The City of God by St. Augustine, is one of the most influential and well known of all books in Catholicism and this column reminds us that it is one that must be read straight through, at least once in life, by all Catholics.
Along with the Summa Theologia by St. Thomas Aquinas, much of the Catholic magisterium is embedded here, and as one who has been reading the City of God in parts, I realized that now is the time to begin the project, promising to be awe-inspiring.
“Recently, I have been reading with an undergraduate class St. Augustine’s City of God. Augustine took about thirteen years to write it; it took us nineteen class days, reading fifty-seven pages at a clip, to read it. Anyone claiming to have read all the works of Augustine, a famous quip goes, “is a liar.” The same might be said of anyone, including Schall and his students, who says that he understands every aspect of the City of God. In English, the book is 1091 pages in the Penguin edition. Still, it requires very careful attention.
“At the semester’s beginning, I told a class of about seventy students that, at least once in our lives (it is not enough, I know), we should read this remarkable book that bears the Christian title De Civitate Dei and is comparable to Plato’s Republic. The students were to look on reading it as an adventure, as great as any that they will ever undertake. But it is also a task. I asked them if they were willing to try it. I did not want to read only “parts,” the bane of academic life. Under Schall’s cold gaze, they agreed, I think, not reluctantly. With some awe, they mostly enjoyed it. Its reading is one of life’s soul-moving experiences, like reading Aristotle’s Metaphysics, or The Brothers Karamazov, or the Epistle to the Romans.
“Throughout, Augustine keeps explaining to the reader the order of the book. He knows it is a difficult read, and its parts need constant repetition. At the end of Book 10, Augustine explains: “The first five books (of twenty-two) have been written against those who imagine that the gods are to be worshipped for the sake of the good things of this life, the latter five against those who think that the cult of the (Roman) gods should be kept with a view to the future life after death.”
“When Augustine finishes with these dubious theses about the pagan gods, not much is left of them. The next twelve books, in blocks of four books each, are devoted to three topics concerning the two cities, the City of God and the City of Man: “I shall treat of their origin, their development, and their destined ends.”