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De Civitate Dei, Book X

November 29, 2011

Chapters 1-4: The Angels Want us to be Happy in God

Now we ask, do the angels (or ‘gods’) call us to worship them or the one God from whom they derive their being? This question will be pursued under the Greek word “latreia” because it most directly describes that type of reverence and service which is uniquely owed to divinity. “Cult” does not do so, because it can be used to describe things due to humanity. “Religion” also fails as a good term because it is sometimes used to describe duties owed to a neighbor. “Piety” is, in common usage, used to describe compassion. Thus, “latreia” in the Greek is roughly equivalent to “servitus” in Latin, and these terms will be used to describe true dedication and worship to God.

Angels and ourselves receive happiness from the same source. Plotinus is in agreement with us on this point. The angles, like humans, have a kind of light shine upon them which is apprehended only by the intellect. Plotinus finds a comparison for this light in the great bodies in heaven: God is the sun and the soul, as recipient of the sun’s light, is the moon. The Platonists hold that there is no being above the angels (except for God) and that those beings receive life from Him. But if the Platonists would have been consistent, they would have worshiped God alone. For it is only by having our intellectual soul filled with His light that we are fertile with true virtues and capable of attaining happiness. This end has been appointed so that a person may know how to love themselves and attain bliss.[1] Seeing this final Good as our ultimate happiness opens our eyes to the fact that any creature who loves us will desire us to be more happy in God.


Chapters 5-6: True Sacrifice

Sacrifices do not benefit God. And the Psalmist (50:14), said that God both does not and does desire sacrifice: He does not want an animal, but He does want a broken heart. God does not want the first without the second in the Old Testament, because the first is really meant to be a symbol of the second. The body is offered to God by pursuit of temperance, and the soul is offered to God so that it might change in ‘form’ from worldly to godly. And the whole church becomes the ‘form’ of a servant as it submits to the head, Christ. In the Eucharist, the church can see that she is ‘one body with many members’ and that she is offered to God in this act of worship.


Chapters 7-9: The Work of Angels

Angels rejoice in their participation in their creator, finding their stability in His eternity, their assurance in His truth, their holiness from His bounty. And the City of God is comprised of both these angels and ourselves. Angels help us on our way. Angels have revealed God’s law, including the command to not worship anyone but God! One must not forget the ministry of the angels to Abraham in announcing a son, announcing the fall of Sodom, entering the city to save Lot, etc. And no one will forget the way the angels assisted in delivering Moses and Israel from Egypt. God’s angels continued to minister to the people in the desert. In all of this, the people were punished if they worshiped the helpers instead of God who sent the helpers. In fact, all the instances of help from angels were meant to promote worship of God.


Chapters 9-11: The Claims of Theurgy

Old Testament miracles were achieved by simple faith. However, Porphyry seems to say that the soul can be purified through ‘theurgy’, though he later backs away from this point out of embarrassment. Certainly it is not the intellectual element of the soul that is purified by theurgy; rather, he means the spiritual part of the soul which apprehends the images of material things. But this latter only perceive things with materiality and not the immaterial God. Humanity, according to Porphyry should cultivate friendship with gods and demons through theurgy. Theurgy can be used for evil, but we must use it for good.

In all of this, Porphyry seems to be saying that the gods can be conjured by theurgy. However, the people so feared theurgy’s use by those who had evil intent that they were unable to derive any benefit from it. Even further, it seemed that theurgy only worked to the benefit of those with evil intent. In a letter to Anebo of Egypt, Porphyry makes more true statements: demons are conjured by human request but are fundamentally deceitful. However, Porphyry puts this forward on the tongues of others (by means of quotes), and thus only as a suggestive set of thoughts. “It was, no doubt, difficult for so great a philosopher either to acknowledge all this society of demons or to censure them with confidence, whereas any Christian old woman would have no hesitation about the fact of their existence, and no reserve about denouncing them” (p387).

