The City of God Summary

Overview (Literary Essentials: Christian Fiction and Nonfiction)

In 410 c.e. Alaric and the Goths sacked Rome, shocking the Mediterranean world and raising charges by pagans, then chafing under the rule of Christian emperors, that Christianity was responsible for weakening the once powerful Roman Empire. Saint Augustine’s The City of God was a sophisticated answer to these charges, pointing out, contrary to the teaching of ancient philosophers, that no earthly political system could be relied upon for the satisfaction of the most important human needs, which are ultimately spiritual rather than material ones. The first ten of the twenty-two books expose the false teachings of the pagans as found in the writings of their poets, politicians, and philosophers, while recognizing the truth that can be observed in them. The second part of The City of God presents a Christian understanding of the origins, progress, and ultimate ends of the two cities: the earthly city of man, represented by Babylon, rooted in vice and sin, governed by selfish love, and destined to conflict, destruction, and eternal death; and the heavenly city, represented by Jerusalem, rooted in grace and virtue, governed by love of God, and destined for peace, salvation, and eternal life.

Augustine asserts that Rome’s problems were of its own making, not a result of Christian teaching. Rome’s own gods did not come to the city’s protection, and Roman pagans sought and found protection from the Goths only by fleeing to Christian churches, which the pagan hordes dared not enter or burn. The mythic gods of Romans actually degraded the civic and moral virtues that once characterized the Roman republic. No less a figure than Plato had banished the poets and their mythic gods from his ideal republic for these reasons. Pagan gods, then, failed to protect human souls, to prevent human evils, or to guarantee human happiness even in the possession of the goods of this life. Some pagans understood, more properly, that the gods should be worshiped for the sake of happiness in life after death. By God’s providence, civic virtues of prudence, justice, temperance, and courage marked the early Romans, but even these early Romans were oriented toward fabulous and nonexistent gods—to the embarrassment of Roman philosophers such as Seneca, who observed pagan rituals but did not believe in the gods. Enlightened by degrees of wisdom, even the philosophers failed to see that human wisdom and virtue are gifts from God rather than strictly human efforts. Thus, while the natural...

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The City of God Summary (Masterpieces of World Literature, Critical Edition)

Augustine’s The City of God, its title deriving from Psalms, as in 46:4 and 87:3, depicts a Christian world order guided by God’s providence, as presented in the Bible. The Visigoth sacking of Rome on August 24, 410, one of the increasing number of attacks upon the Roman Empire, prompted many citizens, Christian and pagan, to account for these events. Augustine, now bishop of Hippo, was asked to explain. While the Roman Empire worshiped pagan gods, the empire grew to dominate the world; now, almost one hundred years after Emperor Constantine made Christianity the official religion in 312, the empire is failing.

In books 1 through 9, Augustine examines Roman polytheism. He indicates, for example, that Rome had suffered defeats long before the Christian era and had endured catastrophe. Pagan deities provided no protection then, even though Rome was believed to be partners with these gods. At one time, Romans demonstrated great human virtues, and God’s providence allowed Rome to prosper, but its reward extended to the earthly realm and is subject to change. Moreover, Rome’s transition from a republic to an empire resulted in declining moral standards and few checks upon its government. Emperors, assuming sacred status, undertook any manner of activity; even a Christian emperor could not dedicate the empire to Christ. That Rome attained an empire beyond its control resulted more from continual warfare and the quest for glory and renown than it did from the effort to improve the lives of its citizens. In addition, pagan deities, having their own areas of responsibility, could bring no stability or lasting happiness; they could only provide gratifications of the moment, empty gestures toward the unknown. Some of these pagan deities included local gods from the nations Rome had conquered, and the resulting mix of deities defied each others’ morality and rationality.

Augustine explains that pagan deities, evil spirits, fallen angels, or mere glorified humans represented an attempt to imitate God. The once-official paganism of imperial Rome signified dangers. Roman emperors, along with their subjects, wanted flattery and comfort, not facts. As a whole, Romans did not understand that the coming of Christ marked the purpose toward which all creation draws. The Roman Empire could be a means of God calling all people—-Romans, as well as Hebrews, Greeks, and barbarians—to Christ, whose kingdom, not of this world, demanded prior...

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The City of God Summary (Critical Survey of Literature for Students)

Saint Augustine is one of the most important theologians of the Christian church. He was born a Roman citizen in North Africa. Although he was trained as a classical scholar and was a teacher of rhetoric in Rome and Milan, he became a priest under the influence of Saint Ambrose in Milan and then served as bishop of Hippo in North Africa. His extensive writings include commentaries on books of the Bible, sermons, letters, and his famous autobiographical Confessiones (397-401; Confessions, 1620), which recounts his spiritual journey from his youth to his full acceptance of Christian beliefs during his years in Milan. Among these works, The City of God stands out as the most complete exposition of Saint Augustine’s Christian theology.

Saint Augustine wrote The City of God during the later years of his life. The catalyst for writing The City of God was a key event in the history of the Roman Empire: the sack of Rome in 410 by the Visigoths, a barbarian Germanic tribe. This event shook the dwindling confidence of the civilized Roman Empire. The remaining pagan Romans blamed the Christian religion for this catastrophe, and Christians became insecure about their faith. In The City of God, Saint Augustine addresses these charges and fears.

The City of God is more than a defense of Christianity in response to a particular historical circumstance. Saint Augustine planned to write a work that set forth his worldview in its entirety, and The City of God fulfilled that goal. It is a lengthy work whose composition took about fifteen years. It contains twenty-two books, which can be divided into two thematic parts. The first ten books, books 1 through 10, are apologetic. Their primary purpose is to counter the accusations of pagans about Christianity, especially in view of the recent attack on Rome. In the second part, books 11 through 22, Augustine presents his view of Christian history and the history of salvation as epitomized in his account of the two cities, the heavenly and the earthly. Both parts contain sections that expressly refute pagan beliefs, and both parts develop Saint Augustine’s ideas about the two cities.

Book 1 serves as a preamble because it confronts the immediate issues that the sack of Rome raised and it introduces the concept of the two cities. Augustine believed that disasters indiscriminately befall the good and the bad; the important thing is the attitude that any individual assumes toward those circumstances. The true goal is the heavenly City of God, and its citizens, the righteous, are merely pilgrims as they sojourn through life in the earthly city.

Books 2 and 3 demonstrate that the pagan gods never protected the Romans. By surveying the numerous wars, internal conflicts, and natural disasters that Rome endured, Augustine reinforces the message that the Romans’ pagan religion never prevented these calamities. Augustine then discusses the character of the Roman Empire and its rulers in books 4 and 5. He points out that God ordains the rise and fall of kingdoms and their rule by just or unjust rulers. Under God’s omniscience, Roman power arose because of the virtues of Roman citizens and their leaders under Roman law, reaching its zenith under Christian emperors such as Constantine and Theodosius in the fourth century. In book 5, Augustine’s description of the character of the just Christian ruler became a model of conduct, perhaps not always upheld perfectly, for Christian kings.

Books 6 and 7 turn from the politically oriented remarks about the Roman Empire to aspects of Roman religion. These passages provide an extensive catalog of the Roman gods. Augustine exposes the contradictions in the polytheistic Roman religion and demonstrates their lack of spiritual fulfillment, which, he argues, only the true Christian God can offer through the promise of eternal life. The first part concludes in books 8 through 10 by examining the claims of classical philosophy, particularly Platonism and its heir Neoplatonism. While Augustine...

(The entire section is 1666 words.)