The city of God

The City of God: Book 7: Preface, Chapters 1-2


I HAVE BEEN TRYING to the best of my power to root out and get rid of those depraved and inveterate opinions which, by a long-lasting error of mankind, have taken such deep and tenacious roots in unenlightened minds, and which are so opposed to religious truth. Only the true God can effect such a purpose; I have been trying to cooperate, in however small a degree, with Him and with His grace. I know that many whose minds are keener will feel that what I have written is more than enough for the purpose, but I must ask them to bear with me a little longer and, for the sake of others, not to think superfluous what they do not need themselves.

The issue at stake is very great. What I want to bring out is that, although we depend on the true and truly holy Divinity for such things as are needed to support our weakness in this present life, nevertheless, we should not seek and worship God for the sake of the passing cloud of this mortal life, but for the sake of that happy life which cannot be other than everlasting.

Chapter 1

I have tried to show that divinity is not to be found in the theology which is called political and which is expounded in the sixteen volumes of Marcus Varro. I might have used the word ‘deity’ instead of divinity, since the purists are no longer disturbed by a word which seems a better translation of the Greek theótes. In any case, my point has been that it is impossible to reach the blessedness of eternal life by the worship of such gods as have been offered to our worship by the institution of a state. If Book VI has failed to bring conviction in this matter, I hope that, when the reader has finished the present Book, he will feel that no objection has been left unanswered.

A first objection. Perhaps it is possible for someone to believe that, at least, the ‘select and principal gods,’ of which I have said so little, but to which Varro devotes his entire last volume, should be worshiped with a view to that happy life which by its nature is eternal. I might be tempted to answer this, perhaps more wittily than wisely, in the words of Tertullian: ‘If gods are selected like onions, some of them must be bad.’ I prefer not to say this. I can see that, even after a selection has been made, some are picked out from those selected for functions of greater moment. For example, in the army, after the recruits have been selected, some are chosen for some special feat of arms. So, too, in the Church, when there is an election, some are put in charge without any reflection on the others, since all the faithful are properly spoken of as ‘elect.’

So, too, in building, we select cornerstones without thinking any worse of the rest of the stones which are used in other parts of the building. We select grapes for eating without rejecting the others we set aside for making wine. There is no need of illustrating further what is obvious. There is no reason, therefore, to blame either the writer or the worshipers or the gods themselves just because out of many gods some have been selected. But, the question to be asked is: Who are the select gods, and for what purpose have they been selected?

Chapter 2

The following are the names of the select gods which Varro describes within the compass of a single book: Janus, Jupiter, Saturn, Genius, Mercury, Apollo, Mars, Vulcan, Neptune, Sol, Orcus, Father Bacchus, Tellus, Ceres, Juno, Luna, Diana, Minerva, Venus, Vesta. Of these twenty, twelve are males and eight are females.

The first question is whether these divinities have been called ‘select’ because of their great functions in the universe, or because they are better known to the people and, therefore, given wider worship. If, as a fact, they have higher functions in the running of the cosmos, we should not have to look for them among that plebeian multitude of minor gods who are deputed for tasks of no significance.

Yet, to begin with, just take Janus. At the moment of conception, he is given the task of opening the door of the womb for the seed to enter; and that is only the first of a long list of tiny tasks assigned to minor divinities. So, too, Saturn is on the scene, since Saturn has something to do with seed. Bacchus (Liber) takes care of the sense of release [liberat] after semination, and Libera (which is but another name for Venus) does for the wife the same service that Liber does for the husband. Yet, all of these are among the gods which are called ‘select.’ Surely, Mena, the goddess in charge of menstruation, can hardly be called noble in spite of being the daughter of Jupiter. Juno, herself, who is the Queen of the select gods, is assigned by Varro (in his book on the select gods) to this same field of the menstrual flux. Under the name of Juno Lucina, she is set over this same task along with her stepdaughter Mena.

In this generative process there are two highly obscure divinities, Vitumnus and Sentinus. The one is assigned to give life to the fetus; the other gives the first capacity for sensation. But, lowly as these gods are, their functions are surely much more significant than those of many of the well-known, select divinities. For, without life and feeling, in what sense is that whole mass in the womb any better than the nastiest kind of slime and dirt?

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

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