Bryn Mawr Classical Review

BMCR 2013.11.29 on the BMCR blog

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2013.11.29

James Wetzel (ed.), Augustine's City of God: A Critical Guide. Cambridge critical guides.   Cambridge; New York:  Cambridge University Press, 2012.  Pp. xviii, 261.  ISBN 9780521199940.  $90.00.  

Reviewed by David Neal Greenwood, University of Edinburgh (

Table of Contents

St. Augustine’s intellectual inquiries spawned a vast range of theological works in a number of areas. Augustine also spent considerable space engaging the thought of philosophical opponents, notably the Neoplatonist Porphyry. To guide readers into the bishop’s magnum opus, this collection of twelve essays, one of fifteen titles in the Cambridge Critical Guide series focusing on philosophical authors, draws upon specialists from the fields of theology, philosophy, and classics. Although this is a helpful resource for suitably equipped readers critically examining De civitate Dei, the rather specialised contributions in this volume make it a less than ideal starting-point for those sub-honours/lower-division students beginning a study of Augustine’s De civ. The contributions are diverse enough that few are likely to agree with every argument, but those arguments are generally well presented and the collection will stimulate discussion. Although this Cambridge volume is more current, some readers may prefer a more unified approach, such as found in Gerald O’Daly’s similar work.1 Nevertheless, academics in any pertinent field leading honours/upper-division students through De civ. would be hard pressed not to find several essays here suitable for assigning as supplemental reading. The editing standard is high, although as with most such collections, readers should not expect the whole to be seamlessly assembled. Although the page dimensions allow the book to lie flat despite the glued binding, that binding is already starting to separate on this review copy.

Wetzel’s introduction is simultaneously a refreshing call to focus on historical context over and against the imposition of modern frameworks, and also something of a lament for the passing of modern theological liberalism. After reviewing the state of the field in studies of De civ., he places the contributions to this volume as part of a movement towards a more nuanced portrait of Augustine as both philosopher and Christian without rigid boundaries. Wetzel’s own contribution investigates the Fall and creation of the two cities, highlighting the inconsistencies he finds between Augustine’s accounts of redemption. He examines the Fall from two perspectives, treating Augustine’s metaphysical thesis that evil is the absence of good, and also what he terms the mythical narrative of Satan and the Fall, arguing that Augustine collapses these two narratives together without a connecting rationale. He concludes with Augustine that evil is the privation of good, but additionally allows for a sliding scale of relative goodness that in his view permits a more redemptive narrative.

Margaret Miles contends that Augustine deliberately bookended the work with discussions of female bodies as ‘a paradigm of the experience of the human race’ (p. 77), a framework that seems somewhat forced. Her sharp critique of Augustine for generally not adhering to twenty-first century sensibilities regarding gender equality pushes the limits of the editor’s intention for the volume regarding historical context. She castigates Augustine for failing as a ‘rape crisis counselor’, and characterises his treatment of the issue as ‘snide’ (pp. 78, 81). Despite these criticisms, her point regarding the holistic nature of the person is well presented. She posits human existence as ‘intelligent bodies’ rather than discrete components, which she notes correlates with Augustine’s treatment of the Christian community and Eucharistic theology.

In asking the question ‘will we be able to see God?’, John Cavadini provides a thorough theological appraisal of the interaction between ideology and solidarity in De civ. He argues for a relationship between Augustine’s placing of prophetic authority higher than reason and philosophy, and his targeting of Platonism’s seeming systemic inability to engage with bodily resurrection, and specifically that of Christ (De civ. 22.3), or even to recognise the significance of the union of immaterial and material in the miracle of life itself. Cavadini argues that Augustine opposed the Platonists despite their (imperfect) understanding of a transcendent God because of their engagement with the polytheistic tradition, which was responsible for enabling the ideology of empire.

Augustine highlighted the tension between angels, who were punished eternally, and humans, whom his readers wished not to be punished eternally. John Bowlin initially appears to be supporting a view similar to Augustine’s, namely that the will is free and so damnation is just when that will is perversely used in rebellion. However, based on Augustine’s position that all are corporately represented by (and damned by) Adam, he concludes that Augustine’s logic demands universal redemption as well, altering the focus from judgment to mercy.

Mark Vessey claims that since Christians were not culturally bound to the traditions of scrolls as were their pagan counterparts, they were better prepared to accept the massive De civ., which could only function practically in the new efficient codex format. Vessey emphasises for readers Augustine’s parallel use of texts, particularly the lost compilations of Varro, which held great cultural significance. Like Eusebius and Jerome in their chronicles, Augustine indicated that he intended to make use of the codex format to highlight the parallels, blending publishing and composition. Noting how often Augustine depends on phrases like ‘published in writing’, or ‘in these writings’ (p. 26), Vessey asserts that Augustine divided his work into books in a far more self-conscious fashion than previous Latin writers, and that De civ., more than any other of Augustine’s works, presents a case that requires its reading as a complete book.

