232 of 242 people found the following review helpful
on April 11, 2001
St Augustine's City of God is a work for the ages. It was not only a great apologetic to the Christian faith of the 5th century; it is an apologetic to Christian faith for all centuries. It is the story of history unfolded in two exact opposite cities. It is the struggle between the two cities against one another. It is the story of the fall, grace, redemption, and salvation of man for those who live in the city of God. For those of the other city, it is the exact opposite. It is the story of the fall, judgment, damnation and ultimate destruction of those who loved themselves more than they loved God. This was the story of love, by one of the greatest saints of the Catholic Church, Saint Augustine, Bishop of Hippo.
The reason I give 4 stars out of 5 is because of the amazing difficulty that comes with reading this book. This is a VERY VERY heavy read, and one should be familiar with the prevailing Roman philosophies of the day, as well as Roman history.
Augustine talks of Plato, Cicero, Virgil and others frequently through the book. He also talks of the history of Rome, and these factors play a heavy note in his book. An few survey classes of Philosophy, and a World Civics class as well as a decent understanding of Christian history at this time, and theology is also a must. You should be familiar with the scriptures. Because of all these factors, you cannot just pickup and read this book. You'll have to know what Augustine is talking about to some level before you read this.
Other than that, this book is brilliance, and while some parts will be a little dry, it is very inspiring. You see Augustine write, sign, and stamp the doctrine of Original Sin, Amillinialism, and doctrines concerning Grace, the Trinity, and various "problems" concerning the Canon of Scripture.
He setup Christianity for the next 1000 years, and is still felt strongly today in Catholic, Protestant and Orthodox circles.
113 of 117 people found the following review helpful
on October 31, 1999
Like one of the reviewers above, I, too, set about the daunting task of reading this book from cover to cover, and it took me a good six months to complete it. But what a wonderful and worthwhile investment of time it was! It would do the modern Church well to read this book since Augustine places the City of God (i.e., Christ and His Church) within the context of the pagan world in which we live, and its message is as applicable to today as it was 1,500 years ago when he first wrote it. Most impressive, his grasp of both classical and biblical history and his profound understanding of Scripture is unparalleled by almost any author I have ever read, from Jerome's time until the present. If for no other reason, Christians should buy this book to gain an appropriate understanding of the last days and the rightful interpretation of the book of Revelation. Most of today's books on this subject pale in comparison to Augustine's exposition of this lofty and (sometimes) arcane subject.
80 of 82 people found the following review helpful
The City of God was completed 13 years after Augustine began to write it in 413 A.D. It was written slowly and became a much different work than that which Augustine set out to create. Three years after the fall of the Roman Empire, Augustine set out to prove that Christianity was not to blame for Rome's collapse as some had charged. Almost half of The City of God was dedicated to this original purpose. Luckily for readers today, as well as then, by book eleven he turns his attention to the two cities and almost entirely dropped his original theme which has been a dead issue for some time. The two cities Augustine applies his brilliant mind to for the remainder of the work is that of The World and of God. Beginning in book eleven, Augustine traces the history of each city from a Christian perspective in a highly contemplative and truly beautiful manner. However, he seems to never miss an opportunity to correct any contrary philosophies along the way. He eventually makes his way to his ideas, based primarily on the writings of the apostles Paul and John, about the final realities of each city, as well as the consequences for their respective citizens.
The City of God would probably not be considered light reading by most, but if one can complete it while trying to digest as much as they can, it is certainly worth it. This is one of those works which is probably understood a little differently each time it is read. One helpful disclaimer offered by Thomas Merton is that if one is unfamiliar with Augustine and his writing, they would be best served to first read Augustine's Confessions (Penguin Classics) prior to tackling The City of God. It really is good advice.
175 of 191 people found the following review helpful
on August 24, 2003
Although I am normally a quick reader, it has taken me about six months to finish The City of God. At times I was frustrated, and believed that the book was imbued with a generative power, and grew longer the further I read.
And yet I am a little sad to have finished it, for no matter what was going on in my life, like Scripture, the City of God had relevance. How to summarize such a monumental work?
