For a long time now, I have intended to read Augustine’s City of God, his massive (1000+ pages in English translation) book about the fall of Rome, the will of God, and the “two cities” – the city of man and the City of God – that coexist during our current era. It connects several themes that I have been interested in, and, having heard many good things about the book, expected it to be enlightening.
I did not expect it to be so pastoral, however. This has been a difficult time for our nation in general and for my family in particular. I won’t go over the details here, but suffice it to say, it has been a rough 2009.
So, too, was the year 410 for Augustine. Alaric, king of the Visigoths, sacked Rome. It was a crushing defeat for the once-invincible Roman Empire, and many Roman pagans blamed Christians for “softening” their formerly great city. (Christianity had recently grown considerably in the Roman Empire.) For Augustine personally, it was a great tragedy, since he loved the city of Rome and the Roman glory that it stood for. He began City of God in 413, at the request of a former student, who was facing challenges from pagans that Christians were to blame for the fall of Rome.
Thus, the book begins with a consideration of evil and suffering, the classic question, “Why do the good suffer while the evil prosper?” Augustine, following the lead of Jesus, observes that suffering and prosperity fall on both the righteous and unrighteous alike, according to the will of God:
But he has willed that temporal goods and temporal evils should befall good and bad alike, so that the good things should not be too eagerly coveted, when it is seen that the wicked also enjoy them, and the the evils should not be discreditably shunned, when it is apparent that the good are often afflicted with them. (CoG, 1.9)
Suffering, however, takes on very different characters, depending on who suffers:
…when the good and the wicked suffer alike, the identity of their sufferings does not mean that there is no different between them. Through the sufferings are the same, the sufferers remain different. Virtue and vice are not the same, even if they undergo the same torment. The fire which makes gold shine makes chaff smoke; the same flail breaks up the straw, and clears the grain; and oil is not mistaken for lees because both are forced out by the same press…Stir a cesspit, and a foul stench arises; stir a perfume, and a delightful fragrance ascends. But the movement is identical. (ibid.)
The same suffering that leads the unrighteous to curse God, leads the good man to prayer.