Larry Arnn and Jeffrey Lehman On Books 1-10 Of St. Augustine’s City Of God
HH: That’s Joni Eareckson Tada’s Alone Yet Not Alone, the no longer nominated for an Academy Award song that until yesterday was nominated for an Academy Award. I’m using it to kick off today’s Hillsdale Dialogue with Dr. Larry Arnn, president of Hillsdale College, because it is an extraordinary indication of everything that has gone wrong with American culture over the last couple of years. Also joining us, Dr. Jeff Lehman, who is a member of the faculty of Hillsdale College. This week, we are continuing our conversation about St. Augustine and his great book, The City Of God. But Dr. Arnn, I sent that to you and Dr. Lehman earlier this week, because I thought it was indicative of the tension between our civil culture and the religious culture. And Augustine was very much writing about that at the time that he wrote. And I’m curious, do you think we’re at the same place now where Augustine was when he started to watch the decline of the West all around him?
LA: Well, I’m a student of Winston Churchill, so it’s wrong to say yes to that. But I will say that this is a serious thing. I mean, it looks to me like that it’s okay to host a million dollar party and have celebrities there, and glitz and charm in order to promote your film for the review of the Academy to win an Oscar, but you can’t send an email to 70 people you know. And that seems to be the proposition they’re going to have to defend.
HH: And I think they did it because she is a avowedly Christian, and they were afraid what she might say from her wheelchair as a quadriplegic in accepting an award. I really do think that that’s what they were afraid of.
LA: One has to suspect that. And you know, their claim, apparently, is that it was improper for her to do it because she had been a member of the Academy and she knew those people’s names and addresses because of that. And she was an elector, and therefore she was stepping outside her station.
HH: Not Joni, actually, the writer. But Joni sang it.
HH: The writer was the one who was an elector and outside of their station.
LA: Yeah, there you go, that’s right. And so that’s what’s improper about it. But gracious, I mean, these things are enormous campaigns, because there’s an enormous amount of tension and money in getting nominated, let alone win. So…
HH: And the culture’s, I guess they’re just not going to intersect. The city of God and the city of man are now separate, at least if the secularists have their way. Dr. Lehman, that brings me roundabout and suddenly to Augustine’s City Of God. And I want to make sure we take the time over the next couple of weeks to really put this book in its proper place in the West, because this is important. What he does is actually still resonating through Western Civilization. I know every student at Hillsdale reads it. It’s in the Western Civilization reader. But would you give us just the basic facts of when it occurs and why he writes it?
JL: Yes. The City Of God was written roughly between about AD412 and 427, give or take a year. It’s happening on the heels of the sack of Rome, which came in 410 by Alaric and the Visigoths. So in the Roman Empire, there is a great deal of damage to the Roman imagination, of the possibility of Rome lasting very long when the barbarians are descending, and they’re able to even take Rome itself. So the immediate response of many pagans was to blame Christianity for it. And their argument took on, in some cases, kind of a street version that was very popular among the Roman peasants, if you will, and that was more we have been unfaithful to the Roman gods. Rome’s greatness was due to the favor of these gods, and by accepting Christianity and rejecting paganism, Rome basically incurred the wrath of Jove and the other deities.
HH: Now let’s pause for a moment…
HH: …because I always, when we do the Hillsdale Dialogue, I like to never assume that which is not yet put into evidence. And a lot of people don’t know what the sack of Rome means. And so what’s that mean to the people of 410?
JL: Well, what it means is the barbarians basically came and did huge damage to the city. It didn’t have a lasting effect. There were subsequent sacks of Rome and other big cities in the Roman Empire, but it left this deep impression on them of being vulnerable, and the greatness of Rome having been broken. So there was really a state of kind of a worry and confusion, and basically they were looking for someone to blame.
LA: Yeah, put it this way, Hugh. Hannibal achieved only this. He was nearly 20 years with an army in Italy, and he destroyed two huge Roman armies. But all he was ever able to do was ride up to the walls of Rome and throw a spear over them. Rome had been inviolate for hundreds of years, and was the symbol of stability in the world. And then these Visigoths came down from the north, took the city, and raped and pillaged and burned. And so that was a change in the structure of civilization.
HH: Now I’m curious if you think an event like 9/11 has a similar civilizational traumatic effect, even though we’re back, and they rebuilt the tower, and our GDP is great, but nevertheless, nothing like that had ever happened to us before, Larry Arnn. Pearl Harbor was far away in the middle of the ocean and we were shocked, but we were never threatened. What do you think? Any kind of trauma that lasts from such an event?