Augustine then poses a series of questions to those who uphold theurgy: why do these gods insist that their priests eat no meat, though they delight in the smoke of sacrifices; why must initiates avoid contact with dead bodies when the ceremonies they will perform involve dead bodies; why do the gods respond to human threats? Perhaps Porphyry is adopting the humble stance of an inquirer as well in his letter to Anebo, who was a practitioner of these arts. Porphyry ends his letter to Anebo by asking the Egyptian understanding of the way to happiness. He notes that those who seek the gods to simply discern who to marry or how to find their runaway slave have utilized access to god to little purpose. He presses the point that what matters is pursuit and attainment of happiness.


Chapters 12-16: Divine Miracles

God’s miracles differ from those of the demons. We know God works miracles because he made the world, which is greater than any material miracle we might observe. In fact, we are merely numb to the magnificence of this miracle of creation. But God continues to do miracles so that He might captivate the attention of those preoccupied with visible things. The giving of the Law through Moses was accompanied by great signs and commotions – the creation was serving the intention of the Creator.

The entire narrative of human history is similar to that of an individual person and goes like this: humanity has been drawn to worship one God, enticed first by temporal benefits, but then drawn forward by eternal benefits. And all things come from the one God, not ultimately from other humans or angels. Plotinus, in discussing providence, says that even flowers could not have such beauty without receiving ‘form’ (Idea) from the creator. The weakness of humanity is that we still crave earthly things which are inferior to the eternal blessings of that other life. Yet humans should learn to look to God for even temporal things so that in longing for them their worship should not be diminished.

God not only ‘appeared’ in visible ways to the Israelites at Sinai, but he spoke as well in physical words that can be heard and read. But the angels receive communication with their intelligent mind without words. And the message communicated at Mt. Sinai through angels was that all worship is to be directed to God alone. Thus, which angels are we to believe – the angels desiring religious ceremonies or those directing us to worship God alone? Let us assume no miracles were performed by either, which should we listen to – those who call for worship to themselves or to God alone? In this case, piety itself should have been able to decide which was true religion and which was arrogant pride. Or let us assume that those angels demanding their own worship had performed miracles, while those calling for worship of God alone had not – even then, the mind should have been able to realize that the latter were the true servants of God. But the case is even more obvious than this, for God allowed miracles to accompany the truth. Indeed, the miracles of the gods are based on illusions more than true changes in materiality like God’s miracles. And even in cases when the miracles seem somewhat similar, we can see the superiority of God’s miracles in that they call us to worship Him.

Thus, the angels show their love for us by directing our worship to the truth God in whom is all our happiness.


Chapters 17-20: The Purpose of Old Testament Sacrifices

The Ark of the Covenant housed the commandments and was a place from which God did many miracles, communicated many things, shamed gods of other nations, and required sacrifices. The Platonists were right to ascribe to God’s providence the flowers and every detail of our earth, but the miracles associated with the worship of God should then be all the more noticeable and significant. Similarly, the pagan histories tell stories of miracles associated with the worship of pagan gods. And it is to these that this entire work is addressed, for they prefer their own gods to the God of the City that we seek to promote. Such false worshipers do not know that God alone is the invisible and unchanging, founder of the visible and changing world, the true giver of the life of blessedness. The object of true blessedness is debated: some say money, others say power, others say bodily pleasure, and others say the virtue of the soul. But the Psalmist says his true good is to cling to God (Psalm 73:28).

Not all who perform miracles should be worshiped. For example, when Paul and Barnabas performed miracles in Lycaonia, they took them for gods and wanted to sacrifice victims to them (Acts 14:7ff), but Paul and Barnabas refused this. So do the angels – they refuse our worship. But false gods desire sacrifices because they like divine honors. They do not like the smell of dead bodies, as Porphyry suggests, but they enjoy the human soul subjecting itself to them. In doing so, they bar the way to the true God who deserves all worship and sacrifice of the inner person.

Jesus, our Mediator, preferred to be the sacrifice rather than receive sacrifices, and the church learns to offer itself through Him. This is the true sacrifice of which the many sacrifices of the Old Testament are symbols.


Chapters 21-29: The Power to Purify

Demons were given power for a time. They persecuted the church and created martyrs, which ended-up only helping the honor and reputation of God and His people. We do not call martyrs heroes because the name is associated with Juno whom Virgil depicted as being an enemy of virtue. Porphyry says a good spirit cannot enter a man unless the evil spirit is first appeased through sacrifice. This person then becomes a hero. But this is not our martyrs. They cast out the enemy by praying to God against the enemy. Ultimately, it is only the power of our mediator to purify our sins and communicate some of His bounty to us that allows us to overcome. We live under pardon, which keeps us from pride.

