The city of God

The City of God: Book 7: Preface, Chapters 3-5

Chapter 3

How, then, can we explain that so many of the select gods have been set to these insignificant functions in which they are outclassed by the munificence of those two gods, unknown to fame, whose names are Vitumnus and Sentinus? The select god Janus provides nothing but an entrance, a doorway [janua], so to speak, for the seed; the select god Saturn provides the seed; the select god Liber provides the male emission and Libera (or Ceres or Venus) the female ovulation; the select Juno—and not by herself but along with Mena, the daughter of Jupiter—provides the menstrual flow to help the growth of the fetus. But, it is the unknown and lowly Vitumnus who provides life, and the unknown and lowly Sentinus who provides the power to feel—the two endowments which are as much higher than all those others as they are lower than intelligence and reason.

Just as beings that can think and reason are higher than those which, like beasts, merely live and feel without thinking and reasoning, so beings endowed with life and sensation are rightly ranked higher than those which are neither alive nor have power to feel. They ought, therefore, to have ranked the life-giving Vitumnus and the sense-conferring Sentinus higher among the select gods than Janus the receiver or Saturn the giver or sower [sator] of seed, and higher than Liber and Libera, the movers or emitters of seed. The fact is that no one would give a fig for such seed unless it were meant to be given life and sensation. Yet these really ‘select’ endowments are not conferred by select gods, but by gods who are hardly known and who, considering the dignity of their duties, are disregarded.

It is no answer to say that it is because Janus has power over all beginnings whatsoever that even the beginning of conception must be attributed to him; or that, because Saturn has power over all seed, even human semination may not be dissociated from his operations; or that Bacchus and Venus are linked with human reproduction because they have power over the sending forth of all seed; or that it is only because Juno presides over all purifications and germinations that she must play a part in menstrual flux and birth.

Those who give such an answer should be consistent. They should admit that Vitumnus and Sentinus have power over all beings whatsoever that have life and feeling! And, if they make this admission, they must reflect on how lofty is the place they are assigning to Vitumnus and Sentinus. For, to be born of seed is of the earth, earthy; but to live and feel links one with the gods in the stars. And, if anyone objects that the only life and sensation ascribed to Vitumnus and Sentinus are such as we find in flesh, it may be asked, in reply, why the giving of life and feeling to flesh should not be attributed to the god who makes all things live and feel and who, as a part of his universal task, linked this gift with birth? In that case, why do we need Vitumnus and Sentinus at all?

But, it may be objected, we ought to suppose that these fleshy tasks, being last and lowest in dignity, were committed by the divinity who presides over all life and feeling to these lesser gods, as to servants. In reply, I should ask: Are, then, the select gods so lacking in servants that they, in turn, could find no one to whom to commit these commissions? Were they compelled, with all the dignity that got them selected, to collaborate with lesser gods? Take Juno. She is not only a select divinity, but a queen and the ‘sister and spouse’ of Jupiter. Yet, she is just Iterduca to young people and she does her work along with two very minor goddesses, Abeona and Adeona.

Speaking of the gods of the young, there is the goddess Mens, who is supposed to give children a good head. Is there any greater human endowment than to have a good head? Yet, Mens is not among the select divinities, whereas Juno is select because Juno is Iterduca and Domiduca—as though either taking a trip [iter] or getting home [domus] is worth the trouble if one does not have a good head. The selectors of the select divinities never thought of selecting the goddess of good heads. Mens was certainly a better choice than Minerva, who, in the divine division of tiny tasks, was given charge of children’s memory. Surely, having a good head is better than having even a prodigious memory. A good head and bad morals never go together, whereas a fair number of villains have had marvelous memories, and they have been all the worse for being unable to forget their wicked intentions. Yet, Minerva is among the select gods, while the goddess Mens is hidden away under a heap of minor divinities. The same is true of the goddess Virtue and the goddess Felicity. I have said a word about both of these in Book IV. They had been reckoned as divine, but have been given no place among the select gods, where place was found for Mars and Orcus, the one a sower, the other a reaper, of death.

Thus, it is obvious that, in these minute functions which have been distributed so meticulously to a multitude of gods, even the select gods work somewhat like a Senate collaborating with ordinary citizens. We find, in fact, that many gods who were never thought of for selection have the administration of a number of functions which are higher than those assigned to the select gods. The conclusion would seem to be that the select and major gods are given this name, not because their functions in the world are more important, but because they happened to become better known to the people. This explains the remarks of Varro himself, that many gods who were mothers and fathers, like parents on earth, rank below their offspring in nobility.

Hence, a plausible reason why Felicity has no right to be ranked as a select divinity is that such gods reached this distinction by fortune and not by merit. What, then, of the goddess Fortune? She should surely rank with, or even outrank, the others, for they say she is the goddess who distributes her favors, not in virtue of any rational plan, but by pure and simple accident. She should have the highest place among the select gods, who are the best illustrations of her power, since they were selected, not because of any virtue of their own or any rational right to happiness, but purely by the power of Fortune—a power which her own worshipers reckon as irrational.

Even the brilliant writer Sallust had an eye on the gods when he said: ‘There is nothing that escapes the rule of Fortune—a force that brings by whim and not by worth celebrity or obscurity.’ Certainly, there is no reason why Venus should be kept in the light while Virtue is left in the shade. The divinity of both Venus and Virtue has been admitted, yet there is no comparison between their respective worth.

