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The City of God October 27, 2007

Posted by Andy in theology.
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Here comes my contribution to our reading group on Augustine’s city of God, taking place in the department of Theology and Religious Studies, University of Nottingham.

I’ve written a number of extra index entries at the back of my copy (the Dyson translation), and they represent my particular interests in Augustine’s work: the grammar of praise, signs, government of the self, etc. But there are some more general thoughts here as well:

  •  madness: Augustine’s style of argument seems to be primarily based on ad absurdum arguments. More often than not, they take the form “anyone who is not a platonist is mad”. And where his platonism is most obvious, I think, is in his view of transcendence. Throughout his account of pagan gods, he basically contrasts them with the virtuous apostles (whose shrines seem to have superceded pagan sites of worship). But he replaces worship (and he is very explicit about worship, even giving the Greek word latreia just to be sure) of gods with that of the transcendent God. I actually think he’s right about this. Worshipping the cause of all things, the nameless one who has no space nor representation, cannot really be argued for or against: we make a choice to think differently. I am reminded of the time when Foucault was once asked:  “Given the fact that you don’t try to refute the theories that you analyse, and don’t even consider the value of the theories, given the fact that you claim not to be a structuralist, that you claim not to be giving deeper meaning of making a hermeneutics, and that you don’t appeal to a totality, why should we believe you?” to which Foucault replied “There is no reason.”
  • transcendence: I notice with interest that Augustine takes up once again his discussion from the de doctrina christiana (book I, passim) of enjoying God in VIII.8. Here he makes explicit what I had always inferred from that discussion, namely that enjoying God is not simply a question of ethics, but of cosmology: “humans are blessed not through enjoying the body or through enjoying the mind, but through enjoying God: not as the mind enjoys itself or the body, or as a friend enjoys a friend, but as an eye enjoys the light.” (Book VIII, section 8). I think this shows Augustine’s view of transcendence very well.
  • demons: The definition of pagan gods as demons is a weird one here. I have to say I’m not especially sure about his sources here, but draw mainly on readings of Easter asceticism’s view of demons, which is primarily psychological and political (don’t be dominated by the demons, resist with aggressive thoughts). And this kind of view is definitely exemplified in the city of God: in book IV.32, he talks of the twin dangers of demons and society in our formation of truth. But mostly, Augustine’s discussion of demons is on a cosmological level: are they living, rational, corporeal, etc.
  • passions: the discussion of the passions of the soul is extremely interesting. The best account I know is in Sorabji. His reading of Cicero does clarify an awful lot in the debate (not least confusions around the translation of the Greek pathos). I rather think he avoids a lot of discussion by pointing out that people simply are passionate beings. But there is a technical discussion still to be taken up (seen in the Arian controversy) around the question of the active impassibility of God. But that’s fine for now.

I think that’ll do for now.

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1. jeffrey biebighauser - March 12, 2008

So the e-reading-group didn’t pan out as we might’ve hoped. On Friday, we’re wrapping up Book XXII before moving on to Hegel (perhaps not the easiest transition to manage, but another hugely important and woefully under-read figure).

Wish we could’ve had you around – it’s been in many cases an interest conglomeration of perspectives, but we’ve not had a real Augustine scholar.

I’m still pretty convinced that anybody who isn’t a Platonist is mad – but this way of thinking has less catholicism-based cash value in our day than Augustine’s.

O also, this isn’t the appropriate place but I forgot to say that I’m only reading Maximus’ Centuries as a way of orienting myself to his ways of thought – I’m trying to work my way up to the Mystagogia. But if we should read the Love centuries, or his askesis bits, and happen to exchange thoughts, I’d be pleased. In other words – feel free to let the world know what you make of our good confessor.


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