BMCR 2001.07.15

History, Apocalypse, and the Secular Imagination: New Essays on Augustine’s City of God

, , , History, apocalypse, and the secular imagination : new essays on Augustine's City of God : proceedings of a colloquium held at Green College, the University of British Columbia, 18-20 September 1997. Bowling Green, OH: Philosophy Documentation Center, 1999. 334 pages ; 24 cm. ISBN 1889680044.

Not only has it become cliché to note that a collection of essays by various authors lacks coherence, it has also become cliché to explicitly acknowledge the use of the “incoherence” critique. Against a volume that includes Hannah Arendt and the Late Antique grammarian Servius, the accusation of disjointedness might be legitimately leveled. Such a criticism, however, fails to appreciate the bold attempt at interdisciplinary dialogue inherent in History, Apocalypse, and the Secular Imagination. The editors have admirably selected a varied cast of classicists, patristic scholars, medievalists, early modernists, historians, philosophers and literary critics. If a group of such scholars who approach Augustine from various methods and historical periods were put in the same room, I, for one, would be interested in the “conversation” that would ensue. In fact, the major lacuna of the book, based on a 1997 colloquium in Vancouver with the same title, is a record of the actual responses to the papers.

When reviewing such volumes, it has also become cliché for the reviewer to declare incompetency in specific areas and focus on the essays relevant to his/her field. Following the standard approach, it would be noted that the book is divided into three sections. The section entitled History, which includes pieces on Augustine and the Late Antique Roman aristocracy, Livy, Cicero, Sallust and Servius, will be of primary interest to classicists. Scholars in patristics, while perhaps piqued by the first section, will more likely sink their teeth into Section II, Apocalypse, a virtual introduction to Books 20-22 of The City of God. The last section includes articles ranging from ” The Citie of God (1610) and the London Virginia Company” by Mark Vessey to “Hannah Arendt’s Secular Augustinianism” by Joanna Vecchiarelli Scott. These essays will not be commented on in the standard account because of the reviewer’s lack of expertise and the readers of BMCR’s lack of interest. Rather than inscribe the notion that subsequent readings of Augustine do not matter, this review seeks to evaluate the book on its own terms. While I will concede a focus on Sections I and II, it is also instructive to explore how a classicist’s and/or patristics scholar’s reading of Section III might impact on an understanding of Augustine in his Late Antique context.

In the introductory essay, Vessey sets out very clearly what is meant by “secular imagination.” Ever since Marrou discussed saeculum as the “condition and ends of human life in time,” scholars have transcended physical notions of the secular. According to Peter Brown, saeculum in Augustine represents ‘existence’, “the sum total of human experience,” while Markus attributes to Augustine the idea that particular realms have ambiguous being because true history is the conflict between the City of God and the city of human beings (pp.2-3). Therefore, “secular imagination” points to the intellectual constructedness of saeculum and the need for imagination to describe life in the saeculum. Beyond the suspicion of oversimplifying analyses of Augustine, this framework also invokes a reading of Augustine as a disrupter of inscribed boundaries. Therefore, it is no surprise that the subsequent readers of City of God described in Section III, “the secular imagination” all transgress inscribed boundaries in some way. In ” Civitas to Congregation: Augustine’s Two Cities and John Bale’s Image of Both Churches“, Gretchen E. Minton argues that Bale transforms the Augustinian distinction between the true and false city into a differentiation between the true (Anglican) Church and false (Catholic) Church. The Catholic sage intrudes on Anglican theology in a manner similar to the influence of Livy and Cicero discussed in section I. For Bale, Augustine is both authority and “retorted” documentation of the invalidity of the Augustinian position. Bale is Augustinian in his anti-Augustinianism. Vessey compellingly demonstrates that forces in the Virginia Company commissioned a translation of the City of God in order to “stir the hearts or loosen the purse strings” (p.273) for its somewhat precarious settlement of Jamestown. Exploiting a Catholic saint for English commercial interests shockingly violates expected boundaries. Interestingly enough, just as Augustine radically rereads history, so too do Bale and the Virginia Company.

Equally striking is the fact that both Minton and Vessey narrate moments of Augustinianism in the service of momentous beginnings: for Bale, the beginning of the new true church, for the Virginia company, the new World. This combination of City of God and beginning, so startling for a book that ends with the End, reappears in the primary influence of Augustine on Hannah Arendt’s concept of natality. “Her central metaphor…throughout her works…was ‘natality’ or ‘new beginning.’ Not the inevitability of dying but the promise of giving birth to the unexpectedly new was Arendt’s refuge against an overly determined world” (p.298). Although Arendt quotes City of God, Book 12, chapter 21 in a fundamental discussion of “natality” in Between Past and Future, I will let experts on Arendt evaluate Joanna Vecchiarelli Scott’s claim, in “Hannah Arendt’s Secular Augustinianism,” that Augustine has been both the primary and a much neglected influence on Arendt. Regardless of the validity of the argument, I am struck again that a reading of Augustine involves transgression of boundaries—Scott effaces the borders between the philosopher Heidegger and the theologian Augustine in Arendt; she questions the distinction between the impact of a Jewishly experienced Shoah and the influence of a Christian saint. This claim stems from her work on an English edition of Arendt’s doctoral dissertation Love and Saint Augustine. Like Marrou, Brown, and Markus on saeculum, Arendt viewed freedom as a state of being (as opposed to a matter of will) that occurs when the individual comes into existence.