LA: I do think that, and I’ll tell you why I think it. Winston Churchill figured out in 1898 that something was changing in war. The specific something was technology was becoming so powerful that our ability to destroy might in principle overcome our ability to build. And so whatever time it took to build those jet airplanes and the Twin Towers, it took less than an hour to destroy them and kill a large number of the people who were in them. And that means that if you just apply that principle more generally, you could see, you know, I mean, one of the things that went around, it hasn’t gone around much, because there hasn’t been another major killing/terrorist attack in the United States since that one. But they were saying things like you could put a device the size of a refrigerator, and you could ship it to some city and the city could be gone. And that means what use is there in building cities? That’s right, that kind of reflection is the conclusion that people could draw about the sack of Rome.
HH: And then Dr. Lehman, people start looking for somebody to blame, and they’re not going to be content on blaming the barbarians or al Qaeda. They’re going to look for someone else to blame. And Augustine is responding to that. And so the first people to blame were the Christians. That is not immediately intuitive to me as to why that would happen.
JL: Well, in addition to the popular argument that I outlined before about, you know, infidelity to the Roman gods, that can only be taken so seriously, right, because we know that the pagan elite had long since abandoned any real belief in the Roman deities. And so you have writers such as Varro or Seneca and Cicero himself that all to one degree or another would dissemble. They publicly engaged in religious rituals, but privately, they certainly didn’t believe these things, and at times, even detested them. So the real problem, as many saw it, was that the rise of Christianity brought about a decline of public spiritedness, and divided the loyalties of Romans. So they were indirectly responsible for the deterioration of the Roman Empire by making it lose its nerve, if you will.
HH: Now I would gather that right now some liberals who are listening to this might argue, Dr. Arnn, I’ll direct this to you, that in fact, America was weakened by exactly the same kind of fundamentalism, and that the civic religion was undermined by the religious right rising up over the years. And I’ve heard similar arguments over similar movements over time, and then the religious right would argue that the secular absolutists on the left have done the same thing. Is there merit in any such sweeping indictment when things like barbarians and terrorists strike?
LA: Well, so let’s start with Augustine and then answer your question. On the one hand, Jesus Christ is a very different kind of deity than Jove or many of the pagan gods. He isn’t war-like in that way. And He’s the Prince of Peace. And so, and then also, His authority comes from right outside any possible political system, and He doesn’t establish one of His own. And so the Roman way was to incorporate the gods of the cities they conquered into the pantheon so that they became honored and worshipped by the city and protected by the city. And Christianity, like Judaism, is not amendable to that process. Well, what about now? First of all, Christianity does command turn the other cheek, but it does not command failing to defend the innocent from aggressors. And it’s just a fact that the American, the army of the United States of America is heavily Christian right now today, and it always has been.
HH: Yeah, and I will wonder, I’ll come back and ask after the break whether or not that is always been the case about the armed services, and if so, why.
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HH: We dove into St. Augustine last weekend with a brief hint that The Confessions is something you might want to read. The City Of God is something you must read. And in fact, Hillsdale students all read some of it, but it’s a massive work, and it’s massively important, and has been for 1,600 years. Joining me to talk about it, Dr. Jeffrey Lehman, Dr. Larry Arnn. So Dr. Lehman, you said in the last segment that it was an argument, that Augustine was responding to an argument made by some that Christians had undermined the state. When we went to break, Dr. Larry Arnn was saying in the United States, Christians defend the state in great numbers in the uniform of the United States. Was there something that was not the same about Christianity at the time of the late Roman Empire that is different now?
JL: Not essentially, I wouldn’t think. There were certainly Christians serving in the Roman forces, and I think it involved a lot of deep confusion about really the implications of Christianity for a Roman citizen. Again, back to the fundamental divide, they thought that the Christian would be divided in loyalty between what Rome required and what the higher and nobler country that they were a part of would require. And so this would basically enable a kind of breakdown in their duty as citizens.
LA: Rome, by the way, has been, the official religion of Rome has been for almost a hundred years Christianity. And the Roman armies had fought, and well in places and many times.
HH: So that’s what’s causing me confusion. It is natural to me in the modern era that Christians would be disproportionately represented in the armed services of the United States. In fact, I’m having a major in the Marine Corps over for Super Bowl Sunday this weekend who I happened to meet because of a shared religious affiliation, and he’s a deeply devout man, and I don’t know him very well, but he’s not very unusual, actually. There are many, many deep believers in the uniform of all the services. And it’s always been, and I suppose it will always be that way. So I’m just curious as to why some in Rome decided to put the blame on the Christians for the collapse of the state, either of you. Why would that be intuitive? Or are they just a handy group to scapegoat?
