City of God: Book Twelve

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Of the Falseness of the History Which Allots Many Thousand Years to the World’s Past. Of Those Who Suppose that This World Indeed is Not Eternal, But that Either There are Numberless Worlds, or that One and the Same World is Perpetually Resolved into Its Elements, and Renewed at the Conclusion of Fixed Cycles. How These Persons are to Be Answered, Who Find Fault with the Creation of Man on the Score of Its Recent Date. Of the Revolution of the Ages, Which Some Philosophers Believe Will Bring All Things Round Again, After a Certain Fixed Cycle, to the Same Order and Form as at First. Of the Creation of the Human Race in Time, and How This Was Effected Without Any New Design or Change of Purpose on God’s Part. Whether We are to Believe that God, as He Has Always Been Sovereign Lord, Has Always Had Creatures Over Whom He Exercised His Sovereignty; And in What Sense We Can Say that the Creature Has Always Been, and Yet Cannot Say It is Co-Eternal. How We are to Understand God’s Promise of Life Eternal, Which Was Uttered Before the ‘Eternal Times.’

What Defence is Made by Sound Faith Regarding God’s Unchangeable Counsel and Will, Against the Reasonings of Those Who Hold that the Works of God are Eternally Repeated in Revolving Cycles that Restore All Things as They Were. Against Those Who Assert that Things that are Infinite Cannot Be Comprehended by the Knowledge of God. Of Worlds Without End, or Ages of Ages. Of the Impiety of Those Who Assert that the Souls Which Enjoy True and Perfect Blessedness, Must Yet Again and Again in These Periodic Revolutions Return to Labor and Misery. That There Was Created at First But One Individual, and that the Human Race Was Created in Him.

That God Foreknew that the First Man Would Sin, and that He at the Same Time Foresaw How Large a Multitude of Godly Persons Would by His Grace Be Translated to the Fellowship of the Angels. Of the Nature of the Human Soul Created in the Image of God. Whether the Angels Can Be Said to Be the Creators of Any, Even the Least Creature. That God Alone is the Creator of Every Kind of Creature, Whatever Its Nature or Form. Of that Opinion of the Platonists, that the Angels Were Themselves Indeed Created by God, But that Afterwards They Created Man’s Body. That the Whole Plenitude of the Human Race Was Embraced in the First Man, and that God There Saw the Portion of It Which Was to Be Honored and Rewarded, and that Which Was to Be Condemned and Punished.

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On Navigating Good and Evil (Book 12: City of God)


Some important things happen in this chapter, in that Augustine starts building a positive theological case. Critically, Augustine excludes systems of theological dualism wherein good and evil are equal forces locked in necessary conflict, or are the binary building blocks of reality (like matter and anti-matter). The dualistic construction he is critiquing seems somewhat Zoroastrian, and was probably well-known to Augustine as a former Manichean.

Augustine does not eliminate the categories of good and evil. Instead he reinforces this binary as the inescapable moral structure of reality when he describes the celestial sphere and the mortal world as dimensions that not are not merely parallel or analogous, but overlapping, “one composed of the good, the other of the wicked, angels or men indifferently” (12.1.1); the angelic and human worlds are aligned (or come into alignment) at the point of ethical contact. In this sense, Augustine identifies good and evil as moral options available to beings having temporal agency—that is, beings with the ability to make choices and undertake action within the constraints of time and space (cf 12.1.2).

He seems to categorize evil as a departure from God as the divine ideal (12.1.2-3), understood especially by “rational or intellectual creatures” (12.1.2). In this chapter the divine nature is something that both the good angels and the bad angels have, and by extension good men and bad have (or participate in; whatever) to the degree that they conform to this perfect type: “For since God is the supreme existence, that is to say, supremely is, and is therefore unchangeable, the things that He made He empowered to be, but not to be supremely like Himself” (12.1.3); Augustine’s hierarchical axis of created beings corresponds to a creature’s ability to more-fully conform to this divine type: “To some he communicated a more ample, to others a more limited existence, and thus arranged the nature of beings in ranks” (12.1.3)—the more innate potential to become like God, the higher up the ladder the creature is.

Augustine’s comments on the disruption of angelic blessedness (12.1.3) remind me of Paul’s comments on his own fallen human nature (Romans 6-8). Paul defines his natural existence as the knowledge of his sin (Rom 6), which causes him to suffer (Rom 7) but also leads him towards redemption in Christ (Rom 8). It seems as though Augustine similarly argues that—among the angels—the ability to fall away from God demonstrates the possibility of cleaving to God: “yet by this very fault the nature itself is proved to be very noble and admirable” (12.1.3).

In principle the two arguments seem to run in parallel. In both, recognizing a deviation implicitly confirms the existence of a standard. This reflects an instinctively rational hermeneutic, wherein what is compulsively or instinctually sought must actually exist, or we would not be conditioned (created) to seek it: “Ask, and it shall be given unto you. Seek, and ye shall find. Knock, and it shall be opened to you” (Matt 7.7). The formation of this principle is anticipated in the Eden account, wherein our acquired ability to independently recognize good and evil separates us from God (Gen 2-3). In this sense, the Old Testament opens with the observation that our rational faculties cause us intense pain, whereas the New Testament opens with the counter-observation that intense pain has a valuable function when managed or mediated correctly (cf Gen 3.16, John 16.21). This seems to be an essential component of Augustine's vision and application of the Christian gospel as medicinal theology professionally administered to the public by the church.

Loose Ends

    - Augustine praises hellfire as beautiful in its utility even though it is destructive in its application; it is useful and necessary even if it can seem cruel:
      Thus even the nature of the eternal fire, penal though it be to the condemned sinners, is most assuredly worthy of praise. For what is more beautiful than fire flaming, blazing, and shining? What more useful than fire for warming, restoring, cooking, though nothing is more destructive than fire burning and consuming? The same thing, then, when applied in one way, is destructive, but when applied suitably, is most beneficial. For who can find words to tell its uses throughout the whole world? We must not listen, then, to those who praise the light of fire but find fault with its heat, judging it not by its nature, but by their convenience or discomfort. For they wish to see, but not to be burnt. But they forget that this very light which is so pleasant to them, disagrees with and hurts weak eyes; and in that heat which is disagreeable to them, some animals find the most suitable conditions of a healthy life (12.4.1).
    - He includes some in-depth musing about why some men are especially prone to the visual temptations of sensual pleasure, and seems to conclude that these weaker men had wills “made of nothing” (12.6.1). This sounds about right.
    - Earlier he seemed to nuance an over-literal reading of the Genesis creation account, writing, “What kind of days these were it is extremely difficult, or perhaps impossible for us to conceive, and how much more to say” (11.6.1); here he takes an opposite approach when he calculates the age of creation to be about 6000 years (12.10.1). Today these two positions have been adopted by opposite sides of the creationism debate, but Augustine manages to hold on to both opinions at the same time.
    - Augustine explores the importance of a single Adamic ancestor in 12.21, contrary to the animals, which were created “several at once.” Here he sums up his entire anthropology when he says that human nature was designed “to be a mean between the angelic and bestial.” Occasionally the logic of Augustine’s argument was difficult for me to follow, but it seemed as if he was saying that a single human ancestor gave human beings the potential to enter heaven as a species, before the species was corrupted by the fall (12.21-27). Overall, I found this line of argumentation to be unconvincing, but I think Augustine revisits this point at greater length.

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