Monday, January 27, 2014

"City of God" II.19-20

Chapter 19:
The damage was done to Rome long before the coming of Christ, as even the pagan writers admit. The Republic was sunk in a wash of luxury and wickedness before Christianity arrived on the scene. The Romans have failed to follow even the good laws they had, to say nothing of the wicked ones given to them by their 'gods.' They would do better to look to the Scriptures, which not only condemn greed and avarice, but encourage a virtuous lifestyle across the board and point out the way that the believer can live by faith in a world full of sin.

Chapter 20:
This chapter is one of my favorites that I use in class when teaching Augustine. Here, we are told what the world really wants from life. For all its claims to love virtue, in reality the city of man loves personal peace and affluence (to quote Schaeffer). At the end of the day, the world rejoices in the idea of being able to do what you want whenever you want to do it. Augustine is relentless is his analysis of the desires of the human heart:
But the worshippers and admirers of these gods delight in imitating their scandalous iniquities, and are nowise concerned that the republic be less depraved and licentious. Only let it remain undefeated, they say, only let it flourish and abound in resources; let it be glorious by its victories, or still better, secure in peace; and what matters it to us? This is our concern, that every man be able to increase his wealth so as to supply his daily prodigalities and so that the powerful may subject the weak for their own purposes. Let the poor court the rich for a living, and that under their protection they may enjoy a sluggish tranquility; and let the rich abuse the poor as their dependents, to minister to their pride. Let the people applaud not those who protect their interests, but those who provide them with pleasure. Let no severe duty be commanded, no impurity forbidden ....
Let there be a plentiful supply of public prostitutes for everyone who wishes to use them, but specially for those who are too poor to keep one for their private use. [A demand now filled by Internet pornography.] Let there be erected houses of the largest and most ornate description: in these let there be provided the most sumptuous banquets, where everyone who pleases may, by day or night, play, drink, vomit, dissipate. Let there be everywhere heard the rustling of dancers, the loud, immodest laughter of the theatre; let a succession of the most cruel and the most voluptuous pleasures maintain a perpetual excitement. [24 hour cable entertainment?] If such happiness is distasteful to any, let him be branded as a public enemy; and if any attempt to modify or put an end to it let him be silenced, banished, put an end to.
This passage is certainly a condemnation of the decadent Roman culture of the 5th century AD. But if that's all it is, then it becomes little better than a cranky caricature. Instead, I think we have to see this not only as a picture of society but also as a picture of the political desires of the human heart in its natural state. What do you and I care for civic virtue or the morality of the state so long as we are secure and surrounded by pleasures? For that matter, what more does any modern American want other than to be entertained 24/7?
This of course by contrast to the city of God discussed in the previous chapter, who endures this "earthly republic" with its eyes on the heavenly city to come. Where the world cares only for its own prosperous decadence, we have to keep our eyes on Him who has provided salvation and peace through Jesus Christ.

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