The city of God

The City of God: Book 6: Preface, Chapters 1-2


IN THE FIVE preceding Books, I have, I hope, sufficiently refuted those who think that many gods are to be venerated and worshiped. Such people hold that, in order to gain advantages for this mortal life and men’s temporal affairs, the gods are to be served with an adoration which the Greeks call latreía and which is due to the true God alone. Christian truth makes clear that these gods are false, that they are useless idols, or unclean spirits, or dangerous demons, or, at best, mere creatures and not the Creator. Of course, as everyone knows, neither my five Books nor any five hundred books are sufficient to silence folly and pertinacity. It is the glory of vain men never to yield to the truth. Such vain glory is a deadly passion for those it dominates. It is a disease that, in spite of every effort, is never cured—not because the doctor is inept, but because the patient is incurable.

Those others, however, who reflect on what they read and judge it with little or no obstinacy in their previous error, will easily come to feel that, in the five Books which I have just finished, I have said more, rather than less, than the question in debate required. They will also agree that the ill will against the Christian religion which is stirred up by people ignorant of history and who blame on us the disasters of life and the crumbling and collapse of civilization is without foundation. It is not a conclusion of right thinking and reasoning, but the evidence of reckless and malicious animosity. The facts are clear, even though some of the scholars pretend not to know them, or, yielding to irrational hate, deliberately encourage the bigotry.

Chapter 1

My next purpose, then, as I have already indicated, will be the refutation and instruction of those who hold that the gods of the pagans, which Christianity rejects, are to be worshiped, not on account of this life, but with a view to life after death. The starting point of this discussion will be the revealed truth of the holy psalm: ‘Blessed is the man whose trust is in the name of the Lord; and who hath not had regard to vanities and lying follies.’

In the din of all the lying inanities and insanities of men, it is bearable enough to listen to the voice of those philosophers who scorned the erroneous opinions of the populace. But, the people themselves set up idols for their gods and then invented all sorts of discreditable fictions about their immortals, or else believed in fictions already current and mixed these fictions with their sacred rites and ceremonies.

The philosophers were not always free to speak openly, but in their academic discussions they hinted at their rejection of popular superstitions. With such men, then, I find no difficulty in debating this question: Whether it is better to worship the one God who created all spiritual and corporal realities and to worship Him with a view to life after death, or to worship the many gods whom the best and greatest of the philosophers felt to have been made and set in their lofty positions by Him?

First, a word about the gods I mentioned in Book IV as having some paltry and particular function assigned to them. No philosopher, I am sure, would dream of discussing whether such gods can give us immortal life. But, what of those men, some of them extremely learned and acute, who boast of having written useful books of instructions to help people to know why each of the different gods is to be prayed to, and what is to be asked of each, and how to avoid the unbecoming absurdity of asking, like a clown on the stage, for water from Bacchus or for wine from the Lymphae? Would they take responsibility for a person who, when praying the immortal gods and asking the Lymphae for wine and getting the answer: ‘We have only water, ask Bacchus for wine,’ should rightly say: If you have no wine, give me, at any rate, your immortal life?

Just think of the monstrous absurdity of the Lymphae answering with a laugh—for, according to Virgil, they are given to laughter—‘O man, do you think we have power to give you life [vitam], when you have just been told that we can’t even give you wine [vitem]!’ (I am supposing that, unlike the demons, they would not try to deceive him.) It is indeed monstrous and absurd to ask or hope for eternal life from gods like this. Here they are so assigned to such tiny and fragmentary adjuncts of our sad and transient life that, when you ask one of them for something in the department of another, you get a situation as ridiculous as a scurrilous embarassment on the stage.

If we have a right to laugh in the theatre where actors know their parts, we should laugh still louder at ignorant fools in real life. Yet, in regard to gods and goddesses set up by various cities, learned men have discovered and listed what each must be asked for, for example, what we should ask of Bacchus, the Lymphae, Vulcan, and the rest, many of whom—but not all that I might have done—I mentioned in Book IV. Just think. If it is a mistake to ask wine of Ceres, bread of Bacchus, water of Vulcan, fire from the Lymphae, you can imagine how crazy we ought to consider a man who should ask any of such gods for eternal life. To confirm the point, recall what was said when we were discussing the question whether any of the gods or goddesses could be thought powerful enough to confer on men an earthly kingdom. It was shown, after an exhaustive discussion, that certainly political societies could not be constituted by any of the many, false divinities. Would it, then, not be as irreligious as it would be ridiculous to think that any of the gods could confer that membership in eternal society which is most certainly incomparably better than membership in all the earthly kingdoms put together?

