Saint Augustine Writes Summary

  • Last updated on November 11, 2022

Saint Augustine wrote The City of God, a key work that embodied the transformation from the humanistic, world-centered viewpoint of classical thought to the God-centered concept of eternity that characterized the Christian Middle Ages.

Summary of Event

Under their chieftain Alaric I, the Visigoths captured the city of Rome in August, 410 c.e. For almost eight hundred years, Rome had escaped the ravages of invaders, but at last the Germans succeeded where even Hannibal’s military genius had failed. The event was not totally unexpected. For two years, the Visigoths had been tramping practically at will through central Italy. In Ravenna, then the capital of the Western Roman Empire, the timorous emperor Honorius cowered in fright, having himself ordered the murder of Flavius Stilicho, the general who might have delivered Italy from the barbarian menace. When Innocent I, the bishop of Rome, came to beg military assistance for his flock, Ravenna had nothing to offer. Alaric I Honorius Augustine, Saint Marcellinus

The physical damage was relatively light, but the psychological shock was great. If the Eternal City was no longer safe, doom seemed to threaten civilization itself. Saint Jerome, far off in his murky cave in Bethlehem, reacted typically: He poured out his heart in lamentation to one of his correspondents, prophesying the imminent end of the world. For Rome was the ideological heart of all that was mighty and worthwhile in secular life and culture.

How could the disaster be explained? One interpretation that quickly made itself heard traced Rome’s misfortune to the displeasure of the ancient deities who had stood guard over the city during its long history before being displaced by the Christian God. Scarcely a generation had passed since Emperor Theodosius the Great had proscribed the ancient cults and declared Christianity to be the Roman Empire’s official faith. Mars, Jupiter, and the old pantheon had been discarded; and now they were having their revenge. It was not the first time that Christianity had been blamed for calamities of one sort or another. The writings of Tertullian, Cyprian of Carthage, and Arnobius of Sicca testify to similar accusations during the preceding centuries, and the Church Fathers had striven to counter the charges.

One of the last significant groups of Romans still privately holding fast to the old paganism was an educated cultured elite, men of good lives and sound learning who grasped the true grandeur of the empire and its civilization and who formed an influential body of conservative public opinion that continually looked back nostalgically to the past. These men felt the fall of Rome acutely, and the last gasp of dying paganism was their protest against the new religion that they held responsible for the decay that was everywhere evident. Christianity to these conservative minds seemed completely incompatible with the best interests of the state and its culture. The events of 410, to them, unmistakably confirmed their diagnosis.

This sentiment was voiced forcefully among the refugees from Rome who had fled to the security of North Africa when the Visigoths approached. Volusianus, the imperial proconsul in the province, shared their views. When his friend Marcellinus tried to convert him to Christianity, Volusianus let it be known that his reluctance stemmed not from doctrine but from cultural and historical reasons. Marcellinus, another imperial official but a fervent Christian, had been sent to North Africa by Emperor Honorius for the purpose of mediating between orthodox Christians and Donatist heretics. He had become a close friend of the bishop of Hippo Regius, Saint Augustine, and he turned to him for help in answering Volusianus’s objections.

Saint Augustine.

(Library of Congress)

As a result, Augustine was alerted to the larger issue of the relations between Christianity and Rome within the newest context of the barbarian menace. With Marcellinus urging him on, he decided to defend his faith in the volume entitled De civitate Dei (413-427 c.e.; The City of God, 1610), which he began in 413 and finished in twenty-two books thirteen years later. When Marcellinus approached him, Augustine already enjoyed a reputation as one of the most penetrating of Christian thinkers. More than half his numerous books, many sermons, and hundreds of letters had already been written. Most of this material sprang from an immediate challenge. Always an unsystematic, intuitive thinker, Augustine wrote best when responding to an immediate problem. Proof of his greatness is the fact that his responses generally had much more than a circumstantial value or application; ephemeral circumstances elicited from him immortal replies. This was certainly true of The City of God.

