Rome and Christianity
St. Augustine and Varro's Civil Theology


. . . . It is curious that both Saint Ambrose and Saint Augustine, while bitterly engaged in the struggle for existential representation of Christianity, should have been almost completely blind to the nature of the issue [that the Romans had their own more compact theology]. Nothing seemed to be at stake but the truth of Christianity versus the untruth of paganism. This does not mean that they were quite unaware of the existential issue involved; on the contrary, the Civitas Dei has its peculiar fascination because Saint Augustine, while obviously not understanding the existential problem of paganism, was rather worried that something eluded him.

His attitude toward Varro's civil theology resembled that of an enlightened intellectual toward Christianity—he simply could not understand that an intelligent person would seriously maintain such nonsense. He escaped from his difficulty by assuming that Varro, the Stoic philosopher, could not have believed in the Roman divinities but that, under cover of a respectful account, he wanted to expose them to ridicule.

It will be necessary to hear Varro himself, as well as his friend Cicero, in order to find the point that eluded Saint Augustine. The elusive point was reported by Saint Augustine himself with great care; it obviously disconcerted him. Varro, in his Antiquities, had treated first of "human things" and then only of the "divine things" of Rome. First, the city must exist; then it can proceed to institute its cults. "As the painter is prior to the painting, and the architect prior to the building, so are the cities prior to the institutions of the cities."

This Varronic conception that the gods were instituted by political society aroused the incomprehending irritation of Saint Augustine. On the contrary, he insisted, "true religion is not instituted by some terrestrial city," but the true God, the inspirator of true religion, "has instituted the celestial city." Varro's attitude seemed particularly reprehensible because the things human to which he gave priority were not even universally human but just Roman.

Moreover, Saint Augustine suspected him of deception because Varro admitted that he would have put the things divine first if he had intended to treat of the nature of the gods exhaustively; and because he, furthermore, suggested that in matters of religion much is true that the people ought not to know and much false that the people ought not to suspect.

What Saint Augustine could not understand was the compactness of Roman experience, the inseparable community of gods and men in the historically concrete civitas, the simultaneousness of human and divine institution of a social order. For him the order of human existence had already separated into the civitas terrena of profane history and the civitas coelestis of divine institution. Nor was the understanding facilitated by the apparently somewhat primitive formulations of the encyclopedist Varro. . . .

CW VOL 5,
The New Science of Politics
The Struggle for Representation
in the Roman Empire ,

§4 pp 158-159.
[U.Chicago ed., pp 87-88]

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