We saw, too, that the reason why such gods can give no kingdoms to men on earth was not the impropriety of beings so great and lofty deigning to bother with anything so small and lowly. In the light of human weakness, we have a right to despise even the crumbling peaks of earthly power, yet there is not one of those gods to whom a man would not be ashamed of committing the giving and preserving of human political societies. But if, as we have seen especially from the last two Books, no one of that crowd of gods, little or lofty, was fit to give a mortal society to mortal men, how much less could they make immortal citizens out of mortal men.

Here is another argument that is valid for those who think the gods are to be worshiped, not with a view to benefits in this life, but only in the life after death. Certainly, then, the gods are not to be worshiped for the sake of those separate and particular things which are only by a stretch of imagination, and not in reality, in the power of this or that particular god. Yet, this is the position of those who think the worship of the gods is necessary for benefits in this present life. I have done the best I could in the last five Books to dispose of such people.

Let us suppose for a moment that those who worship the goddess, Youth, were always in the flower of youth, while those who neglected her always died young or suffered the listlessness of old age; or, again, suppose that Fortuna Barbata always prematurely clothed the cheeks of her worshipers with a lovely beard, while her scorners were left beardless or had nothing but down. At least we could say that, within their limited sphere, these divinities could do what they were supposed to do. But, it would follow that we should not ask Juventas for eternal life since it was not her job to give us even a beard; nor ask Fortuna Barbata for any good in the life to come, since, in this life, she has no power to give us the vigor of youth which goes with the growing of beards.

There is, then, no need to worship such gods for the sake of the benefits they are supposed to confer. The fact is that many who worship Juventas had nothing of the youthful vigor of many who paid so much worship; and many who have prayed to Fortuna Barbata had a shapeless beard or none at all, and are the laughing stock of finely bearded men who paid her no sort of service. No human intelligence is so dull as to believe that a worship of such gods can bear any fruit in eternity, when the worship with a view to temporal and passing benefits and within the sphere of their competence is seen to be silly and vain.

Such gods, then, cannot give us eternal life. Not even those who wanted them to be worshiped by the ignorant populace dared to make such a claim. They were content to divide up the occupations of earthly life, and, to keep all of their gods busy, assigned to each god a particular job.

Chapter 2

No one has investigated the gods with more care than Marcus Varro. No other scholar has discovered so much, no one has given more care to the matter, no one has made such acute distinctions, no one has written so diligently and so much as he. His style may not be remarkable, but what he has written is so replete with facts and ideas that in the sphere of secular or liberal scholarship he may be called the master of history as Cicero is the prince of style.

Cicero himself confirms what I say. In his Academica he speaks of his discussion with Marcus Varro as with a man ‘who is easily the most brilliant of his age and, undoubtedly, the most learned.’ He does not say ‘elegant in style’ or ‘most eloquent’ because, in fact, Varro does not shine as a writer; but he does say that he was ‘brilliant’ and in the Academica, where he treats of skepticism in philosophy, Cicero adds that Varro was undoubtedly ‘most learned.’ In fact, in this instance, Cicero was so certain as to exclude his habitual skepticism. It is as though he forgot that he was a Skeptical philosopher at least in regard to this one matter, even in a defense of Skeptical philosophy. In his first book, in discussing the literary works of Varro, Cicero has this to say: ‘When we had lost our way in our city, as though we were strangers, your books showed us the way home. We finally learned who and where we were. You left nothing untouched: the antiquity of our country, the periods of its history, the rules of worship, the priestly laws, our domestic and public life, the topography of our cities and the names, divisions, functions, and causes of all things human and divine.’

The poet Terentian had this remarkable and exceptional scholarship in mind when he wrote of Varro as ‘a man of universal knowledge.’ He had read so much that we marvel he had time to write. He wrote so much that no one man, you would think, could read it all. Now, this man, so brilliant and so learned, could not have set down things about the gods more ridiculous, offensive, and scandalous, even if he had set out as an opponent and critic of the so-called religion about which he writes, and if he had taken the view that it was not religion at all but merely superstition.

Yet, while Varro worshiped the gods and felt they should be worshiped, his very work about them indicates his fear about their survival. He was not so much afraid of foreign invaders as of the devastation by his own people’s indifference, and it was to save the gods from this, he says, and to keep them alive in the memory of good men that he wrote his works. He was performing a more useful service, he felt, than Metellus in saving the Vestal Palladium from the flames and Aeneas in saving the gods from the ruins of Troy. Yet, the fact is that he has set forth things for the whole world to read which are abhorrent to philosophers and fools and are of no service at all to true religion. It looks very much as though, for all his acumen and learning, he had none of that liberty of spirit which is a gift of the Holy Spirit, and was, in fact, a slave to legalism, and tradition; yet, below his superficial commendation of pagan religion, there is a hint of his real convictions in some of his admissions.

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

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