First of all, I do not concur with the dimishment of the early parts of the work. While Books 1 through X are indeed more clearly tied to the dissolving Roman world, it is extremely helpful for us to get our minds into a time when pagans were more than countercultural "post-Christian" teenage losers. Augustine's vivid arguments against the pagan "theology" are incisive. More notably, they bring into focus a world that was both ultra-rational in the Platonic/Aristotilean tradition, and "superstitious" in its belief in household gods, demons, curses, and magic. That both a very advanced science and such beliefs could coexist is a lesson to us in our secularized, smug modern world.
The temporal proximity of Augustine to Christ and the Apostles brings another level of clarity. While Augustine emphasized that "none shall know the day nor hour," it is clear that there is an apocolyptic undercurrent in the Christian society he inhabits. The urgency of Christian life seems to me to have diminished.
Particularly striking are Augustine's arguments against those "tender-hearted Christians" who hold various levels of Salvation for even the most depraved. In our world of ecumenical outreach, guitar-Mass hippy communalism, Augustine's defense of the limited Salvation is a necessary wake-up call.
Certainly there are moments of "how many angels on the head of a pin," which I suppose Augustine inspired in latter theologians. The various discussions of the form, age, and physical condition of post-Resurrected faithful seems unworthy of discussion. And yet he was writing in direct argument against contemporaries. This, at least, is fascinating; that anti-Christians of Augustine's day tried to build a rational case against particular aspects of Christian doctrine, rather than against the underlying thesis of Christ.
The more history you know, the more mythology you have read, and the better acquainted with Scripture you are, the more you will get out of The City of God. But such things are not necessary. Augustine is a patient writer (as exemplified by the vast scope of this and other works). He walks his readers painstakingly through each subject.
I must agree with other reviewers that the last two Books are worthy to stand alone, treating of hell, purgatory, and heaven. As vivid and daunting as the discussion of hell is, so is the beatific vision inspiring and easing. Augustine above all knows the value of true peace - the peace of Christ. And he knows too well the limits of the City of Man in attaining this peace. That he has indeed "tasted and seen" is wonderfully clear, and he inspires and encourages his readers to share in that faith and hope which motivate his life.
There are so many details of note: from the Christ-prophetic visions of Greek sybils to the independent trinitarian philosophy of Plato. Such details are commonplace to Augustine, but we have forgotten them. Truly, The City of God must be reckoned among the necessities of catechismic formation, mostly for Roman Catholics, but if certain later prejudices can be ignored, for all Christians as well. I would caution Jewish readers that Augustine makes no bones about the deicide and subsequent temporal punishment that he believes the Jews endure, until their conversion with the Last Judgement. As to pagans and heretics of all stripes, you've met your match in Augustine... he outwitted you 1500 years ago.
Lest I be as prolix as Augustine himself, I will conclude by referencing the great spiritual help that this book provides. Particularly in modern times, though American Christians (and even American Catholics) are notably free from persecution, the City of Man calls us ever more away from Truth. Augustine's book helps us walk, not on the path of our own disordered priorities, but toward that greater and infinite blessedness we have been promised in Christ.
48 of 52 people found the following review helpful
on March 1, 2003
"The City of God" is Augustine's most famous work. I agree with Thomas Merton's introduction to the latest Modern Library version, which says that an uninitiated reader of Augustine may wish to read his "Confessions" first to get a good background on the author. "The City of God" is long and deep, covering many philosophical and Biblical debates (many that are still alive today), so one who has been introduced to Augustine through his auto-biographical "Confessions" may find it easier to follow his logic as he discusses the numerous topics of "The City of God."
The first few hundred pages of "The City of God" may be very slow and difficult for the average modern, Western, reader. Augustine is speaking directly to the average Roman citizens of the time (413 AD), so the first several chapters of "The City of God" are spent debunking the Romans' beliefs in polytheism, a mindset long since abandoned by most in the civilized Western world (thanks mostly to... Augustine). But the difficulty of these first few chapters should only make one appreciate Augustine all the more for having helped dismiss such a convoluted belief system. Once Augustine has broken down the problems with Zeus and friends, he moves on to discussing Plato, Aristotle, and other Greek philosophers. Augustine discusses why these founders of Western culture came close to understanding the idea of the Judeo-Christian God, but he shows where they too eventually fell short of total comprehension of Him.