Porphyry says that no initiatory rites can cleanse us; only the “principles” can purify the soul. By “principles” he meant the Intellect or Mind of the Father. Porphyry also spoke of some middle substance, which no doubt, we can understand as what we mean by the Holy Spirit.[2] The reality is that it is only by the work of Christ in the incarnation that we are purified – so Porphyry should have spoken of the “principle” in the singular. Porphyry was blinded by pride, which is precisely what Christ can to overthrow. The Mediator showed that it is sin that is evil, not the nature of flesh. The Word in flesh is what purifies the soul and flesh of believers.

Even in the Old Testament times, which taught men to worship God by means of promising even temporal rewards, God was teaching humanity to have faith in the mystery of God’s redemption in Christ. The Psalmist in Psalm 73 is like a hinge between Old and New Testaments, because he sees that the material rewards were insufficient. Deserted on the lower level, he enters a higher form of praise which depends on clinging to God alone, joining with the angels who simply desire us to join them in worshiping their God and ours.

Platonists admit two types of angels: those coming down to announce God’s will and those responding to theurgy. Augustine calls the Platonists to be bold in renouncing the latter! Both Porphyry with his two types of angels and Apuleius with his demons who live below the moon are off the mark. Only Christ offers purification of body, spirit, and mind, a purification full of compassion. Christ offers not only purification of not only ‘spiritual’ but also ‘intellectual’ soul which theurgic art cannot do. This is why the world flocks to Christ.

Christ requires that we make a humble admission of our genuine misery, something Platonists have not done. But the way the Son of God came evokes a grateful response. And if the intellectual soul can commune with God, then it is not unthinkable that the Son of God took on an intellectual soul and a body. And the virgin birth, a wonderful birth, ought not to cause you to stumble but rather cause you to accept our religion. And that Christ took a resurrected body with him into heaven should not be unthinkable to Platonists who hold that the physical world is eternal and that physical  stars are blessed gods. The only reason for rejecting the religion of Christ is pride.


Chapters 30-32: Refuting Platonism

Porphyry refutes Plato and Plotinus in regards to the details of reincarnation, a principle tenet of Platonism. Porphyry said that people come back as people (Plato said as animals) and that a purified soul will never again suffer the evils of this world (Plato said souls forget and then re-enter bodies). Porphyry had the courage and clarity of mind to refut this Platonic notion of the cycle of souls.

Platonists refuse to admit that souls could have an eternal future without having an eternal past, and yet they hold that creation will be eternal though it was created at a certain point in time. Also, souls become happy at some point in time, though that happiness will never end.

Porphyry was also honest enough to say that no philosophy had found the universal way for the liberation of the soul. He does not say that no way exists but that he has not found it in the international scope of his studies. Porphyry encountered some Christian martyrs, and he thought Christianity would pass away like all other man-made religions. But indeed, Christianity flourished amidst the persecutions. So this is the universal way that he searched for. The number of prophetic predictions that Christ fulfilled should arrest their attention, for these were not mere short-sighted forecasts based on predictable circumstances.  The force of such predictions should cause us to hope for further fulfillment of God’s promises today and in our future.



My Footnotes:

[1] Previous chapters’ footnotes have highlighted this theme of eudamonism and Augustine’s continuity and discontinuity with this tradition of ethical thought. In this footnotes, I just want to flag a very significant quote which addresses how Augustine conceived of self-love in relation to this tradition: “For in order that a man may know how to love himself an end has been established for him to which he is to refer all his action, so that he may attain to bliss” (p376). See also the citation of Ecclesiasticus 30:23 in Book X, Ch 6 (p379).

[2] It is amazing how much theological insight Augustine attributes to the Platonists here. In other places he is less enthusiastic, but here it is perhaps at its height. This move is very similar to his concept of “vestiges of the Trinity” as found in humanity. See Karl Barth’s interesting rebuttal of this tradition in Church Dogmatics I/1.8 (p334-348).


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