The city of God

The City of God: Book 7: Preface, Chapters 6-8

Chapter 6

In his preface on natural theology, Varro says that he holds that God is the soul of the universe or cosmos (to use the Greek word) and that the cosmos itself is God. Yet, just as we call a wise man wise in virtue of his soul, although he is composed of both body and soul, so Varro calls the universe divine in virtue of its soul, although the cosmos is made up of a body and soul.

Here, Varro seems, in some way, to admit that there is one God, but, in order to bring in many gods, he adds that the cosmos is divided into two parts—the heavens and the earth—and that the heavens, in turn, are divided into two parts—the ether and the air. So, too, the earth is divided into two parts—water and land. The highest of all these parts is the ether; the next is the air; the third is water; the lowest is the earth. All these four parts are permeated with souls, which are immortal souls in the ether and the air, and are mortal souls in water and land.

From the highest circle of the heavens down to the circle of the moon, the planets, and stars are ethereal souls. These celestial gods are objects, not merely of thought, but of our eyes. Between the circle of the moon and that of the highest cloud and the winds, the soul is aerial, and it can be seen with the mind only, not with the eyes. These souls are called heroes, lares, genii. This is a brief summary of his preface on natural theology. It satisfied many other philosophers besides Varro. All this I must discuss at some length as soon as, with God’s help, I shall have finished dealing with the select gods—which still are a part of political theology.

Chapter 7

Varro begins with Janus. Who is Janus? Janus is the cosmos. No one can complain of the brevity and clarity of that answer. But, why are all beginnings said to belong to Janus and all endings to another god whose name is Terminus? It was to these two gods that the months of January and February were dedicated, when they were added to the original ten, beginning in March and ending in December. Hence, they say, the festival Terminalia is celebrated in February, which gets its name from Februm, the sacred purification.

Are we to say, then, that the beginnings of things belong to the universe or to Janus and that the endings do not belong to him, so that a second god has to be put in charge of these? Why, then, do we admit that all the things that are said to begin in the cosmos end there also? And, if only half the work is done by Janus, what is the use of giving him two faces on his statues? Surely, they would have a neater interpretation of the two-faced god if they called him both Janus and Terminus and linked one of the faces with beginnings and the other with endings. Anyone who has a work to do must keep these both in view. Wherever there is motion, one must look to the beginnings of the action if one is to foresee the end. That is why an intention looking to the future must be connected with a memory looking to the past. For, no one can finish what he has forgotten that he began.

It is possible that they gave to Janus only the power over beginnings because they held that the happy life began in this world but could only be perfected beyond it. But, in that case, they would have put Terminus before Janus and would not have excluded him from the select gods. In any case, even as things are, with the beginnings and endings of purely temporal things being represented by these two gods, more honor was due to Terminus. There is more joy whenever a thing is finished; whereas beginnings are fraught with worry until the end is reached. When we make a beginning, it is the ending which we seek, intend, expect, and long for. There is never joy until a thing begun is ended.

Chapter 8

Varro offers us an interpretation of the double-faced image of Janus. The reason, they say, for the two faces, one in front and one behind, is that the shape of the mouth when fully opened is round like the world. Curiously enough, the Greek word for heaven (ouranòs) also means the roof of the mouth; and a few of the Latin poets, Varro tells us, spoke of the ceiling of the heavens as a ‘palate’; and from the globe of the mouth there is one way to the outside by way of the teeth and another way to the inside by way of the throat. To such straits has our universe been brought because of a Greek and poetical meaning of ‘palate!’

What has all that to do with the soul or with life everlasting? Here is a god to be cherished because of our spittle, for which, under the heaven of our palate, he has provided a double door, one for spitting and one for swallowing saliva! Could anything be more absurd? First of all, there are not two doors opposite each other in the universe for taking in and getting rid of anything. Further the universe is not really like our mouth and throat. Yet, because of our palate, Janus is a symbol of the universe! Then the pagans call Janus double-faced and give him four faces, and interpret these as the four quarters of the universe—as though the cosmos looked out on something outside of it as Janus looks out from his four faces!

Now, if Janus is the universe and this has four parts, then the image of Janus with two faces is a falsification. They answer that the image is all right because the whole world is included when one says East and West. But we also cover the whole world when we say North and South. Is anyone, therefore, likely to call the world two-faced because they call the four-faced Janus double-faced? They may have found something in the mouth of a man to justify the interpretation of the double-faced Janus as a symbol of the universe. But, there is surely nothing in the world corresponding to four doors (januae) for things to go in and go out—unless, of course, Neptune should turn up and hand us a fish which has a couple of fins, one on the right and one on the left, in addition to the front and the back of the mouth!

The fact is that, for all these doors, no soul can escape inanity of this sort unless it listens to the Truth which says: ‘I am the door’ [janua].

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

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