Postcards from ‘The City of God’

Forget 90 seconds, I’ll give you Augustine’s The City of God in 9 seconds:

  • First half: Pagans are stupid. Second half: People are genetically selfish; makes us miserable; need to stop; look up!

You’re welcome. It’s a fascinating book, more revealing of the real Augustine in its way than the supposedly autobiographical Confessions, which is a self-portrait of a self-conscious Saint, the Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin of its day.

What surprised me most? Two words: Original Sin. Augustine more or less invented the orthodox position on this topic and gave it a name. Ask me yesterday, I’d tell you it referred to something Adam and Eve did in the Garden of Eden that we people inherited like a multi-generational criminal sentence imposed by God. They committed a crime; we keep on paying.

Wrong, brothers. Wrong, sisters. It’s actually more psychologically subtle than that and gets back to Augustine’s mission for the City, which he says in the Preface is all about trying “to persuade the proud of the virtue of humility.” Huh? More on this next time.

For now, a couple tidbits to leaven your Lenten Sunday self-denial:

  1. Augustine was a Scientist — He tells us (Bk 16 Ch 9) that many smart people in his day thought there were people living on the opposite side of the Earth who were opposite-men, unhappy stumblebums who somehow walked “with their feet opposite ours.” This, he rejects, and in his rebuttal he notes it is “supposed or scientifically demonstrated that the world is of a round and spherical form.” Note that approving “scientifically demonstrated” and the use of common sense (i.e., opposite-people are silly). (This passage by the way refutes one of White’s and Draper’s 19th century calumnies against the Church: that it was full of flat-earthers.)
  2. Augustine was not a Biblical Literalist — He quotes God’s promise to Abraham in Genesis that “I will make your seed as the dust of the earth: if any one can number the dust of the earth, your seed shall also be numbered.” A literalist says: Wow, that’s a lot of peeps! Augustine says, clearly, this statement is “that figure the Greeks call hyperbole, which indeed is figurative, not literal” (Bk 16 Ch 21). Why? Well, says Brother Augustine, doodling patiently, “who does not see how incomparably larger the number of the dust must be than that of all men can be from Adam himself down to the end of the world?”

In other words, it’s common sense. Use your head, people. Don’t check those brains at the ostium.


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