Was there ever a more ambitious or successful book than St. Augustine of Hippo’s De Civitate Dei? Written in the aftermath of the Visigoths’ early fifth-century sack of Rome, The City of God was the great convert’s demolition of both the lively vestiges of paganism and the emerging Christian heresies of his time. More than that: he sought to construct a sturdy Catholic orthodoxy. All this he accomplished with stunning erudition and élan; sometimes with generosity to those he corrects; and occasionally with withering wit. (The warrior-scholar Marcus Terentius Varro was for centuries Rome’s leading light, and there’s a reason he’s not much read today: Augustine.)
I don’t know how anybody who sneaks a look at a newspaper horoscope could read Augustine on the subject of astrology and not blush. Indeed, I picture some bright young pagan, who – like so many Augustine describes – may have attributed Rome’s collapse to the overthrow of the state’s traditional pantheon by the upstart notion of the one, true, and triune God of Christianity, realizing that in De Civitate Dei was refutation not only of the treasured zodiac but of every false god, from the innumerable domestic deities to the great Jove himself. (I love Augustine’s sarcastic exposition on the proliferation of Rome’s corn gods and goddesses.) It was hard to argue with Augustine, since he knew all the lore and legend of the pagans, having been one himself – and something of a heretic too. And a hedonist. The future bishop even fathered a child out of wedlock. Although Monica, his long-suffering Catholic mother, never gave up on him (John Paul II said of her that she implored her son with “supplications and abundant tears”), she must have wondered if he’d ever see the light. He finally did when he was thirty-three.
As he wrote in his other great book, Confessions:
It flattered my pride to think that I incurred no guilt and, when I did wrong . . . I preferred to excuse myself . . . . The truth, of course, was that it was all my own self, and my own impiety had divided me against myself. My sin was all the more incurable because I did not think myself a sinner.
Christianity had been the official religion for some time as Augustine began writing his great book, but the transit of Rome up from paganism was an astonishing and ongoing transformation: from active persecution of Christians – most notably by Diocletian, ending in 311 – to Constantine’s embrace of the faith just one year later. Think about it: You’re, say, a twenty-year-old soldier and are ordered to hunt down the followers of Jesus as treasonous revolutionaries worthy of death; you celebrate your twenty-first birthday by fighting alongside Constantine at the Battle of Milvian Bridge, a Chi-Rho – one of the earliest Christian symbols – now emblazoned on your shield! Of course, there were Christians in military ranks and throughout the empire before Constantine saw a cross in the sky, but there were plenty of polytheists too, and the conversion of the Roman Empire to Christ didn’t happen in a lightning flash – old habits of the heart die hard. The people of that reeling worldly kingdom were all but punch-drunk, and it took a sober fellow such as Augustine to throw the icy water of faith in their faces: your old gods failed you because they were a fiction; the one, true God’s kingdom is not of this world; the sins and failures of Rome are the sins and failures of Romans; you are free, even though God knows your actions before you act; you are sinners after the Fall; your happiness in the Earthly City is always and only as it mirrors the happiness of angels and saints in the City of God.
On earth we are happy, after a fashion, when we enjoy the peace, little as it is, which a good life brings; but such happiness compared with the beatitude which is our end in eternity is, in point of fact, misery.
And what is the City of God? Well, it’s not the Church, since some Catholics may not be saved. It is the holy dwelling (it may be in our hearts and it is certainly in heaven) where we “shall have no greater joy than the celebration of the grace of Christ . . .” Augustine says that true Christians will become like the seventh day of creation:
[W]hen we are restored by Him, and perfected with greater grace, we shall have eternal leisure to see that He is God, for we shall be full of Him when He shall be all in all. For even our good works, when they are understood to be rather His than ours, are imputed to us that we may enjoy this Sabbath rest.
And yet there will be more: an eighth and eternal day, when history will end, and “we shall rest and see, see and love, love and praise.”
The City of God is a long book. It soars, but it also plods. It is worth every effort of patient attention, because Saint Augustine shows – as few writers have been able to – how the history we’re living is always a drama defined by the eternal destiny for which we should all still be striving.