LA: Well, the obvious thing, start with that, the obvious thing is Christianity places one’s responsibilities elsewhere first, right? And that’s true. A second thing, Jesus is not a general or a conqueror, and doesn’t anoint any. And then add a third thing since we’re on it. I’m teaching, I just finished teaching the Constitution course this afternoon. We’re reading John Locke, and John Locke sounds different from Aristotle in some ways, although the differences are not as great, in my opinion, as they are on the surface. But why the surface differences? If you live in a society that, where you are worshipping a god who is not particular to that society, then you owe a loyalty outside it, and in the founding of America, that gave rise to the idea of religious freedom.
LA: So those stresses are there, right? And Rome, after Constantine, had an established church, the Christian Church, but people were struggling with that. And these signs are signs that they’re struggling with it a hundred years later. There’s a whole new kind of politics implied by Jesus, and I think those complaints are one of the frictions that indicated the need for that new kind of politics.
HH: And now the next obvious question to you, Dr. Lehman, St. Augustine’s obviously an able man, and a saint, and a great intellect. But does he really think a book of this length, and talk a little bit about its character and its depth, can actually turn the tide in the argument against Christianity or the argument for Christianity? A book? I mean, when it’s hard to get books read, much less, you know, sent around the world?
JL: Well, I think the answer is yes. He certainly thought it could have effect. Now how ultimately effectual it would be, I’m sure he had no idea. But in fact, writing was taken very seriously. And in order to respond to these criticisms, Augustine felt he really needed to not only in a way respond to the charges of the pagan detractors, but also put a positive account of the truth of the Christian faith in its place so that people would understand. There were many fundamental misunderstandings of Christian teachings, in addition to what Dr. Arnn has said, basic things such as the Christian idea of the universal brotherhood of all men versus the established Roman political customs. Of course, they had masters and slaves, and so forth. And one worry was that this would pull apart the fabric of Roman society as a society itself, right? We would do away with masters and slaves. We would do away with other things like this. You’re supposed to love your enemies, right? So if you’re loving your enemies, how can you defend Rome against her enemies? Meekness and patience were taken as virtues as opposed to what they thought was more properly the honor and courage, and the kind of resolve in the face of difficulty that would enable Rome to defend herself.
HH: And so the ancient Skopian sort of valor, people thought it was being undermined by Christian antipathy to violence and meekness?
JL: That’s one thread, definitely.
HH: That shows up later with Nietzsche, doesn’t it?
JL: It does.
HH: So tell us a little bit about the nature of the project, because it is, when you say comprehensive in your notes to me, I don’t think it quite communicates to the audience just what City Of God is.
JL: Okay, The City Of God is Augustine’s largest sustained work. There’s one that’s a little bit longer, the Enarrationes in Psalmos, but that’s really a collection of sermons on the Psalms that have been taken together over many, many years. This is one sustained argument over 22 books, and I’ve got a copy here sitting next to me. It would serve well as a doorstop. It’s a huge book, and it’s very articulately laid out. The first ten books are really his response to the charges of the pagans, and then from Book 11 through Book 22, he gives a positive account. And central to that account, of course, is the notion of the City of God, which the book is named for, but also the earthly city, and how the two interact, how they’re separate, what their natures are, and both in this life and the life to come what we should think about them.
HH: Okay, Larry Arnn, let’s take it down to the Steelers fan. What do you mean city of God/city of man? What’s that mean in the title that Augustine is trying to drive at?
LA: Well, first of all, this book is, we said this last time, this is a working out of arguments that require to be worked out by the introduction of Jesus Christ and universal monotheism into the world. And so as St. Augustine conceives it, the city of God and the city of man are separate realms, and the city of God is a standard for the city of man, which is always lower. And they’ve only been one in one time in human history, and that was before the fall of man. The city of man is, the earthly city, is corrupted by fallen man. And all of the regimes in it have been so corrupted, including the Roman. And there’s a major reinterpretation of Roman history that goes on in this book. That’s one of the reasons it’s so long. So the city of God is a standard which is very much an American kind of thing for the city of man, and stands outside and above it.
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HH: And I am not ashamed to say I’m so glad to have an outline provided by Dr. Lehman, because this book is an intimidating book. And many is the time I’ve picked up, and many is the time I’ve put it down saying oh, if I only had the time. And I want to start even with the title, Dr. Lehman. I didn’t know it came from Psalm 87, Verse 3, “Glorious things are spoken of you, o city of God.” And I didn’t even know it was an ironic reply. I’m not even sure I know what an ironic reply is.