It cannot be argued that fame is the reward of popular appeal and that Venus is more in demand than Virtus. If this were so, why is Minerva famous and Pecunia, the goddess of gold, left without a temple. Certainly, among men, more are drawn by the greed for gold than by love of wisdom. Even among the great craftsmen, very few fail to set a price on what they produce, and, of course, the end is always worth more than the means. If, then, the selection of the gods were made by the thoughtless masses, why was not the goddess of gold put above Minerva, the goddess of wisdom, since gold was the end and craftsmanship only the means? On the other hand, if the reckoning of rank is the work of the few wise men, why is not Virtue preferred to Venus? Certainly, she is much preferred by reason.

At any rate, as I have said already, Fortune should have had a high place among the select gods. Those who esteem her most think that luck plays an important part in everything and that Fortune confers fame or obscurity by her whim rather than by obvious worth. This seems true even for the gods. She made them famous or obscure as she liked, which is to say, by luck. Her power was never more in evidence than in the selection of the select gods. Perhaps, then, to explain why Fortune herself was not selected, we must suppose that the only kind of luck that Fortune ever had was bad luck! In that case, she was her own worst enemy, making others famous and missing fame herself.

Chapter 4

If only the select gods had been elected to honor and not to infamy, they would have been congratulated and called blest by all who appreciate fame and distinction. Actually, it was the mass of lesser gods who escaped opprobrium, sheltered as they were by their obscurity. We may laugh at them when we think of them portioned out, by the figments of men’s fancies, into a multitude of minor functions, like the sub-sub-farmers of taxes or the specialists in Silversmith Lane, where a cup that could be made by a single worker passes through the hands of a dozen. (This human division of labor was devised for the sake of the workers. It was easier and quicker for each to learn a single operation in the craft, whereas it would be a slow and difficult task if each worker had to become perfect in the whole work.)

I said we may laugh at the ‘unselected’ gods; on the other hand, there is hardly one of them who has brought on himself a reputation of being disreputable, while there is hardly a single one of the select gods who has not been branded with the mark of public reprobation. While the lofty gods had to descend to the lowly tasks of the lesser gods, the lowly gods never climbed to the lofty infamy of the elect.

For the moment, I do not recall any particular shame attaching to the name of Janus. For all I know, he may have lived in innocence, far removed from public crime and private sin. He kindly offered hospitality to Saturn and shared his kingdom with his exiled guest, each of them building a city for himself, namely Janiculum and Saturnia. Unfortunately, those who insist on ugliness in the worship of the gods, finding no turpitude in the life of Janus, put it into his statues. They sometimes make him into a monstrosity with two faces, sometimes with four faces. He is made to look like a pair of twins. I sometimes wonder whether their idea was that, just as the select gods made up in shamelessness what they lacked in shamefacedness [frontem], so Janus should make up in ‘sham-facedness’ [frontosior] what he lacked in shamelessness.’

Chapter 5

We must now turn to those naturalist interpretations by which the pagans seek to hide the disgrace of their low error under the appearance of a high doctrine. Varro’s first intimation of these interpretations is when he says that the ancients made images, insignia, and ornaments of the gods so that those who looked at them in the light of a doctrine for initiates could see with their mind and contemplate the soul of the world and all its parts, that is to say, the true gods. When pagans made images of the gods that looked like men their idea was that the spirit of mortals which is in the human body is very like the spirit which is immortal. It is much the same as when vessels are set out to symbolize gods and when a wine jug is placed in the temple of Bacchus to signify wine. The container symbolizes what it contained. So, too, by means of an image with a human form, the rational soul can be symbolized, since by nature it is contained in a body as in a vessel, and they imply that god (or the gods) is of the same nature as a rational soul. Such are the mysteries (or the doctrines of the initiates) which our learned Varro penetrated and which he brings out into the light for the rest of men.

But, surely, we must appeal from the intelligence of Varro, intoxicated by esotericism, to the sober prudence of his ordinary insight, as when he admits, first, that those who first set up images of the gods for the people ‘took away their fear but added to their error,’ and, second, that the ancient Romans had a purer reverence for the gods when they had no images. These were his authorities for daring to speak against the later Romans. For, likely enough, if the early Romans had worshiped images, Varro would have been too afraid to mention the feeling against setting up images—true as that fact was—and his account of the dangerous and empty figments of this esoteric doctrine would have been more lengthy and lofty than ever.

Poor man! His spirit so acute and cultivated failed to pierce through the esoteric doctrines to the true God, by whom, and not with whom, that spirit was made, and of whom it was a creature, not a part. That God is not the soul of all things but the maker of all souls; by His light alone the soul can be happy, if it is not ungrateful for His grace.

The following pages reveal what those esoteric doctrines are and what they are worth. In the meantime, this great scholar professes to believe that the soul and the elements of the universe are the true gods. Thus, it is clear that within the scope of his theology, that is to say, the natural theology to which he gives the palm, a place could be found for the nature of the rational soul. Actually, he says very little about natural theology in his last book dealing with the select gods; but from it we shall be able to see whether it is possible, by means of naturalist interpretations, to bring the state religion into accord with natural theology. For, if that should be possible, all theology will be natural. In that case, why all the need to distinguish with such care political theology from natural theology? If, however, the distinction is valid, not even the natural theology, which he likes so much, is true, for the reason that it reaches only as far as the soul, but not as far as the true God, who made the soul. And, if natural theology is not true, then the political is of still less value and even falser, since it deals more with merely corporeal natures. This is clear from the interpretations which were so beautifully and clearly elaborated. Some of these I must deal with now.

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

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