My rating: 5 of 5 stars
This is simply an initial reaction book review. Further and deeper thoughts will follow on a blog somewhere…
I have finished reading City of God. It is a massive book. It took me a year plus a few months to achieve this, albeit sometimes going weeks without peaking inside. This is one of the largest works from antiquity, and it’s basically an education in a volume — history, the theory of history, theology, biblical scholarship, pagan religion, philosophy, political philosophy, moral philosophy, Christian apologetics, and more, are all treated in this one, giant, compelling (at times, admittedly, dry) volume.
Augustine ostensibly sets out in this book, On the City of God Against the Pagans, to demonstrate the falsehood of polytheistic traditionalists’ arguing that Christianity was the cause of Rome’s sack at the hands of Alaric in 410; at least, that’s what we always say Augustine sets out in this book. If it is, he clearly decided that the only way to do it was to set forth the ‘two cities’ — the City of Man and the City of God, describing each, its origins, and its history, as well as dealing with the polytheist detractors head-on with his reading of Livy that observes that Rome had many disasters when she observed the pax deorum, and that many bad men prosper, so Christianity can’t be to blame for 410.
Augustine’s discussion of Roman history is a joy to read, for it presents us with an alternative reading — God allowed Rome to prosper for his own designs, not due to anything Rome had done. This runs counter to the vision of history abroad amidst many both of the pagans and of the Christians who imagined history as ‘good men prosper while bad men fail.’
This book will also throw you headlong into the Christian reading of the Bible, from Genesis to Revelation, as Augustine sets forth the parallel histories, from Adam to the reward of the saints in glory at the bodily resurrection. Here you are immersed in the story of Scripture but also always surrounded by how Augustine’s keen intellect read and interpreted the text, seeking out its meaning meticulously. Modern scholars may disagree with Augustine’s conclusions at times, but his keenness in seeking out the truth and working through difficult bits of the Bible will be eternally laudable.
City of God is not for the faint of heart. It is, as I say, large. It is also, figuratively speaking, heavy. You will have to think your way through this book. You will probably forget some of it as you move on to later parts. But its contribution to so much western theology and philosophy makes it worth the effort. If you want to think hard about history, theology, philosophy, if you want to exercise your brain and consider why the world is as it is, if you want to enter into the world of one of antiquity’s greatest minds, if you want to see what an ancient tour-de-force in philosophy looks like, if you want to understand the fourth and fifth centuries — you should read this book.