After Augustine has dealt with these religions and philosophies of the Romans, he begins to address the Bible and how it concerns the City of God and the earthly city (Rome, which had been sacked by Alaric in 410, was the best example of the latter). Augustine outlines the differences in the beliefs and actions of believers and non-believers, or in other words, the citizenries of the two cities in question. In doing this, Augustine discusses numerous debates and questions, including figurative vs. literal interpretations of Old Testament stories, how the Old Testament prophets pointed towards Jesus Christ and how Christ fulfilled their prophesies, as well as many other questions that are still discussed every day, nearly 16 centuries later. Ultimately, Augustine gives us the beautiful picture of life graced by Christ through the faith he gives to the citizens he elects to join his city. Augustine shows us how Christ's grace removes his predestinated citizens from the worries of the earthly city, while (paradoxically) energizing them to care that much more for the inhabitants of this city (as the Christians in Rome did for non-believers they sheltered from Alaric's invaders).
One note of recent relevance: The City of God is often referenced today for Augustine's discussion of "just war" theory. While Augustine definitely believed that war can at times be just, and therefore morally obligatory, he does not really go into great detail about "just war" theory in "The City of God." In nearly 900 pages (in the Modern Library edition), he writes about war for no more than 1-2 pages.
I highly recommend "The City of God" to everyone, Christian or not. Just for the history of it, this book is fascinating, but the theology makes it one of the greatest works ever written.
36 of 38 people found the following review helpful
on August 9, 1998
St. Augustine's immortal classic is incredibly long and very, very hard to follow at times. When I set out to read this a few years ago, I had no idea what I was getting into. I read it because a professor I had in college that I greatly respected told me he'd never been able to read it all the way through, and I thought my reading it would impress him, or something. It took me forever, but I read it from cover to cover, and it was a rewarding experience. The book is essentially a very long examination of Christian theology, contrasted sharply with Roman paganism. There are very few theological questions that aren't at least touched upon; many of the ideas that would vex Christian philosophers for centuries are first addressed here. Augustine brings a fine, lucid mind and good instinct for argument and rhetoric to the discussion. This book is a must-read for anyone who takes the intellectual component of their Christian faith seriously. Highly recommended.
32 of 34 people found the following review helpful
on March 9, 2012
If you're looking to buy the actual book, or the $9+ Kindle edition (which I haven't seen, so perhaps this review doesn't apply), ignore this review. 5 stars, Dods translation is fine, Tolle, lege, and all that.
Foolishly I bought the cheap Kindle edition, which turned out to be, apparently, a scanned version with an autocorrect run on it. Typos abound. Sometimes you can reread the nonsensical sentence, figure out that "or" should be "of, " and move on, though it slows your reading quite a bit. Sometimes you can't figure out where it was messed up, guess at what the sentence originally said, and move on. Sometimes you're forced to laugh, as when "Roman republic" is replaced by "Korean republic."
Four dollars wasted. I'm off to buy the paperback from the used book store.
31 of 35 people found the following review helpful
on December 18, 2000
City of God is a difficult, complex, and wide-ranging book, which makes many references to persons and places that will often be obscure to most of us. But I think anyone can learn something from the genius and wide-ranging observations of Augustine. One of the first things I noticed when I began reading this book about twenty years ago was, "Hey! I recognize that faith!" Him, a Latin-speaking north African "Catholic" of the 4th Century, me, a 20th Century English-speaking Norte Americano WASP. City of God showed me that the Church of Christ is more united in its diversity than I realized. And in a sense, Augustine is broader still; he writes not only as a Christian, but as a human being. All of us can learn something from him, I think:
The skeptic. You will find a few ideas here based on an out-dated "pre-scientific worldview." If you're looking for something to laugh at, and aren't intimidated by his intellect, you may be able to pull out a few quotes. But if you're looking for truth, you'll find much more, in every way. Augustine's love of truth burns from the pages of this book like a flame. The scope of his curiosity is broad, and his intellect first-rate by any standard.
The missionary. In the tradition of Paul and John, point people to a God not entirely unknown. Remind people how their own ancestors sought God, and knew something about Him before we got there. Quote the oracle of Apollo, or the Platonists, to prove Christ. Expect God to do miracles.
