City of God!

Our book today is that mystical mountain, that beatific behemoth, that ecclesiastical Everest, St. Augustine’s City of God, an enormous work of Christian apologetics that really had something to apologize for: Augustine’s spir to writing it was the sack of Rome in 410 by the Visigoths, which got a great many people not only thinking that perhaps such a calamity was the wrath of Olympus visited on a Roman Empire recently officially converted to Christianity but also got them a bit wistful about the good old days before Christians and their White Christ had infiltrated every corner of Western civilization. It was an odd conceptual reach – revealing, but odd – and it drew from Augustine a response that started out heated and to the point and then broadened and broadened and broadened, into the vast and unending Sargasso Sea of brilliance and sophistry it is today. Augustine started work on it in 412, when memory of the fall of Rome was still raw, and he worked on it steadily in his very limited free time until 426, when it was twenty-two meaty, incredibly learned, and charmingly digressive chapters long. In the first ten of those chapters, our author carefully explains just how vain and worthless all those pagan gods were in their own right, how they were no great boon to the Romans and deserve nobody’s moist nostalgia. And then in the remaining chapters, Augustine, having warmed himself up, goes on to explain everything else in the universe.

That might sound like the be-all and end-all of rhetorical tedium, but it’s the exact opposite: despite being a thousand-page tome consisting entirely of extremely detailed discussions of Christian lore and dogma, City of God is, believe O ye faithful, a confidently, even stunningly readable experience almost from its first page.

Augustine’s main genius-manuever, in light of the undeniable victor of the Visigoths, is to diffract a divine City of God from the tangible (and thus sackable) city of God’s churches and wardens and ecclesiastical administration – to say it may be both, but that it need not be the latter in order to be the former. This shift – and the shimmeringly encyclopedic arsenal Augustine uses to back it up – added an amazingly durable and useful fold to the Church’s real-world functionality, and a good deal of City of God is taken up with laying out not only the streets and districts of that Heavenly version of Rome but also laying out its civic ordinances and the behaviors of its Eternal Ruler. But the real enjoyment of this book derives entirely from the intellectual thrill of keeping company with its author. Watching a writer as intelligent and creative as Augustine work his way through every cosmological conundrum that’s ever crossed the mind of any devout believer (or snotty eight-year-old) is much more enjoyable than it has any right being:

The Bible says (and the Bible never lies): ‘In the beginning God made heaven and earth.’ It must be inferred that created nothing before that: ‘in the beginning’ must refer to what he made before all his other works. Thus there can be no doubt that the world was not created in time but with time. An event in time happens after one event and before another, after the past and before the future. But at the time of creation there could have been no past, because there was nothing created to provide the change and movement which is the condition of time.

City of God is endless, of course, and new elements suggest themselves on every subsequent reading (an old friend in the business used to quip “There are two kinds of people in the world: those who prefer St. Augustine’s Confessions and those who prefer City of God“). But one consistent note is characteristic of Augustine and very welcome: as in virtually everything he wrote, he never lets his readers forget that he’s a flesh and blood man, a creature of very worldly pleasures. How immediately refreshing it is to read a passage like this one late in the book extolling the grand variety of human life:

Think of the wonderful achievements of human industry! Think of man’s progress in agriculture and navigation; of the variety, in conception and accomplishment, man has shown in pottery, in sculpture, in painting; the marvels in theatrical spectacles, in which man’s contrivances in design and production have excited wonder in the spectators and incredulity in the minds of those who heard of them; all his ingenious devices for capturing, killing, or taming wild animals. Then there are all the weapons against his fellow man in the shape of prisons, arms, and engines of war; all the medical resources for preserving or restoring health; all the seasonings and spices to gratify his palate or tickle his appetite. Consider the multitudinous variety of the means of information and persuasion, among which the spoken and written word has the first place; the enjoyment afforded to the mind by the trappings of eloquence and the rich diversity of poetry; the delight given to the ears by the instruments of music and melodies of all kinds that man has discovered. Consider man’s skill in geometry and arithmetic, his intelligence shown in plotting the positions and courses of the stars. How abundant is man’s stock of knowledge of natural phenomena!

A far cry from the dank forebodings of the Mather clan. City of God ends up being one remarkable man’s guided tour of an entire religious superstructure, and as his supple, confident prose pours out all over every detail of that superstructure, it comes to appear more cohesive – even more beautiful – than it’s usually able to appear in its own right in a month of Sundays. The book is no less a vibrantly consistent and engaged whole-world than anything ever invented by J. R. R. Tolkien or George R. R. Martin – only this one, for good or ill, is playing with live ammo.

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