Sunday, February 23, 2014

Reading The City of God

In the ancient pagan Roman calendar, today (February 23) was the festival of Terminalia – a feast in honor of the god Terminus, who unsurprisingly served the god of boundaries. I confess to perpetual perplexity when it comes to the ancient Roman calendar and the confusing way in which the Romans measured days and months before Julius Caesar somewhat reformed such matters with the introduction of the Julian calendar in 46 B.C. In that strange Roman way of counting dates backwards, February 23 was (at least in non-leap years) the 7th day before the Kalends of March, which in the earlier period may have correspond to the end of the old year and beginning of a new one. (Whatever quibbles one might entertain about this or that aspect of the reformed liturgy’s stripped-down calendar, its definitive abandonment of nones, ides, and kalends merits my fullest approbation and most enthusiastic applause!)

It would appear that the Romans, like most people both before and since, marked the boundaries between properties. The ancient Romans being as we well know an extremely religious people, they treated such markers as the image of the god of boundaries and honored said images with decorations and sacrifices on this day. When the great Temple of Jupiter Optimus Maximus (on which Washington, DC’s marble General Post Office was modeled) was being built, existing religious shrines had to be moved from the site – just as at the turn of the 20th century ancient ruins and medieval buildings on that site had to give way for the construction of modern secular Italy’s Victor Emmanuel Monument. But Terminus supposedly refused permission to move his shrine, and so Jupiter’s great Temple had to be built around it. The Romans being not only very religious but also experts at interpreting their religious stories in a politically favorable way, they took Terminus’ stubborn refusal to move as a positive omen of the city’s stability.

I’m mindful of all this because, since early January, I have been reading Saint Augustine’s The City of God (along with many others who are part of a “City of God Reading Group” on Facebook that is reading the classic a few chapters at a time intending to finish next December). One of the problems with interesting modern people in reading The City of God (besides its length) is the tedious treatment of Roman religion and Roman history that dominates the early books. In his determination to exonerate Christianity of the charge of harming the Roman state, Augustine argues in seemingly unending detail that the pagan Roman gods had over the centuries that they were supposedly in charge themselves failed to protect the Romans from wars, civil wars, and other comparable calamities.

To us, of course, this all sounds like Augustine tiresomely beating a dead horse. But, of course, in his time this was still a real issue. Augustine had grown up in a world in which classical paganism was still s serious alternative to Christianity (as were philosophies like Neo-Platonism and post-classical new religions like Manichaeism). Indeed, Augustine’s life and career can be said to span the terminus between the classical Roman world and the medieval Christian world, in which (apart from the incursions of Islam, which conquered Augustine’s own North Africa and made successful inroads into Western Europe until the 8th century) Christianity would enjoy hegemony until the onset of modernity.  So one of the many reasons I believe for Augustine’s perennial relevance is precisely that he does not take the case for Christianity as essentially settled – as his great medieval disciples and successors would. Since we too cannot presume to present Christianity’s case as settled in this secular post-modern world, Augustine should be able to speak to us with heightened relevance.

Even in strictly secular terms, Augustine raises important issues that remain especially relevant today. There is, for example, his perennially telling question: “Why must an empire be deprived of peace, in order that it may be great?”  Using the analogy of the human body, Augustine argues, “it is surely better to be of moderate size, and to be healthy, than to reach the immense stature of a giant at the cost of unending disorders – not to rest when that stature is reached, but to be troubled with greater disorders with the increasing size of the limbs” (III, 10).  Later, Augustine asks: “Is it reasonable, is it sensible, to boast of the extent and grandeur of empire , when you cannot show that men live din happiness, as they passed their lives amid the horrors of war, amid the shedding of men’s blood – whether the blood enemies or fellow-citizens – under the shadow of fear and amid the terror of ruthless ambition?”  (IV, 3).

Are these not still important questions – still pressing as we prepare to mark the centennial of the beginning of one of the most bloody and destructive centuries in human history? 

And doesn’t Augustine’s famous de-mystification of Roman imperial rule – “Remove justice, and what are kingdoms but gangs of criminals on a large scale? (IV, 4) – still rightly haunt us today? 

Are our modern and post-modern substitutes for truly divine justice any more secure guarantors than the shrine of Terminus turned out to be for the ancient Romans? 

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