Michael Hollerich’s exposition of John Milbank’s reading of Augustine (“John Milbank, Augustine, and the ‘Secular'”) provides a counter-history and counter-ethics to the modern liberal reading. Hollerich contrasts Markus’ inscription of the boundary between Church as ideology and Church as state institution with the view of Milbank. According to Markus, Augustine sharply differentiates between the City of God and the terrestrial institutions of Church and State so that Augustine is not committed to a particular institution. Milbank rightly counters that Augustine’s advocacy of Church unity against the Donatists affirms his commitment to institutions. Therefore, Augustine’s permission of religious coercion by the State should not be ameliorated by a distinction between the over-zealousness of Christian members of a state and the ideal Christian state that would never engage in coercive practices. Rather, argues Milbank, coercion is a problematic component in Augustine’s thought because he gives up the “principle of the ontology of peace” and the Church can be implicated in the morally ambiguous political realm. Bale’s stenciling of the true and false cities on the true and false churches reflects a Milbankian reading of Augustine’s commitment to institution: the Church, or at least Augustine, becomes implicated in the political act of founding the colony of Jamestown. Natality and beginnings, Augustine and the Church as an institution and within an institution, supply a lens for reading the essays in Sections I and II.

Section I will particularly interest Classicists because it pursues the issues of political implication and natality through Augustine’s classical, historical, and literary contexts. Neil McLynn, in “Augustine’s Roman Empire” contends that Augustine’s anti-donatist plea in 412, because it displays an arrogant confidence absent from a similar appeal in 404, reflects Augustine’s new-found access to the political elite of the Roman Empire and the subordination of this elite to the bishops. “The City of God should be seen as both a result of this new level of engagement, and a bid to exploit it” (p.36). Both Augustine’s use of Marcellinus to create an audience for the City of God and the end of Augustine’s political marginality dramatically show the superiority of the city of God. Thus, Augustine’s institutionality is critical for appreciating the immediate reception and tone of the City of God. And it creates a tension between his critique of Rome and involvement and exploitation of its institutions. In “Terrarum Orbi Documentum: Augustine, Camillus, and Learning From History”, Catherine Conybeare detects a similar tension when Augustine “simultaneously embraces and eschews Roman historiographical tradition” (p.63). Augustine, therefore, according to her excellent reading of Augustine on Livy, utilizes Camillus as an “emblematic mediator between the material and ideal Rome…” (p.74) combining a celebration of Rome with a triumphant Christianity. By claiming that Camillus frees his ungrateful land from the Gauls because he had no place where he could live more gloriously, Augustine combines involvement in the political economy with a critique of the political system. Institutions are important but not unambiguously decent.

Augustine’s complex attitude toward Rome is articulated through nuanced readings of Augustine’s classical sources. Although most agree that Augustine thoroughly reworks and rereads traditional Roman history, the remaining articles in Section I appropriately situate this reading in a Late Antique context. G .J. P. O’Daly, in “Thinking Through History: Augustine’s Method in the City of God and Its Ciceronian Dimension,” properly considers a Late Antique reading of Scipio’s Dream in Augustine’s correspondent Nectarius. In concluding that “the importance of the correspondence with Nectarius lies in the way in which Augustine engages in debate on the basis of common assumptions about cities, real and ideal” (p.49), O’Daly introduces a fitting methodological stance toward Late Antiquity: while a distinction between Christian and classical culture has heuristic value, the permeability of these boundaries must constantly be acknowledged. Cicero does profoundly influence Augustine, but, since “the City of God both develops and reacts against Cicero’s” use of Roman history (p.49), the boundaries between classical and Christian are simultaneously inscribed and transgressed.

In an excellent piece on “City of the Outcast and City of the Elect: Romulean Asylum in Augustine’s City of God and Servius’s Commentaries on Virgil,” Philippe Bruggisser juxtaposes actual boundaries against spiritual boundaries. According to Bruggisser, Servius articulates a philanthropic motive for Romulus’s program of asylum as a reaction to traditions claiming that he simply sought to populate Rome with disenfranchised riffraff. Augustine, in contrast, promotes this vagabond theory as a foil to the City of God that provides asylum through the remission of sins. “At the very beginning of the City of God, the experience of recent events leads Augustine to evoke the principle of the asylum in order to point out that the Christian invader, in taking Rome, had respected inhabitants of the City who sought refuge in churches, even though some of these were implacable enemies of Christianity” (p.84). Arendtian natality invigorates the impact of Bruggisser’s chapter. The common theme of asylum at the birth and fall of Rome, and at the birth of the eternal city, strikingly recalls Arendt’s concept of natality: inherent in Rome’s destruction, is a beginning. Similarly, Conybeare incorporates the theme of natality by claiming that Camillus must counter the Livian topos that one city must be destroyed to found another. In a sense, Camillus must counter the notion of natality in order to defend his willingness to save and rebuild a sacked Rome; Augustine utilizes natality to valorize the sack of Rome. Besides appearing in the context of an historical event, natality may also be perceived in Augustine reading of Classical literature.

