City of God, Book 6: Trust these gods?

Augustine’s Book 6 continues his dismantling of Roman religion and philosophy. In particular, Book 6 addresses those who would claim that the gods are to be worshiped for what they give in the next life, not the material blessings they give in this life.

Of course, Christians do indeed worship the One True God and do so for the hopes of eternal life and felicity in his kingdom. But, Augustine maintains that the gods, to whom minuscule aspects of life and creation have been assigned, cannot be trusted to grant eternal life.

“If a man who prays to the immortal gods, on asking the Lymphae for wine, receives the reply, ‘We only have water; apply to Liber’, are those authorities likely to suggest that the correct rejoinder would be, ‘If you haven’t wine, at least give me eternal life?'”

For most of Book 6, Augustine engages with the works of Varo, the most respected intellectual defender of the gods. Two aspects of Varo’s work get worked over. First, Varo places ‘divine matters’ after ‘human matters’ in his Book of Antiquities, implying that the deities owed their existence, or at least the formal aspects of their worship, to men, not vice versa. “Varo himself bears witness that the reason for writing about ‘human matters’ before ‘divine matters’ was that human institutions and communities came into existence and divine institutions are afterwards established by them.”

Augustine actually finds in Antiquities some hidden allusions to skepticism in Varo. Varo suggests that if he was writing about every aspect of the gods, he would have put it before human matters. The fact that he isn’t writing about every aspect could be take to mean his is writing about some aspects, or no [real] aspects. Augustine argues, “‘I have not treated of all’ means, in common usage, ‘I have treated of some;’ but it can be understood as ‘I have treated of none.'” He takes this as Varo’s way of subtly and safely admitting that “his books on ‘divine affairs’ do not deal with any truth relating to the divine nature but with false notions that arise from error.”

Secondly, Varo divides his theology of the gods into three compartments: mythical/fabulous (fable), civil, and natural/physical. The mythical is the world the poets and actors work with, the civic is the purview of the priests and magistrates, and the natural is the realm of the philosophers.

According to Augustine, Varo finds little fault in the natural aspect of religion, which is religion of the philosophers, other than the fact that it is prone to controversy and not tolerated by the common folk (because it’s boring).

Varo has little good to say about the mythical/fabulous. He complains about the injustice done to the nature of the gods by the “lying fables.” Augustine is appalled that Rome’s “sensitive ears” can’t handle the philosophical talk of gods, but “listen with pleasure” to the disgusting, false, lewd fables of the poets and actors.

As for the civil aspect of religion, Augustine contends that separating this from the natural aspect is “tantamount to an admission that civil theology itself is false.” But, Varo considers the civil variety of religion “that which the citizens in the towns, and especially the priests, ought to know and put into practice.” Augustine finds this very problematic because of how deeply dependent the fabulous variety and the civic variety are upon one another. The city provides for the theatre where the fabulous tales are re-enacted, and the theatre and poets base their lewd stories on the rites performed in the temples for “it is just because these kind of things go on in the temple that there is no shame about putting on similar performances in the theatre.” Augustine argues that Varo is shrewd, attacking the easy target of fabulous religion, not courageous enough to critique civil religion, though in truth Varo would if he was more courageous. “But,” Augustine writes, “whether you like it or not, some of your shots land on the ‘civil’ gods as well.” This because, “both ‘civil’ and ‘fabulous’ theologies are alike fabulous and civil.”

Varo contends that those who are learned are not afraid of the gods, but the superstitious man remains afraid. Augustin, however, asks how this can be true. After all, Augustine maintains, Varo teaches that three gods are to accompany a woman in childbirth to “prevent Silvanus [god of woods, fields and husbandmen] from entering and tormenting her.” Augustine asks, rather sarcastically, “Does this show the harmlessness of the gods?”

Seneca displays more courage in his freedom of speech, condemning both fable and civil expressions of religion. Seneca suggests, “the wise man will observe all these customs [of civil religion] as being ordered by law, not as acceptable to the gods.” Because Seneca was a senator, he was compelled to follow along with what he knew to be untrue, and “worshiped what he criticized, performed acts which he reprehended, venerated what he condemned.” Seneca also despises the Jews, especially their observance of the sabbath. Augustine defends the Jews briefly here and refers his readers to other works where he defends their religion more substantially.

At first, reading Augustine’s critique of those who would claim to worship the gods for what the offer in the next life and not the benefits the bestow in this life made me a bit uneasy because I have urged people to worship and follow Christ not solely for this life, but for eternal life. He acknowledges that the One True God should be worshiped “with a view to the life after death.” In essence, it comes down to the truth of the Christian religion over against the false, downright silly and reprehensible religion of pagan Rome. If the Christian religion is not true, then we are as silly as those who worshiped the gods of wine and water, hoping they’d grant eternal life. But Christ has been raised; therefore, he is Lord and we have not believed in vain!