During my leisurely stroll along the shores of Utica, an astonishing sight befell my eyes — an enormous human molar tooth that could be divided into a hundred pieces, each the size of our modern teeth. This extraordinary find led me to contemplate the significance of certain literary works that have left an indelible mark on Western history. Among them are Plato's Republic, Aristotle's works, Euclid's Elements, and Homer's epics, to name a few. Among this distinguished company stands Augustine's "The City of God," a book that resonates profoundly with its sweeping scope and captivating ideas, making it a true classic.
Augustine embarked on a remarkable thirteen-year journey to pen "The City of God," beginning at the age of 59 and completing it at 72. The impetus behind this monumental work was the capture of Rome in 410 by the Visigoth king, Alaric, a catastrophic event that shook the Roman Empire to its core. In the wake of this defeat, the remaining pagans laid the blame on the newly ascendant Christians, attributing the calamity to their rise. Rome's woes were attributed to its shift away from venerating the old gods, such as Jupiter and Nike, goddess of victory, whose statues had been removed. Augustine sought to refute these accusations and defend Christianity while crafting a comprehensive account of history and the human condition.
"The City of God" is a sprawling work, occasionally sidetracked by Augustine's extensive digressions, making it challenging to summarize its contents succinctly. Nevertheless, at its core lies the vital concept of humankind's division into two metaphorical cities: the City of Man and the City of God. The former is characterized by earthly pursuits, seeking happiness in transient achievements, worldly power, and physical desires. Augustine questions the ability of temporal authorities to establish true justice, as human laws are often flawed and subject to change. In contrast, members of the City of God acknowledge their role as pilgrims on Earth, placing their hopes in the afterlife and seeking salvation in harmony with God's will.
Augustine's thought-provoking ideas have had a profound impact on Western history, particularly in separating church and state while subordinating the former to the latter. The concept of original sin, the idea that Adam's fall changed the nature of humankind, and the notion of predestination have all significantly influenced theological and philosophical discourse. The lasting impact of "The City of God" on the Middle Ages cannot be overestimated, as the rise of the Catholic Church's political power owed much to Augustine's intellectual justification.
While I recognize Augustine's genius and admire his originality, I find myself at odds with some of his perspectives. His intense sense of sin, which he harbored even for seemingly trivial misdeeds, strikes me as unhealthy and counterproductive. Augustine's belief that sins stem from a 'sinful nature' rather than from actions or habits appears unrealistic, and his preoccupation with personal salvation can overshadow a focus on empathetic action and ethical behavior. Instead of fostering a constructive and responsible approach to self-improvement, his sense of sin appears self-absorbed and excessively punitive.
Nevertheless, my admiration for Augustine as a thinker remains undiminished. His profound ideas transcend religious boundaries, making "The City of God" a book for all of humanity and all time. While I may not share all his beliefs, his brilliance and influence on Western thought are undeniable. Like the words that prompted his own conversion to faith, "Pick up and read," for Augustine's magnum opus will forever stand as a monumental contribution to human understanding.
- Augustine of Hippo. The City of God. Translated by Marcus Dods, Christian Classics Ethereal Library, 1994.
- Augustine of Hippo. Confessions. Translated by F. J. Sheed, Hackett Publishing Company, 2006.
- Brown, Peter. Augustine of Hippo: A Biography. Faber & Faber, 1967.
- Chadwick, Henry. Augustine: A Very Short Introduction. Oxford University Press, 2001.
- Clark, Gillian. Augustine: Confessions. Bloomsbury Academic, 2012.
- Cavadini, John C. The City of God: Books 11-22. The Catholic University of America Press, 2012.
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