ Well, I can see why we should separate the fabulous—for the simple reason that it is false, filthy, and unfit for discussion. But, why should we separate the natural from the political? Would that not be to admit that the political itself is in need of correction. If a thing is natural, what can be wrong with it, and why should we exclude it? And, if what we call political is not natural, what can make it worth our discussion?

It was, in fact, Varro’s own reason for putting this discussion of human things before the discussion of divine things that, in what he called ‘divine’ things, he was following, not nature, but human conventions. Let us take a look at his ‘political theology.’ ‘There is,’ he says, ‘a third kind, which the people, and particularly the priests, in the cities ought to know and practice. It belongs to this theology to explain what gods should be worshiped in public and by what rites and sacrifices each one should do this.’ What follows is noteworthy. ‘The first kind of theology is suitable for the theatre; the second, for the world; the third, for the city.’ It is easy to see to what kind he gives the palm. Obviously, to the second, the theology of the philosopher, as he himself calls it. When he says this belongs to the world, he is relating it to that which, in the Stoic view, is the highest of realities. The other two theologies, the first and third, those of the theatre and the city, he does not distinguish, but rather lumps together.

It does not at once follow that what belongs to a city can belong to the world, although cities are part of the world. For, it can happen that in a city, by reason of false opinions, things can be believed or worshiped which have no real existence either in the world or outside of it. But the theatre and city go together. Who ever saw a theatre except in a city? It was the city that started the theatre, and its only purpose was the representation of plays on the stage. But, what are such representations apart from the gods? This brings us back to the beings which are described with such skill in Varro’s books.

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

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