Paul Griffiths discusses the saeculum, which he suggests be translated ‘age’ and not be conflated with the English ‘secular’. Although Augustine distinguished between the eschatological and the empirical, Griffiths contests the reading of R. A. Markus which placed such a chasm between the two. As Griffiths holds that Augustine’s understanding of saeculum was primarily theological, not political, he concludes, again against Markus, that the ‘saeculum is not and cannot be a political space neutral to and capable of framing, accounting for, and explaining the Church’ (p. 54).

Jennifer Herdt offers an interesting analysis of Augustine's presentation of Christianity’s worship as the mirror image of pagan spectacles.2 Within this mimetic framework, Augustine presented the Christian liturgical spectacle as a reflection of revelation in Christ. Herdt rightly notes that Augustine did not critique passion itself, but the diversion of passions from their proper focus. Despite his warnings to abstain from participation in visual pagan spectacles like theatre or games, Augustine did recognise the benefits of pagans’ virtue, provided their understanding of nobility and heroism was appropriately circumscribed. This leads to Herdt's conclusion that Augustine was not trying ultimately to dismiss pagan virtue and turn the church away from the world, but to teach it to love the world as it was loved by God and demonstrate a reason for looking for grace at work in their lives.

Sarah Byers examines closely Augustine’s discussion of compassion in De civ. 9.5, which seems to chart a middle ground between Stoic indifference and fear of sentimentality. She argues that although he was critical of the Stoic approach, he was not merely dismissing it. Byers links Augustine’s separation from Stoicism in this regard specifically with Seneca, arguing that Augustine’s disagreement was due to Seneca’s reduction of clemency to an emotionally uncommitted virtue, whereas Augustine viewed clemency as the union of compassion and good works. This is highlighted by the Stoic denial of grief, which Augustine interpreted as evading the potential pain of human entanglements. Augustine extended this concern for others made in God’s image to empathy for the challenges of their physical and social conditions, the lack of which among the Stoics he saw as a failure of their system.

Peter Ivan Kaufman argues for a nuanced understanding of Augustine’s ‘dystopian’ description of his world, suggesting that Augustine recognised limits to the extent of this dichotomy. He suggests readers consider the influence of Augustine’s pastoral experience as an arbitrator in the church courts, where people’s venal and manipulative natures were on display even within the church. Kaufman confirms the dystopian flavour of Augustine’s portrayal overall, laying bare the profane in the way of the world, but using this to highlight the justice which belonged to the celestial city.

Nicholas Wolterstorff presents a case that Augustine did not embrace and develop eudaimonism or ‘the estimable life’, but in fact offered his own alternative. He interprets the enhancement of one’s own wellbeing as potentially including being the agent for improving another’s wellbeing, and argues that Augustine rejected both this ‘agent wellbeing proviso’, along with Stoic emotional detachment, and the insistence that true happiness could be achieved in this life through one’s own strength. Augustine’s solution was to follow the divine call to redemption and to do so in community, grieving and rejoicing as appropriate both for oneself and others.

John Rist explores the relationship between faith and philosophy, distinguishing between ‘general philosophy’, which can take adherents only so far, and the ‘advanced philosophy’ required for true understanding. Movement between the two is dependent upon divinely revealed historical data, namely the historicity of the incarnation and the divinity revealed in Christ. Rist reminds us that Augustine rejected fideism, insisting that faith and reason were both provided by God and obligatory for the Christian life. Platonists were led by general philosophy to recognise God’s existence and a need for a mediator of some sort, but their insistence on the rigorous separation between divine and human, ideal and material, misled them into rejecting that mediator when he came.

The work closes with a study by Bonnie Kent of the reception of Augustine’s De civ. focusing on Thomas Aquinas and Peter Lombard. She argues that these authors knew De civ. primarily from secondary citations and read it ‘selectively, if at all’ (p. 227). Ironically, in a development likely to be appreciated by readers of BMCR, Augustine’s De civ. obtained its current status largely due to the appreciation of those in the fourteenth century interested in classical studies.


1.   Gerald O’Daly, Augustine’s City of God: A Reader’s Guide (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999).
2.   Although unfortunately without making use of the work of Kathleen Coleman, e.g., ‘Fatal Charades: Roman Executions as Staged Mythological Enactments’, Journal of Roman Studies 80 (1990), 44-73.

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