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De Civitate Dei, Book VI

November 23, 2011


As promised at the end of the last Book, the argument now turns to refute those who claim that the gods provide rewards in the future life. The reader will remember from Book IV that there are many gods for different segments of life. But from which can eternal life be gained? None of the gods seem to possess time.


Chapters 1-9: Varro’s Account of the Gods and Philosophy in Rome

Even Varro, in his extensive work which he claims is ‘exhaustive’ in treatment in one place, fails to treat the eternality of the gods. Varro divided theology into mythical (poets), natural (philosophers), and civil (general public).[1] The first category trades in falsities, while the second deals with the nature of the gods. This latter category was not entirely saved from the filth of the first, but Varro does not mention this as a criticism. His main criticism of the philosophers is that they continue to divide due to controversy. Augustine’s biggest criticism is that these divisions are based on the institutions in Varro’s day (among poets, philosophers, and civic life); if he were investigating the true nature of these disciplines, there would be no third category – or rather, the second (natural philosophy) and third (civic philosophy) would converge entirely. For nothing should be admitted into the city unless it is in accordance with nature, and the findings of what is in nature should not be kept from the governance and functioning of the city. Truly, Varro more closely associates the first and third than he does the second and third. A better distinction for Varro would have been between ‘natural gods’ and ‘gods of human institution’. In the end, Varro creates ‘civic theology’ as a kind of mixture of these two.

The poets essentially introduced a love of the world under the guise of gods and goddesses. Even Varro admits that the gods, in human form, appear to enjoy sensual pleasures. And the foulest of pleasures encouraged in the sanctuary are not even allowed on the theatrical stage. What kind of holiness inhabits such temples? That which is hidden is, of course, not according to nature. It involves men being treated as women.[2]

True natural philosophy does not look to the science of nature but to the science of God. We make this distinction because the Mother of gods is not properly equated with the earth – for God, by nature, stands separate from his creation.

Varro distinguishes between a religious and superstitious man. The former respects the gods as his parents, while the latter is afraid of the gods as if his enemies. But the gods as described by poets and as worshiped by citizens of Rome do threaten humanity and instill superstition. And these threatening gods who crowd wedding chambers and other arenas of private life, instilling fear and increasing timidity, are the very gods of the poets (not those of the natural philosophers). And despite the detailed history Varro gives of these gods, nowhere do they offer the eternal life that Christ gives.


Chapter 10-11: Seneca’s Account of the Gods in Rome

Seneca was much more outspoken and critical against the theology of the city than was Varro. He spoke of the worship they demanded in order to be appeased (cutting off sexual organs, cutting, etc.). One wonders what would happen if the gods were angry! The servants of the gods are either engaged in perversity or in completely superfluous activities. Despite Seneca’s severe criticism of the theology of the poets, he took part in some civic displays in the theater. He did so insincerely, which is worse than the actors who at least have no intention to deceive. If Seneca could have consistently criticized the theology of the poets and the superstition evidenced in public rituals, others could have followed the lead he learned from the natural philosophers. Seneca similarly criticized the rituals of the Jews (like the Sabbath, which he saw as impractical and wasteful), though he did not comment about the Christians whom he undoubtedly was aware of and knew.


Chapter 12: Closing Appeal

The Greeks divided theology into mystical, physical, and political, and the Romans divided it into fabulous, natural, and civil. The first and last of these can obviously be rejected. Not only do these fail to provide a way to achieve happiness, but they do not offer a way to eternal life (which itself is a condition of happiness). In the next book will come a more thorough criticism of civil theology.



My Footnotes:

[1] Of these three, it will become clear that Augustine prefers ‘natural philosophy’. This is investigating things according to the nature of things. What is so interesting here is that Augustine is operating outside our contemporary constraints which divide theology and philosophy. Jean-Luc Marion has given an interesting lecture in which he develops the rise of the supposed conflict between philosophy and theology: link.

[2] It is clear here that Augustine, like the biblical authors, denounces not only the idolatrous context of homosexual practice but the sinfulness of the practice itself. Book VI.6-8 are quite clear that Augustine finds homosexual practice a perversion of nature, whether conducted in temples, on the stage, in public, and in private. The practice is the problem, not simply the context.


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