What we see when we look at those who continue in rebellion against God is that human nature, whatever its ability to recognize good when it sees it (we are after all able to "praise good things"), is only evil in its desires. The proof of this is in the way we look at the world: "it grieves them more to own a bad house than a bad life, as if it were man's greatest good to have everything good but himself." Of course, not even the pagan gods actually provided fulfillment for these desires, and so we're left with the sorry spectacle of man longing for the wrong things and not getting either what is good for him (the virtue that comes through Christ) or the wrong things he desires, as we'll be seeing in the rest of Book III, or so Augustine promises.
Consider, for example, the ancient city of Troy. Was it kept safe by the gods? Did their patronage protect anything or anyone in the city--a city which those very same gods had a hand in establishing? We can't even really say that the gods were angry at the Trojans for the sin of perjury, given how common perjury has been through history. I love Augustine's closing thought, which he applies to perjury but which could easily be applied to a number of contemporary issues: "For it seems that the ancient practice of taking oaths has been preserved even in the midst of the greatest corruption, not for the sake of restraining wickedness by religious fear, but to complete the tale of crimes by adding that of perjury."
In our setting, I would suggest:
- "For it seems that the ancient practice of marriage has been preserved even in the midst of the greatest corruption, not for the sake of restraining wickedness by religious fear, but to complete the tale of crimes by adding that of adultery."
- "For it seems that the ancient practice of athletic competition has been preserved even in the midst of the greatest corruption, not for the sake of restraining wickedness by religious fear, but to complete the tale of crimes by adding that of pride."
And so on.
The gods certainly could not have been punishing the Trojans for adultery either, given the number of times the gods themselves commit that particular sin.
In this chapter, Augustine raises the interesting question of the value of the noble lie--is religion useful solely -as a goad to inspire us to greater heights as human beings, even if it's not true? While so many atheists in the late 20th and 21st century are quick to shrilly condemn religion across the board, the older position of more thoughtful atheists was that whether true or not religion had a great deal of social value. Augustine points out that when we hold such a view of religion, it really opens up the ecumenical possibilities: "You see how wide a field is opened to falsehood by this opinion of Varro's... and how comprehensible it is, that many of the religions and sacred legends should be feigned in a community in which it was judged profitable for the citizen that lies should be told even about the gods themselves."
This is absolutely critical for Christians to hear today, especially given the long tradition of social gospel-style belief in our country. Whenever we begin our analysis of the faith with its social utility, we then proceed to embrace all religions that have share those same social goals, and ultimately end by jettisoning the truth. Which is not to say that we Christians can't work in a political sense towards shared goals with non-believers in the political or cultural spheres--I'm quite happy to stand side-by-side with someone who rejects the Trinity or the sufficiency of the Cross while working in pro-life movements or for defense of marriage or, well, in any number of public policies. But it is to say that we shouldn't start with those social goals and reason backwards, assuming that since we share these goals our foundational beliefs must likewise all be true, and that as long as we all believe something (a fuzzy "faith in faith") and try to do good to each other, we're all okay. Such thinking is anathema to Augustine, and it's certainly anathema to Biblical Christianity.