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De Civitate Dei, Book V

November 23, 2011

Chapters 1-11: God Controls History

The Roman empire’s history was not due to chance nor to destiny.

By ‘destiny’ some people mean the positions of the stars. Of those clinging to ‘destiny’ according to the stars, some say that it is entirely apart from God’s will and others say it is in step with it. The former can be disregarded, since their position implies dismissal of all prayer and worship. And the latter cannot explain things like twins and why their lives often diverge so greatly if they were born under the same configuration of the stars. Augustine cites various authorities on this issue (Hippocrates, Nigidius) and concludes by arguing that the differences in the lives of twins are properly attributed to their different characters, actions, and events in their lives – not to the differences in the stars under which they were born. For example, Esau and Jacob could not have been more different in character and many other things. And further, if the lives of twins were influenced by the unique setting of the constellations at the time of their birth, and if these times are slightly differently, how could it be cited as proof that the constellations were influencing their lives if those cases where twins fell ill and recovered at precisely the same time be cited as proof also? For then, wouldn’t they fall ill and recover at slightly different times? If one tries to locate the time of conception as the moment when twins have their destiny revealed in the stars, how can this be? Indeed conception of twins happens at the exact same time, but then how could there ever be a boy and girl as twins.

Others mean by ‘destiny’ the connected series of causes which is responsible for anything that transpires in life. Usually this is associated with God’s will, and so we could more properly speak of ‘destiny’ with the designation, ‘God’s will’. The philosophers referred to destiny under the name of Jupiter whom they supposed to be supreme. Cicero tries to refute these philosophers and goes too far, essentially saying that God does not have foreknowledge. He does so in order to save human free will. But Augustine has no problem saying that we lose our freedom in light of God’s prescience. Cicero thought that if there is such prescience in God, the order is predetermined which means the causes are as well (this is a Stoic account of ‘destiny’). This would then mean, Cicero concluded, that nothing depends upon us which then makes laws and reprimands meaningless. Thus Cicero denies foreknowledge, making men free but irreverent.

The religious mind, in contrast, affirms both foreknowledge and free will. We do so by claiming that God’s prescience does not necessarily imply a loss of human free will, since human wills can themselves are in the order of causes. There are three types of causes, none of which are detached from God’s will: fortuitous (those hidden in God or a spirit of some kind), natural (from nature), and voluntary (come from God or angels or men or animals [1]). According to this schema, only voluntary causes are efficient causes. Only God is cause and not effect, but other causes are both cause and effect. How then does the order of causes, which is fixed in God’s foreknowledge, take everything from the dependence of our will? To the contrary, our wills play an important part in that causal order.[2] God has fashioned the strength of our wills, and it is by his foreknowledge that its future achievements are assured.

Augustine turns to give definition to what he means by ‘necessity’. He does not see why it must mean ‘that which is not in our control’ in regards to our wills. After all, is it necessary (in this sense) that God is eternal – that is, apart from his will? No, this would be like saying that we are subject to the necessity that when we will, we will by free choice. So this definition of necessity is not quite right, because there are necessities that do not abolish freedom. Ultimately, if our will is not fulfilled, we can be certain that it is because of God. Thus, we uphold God’s prescience and our free will in faith and sincerity. In the last analysis, it is by God’s foreknowledge that we are, or shall be, free.[3] God created everything in its proper order.[2]


Chapters 12-19: Why God Prospered Rome

This leads to a very pertinent question in regards to the history of Rome, namely, for what reason did God help the Romans expand their empire?

Above all, Romans were devoted to glory and motivated by it in the age of expansion, though formerly they had been propelled by love of liberty. Romans were completely overtaken by an ambition for more human praise – the good were those who pursued it without vice while the bad pursued it with theft, dishonesty, etc. The point is that everyone pursued human praise. Their concept of merit was overtaken as well; they equated merit with honor. Honor is when a man judges another favorably. When we compare this with virtue, we realize that virtue is not content with the testimony of men but also requires the testimony of one’s own conscience (2 Corinthians 1:12; Galatians 6:4). Sallust said that the early Romans conquered armies much larger than themselves because of some special virtue that was later destroyed by the sloth brought-on by success. What he means is that there were Romans in the early years that pursued expansion for Rome within the bounds of virtue but that later it completely changed as their love of praise overcame their virtue. Though the early Romans did not know the help of the Holy Spirit in pursuing virtue, their desire for glory at least made them less depraved.

There is no doubt that it is more honorable to resist the passion for human praise than to yield to it. At the minimum, greed for praise should be overcome by the love of justice so that one would do right even if others do not praise him for it (John 5:44, 12:43). Nobody is entirely exempt from the passion for human honor, even the best are tempted by it. The apostles certainly gained incredible honor in the churches by ‘conquering’ the hard hearts.[4] But they turned that glory to God. In other words, they did not hide their works (Jesus commanded the opposite: Matthew 5:16) but displayed them in such a way that people would be converted, not to themselves, but to God. The martyrs also suffered for love of God, a stark contrast to those heroes of Rome who suffered for the sake of having a kind of life after death on the lips of those who praised them. Many of them exemplified immaculate conduct, but in such behavior they were laboring only for honors, power, and glory.[5] In light of this discussion, we can say that the purpose of Rome’s expansion was so that the citizens of the City of God might see what devotion the citizens of the earthly city have for their country and that God’s saints might learn to strive with a greater effort for the Eternal City.

