Augustine writes in response to those who claimed that the catastrophe of the sack of Rome in AD 410 by the Visigoths came because Rome’s traditional gods were angry that Christians were worshipping Jesus instead.
He offers a devastating 5th-century critique of Rome’s polytheistic culture which seems equally apropos regarding a culture, 1600 years later, dominated by polytheism’s fraternal twin, Secular Humanism (which looks very similar, just without using the word “gods,” because we humans cannot help but find something to make our lives meaningful, something in which to place our deepest hopes, something to serve in thoughts, words & actions: We are made to worship.).
Tim Keller summarizes St. Augustine’s thought regarding polytheism’s (and secular humanism’s) effect on culture like this:
- “If there is one God who is the supreme lawgiver and judge, then the world is essentially an orderly peaceful place. And God’s project is to bring it back into peace & justice and our job is to do his will with Him to accomplish this project… But if there are many gods at war with each other as the ultimate reality, there is no one supreme Lord/lawgiver/truth, and then the universe and reality are essentially violent! And that is the nature of things: chaotic & violent. If this is so, you cannot have a just society. If polytheism is true: 1. The world is by nature violent, justice and peace are totally unnatural… So you have no hope for justice… 2. You have no basis for justice, because you don’t have one ultimate lawgiver & judge. So, whose justice do you seek and find?… You want proof of this? Look at the history of Rome! (not about seeking justice, but about power and subjugation!)”
And here are a few quotes from Augustine’s City of God. Do his words not speak uncomfortably well to us here in 21st-century America?…
Book 2, chap. 7.—that the suggestions of philosophers are precluded from having any moral effect, because they have not the authority which belongs to divine instruction, and because man’s natural bias to evil induces him rather to follow the examples of the gods than to obey the precepts of men
Book 2, chap. 20.—of the kind of happiness and life truly delighted in by those who inveigh against the christian religion
1. But the worshippers and admirers of these gods delight in imitating their scandalous iniquities, and are nowise concerned that the republic be less depraved and licentious. Only let it remain undefeated, they say, only let it flourish and abound in resources; let it be glorious by its victories, or still better, secure in peace; and what matters it to us? This is our concern, that every man be able to increase his wealth so as to supply his daily prodigalities, and so that the powerful may subject the weak for their own purposes. Let the poor court the rich for a living, and that under their protection they may enjoy a sluggish tranquillity; and let the rich abuse the poor as their dependants, to minister to their pride. Let the people applaud not those who protect their interests, but those who provide them with pleasure. Let no severe duty be commanded, no impurity forbidden. Let kings estimate their prosperity, not by the righteousness, but by the servility of their subjects. Let the provinces stand loyal to the kings, not as moral guides, but as lords of their possessions and purveyors of their pleasures; not with a hearty reverence, but a crooked and servile fear. Let the laws take cognizance rather of the injury done to another man’s property, than of that done to one’s own person. If a man be a nuisance to his neighbor, or injure his property, family, or person, let him be actionable; but in his own affairs let every one with impunity do what he will in company with his own family, and with those who willingly join him. Let there be a plentiful supply of public prostitutes for every one who wishes to use them, but specially for those who are too poor to keep one for their private use. Let there be erected houses of the largest and most ornate description: in these let there be provided the most sumptuous banquets, where every one who pleases may, by day or night, play, drink, vomit, dissipate. Let there be everywhere heard the rustling of dancers, the loud, immodest laughter of the theatre; let a succession of the most cruel and the most voluptuous pleasures maintain a perpetual excitement. If such happiness is distasteful to any, let him be branded as a public enemy; and if any attempt to modify or put an end to it let him be silenced, banished, put an end to. Let these be reckoned the true gods, who procure for the people this condition of things, and preserve it when once possessed. Let them be worshipped as they wish; let them demand whatever games they please, from or with their own worshippers; only let them secure that such felicity be not imperilled by foe, plague, or disaster of any kind.