The “City of God” is the masterpiece of the greatest genius among the Latin Fathers, and the best known and most read of his works, except the “Confessions.” It embodies the results of thirteen years of intellectual labor and study (from ad 413-426). It is a vindication of Christianity against the attacks of the heathen in view of the sacking of the city of Rome by the barbarians, at a time when the old Græco-Roman civilization was approaching its downfall, and a new Christian civilization was beginning to rise on its ruins. It is the first attempt at a philosophy of history, under the aspect of two rival cities or communities, — the eternal city of God and the perishing city of the world.
This was the only philosophy of history known throughout Europe during the middle ages; it was adopted and reproduced in its essential features by Bossuet, Ozanam, Frederick Schlegel, and other Catholic writers, and has recently been officially endorsed, as it were, by the scholarly Pope Leo XIII. in his encyclical letter on the Christian Constitution of States (Immortale Dei, Nov. 1, 1885); for the Pope says that Augustin in his De Civitate Dei, “set forth so clearly the efficacy of Christian wisdom and the way in which it is bound up with the well-being of States, that he seems not only to have pleaded the cause of the Christians of his own time, but to have triumphantly refuted the false charges [against Christianity] for ever.”
“The City of God” is also highly appreciated by Protestant writers as Waterland, Milman, Neander, Bindemann, Pressensé, Flint (The Philosophy of History, 1874, pp. 17 sqq.), and Fairbairn, (The City of God, London, 2nd ed., 1886, pp. 348 sqq.). Even the skeptical Gibbon, who had no sympathy whatever with the religion and theology of Augustin, concedes to this work at least “the merit of a magnificent design, vigorously, and not unskillfully executed.” (Decline and Fall, Ch. xxviii. note, in Harper’s ed., vol. III., 271.)
It would be unfair to judge “The City of God” by the standard of modern exegetical and historical scholarship. Augustin’s interpretations of Scripture, although usually ingenious and often profound, are as often fanciful, and lack the sure foundation of a knowledge of the original languages; for he knew very little Greek and no Hebrew, and had to depend on the Latin version; he was even prejudiced at first against Jerome’s revision of the very defective Itala, fearing, in his solicitude for the weak and timid brethren, that more harm than good might be the result of this great and necessary improvement. His learning was confined to biblical and Roman literature and the systems of Greek philosophy. He often wastes arguments on absurd opinions, and some of his own opinions strike us as childish and obsolete. He confines the Kingdom of God to the narrow limits of the Jewish theocracy and the visible Catholic Church. He could, indeed, not deny the truths in Greek philosophy; but he derived them from the Jewish Scriptures, and adopted the impossible hypothesis of Ambrose that Plato became acquainted with the prophet Jeremiah in Egypt (comp. De Doctr. Christ. II. 28), though afterwards he corrected it (Retract. II. 4). He does not sufficiently appreciate the natural virtues, the ways of Divine providence and the working of His Spirit outside of the chosen race; and under the influence of the ascetic spirit which then prevailed in the Church, in justifiable opposition to the surrounding moral corruption of heathenism, he even degrades secular history and secular life, in the state and the family, which are likewise ordained of God. In some respects he forms the opposite extreme to Origen, the greatest genius among the Greek fathers. Both assume a universal fall from original holiness. But Augustin dates it from one act of disobedience, — the historic fall of Adam, in whom the whole race was germinally included; while Origen goes back to a pre-historic fall of each individual soul, making each responsible for the abuse of freedom. Augustin proceeds to a special election of a people of God from the corrupt and condemned mass; he follows their history in two antagonistic lines, and ends in the dualistic contrast of an eternal heaven for the elect and an eternal hell for the reprobate, including among the latter even unbaptized infants (horribile dictu!), who never committed an actual transgression; while Origen leads all fallen creatures, men and angels, by a slow and gradual process of amendment and correction, under the ever-widening influence of redeeming mercy, during the lapse of countless ages, back to God, some outstripping others and tending by a swifter course towards perfection, until the last enemy is finally reached and death itself is destroyed, that “God may be all in all.” Within the limits of the Jewish theocracy and Catholic Christianity Augustin admits the idea of historical development or a gradual progress from a lower to higher grades of knowledge, yet always in harmony with Catholic truth. He would not allow revolutions and radical changes or different types of Christianity. “The best thinking” (says Dr. Flint, in his Philosophy of History in Europe, I. 40), “at once the most judicious and liberal, among those who are called the Christian fathers, on the subject of the progress of Christianity as an organization and system, is that of St. Augustin, as elaborated and applied by Vincent of Lerins in his ‘Commonitorium,’ where we find substantially the same conception of the development of the Church and Christian doctrine, which, within the present century, De Maistre has made celebrated in France, Möhler in Germany, and Newman in England. Its main defect is that it places in the Church an authority other than, and virtually higher than, Scripture and reason, to determine what is true and false in the development of doctrine.”
With all its defects the candid reader will be much instructed and edified by “the City of God,” and find more to admire than to censure in this immortal work of sanctified genius and learning.
The present translation, the first accurate and readable one in the English language, was prepared by the accomplished editor of the Works of Aurelius Augustin, published by T. and T. Clark of Edinburgh. I urged Dr. Dods by letter and in person to re-edit it for this Patristic Series with such changes and additions as he might wish to make, but he declined, partly from want of leisure, and partly for a reason which I must state in his own language. “I thought,” he writes in a letter to me of Nov. 23, 1886, that “the book could not fail to be improved by passing under your own supervision. In editing it for Clark’s Series, I translated the greater part of it with my own hand and carefully revised the parts translated by others. I was very much gratified to hear that you meant to adopt it into your Series; and the best reward of my labor on it is that now with your additional notes and improvements, it is likely to find a wider circulation than it could otherwise have had.”
But in this expectation the reader will be disappointed. The translation is far better than I could have made it, and it would have been presumption on my part to attempt to improve it. The notes, too, are all to the point and leave little to be desired. I have only added a few. Besides the Latin original, I have compared also the German translation of Ulrich Uhl (Des heiligen Kirchenvaters Augustinus zwei und zwanzig Bücher über den Gottesstaat) in the Catholic “Bibliothek der Kirchenväter,” edited by Dr. Thalhofer, but I found nothing in the occasional foot-notes which is better than those of Dr. Dods. The present edition, therefore, is little more than a careful reproduction of that of my esteemed Scotch friend, who deserves the undivided credit of making this famous work of the Bishop of Hippo accessible to the English reader.
I have included in this volume the four books of St. Augustin On Christian Doctrine. It is the first and best patristic work on biblical Hermeneutics, and continued for a thousand years, together with the Prefaces of Jerome, to be the chief exegetical guide. Although it is superseded as a scientific work by modern Hermeneutics and Critical Introductions to the Old and New Testaments, it is not surpassed for originality, depth and spiritual insight.
The translation was prepared by the Rev. Professor J. F. Shaw, of Londonderry, and is likewise all that can be desired. I have enlarged the introductory note and added a table of contents.