JL: Well, in fact, basically the pagans were charging this Christian faith with destroying Roman civilization and the Roman Empire. And so of course, they were slandering the city of God. So it’s ironic in the sense that in calling it the city of God, he speaks of the glorious things that will be said of it, so clearly, a reply, an opposition to the account given by the pagans.
HH: And how big was it then? You know, we have bestsellers all the time. Last week, I interviewed Secretary Gates. He’s got the number one book in America, and before that, Charles Krauthammer had the number one book in America for 12 weeks, which was a very big deal to be on the number one…and we talk about it, but those books will pass. They will be gone. Even Dr. K’s book will fade within a year or two, but the City of God has really had influence that sort of boggles the intellectual historian’s mind, doesn’t it?
JL: It certainly does, and that from the time that Augustine wrote it. In Augustine’s own time, he was, I don’t know if celebrity is the right word, but he was very widely known, and one of the bishops of the Catholic Church had a tremendous influence not only on theology, but on a whole host of other areas. So things like this would happen. Augustine would write a sermon, and then those sermons would be disseminated and then presented by other pastors around the Roman Empire. He had that kind of a status. When Augustine wrote something, it was heard in his world. So even from its own, you know, the time of inception, it was very influential.
HH: Dr. Arnn, you’ve got these beautiful statues all over the Hillsdale campus. You’ve got Margaret Thatcher and Winston Churchill, and soon, Frederick Douglass will be there. Why isn’t Augustine there?
LA: Well, we debate about that, and Augustine, Aquinas, Shakespeare, you know, there’s arguments for more. And we deliberate about that. We’ll see what happens.
HH: Walk into a nest there? Did I step on something? So all the way through the 19th Century, I have to ask Larry, you wrote The Founders’ Key. Did the framers concern themselves with Augustine?
LA: Well, not the way they did some other authors, but on the other hand, everything concerns itself with Augustine. You were saying earlier what’s the influence of the book over time? We know about these arguments that Christianity was responsible for the sack of Rome because Augustine repeated the arguments and refuted them, right?
JL: That’s right.
LA: Everybody knows he did that. Who were these guys who were saying that, right?
LA: They are lost in time. But this problem that the world faces is, and see, we’re seeing a new aspect of human nature, in my opinion, with the birth of Jesus Christ, and things have to adjust because of it. And this adjustment of dividing the city of God and leaving it as a standard by which to judge the city of man, that’s also present in a different way on a rational basis in Cicero, very explicitly. Well, that’s the world we’re working with after Jesus, and this a major tract in advancing that argument. And their solution to the argument, the American founders’ solution, is to leave religion free, any religion that obeys the moral law. And practically speaking, what that meant was it left Christianity free.
HH: Now I’ll come back to Books 1-10 in the next segment, the last segment of this week. But take us to the end, Dr. Lehman. At the end, is Augustine arguing for theocracy?
JL: No, he’s not. He really isn’t. He thinks that in this life, you’ll always have a state where there’s a city of God and a city of man, and of course, these are not empirical entities. In other words, we’re not going to go out and count noses and be able to tell. In fact, it’s very hard to know who is in one city or the other, because we can’t judge the hearts and souls of men. But here and now in this life, Augustine held really that there was no ultimate hope for a universal peace that was strictly the results of efforts by man. So he hoped as best to have happy, small cities or kingdoms that could peacefully coexist.
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HH: And I was thinking that a couple of years back, Dr. Lehman, I put out a book called Talking With Pagans, a series of interviews I’d done with Christopher Hitchens and Richard Dawkins and a variety of the other new atheists, Sam Harris, et cetera. And there are all sorts of different sorts of pagans running around Rome. And one of the detractors in my published work saying these people aren’t pagans, they don’t believe in anything, and I should have sent them here, because there are all sorts of pagans that Augustine has to deal with. Could you delineate them for us?
JL: Sure, sure. Well, and if we think about paganism and pagan theology, if we could call it that, there are different kinds of versions of pagan thought. The most basic would be mythical theology. That is the theology of the poets. And it’s a debatable question whether how many people really took that seriously ever other than as an image of true things, right? The second would be the civil theology, which really was part and parcel of the Roman Empire. It was the official theology of the city. There were public sacrifices. There were religious elements to the governance of Rome. And so that was a part of the political entity itself. And third, the natural theology of paganism, which was the theology of the philosophers. So this is more carefully reasoned out with a view to the perennial questions of human nature and the nature of God and so forth. So broad and loose, there’s various different forms, and so at any given time, Augustine might be speaking to one or another, or perhaps more than one.
