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De Civitate Dei, Book VII

November 24, 2011


The previous book showed that it is impossible to achieve the happiness of eternal life by means of worshiping the Roman gods that have been established in the cities (‘civil’ theology fails). But this point must be established further.


Chapters 1-4: The Classification of the Gods

Varro distinguished between common and ‘select’/’principle’ gods, indicating 20 who fit in the latter category. But when we look at the responsibilities given to these ‘select’ gods, we see that they are responsible for tasks that are more lowly and less important than the tasks of lesser deities. For example, Janus (a principle deity) allows a woman to become pregnant, but Sentinus (a common deity) gives senses to the baby in the womb. Which is higher? Even the Roman gods say that sense is higher than life. And further, the principle gods often share menial responsibilities with common gods. We need not touch again on why Virtue or Felicity are not among the principle gods (see Book IV). The only conclusion we can reach is that the ‘principle’ gods are those who have won greater renown among the general republic. But then why would the god of money be below the god of art? Perhaps natural philosophers did have some influence here.

Whatever the reason for the classifications, being selected by the Romans leads more to insult than to honor. At least the common deities are sheltered from such insult by their very obscurity. While the ‘principle’ gods have descended to the tasks of the common ones, the common gods have not descended to the scandals which surround the ‘principle’ ones.

Varro’s conception of natural theology goes like this: there are four areas of the world (ether, air, water, land). Each area is filled with souls: ether contains planets and stars (seen by eye), air contains heroes (seen only by mind), water and land contain mortal souls (seen by eye). This system will become important in the next book when we deal further with natural philosophy.


Chapters 5-17: The Images of the Gods

Varro records that the images of the gods were invented by men of antiquity as a teaching tool for the unlearned. But Varro never arrived at the truth God, because God is not the soul of all things but the One who created the soul. Because Varro declares that the Soul of the World and its manifestations are true gods, the whole of his natural theology could extend only to the nature of the rational soul and never rise above this world.

Varro says that Janus is the world and that he has to do with the beginning of things. But Terminus is brought-in to deal with the end of the world. How can this be? Why must power be wrested from Janus? And the end of a course of events is always what relieves one of anxiety, so Terminus would then be worthy of more honor than Janus (though only the latter is a ‘principle’ god).

The image of Janus as having two faces or four makes no sense. They claim this represents the world in some way, but there is no significant way that the human mouth and throat (on which the image of Janus is based) resembles the world. One also wonders the relation between Janus and Jupiter who is said to have control over all causes which effect all that happens in the world? Varro explains that Janus has the beginning, Jupiter the efficient causes, and Terminus the end. But a cause precedes the beginning also to bring it about. If this would be Jupiter, then He is God. But his own actions do not show purity of cause, and so this cannot be right. Further, if Janus is in the world, where is Jupiter? Why are they both said to be the world. The further we try to understand the different gods and how they relate, the more confused we become. Augustine spends time on the names for Jupiter (Ruminus, Pecunia, etc).

And what are we to associate with the gods of Mercury or Mars? Speech and war? But then Mars would be out of work if Felicity could actually accomplish peace. Others want to associate all the gods with stars – and so we are left with the odd contradiction of having Jupiter fill everything and yet being a single star in the sky. Apollo is said to be a healer and prophet but is associated with the sun. The ‘select’ gods in fact the world, some are parts and some the whole.


Chapters 18-26: The Gods are Concerned only with Worldly Things

A more plausible explanation for the gods is that they were humans who received adulation from men who wished to have them as gods. Saturn was associated with agriculture and seed.  Possibly he was a king who had to plow to survive?! Similarly, Varro interprets the ceremonies of Ceres of Eleusis as dealing with agriculture, but for the Greeks they involved issues related to eternity. Liber also is relegated to the earth in his vulgar activity. Venilia, the goddess who draws the water to the short is complemented by Salacia who returns it to the open sea. But is it not the same water that goes back and forth – how can there be two goddesses here? These are certainly not gods, for they do not follow the rules of philosophy but ensnare people to the worship of humanly invented powers.

Varro explains that there are three degrees of the soul: that which gives life but not sentience to the body (the life that plants have), that which gives sensibility (our eyes, ears, nostrils, touch), that which is the mind (only man has this intelligence). Varro then equates this last degree of soul with God. To put it plainly, Varro sees the trees and stones as God’s fingernails and bones, the stars as God’s eyes, and the ether is God’s mind. There are certainly problems here, but Augustine wants to press Varro on issues of ‘civil’ philosophy. Varro affirms three gods, two of whom supposed fit within the other; and yet all three have their own temples. Tellus, the Great Mother, similarly had many gods within her.  But again, there is no promise here of eternal life, only multiplication of gods.

The Greeks explain in detail the mutilation of Attis, a story that Varro does not touch upon – and it’s a good thing – for the tale is of a god whose genitals are mutilated. Varro was, for good reason, embarrassed by the vulgarity of the story. Varro was similarly silent regarding the eunuchs consecrated to the Great Mother. It was believed that the Great Mother, the most degrading of all the gods and goddesses, imputed virility to the Romans by means of the eunuchs in her temple. Again, we ask, is it to these gods that eternal life is to be found? What Augustine is looking for is a true religion that does not worship the world as god but praises the world as the work of God.


Chapter 27-35: The Gods Exposed

When a person worships a creature, he commits a double sin: worshiping a creature and not using that creature in the worship of God. Christians worship God Himself, the one who made all souls and the entire world. God regulates and controls all those things that the Romans have assigned to different gods. Instead of directing attention to the gods, we should give thanks to the one God. He blesses us with all good things. And furthermore, when we were overloaded with sins, God sent His Son to die and forgive our sins. Even the rituals and rites of the Old Testament were meant to reveal this eternal life offered in the Son.

It is the Christian religion which proves the demonic nature of the Roman gods. But even the senators of Rome themselves were once brought secret records indicating the true rationale behind the worship ceremonies of the gods, and they ordered the books to be burned. Either they revealed incredibly shameful reasons for the ceremonies or they revealed that the gods were merely humans. The embarrassing origin and rationale behind the ceremonies caused Varro to give a different kind of explanation of the worship of Rome, one more dependent upon natural theology.

Let us leave these gods behind, pay no attention to their superstitions, and honor the true God.


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