Saturday, July 14, 2007

How to Read Augustine's The City of God

In order to get acquainted with the overall argument of Augustine’s City of God begin by reading the entire first book, then read these chapters in the order listed: 2.1—2.4, 3.1, 4.1—2, 5.1, 6.1, 9.1, 11.1, 12.1, 14.28, 15.1, 17.1, 19.1 (first paragraph), 19.17, 20.1, 21.1, 22.1, 22.30.

Reading these selected chapters will prove to be a better overview than reading any “Introduction” written by someone else; you’ll get a feel firsthand for Augustine’s style and concerns without the interference of the interpretations of a reviewer. Reading these selections instead of jumping right in and plodding through the entire book will give you a fine overview of the major themes of the various books without having to struggle through the complexities of Augustine’s argument.

After reading these, if you feel like you would like to read more, look over the lists below and choose a chapter. If you begin to read a book and find yourself in the middle of some discussion about which you know nothing (nor care), then move on.

Only be careful, some of Augustine’s more brilliant arguments, the kind that upon finishing call for “oohs” and “aahs,” often concern questions or objections from pagans that may not be directly applicable to our situation, but which, in the process of Augustine’s analysis, often yield some very important insights. For example, consider Augustine’s extended refutation of the objection from scoffers against eternal death to the effect that the material body could not possibly suffer pain eternally without being destroyed (Bk. 21.2-8). This argument is simply brilliant and affords lots of meat for meditation.

Overview of The City of God: Augustine’s Own Words

Part 1 (Bks 1-10): “From this world’s city there arise enemies against whom the City of God has to be defended, though many of these correct their godless errors and become useful citizens of that City” (1.1).

Books 1—5: “I write against those who maintain that the worship of the gods—I should rather say, of evil spirits [daemones]—leads to happiness in this life” (Letter to Firmus).

Books 5—10: “. . .we shall answer those, who, in spite of being disproved and refuted by unanswerable proofs, persist in the assertion that the gods are to be worshiped not with a view to any advantage in this life but with a view to the life after death” (1.36).

Part 2 (Bks 11-22): “My task is to discuss, to the best of my power, the rise, the development and the destined ends of the two cities, the earthly and the heavenly, the cities which we find, as I have said, interwoven, as it were, in this present transitory world, and mingled with one another” (11.1).

Books 11—14: The origin of the two cities.

Books 15—18: “Since I have said enough about the origins of these two societies [Bks 11-14] . . . it seems to me that I should undertake to describe their development from the time that the first pair began to produce offspring up to the time when mankind will cease to reproduce itself. For the development of these two societies which form my subject lasts throughout this whole stretch of time, or era, in which the dying yield place to the newly-born who succeed them” (15.2).

Books 19—22: “It is clear to me that my next task is to discuss the appointed ends of these two cities, the earthly and the heavenly” (19.1).


KDNY said...


Is there a "best translation" that you would recommend?

Jeff Meyers said...

Well, I like the Penguin Classics translation by Henry Bettenson best of all.

It's accurate and easy to read. It's also a manageable, well-constructed paperback.