Summary of “City of God” pt. 6 – Part 2, Book 6

With part 1 of “City of God,” Augustine wanted to show that the Roman gods did nothing to bring about earthly happiness. This included things like wealth, prosperity, health, military prowess, and most importantly, protection from foreign powers. What is interesting about approaching this book from a modern day perspective is that all of this seems very intuitive to us. We know all of this. However, moving into part 2, Augustine dives into the more theological side of the discussion. Seeing the amount of effort he is putting into this critique is very reminiscent of the modern day debate between theism and atheism. Indeed, polytheism vs. Christian monotheism is the very reason Augustine wrote this book. But as I started reading this new section, I realized that Augustine’s work had become much more interesting.

“City of God,” Part 2 – “The Pagan Gods and Future Happiness,” Book 6 – “Eternal Life and the Inadequacy of Polytheism”

[Note: My copy of “City of God” is not a complete one. The publishers and translators, in order to keep the size of the book down and keep the content more focused, edited out certain chapters where Augustine would go on one of his legendary excursus. They offered a brief summary of the chapters that were taken out. For completion’s sake I will go ahead and just quote the the summaries in their whole in italics and note when this is so.]

Preface: Augustine thinks that his first five books were adequate in showing that the Roman gods were incapable of bring about happiness as it related to physical welfare and political stability. As he mentioned at the end of the previous book, while he was releasing those 5 books, opponents of his position were writing to him claiming that the true benefit of worshiping the gods was to gain some sort of benefit in the afterlife. As Augustine promised he would, this new section of “City of God” will examine that claim for its truthfulness.

Chapter 1: Purpose statement for Part 2 is related. Given that the Roman gods are only masters of paltry and particular functions, there are certain physical needs that they cannot give. Given this truth, why should any one expect any of the gods to be capable of giving eternal life?

“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.”

“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.”

“Such gods, then, cannot give us eternal life. Not even those who wanted them to be worshiped by the ignorant populace dare 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: After making careful note of the brilliance of the historian Marcus Varro, Augustine shows that Varro only worked so that he could, in essence, keep the gods alive.

Chapter 3: Augustine makes careful note of the form, style, and arrangement Varro used in his work, drawing attention to the breadth of Varro’s focus. Chapters two and three here are meant to lay a foundation for Augustine’s later arguments. He is attempting to show that Varro is the preeminent authority on the history and worship of the gods, so that when Augustine refutes his work he wont need to focus on anyone else.

Chapter 4: In the carefully developed work of Varro there is not a single reference to the idea of eternal life. Augustine also argues that writing of humans before the gods in his work betrays that Varro does not really believe the gods to be real. i.e. Varro dealt with facts first, then dealt with myth.

“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.”

Chapter 5: Discussion of Varro’s three classifications of the gods: mythical, physical, and political.

Chapter 6: Addressed directly to Marcus Varro, Augustine praises him for being wise enough to discern that some of the gods are mere fable, and then criticizes him for being too cowardly to reject all of the gods.

“I merely ask: Is anyone willing to ask or hope for eternal life from the mythical gods on the stage or the civic gods in the comedy shows?”

“Just imagine asking eternal life from gods who are pleased and placated by plays which rehearse their own sins.”

“The conclusion is that when Varro tried to distinguish political theology from the mythical and natural, he merely meant that it was something fashioned out of two rather than a third, distinct, and separate thing.”

Chapters 7-10: [Editor’s Summary] The poetical and political theologies by Varro are further outlined and compared. Both types are subject to criticism. Even Varro and Seneca offer frank criticisms of sacrilegious pagan practices.

Chapter 11: Even Seneca, the historian, who hated the Jews, praised them for their devotion to and their understanding of their own religious system. This is in contrast with the Romans, who merely go through the motions of worship without comprehending what is meant.

Chapter 12: Summary and conclusion of this book. Augustine makes it clear, gods who cannot make us happy, or cannot even give basic physical aid and goods, could never give eternal life. Therefore, they do not deserve to be worshiped.

Next time: “Criticisms of Pagan Natural Theology”


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