In this episode of the
Philosophy Hour of Literary Tales we explore the magnum opus of Saint Augustine: The City of God. The first half of the City of God is, for a lack of a better word, the first work of systematic cultural critique in the Western World. In it, Augustine deconstructs the “hypnotizing myth of Rome” to “expose its vices” — in the words of scholars Ernest Fortin and Peter Brown. In this episode, we succinctly cover Augustine’s critique of Roman history and mythology as perpetuating the lust to dominate and ends with Augustine’s exhortation, ironically quoting Virgil, to reach out to the true heavenly city of love and justice which the Romans foolishly thought their city embodied.
The Visigoth Sack of Rome, Aug. 410 A.D., is the event that launched Augustine into writing the first ten books of the City of God, which eventually became an enlarged treatise on systematic theology and the theology of history of the two cities.
Gerard Seghers, “Saint Augustine,” 1650. Augustine’s legacy over Christianity is enormous. Historian Diarmaid MacCulloch wrote, “Augustine’s impact on Western Christian thought can hardly be overstated; only his beloved example Paul of Tarsus, has been more influential.”
Peter Paul Rubens, “A Roman Triumph,” 1630. The sensual, decadent, and immoral Roman value system is targeted for deconstruction in Augustine’s opening books of the City of God. Augustine is something of an oddity and ironist concerning his revisionist interpretation of Roman history. Since the “Augustan Revival” in the aftermath of the Battle of Actium (31 B.C.), Roman historians and philosophers had been pondering the “fall of the Republic.” Livy identifies moral collapse with the slide into empire and decadence. Sallust also identifies moral collapse as the reason for the spectacular fall of the republic. Even before them, the former consul and philosopher Cicero also pegged moral degradation for the republic’s collapse and the birth of tyranny. Augustine, in this respect, doesn’t fall far from the tree. Like the numerous historians he read as a schoolboy and cited in his work, he too identified Roman immorality for its collapse. But Augustine inverted the traditional Roman reading of its own history. Roman morality didn’t collapse in the 1st century B.C. Instead, Rome had always been immoral. Whatever truth Cicero, Livy, and Sallust stumbled upon was irrelevant because Rome’s entire history had been one of sensual decadence, death, and war. Historian David Gwynn said Augustine infamously turned Roman history on its head in offering his critique. As such, Augustine is often considered a forerunner to “deconstructionism.” In fact, many of the famous French postmodernists have all acknowledged a debt to Augustine, including Jacques Lacan, Jacques Derrida, and Michel Foucault.
Abraham Bloemaert, “The Burning of Troy,” 1593. Roman history, according to Augustine, started in disaster (the Burning of Troy) and continued in disaster and death up to the present sack of Rome in 410 A.D. The gods, Augustine proclaimed, were weak and incapable of defending or protecting Rome. Individual Roman courage and the lust to dominate were the real reasons for Rome’s greatness, not the “defeated gods” as Augustine sacrilegiously wrote.
Peter Paul Rubens, “The Rape of the Sabine Women,” 1639. Using Rome’s own history, especially Livy and Sallust, not to mention Rome’s poets like Virgil, Augustine highlighted how Roman history and mythology is full of stories of slaughter, rape, and bloodshed that got glossed over with invented concepts like “dignity,” “glory,” and “honor.”
Peter Paul Rubens, “Tarquinius and Lucretia,” 1609. Augustine assaulted the core sacred myths of Roman history in the City of God. In Book I, Augustine famously weeps for the rape and suicide of Lucretia. He accosts the Roman for killing Lucretia — Lucretia committed suicide out of shame not out of feminine honor. The Romans were equally guilty in her death as Tarquin’s son.
Eduardo Rosales, “The Death of Lucretia,” 1871.
Romulus murdering Remus at the foundation of Rome. Augustine did not spare any aspect of Rome’s sacred mythological history. From the Burning of Troy to the rape and suicide of Lucretia, from Aeneas and Dido to the Rape of the Sabine Women, Augustine’s critique of Roman history reached a culmination in Book 15 when he attacked the very heart of Rome’s founding: Romulus and Remus. The city of Rome was founded on the sin of fratricide. The story of Romulus murdering Remus highlighted the very depravity at the heart of Rome’s tragic history: a brother murdering a brother which paralleled the most famous fratricide of all time, Cain and Abel.
My published writings on St. Augustine:
Augustine of Hippo: Patron Saint of Political Criticism (20 Aug 2020)
Augustine’s City of God: The First Culture War (15 Aug 2020)
Augustine and the Politics of Love (1 November 2019)
An Invitation to Augustine’s City of God (24 August 2019)
From Diotima to Christ: Augustine’s Visionary Ascents in Confessions (9 March 2019)
Augustine on Love, Justice, and Pluralism in Human Nature (5 December 2018) *
Augustine: A Saint for Eternity (27 August 2017)