The New Ager. The period in which Augustine wrote City of God bares a striking resemblance to our own. "Many civilizations had met in one civilization," as Chesterton put it. Augustine argues against reincarnation and channeling and other modern fads. His solution is neither complete negation nor complete affirmation, but a more subtle synthesis that allows truths of many cultures to meet in Christ and find fulfillment; a solution that modern Christians have applied in an interesting way to redemptive truths in Buddhism, Hinduism, Marxism, and Islam.
The debater and apologist. This book is a model for those who who want to make an effective argument. Know your opponent's arguments as well as they know them themselves. Admit when they are on the right track. When they wander off it, quote sources they see as authoritative to show the error of their nehs. Love truth. Use reason and passion in equal measure. (But maybe, in our day, don't be quite so long-winded. . . I mean thorough.)
While I respect those reviewers below who read City of God cover to cover, personally I skimmed a bit. The Penguin edition also has a useful, though concise, index.
Author, Jesus and the Religions of Man firstname.lastname@example.org
23 of 25 people found the following review helpful
on December 20, 1998
I read this book for the sake of pleasure, and nothing more. What a surprise I was in for! I've always admired classical texts, and the tradition of rhetoric which has influenced even the greatest speakers of our own times, such as Martin Luther King Jr., and John F. Kennedy. However, I was totally unprepared for the moving experience of St. Augustine's written words. Had I not been a Christian before I read this book, I believe I would have been compelled to convert! The most interesting aspect of this work seems to me, to be that the utilization of such an ingrained, classical tradition as rhetoric was being applied (and rather effectively so) toward what was to become the new paradigm of Western Heritage. All things classical would be replaced by all things Christian, but thus so by the influence of powerful speakers--who were trained in the Classical tradition! This book is an enjoyable read; both for aspiring religious scholars AND lovers of classical culture.
38 of 44 people found the following review helpful
With an eye to bypassing some of Augustine's many redundancies and digressions, the Image/Doubleday edition -- "abridged for modern readers" -- is nonetheless a major commitment for the reader. Augustine began writing The City of God at age 59 and worked on it, off and on, for much of the next 14 years. The impetus for the beginning of this vast work (and its recurring focus) was the charge of Pagans (polytheists) that Christianity was responsible for the decay and demise of the Roman Empire. The charge put forward the claim that the prosperity and social stability of the state was dependant upon polytheistic worship. In response, Augustine arrays several lines of argument, rebutting the assumed 'goodness' of the Pagan state, as such, and detailing the ethical/moral and logical failings of Paganism. Augustine displays tremendous scholarship, employing the writings of Paganism's greatest historians and philosophers in his case against their religious claims. The result is a giant literary, philosophical, historical, theological and exegetical work. In this abridged edition, some redundant and digressive texts are omitted with notes indicating this and summarizing their content. The integrity of the book and chapter divisions is retained.
Against the 'city', i.e., society, of many gods, there is but one alternate society, this Augustine calls The City of God, adopting the expression found in several of King David's psalms. Not only is the society of many gods the society of polytheists, it is also the "city" of pantheists, atheistic materialists and philosophical Cynics. In the case of the Cynics and atheists, these false gods are the myriad gods of self, indeed, at least as many gods (selves) as there are believers in them. Thus there are two "cities", two loves, two ways to understand the big questions of existence, two destinations. Says Augustine:
"The one City began with the love of God; the other had its beginnings in the love of self." XIV:13. "The city of man seeks the praise of men, whereas the height of glory for the other is to hear God in the witness of conscience. The one lifts up its head in its own boasting; the other says to God: 'Thou art my glory, thou liftest up my head.' (Psalm 3.4) In the city of the world both the rulers themselves and the people they dominate are dominated by the lust for domination; whereas in the City of God all citizens serve one another in charity. . ." XIV:28.
Among the many philosophical (and historical) passages of interest are Augustine's general recountings of the history and development of Italian and Ionian philosophy, in Book VIII, particularly as regards ethics, theology, physics and cosmography.
For the reader whose serious interest is Christian theology and scriptural exegetics, Augustine needs no introduction. It would be fair to describe him as the most influential human voice of the Christian faith, post New Testament. I'll sketch my 'take' on his views in just three areas of interpretation on which there were conflicting views within the Christianity of late antiquity and which are yet disputed 1600 years later. These being (1) interpreting the Genesis creation account, (2) the balancing of determinism or 'predestination' with freedom of the will, and (3) the doctrine of 'hell'.