All the articles agree on one point: rather than reject classical history and literature completely, Augustine exploits, retorts, and develops this heritage. It is as if he births a Christian history and discourse of the eternal city through the death of Roman history and discourse. At the same time, this city of God was always potential, “natal”, in Roman history. The end result is an ambiguous attitude toward Rome which is highlighted by Salvian’s starker view. “The Uses of Decay: History in Salvian’s De Gubernatione Dei,” by David Lambert classifies Salvian’s claim that God simply punishes the morally degenerate Romans as the popular ideology subtly rejected by Augustine. Natality does not apply to Salvian’s reading of Roman history.

Natality, however, does apply to Section II, “Apocalypse.” In a well-constructed argument, Paul Harvey compellingly proves that only after he read Tyconius’s allegorical commentary on Revelations did Augustine completely accept and use Revelations. This ingenious historical point affirms that Augustine applies the same approach of “rereading” classical authors to “rereading” Christian texts of uncertain canonicity. This rereading gives a new birth to Revelations in the subsequent works of Augustine. More to the point of natality are the other articles: “The End of the City and the City without End: The City of God as Revelation” by Harry O. Maier; “Moulding the Present: Apocalyptic as Hermeneutics in City of God 21-22″ by Karla Pollmann; “An Immoderate Feast: Augustine Reads John’s Apocalypse” by Virginia Burrus; “The Pleasure of Hell in City of God 21″ by Thomas A. Smith; and “Adapted Discourse: Heaven in Augustine’s City of God and His Contemporary Preaching” by J. Kevin Coyle.

For Maier, the prominent role of Revelations at the end of the City of God should by taken seriously despite Augustine’s anti-millenialism. Rather, the eschaton intrudes on the present and past by providing the hermeneutical key to interpret the saeculum. The warfare of Revelations reflects the warfare of the two cities past and present . Life from its origin and “in the middest” (p.160) is orientated through the End. So even the discussion about the end can point to birth in the past and rebirth in the present. Similarly, Pollmann explains how the end intrudes and encourages and explains the beginning. Distinguishing between a pragmatic and an ahistorical approach to eschatology, Pollman claims that eschatology does double duty. On the one hand, it points out the pragmatic problem that a dividing line between good and evil cannot be drawn until the end of days. On the other hand, apocalyptic imagery provides a mediating myth for this complex condition of humanity. This mythologizing explains the situation of the individual and exhorts “ethical engagement in the present” (p.179). The end explains the beginning and fosters rebirth. Although she does not draw the analogy, the same point could be made about the Confessions. Here Augustine clearly reinterprets his life even up to his birth through the “end” of the story and it is precisely the intrusion of this end that makes the Confessions such a compelling motivator of rebirth.

Burrus and Smith take a different tack by concentrating on the intrusion of the eschaton into the present. In addition, they espouse a post-modern rejection of natality along with a suspicion of any other positivist discourse. Burrus, playfully evoking Apocalyptic (and Manichaean?) food imagery, promises to address Augustine’s indigestion resulting from his greedy consumption of the Apocalypse. To Burrus, Augustine is caught between a fear of flesh and its notional loss. For Smith, Augustine’s presentation of hell brings pleasure to the present reader through its orderliness: hell is “no longer a res horribilis, but a res mirabilis” (p.204). For Coyle, the City of God lays the groundwork for the “natality” of his sermons. The City of God explains eschatology while the sermons use the eschatology to exhort the life of the blessed. It is in the sermons that the vivid description of the end motivates rebirth in the present.

To be sure, the book has its weaknesses. Pollmann’s bibliographical survey (pp.16-20) uncomfortably fluctuates between being a bibliographical essay, annotated bibliography, and simple list of books and articles. While such bibliographical data are immensely useful, much of the information could have been more efficiently presented through standard bibliographic entries rather than cumbersome sentences and footnotes. In a work that admirably connects The City of God to the rest of Augustine’s corpus, the decision to restrict the Index to passages cited from this work alone seems odd. Both Bruggisser and Burns could have nuanced their arguments more by situating Servian discourse within the literary features characteristic of his application of historia (see David Dietz, ” Historia in the Commentary of Servius,” TAPA, 1995, pp.61-97). Some lesser mistakes include the misspelling of Fredriksen as “Frederiksen” in Maier’s piece and the occasional appearance of footnotes on the page after the citation in the text (i.e., n. 6 on p.197). Such minor points pale against a work dominated by some truly felicitous writing. I will conclude with one example from Maier (p.154): “in the course of the lengthy narrative Augustine the seer gives his audience eyes to behold and reveals to it the fruit of his cooperative venture with God concerning the right interpretation of history, the Apocalypse and the saeculum.”