Augustine started with the intention of answering the current charge against Christianity, but he soon gave up such a limited plan and turned that project over to the Spanish priest Paulus Orosius who stopped by for a visit and an exchange of ideas in 414. Augustine delegated to him the purely historical task. As Orosius related in his Historiarum adversus paganos libri VII (after 417 c.e.; Seven Books of History Against the Pagans, 1936), Augustine had directed him to “discover from all the available data of histories and annals whatever instances past ages have afforded of the burdens of war, the ravages of disease, the horrors of famine, of terrible earthquakes, extraordinary floods, dreadful eruptions of fire, thunderbolts and hailstorms, and also instances of the cruel miseries caused by parricides and disgusting crimes.” This sort of information would demonstrate how miserable the world had actually been under the tutelage of the old gods. With Orosius composing this sort of book, Augustine felt justified in devoting his energies to a more philosophical approach to the subject.

For himself, Augustine decided to take up the vaster burden of interpreting the whole of human history in the light of the principles of Christian theology. He would write not history, but a philosophy or a theology of history. He desired to show that everything had its place in the divine plan. Himself one of the greatest of Romans, he labored to reconcile Roman culture with Christianity, not to drive them apart. His vehicle was an analogy that he apparently found in the writings of another African, the Donatist intellectual Tyconius: the scheme of the organization of all people and human events into two vast groups, the City of God and the Worldly City, the society of those who lived in conformity with divine law and the society of those who did not.

It is difficult to re-create the precise stages of composition and evolution of Augustine’s thought during the thirteen years that he wrote The City of God. As a bishop in an unsettled time for the Christian church, he had many preoccupations and duties that kept him from devoting full attention to this particular work. The completed treatise, which consists of twenty-two books, has two major compositional parts. The first, consisting of books 1-10, primarily defends Christianity and counters pagan accusations, especially relating to the recent attack on Rome. The second part, books 11-22, presents Augustine’s new view of history in Christian terms. He sees history as a progressive course leading from Creation to the ultimate end in the city of God.

Significance

Using all the secular learning at his disposal, Augustine wrote a theological tract of universal value, creating an ideology that became a satisfactory substitute for the classical polis. Still regarded as one of the greatest books of Western civilization, it has taken a remarkable share in the shaping of Christendom.

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Bonner, Gerald. Saint Augustine of Hippo: Life and Controversies. 3d ed. Norwich, England: Canterbury, 2002. An examination of the life of Saint Augustine, with special attention paid to controversies surrounding the bishop.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Brown, Peter. Augustine of Hippo: A Biography. Rev. ed. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2000. A new edition of the most complete biography of Augustine by a scholar with a thorough knowledge of Christianity in late antique culture. The City of God is discussed in several chapters within the context of Augustine’s life.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Fitzgerald, Allan D., ed. Augustine Through the Ages: An Encyclopedia. Grand Rapids, Mich.: W. B. Eerdmans, 1999. An encyclopedic treatment of Saint Augustine that covers his life and his influence. Bibliography and index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Kaye, Sharon M., and Paul Thomson. On Augustine. Belmont, Calif.: Wadsworth/Thomson Learning, 2001. A basic biography of Saint Augustine, which covers his writing of The City of God. Bibliography.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Stump, Eleonore, and Norman Kretzmann, eds. The Cambridge Companion to Augustine. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2001. An encyclopedic treatment of Saint Augustine’s life, his writings, and his influence.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Van Oort, Johannes. Jerusalem and Babylon: A Study into Augustine’s “City of God” and the Sources of His Doctrine of the Two Cities. Leiden, the Netherlands: E. J. Brill, 1991. A complete study of The City of God from multiple standpoints: compositional structure, the meaning of the two cities, its character as an apologetic and theological work, and the sources of Augustine’s ideas.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Vessey, Mary, Karla Pollman, and Allan D. Fitzgerald, eds. History, Apocalypse, and the Secular Imagination: New Essays on Augustine’s “City of God.” Bowling Green, Ohio: Philosophy Documentation Center, 1999. A collection of essays presented at a colloquium on The City of God and Saint Augustine at the University of British Columbia in 1997.
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