(1) Although he devotes the matter more specific attention in other of his writings than he does here, Augustine finds a literal interpretation if Genesis 1-2 to give rise to paradoxes and conflicts within the text that make a literal interpretation unworkable. His understanding is sometimes called 'literary', as opposed to 'literal'. Rather than being an abrupt history, the account is understood as being essentially an introduction, a theological primer, presenting a literary exposition of God's primordial separateness, non-dependence, intimacy with the created ('hovering') and ultimate sovereignty 'over' it (Gen. 1:1-2), in other words, a framework for understanding the nature of God's relationship to his creation. In more recent times, those who hold for the so-called "framework" understanding have claimed this "non-literal" view; for an earlier but similar exegesis, read Philo (c.20BC-50AD). For Augustine, the physical and temporal facts of creation are a mystery known only to God (see Job 38ff). While he does not place the creation of man temporally six solar days after the original act of divine creation ("As for these 'days,' it is difficult, perhaps impossible to think -- let alone to explain in words -- what they mean"), he does use the genealogies of the Pentateuch to roughly estimate a time for the creation of the first man in God's image (Adam). He spends some effort examining inconsistent points in various genealogical accounts (both within and between the Septuagint and the Hebrew) but concludes that this is no significant difficulty as the genealogies are intended to establish lineages (e.g., for the patriarchs) and not to establish complete temporal histories. They are accurate for the purpose intended, inaccurate only if their intent is not recognized.
(2) Today, many Christians who hold the strong 'Calvinist' view of "predestination", claim Augustine as a proponent of this view. While many succinct statements will appear to support this claim, we should understand such statements within their given contexts. In this regard, Augustine is no denier of the freedom of the human will or the omnibenevolence of God. Although he does use the term 'predestine,' he would certainly agree with Anselm that the meaning of the word when applied to the omniscient God is simply not the same as our understanding of the concept for which we appropriate the word. Augustine's wrestlings with the thorny openness/determinism question, as regards the human will, is not as `cut and dried' as the `Calvinist' often insists! Wesleyans and other so-called 'Arminians' can look to Augustine too, and will understand him in a broader and more contextual manner than the strict Calvinist can permit himself.
(3) While I personally find no major difficulty in Augustine's approach to the two doctrinal issues considered above, I disagree with his doctrine of Hell. For Augustine, Hell is relentless, eternal, sensory, bodily torture, wherein one is, in his words, "pounded by perpetual pain." He tries to engage the opposing view of 'hell' being, in St Paul's words, "eternal destruction," but here he fails (Book XXI). It seems clear enough to me that Hades' chamber of pain and torture was adopted from Paganism and not scripture. The two texts that are often held to support Augustine's view are better understood as literary than literal. Either the 'worm that turns forever' and the "smoke of their torment" that ascends forever are metaphors (they obviously are), or the "second death" and the "eternal destruction" are metaphors (they do not have that sense). When commissioning His disciples, in a direct statement Christ himself calls "hell" the ultimate destruction of the soul (Matt. 10:28). I think it is evident that a large number of Christians, including Augustine, have on this issue chosen the wrong verses as metaphorical ('literary' as opposed to 'literal'), and the wrong verses as literal. The opposite of eternal life is eternal not-life, an eternal punishment to be sure, but not eternal torture, which, after all, would require eternal life and not its contrary. Augustine errs because he sees divine justice as necessarily trumping divine mercy, a view that cannot be well argued from New Testament scripture ("God IS love"; 1 John 4:8/16; and "Mercy triumphs over judgment", James 2:13). [Yes, I am a so-called 'annihilationist', many religious traditions stand against this understanding, many religious traditions are wrong.] Christians have been disagreeing on these issues for a long time, and obviously some readers will disagree with me.
In Book XXII, concluding this great work, Augustine speculatively considers the nature of an eternal life reconciled finally and completely with God. Here, the text simply soars. Of course there is much more of interest in this expansive volume -- its historical importance, or one of Augustine's famous treatments of the physics of 'time' (Book XI), for example, than I can touch on here. "Thus, it is the love of study that seeks a holy leisure; and only the compulsion of charity that shoulders necessary activity."