In a sense, it does not matter what country one lives in during this mortal life in light of how short it is, provided that the country does not force them to commit wicked acts. Conquering by Rome essentially was of no importance for security, moral standards, or even human dignity of Romans or conquered nations (aside from the lower classes who were sometimes dispossessed). All that transpired was some warriors received the praise they so passionately sought, but smoke has no weight. God gives his citizens substantial glory. There are indeed parallels to the earthly city and the City of God, which is why God led Rome’s history forward. God’s saints are enticed into the kingdom through remission of sin, and similarly, Romulus offered impunity for crimes for any who would join him to found Rome. When we compare various aspects of how God runs his City in comparison with the earthly city, we are overwhelmed. The sufferings of the Romans, propelled by promises of small rewards, should encourage us to make sacrifices for God. Brutus sacrificed his son, and we are merely asked to not store-up money for our children but to give it to the poor. Augustine recounts the sacrificial service of Torquatus, Furius Camillus, Mucius, Curtius Decii, Marcus Pulvillus, Marcus Regulus, Lucius Valerius, Quintius Cincinnatus, and Fabricius, all of whom were motivated by the praise of men. Christians should feel a prick of shame if they cannot display similar heroic acts, seeing that the glory which is promised them is better than that for which these brave Romans sacrificed so dearly.

Augustine outlines three sources of motivation that have been discussed in the previous chapters of this book: 1) desire for what is good (aside from the applause of fellow men), 2) desire for applause (aside from what is good), and 3) desire for domination (aside from applause). The first and last can appear the same, but the former is fueled by a love for the good of others and only delights in praise when it is praise for what is truly beneficial to others in oneself. Thus, it is only by true piety that one can have true virtue. This has been made clear, but it needs further exploration.


Chapters 20-26: True Virtue in Christian Kings

The Stoics, who set virtue as the highest good for humanity, seek to induce a sense of shame in the Epicureans, who set physical pleasure as the greatest good. To mock the Epicureans, the Stoics represent Pleasure sitting on a throne with Virtue as her servant. But a similarly shameful picture could represent the Stoic account of virtue: Glory sits on a throne with Virtue as his servant. For some, this means that self-approval is on the throne and for others it means the approval of their fellow citizens.

It is God who brings nations into power and dispossesses nations. God does the same with various rulers. God also controls the durations of wars. God kept Radagaisus, king of the Goths, from claiming victory in his invasion of Rome ‘just the other day’ (p218). This king was not Christian and would have shown no respect for the churches or sacred sites of the martyrs. The sacrifices he performed to the gods were similar to those Rome once performed (before Christianity entered), but they were too weak against the Christian God. Victory was finally given to Alaric, an Arian Christian, since he would respect these symbols of God’s grace in Rome.

Kings are approved by God when they show mercy, uphold justice, show greater delight in denying their own lower desires than in subjecting more people, and continually offer to God a true sacrifice of prayer and humility and compassion. This is true happiness for a king. God did not want kings to think that they must sacrifice to demons to reign, so he appointed Constantine. But in order to show that God should not be sought for the sake of more power, God disposed several kings which followed him rather quickly. But Theodosius did find God’s help on numerous occasions. He also showed compassion and mercy to individuals who rebelled and to whole pagan armies who fled for refuge in a church. Though he was removed from power, Theodosius knew true happiness as a king.

All of this has shown that the gods do not reward worshipers with temporary goods. Some may think that the gods still reward with eternal goods, and so the next book will take-up this point.



My Footnotes:

[1] This section (Book V.9) contains some material on the will. Here, the discussion is in the broadest possible frame (God’s will in relation to other wills as played-out in the course of history), but despite top-down movement of the discussion, Augustine does discuss in a short span the wills of lower beings. Augustine comes at these issues in Book XIV but from the bottom-up, so-to-speak. These sections are fruitfully read side-by-side to ensure neither the broad frame nor the details are lost or subsumed into the other.

[2] Here (Book V.9, 11) Augustine explicitly mentions the notion of ‘order’ which is the conceptual means through which he envisions created reality and aberrations of that reality.

[3] This is the famous Augustinian emphasis on the will as the ‘root’ of sin and the primary target of grace. A will healed by God wills the right things, and this is true freedom.

[4] Of course, this way of speaking is highly unpopular today in our overly sophisticated postcolonial minds. However, our snobbery may not be as well founded as Augustine’s passionate love for lost people. Academics are the worst at criticizing lay attempts to evangelize – it is as if they want all evangelism to stop until a perfectly pure form is conceptualized. That is why it is so refreshing to see that in this work Augustine’s arguments continually go back to a passionate plea for conversion to Jesus Christ. Where is this in our modern theologies? I so appreciate the work of John Bowen in this regard, especially his stated attempt to bring scholarship back to evangelism and evangelism back to scholarship. The marriage of these two is indeed what we see in this work by Augustine.

[5] Moral theologians discuss at length different ways of thinking about ‘pagan virtues’ (to put the subject matter crudely). The Heidelberg Catechism Q&A 91, for example, sets-out to carefully define what are good works and does so in a way that requires not only outward obedience but, more fundamentally, inward renewal by the Holy Spirit. As I noted in my footnotes on Book I, there are debates about how far Augustine thought pagans could conform in an external way to the standards of virtue.


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