HH: And is one more difficult for him to rebut, Larry Arnn, than the others? I think the answer is yes, and I think I know which one is the hardest one for him to answer. But what’s your answer to that?
LA: Well, of course, he has great respect for Cicero, and learns a lot from him, and does undertake a partial refutation of him, and that’s a tall order. And so of course, that’s the one.
HH: And why does he have the most trouble with Cicero? Explain to the audience why Cicero is the biggest challenge? You can get rid of Zeus, right? That’s not so hard to get rid of Jupiter. And official theology of the city, he doesn’t really have to get rid of. But why does he have to come to blows with Cicero?
LA: Well, the other two, I mean, first of all, one of the reasons, you know, this is in the Socratic dialogues commonly, too, and one of the bases of the charge against Socrates that he was guilty of impiety, for which he was killed. Socrates is often making the argument that these are not the kinds of things that God would do, you know, cheating on their wives and sleeping with their children and all that stuff. God wouldn’t do that.
LA: Yeah, that’s right. That’s not, you know, and so it doesn’t make sense that perfect or higher beings would behave in this way. So there’s a reason to doubt it. The claim that God is in everything is also, you know, in worms? So there are problems there, and they’re obvious. On the other hand, Cicero is a tremendous human being, and a deep thinker. And the things that he was for, and the things that we argued for and to were good things, and even divine things, and Augustine recognized that. However, as a defense of Rome, he wished to undercut that, and did very effectively in a way that lasted until the Renaissance, and he also thought that Cicero was insufficient in the level on which he thought, because he did not take proper account of the providence of God.
HH: I also have to ask, this is a very human question, and it occurred to me reading your outline, that Cicero is the greatest rhetorician ever, allegedly the greatest man of the law courts and the greatest arguer, and Augustine had set out to be that man, Dr. Lehman. Is there a bit of jealousy in this? Is there a bit of I’ve got to tackle the best one that there is?
JL: Well, that’s an interesting question. I don’t know about jealousy, but I think there is a kind of awareness on Augustine’s part that if you’re going to respond, you’re going to have to go to the high water mark and respond there. And that’s what Cicero is. As Larry has mentioned, it’s certainly the case that if you’re looking for a consistent, coherent, well thought out view that by the way is deeply grounded in natural law, you’ve got it in Cicero. And so you have to have an answer for Cicero, or else no one’s going to really listen to you in the end.
HH: And then to wrap up, Larry Arnn, how do your students react to The City Of God?
LA: Well, of course in the beginning, they react just as you did.
HH: And still do.
LA: God, can I ever read this?
HH: Forty years later.
LA: (laughing) But no, it isn’t as hard as its bulk would imply.
JL: That’s right.
LA: So yeah, a lot of them love it. And all of them think it a duty to read it.
HH: And Dr. Lehman, is that your experience as well?
JL: It certainly is, and with a work this massive, you want to go small and just have regular readings. In fact, I’m rereading it myself, have been for a few months, just a few pages at a time. That’s really the only way you’re going to get much out of this work, because it’s very long. But at times, it’s also very condensed as well. So there’s a lot going on there, and it really, it’s a kind of education in itself, if you will.
HH: And a quick comment on his style as a writer.
JL: Very rhetorically powerful, I would say, and I think Augustine has a kind of a beauty and a winsomeness to his style that makes it very engaging.
HH: Larry Arnn?
LA: Imagine the rhetorical achievement that he made here, because this claim is lodged against his faith, and his response to it is in the beginning simply direct and powerful, but then it becomes over the course of it transcendent. This is a mind capable of that.
HH: And is he trying, we’ve got a minute. Is he trying for art at the same time he’s trying to explain this?
LA: You don’t produce things like this by accident.
HH: Dr. Lehman, you agree with that?
JL: Tremendously artful work. The Confessions and The City Of God, in that respect, are amazing. And they really benefit from deep study.
HH: I wonder what he would have been like around the dining room table. Do we have an account by a contemporary?
LA: Sure, especially about his youth when he would have been…
HH: (laughing) Quite a lot of fun, and again, not the kind of guy you want in your president’s office. Dr. Larry Arnn, president of Hillsdale College, Dr. Jeffrey Lehman, next week, we’re going to go to Books 11-22 of The City Of God. If you want to read ahead, a lot ahead, get to work right now. Thank you both. www.hillsdale.edu for all things Hillsdale, and you really ought to live there and find all the richness that is available there. All of these dialogues available at www.hughforhillsdale.com. There’s a button that will connect you at www.hughhewitt.com.
End of interview.