City of God, Book 5: Fate?

Book Five is the most theological so far, covering ground I am more familiar with (more familiar than Roman history and myth).  It is Augustine’s goal to demonstrate that Rome’s expansion was due to God’s plan and give some insight into why God allowed the Roman Empire to conquer and grow.

Augustine states in unequivocally in the opening of Book Five, “Without the slightest doubt, kingdoms of men are established by divine providence,” not chance, not destiny. He proceeds to dismantle the belief that the position of the stars determines a person’s or a people’s destiny. Why, he asks, can twins born under the same stars live very different lives – one good, one bad, on prosperous, one beset by calamity, one in good health and one suffering from disease, etc? This, he contends, is evidence for the falsity of astrology. If, as some argue, the different lot in life twins experience is due to subtle variation in the stars between the time they were born, variations that can’t be seen, then what good is astrology. If they can’t see differences that lead to such vastly different outcomes (think Jacob and Esau), what good are the astrologers?

Having rejected astrology and the causal power of the stars, he does extend an olive branch to those who use the word “fate” to describe “the connected series of causes which is responsible for anything that happens.” He deserved to be quoted at length here,

“For in fact they [unknowingly] ascribe this orderly series, this chain of causes, to the will and power of the supreme God, who is believed, most rightly and truly, to know all things before they happen, and who leaves nothing unordered. From him come all powers, but not all wills. What they mean by ‘destiny’ is principally the will of the supreme God, whose power extends invincibly through all things.”

This is an important section for Augustinian theology. Here he enters into a lengthy discussion with Cicero about freedom of the will and God’s infallible prescience. Cicero denies foreknowledge to God (the gods) because foreknown acts cannot be freely willed. Cicero’s argumentation resembles contemporary open theists. According to Augustine’s summary, Cicero asserts,

“If all events are foreknown, they will happen in the precise order of that foreknowledge; if so, the order is determined in the prescience of God. If the order is determined, so is the causal order; for nothing can happen unless preceded by an efficient cause. If the causal order is fixed, determining all events, then all events, he concludes, are ordered by destiny. If this is true, nothing depends on us and there is no such thing as free will.”

Augustine responds to this “irreverent impudence,” asserting “both that God knows all things before they happen and that we do by our free will everything that we feel and know wold not happen without our volition.” He rejects the either-or in favor of the both-and. What is fixed for God can still be free for us, for “Our wills themselves are in the order of causes…” Moreover, the power of our wills (their strength and ability to move to action) is rooted in God’s will. “Thus,” writes Augustine, “our wills have only as much power as God has willed and foreknown; God, whose foreknowledge is infallible, has foreknown the strength of our will and our achievements, and it is for that reason that their future strength is completely determined and their future achievements utterly assured.”

These acts are free. When God has foreknown a free act of the will, he has truly seen something, not nothing nor the illusion of something. He has foreknown an act of the will, it is truly an act of the will.

Having established that “it is beyond anything incredible that he should have willed the kingdoms of men, their dominations and the servitudes, to be outside the range of the laws of providence,” he turns now to answer the question, “Why did God allow Rome to extend their empire?”

Though Romans worshipped false gods, they were a people passionate for the praise of men, generous with their money, and desiring renown.  Initially, there was a love for liberty; but this love devolved into a lust for domination and a greed for glory.  For some, this greed for glory led them to trickery and deceit to appear more honorable than they were. Others, however, driven by the desire for the praise of men, gained control of their more base passions and led them to live more nobly.  When God determined that a nation should rise out of the west to replace the kingdoms of the east, he gave preference to those who  “served their country for the sake of honour, praise and glory, who looked to find that glory in their countries safety above their own, and who suppressed greed for money and many other faults in favor of that one fault of theirs, the love of praise.” This love for praise, though a vice, led them to be less depraved than others.

These men were rewarded with the temporal blessings; indeed, they received their reward in full (in contrast to the saints who suffered now but will be rewarded in eternity). In this, they serve as a type of “if for this, how much more for that” example for the Christian. If for temporal rewards, citizens served faithfully and made sacrifices for their earthly kingdom, how much more should citizens of the Heavenly City be willing to serve and sacrifice for eternal rewards? For, reasons Augustine,

“That City, in which it has been promised that we shall reign, differs from this earthly city as widely as the sky from the earth, life eternal from temporal joy, sustained glory from empty praises, the society of angels from the society of men, the light of the Maker of the sun and moon from the light of the sun and moon. Therefore the citizens of so great a county should not suppose that they have achieved anything of note if, to attain that country they have done some good, or endured some ills, seeing that those Romans did so much and suffered for the earthly country the already possessed.”

After chronicling various sacrifices renowned Romans made in service to the empire, Augustine pushes his point home, “If we do not display, in the service of the most glorious City of God, the qualities which the Romans, after their fashion, gave us something of a model, in their pursuit of the glory of their earthly city, then we ought to feel the prick of shame.”

Turning from the noble to the evil, Augustine claims that even men like Nero reign under the providence of God when he determines men deserve such masters. On the flip side, good and truly pious men do not always see the temporal rewards that others, even evil men, sometimes do. Constantine was good and pious and was given earthly and eternal rewards. But, “so that no emperor should become a Christian in order to earn the good fortune of Constantine,” God removed other Christian emperors more quickly. Therefore, one ought to become a Christian “with a view to life eternal,” not expecting temporal blessings in this world.

This Book was, even though I don’t think I’ve ever read it, familiar to me, as many of the arguments relating foreknowledge and free will have been repeated in Calvin and Calvin’s successors. Augustine is masterful, affirming both God’s complete foreknowledge and human free will, both determinism and responsibility.

Book Five concludes a significant section of City of God, the critique of pagan religion. In the next five books, Augustine turns his attention to pagan philosophy.