Burning in the City

March 5, 2012

Nearing on the end of Augustine’s The City of God, I continue to be entertained by Saint A’s withering sarcasm towards his ‘opponents,’ i.e., the pagans, and his dogmatic torturing of ‘rationality.’  One man’s rational is another man’s fanaticism.

In this later book, Number XXI, he is discussing the nature of eternal torment meted out to the sinners after the Second Coming, and dealing with difficult ‘scientific’ issues, e.g., how can a sinner’s body continue burning for eternity?  After all, would it not be consumed after a while?  Augustine uses a fascinating argument, what I call the argument from ignorance, which essentially states, “You [pagans] cannot explain everything we see in the world – we are all ignorant of things.  Therefore, you should not object to my assertion that God performs miracles.”  Doesn’t make a lot of sense, but then, it’s a line of reasoning heard today, as are so many things the Saint says.  Rick Santorum comes to mind often when I read him…

Here, the Saint makes an interesting point about the relative authority of texts:

But, as I said in the eighteenth book of this work, we are not obliged to believe everything contained in the historical records of the pagans, since their chroniclers…seem to be at pains to differ from one another …But we are free to believe, if we so choose, those reports which are not in conflict with the books which, as we have no doubt, we are obliged to believe.  XXI 6: Not all marvels are natural; many are devised by man’s ingenuity, many by the craft of demons 

Obviously, it’s all clear and simple which texts ‘we are obliged to believe.’  Following on, Augustine discusses many ‘marvels’ that are generally accepted as true, although they seem laughable to us.  So, he argues, if you accept them, you might as well believe me too.  Certainly, the miracles God performs are no more absurd than these ‘marvels.’  But, of course, he does believe in some of those marvels:  He’s not just being funny.

…My purpose here is to demonstrate the kind of marvels recorded in profusion in pagan literature, and generally believed by our opponents, although no rational explanation is offered, whereas the same people cannot bring themselves to believe us, even though rational grounds are produced, when we say that Almighty God is to perform an action which lies outside their experience and contravenes the evidences of the senses. … XXI 8:  The omnipotence of the Creator is the ground of belief in marvels

 Marvelous things are abounding in the world, and, really, is a man rising from the dead so much more remarkable than some of the animals and natural wonders we come across?  At one point, he cites the numerous volcanoes in Italy, mountains that burn continuously without being consumed!  And, my goodness, Fire turns stones white, but turns wood black!  And charcoal, which is created when fire consumes wood, cannot itself be destroyed by fire or earth!  Thus, people put charcoal under stone property markers, knowing that it will never decay, so that if the stone markers are moved, they can prove the original location!  What a weird manner of pre-scientific reasoning…Fire destroys, so there must be something magical about charcoal which will not be further destroyed.

…For in any case, I have sufficiently argued that it is possible for a living creature to remain alive in the fire, being burnt without being consumed, feeling pain without incurring death; and this by means of a miracle of the omnipotent Creator.  Anyone who says that this is impossible for the Creator does not realize who is responsible for whatever marvels he finds in the whole of the world of nature.  It is, in fact, God himself who has created all that is wonderful in this world, the great miracles, and the minor marvels that I have mentioned…The nature of eternal punishment: XXI 10

The salamander was thought to have the ability to live in fire – that’s strong!- and so become the symbol of the French kings. Later, the amphibian was shown as a fire-breather. It shows up on several facades in New York City, most notably here on the Alwyn Court building, which is swarming with them.


News from late antiquity, early modern

July 7, 2010

 

Moving along in Saint Augustines massive City of God, I think he’s pretty much laid to rest the charge that the adoption of Christianity by the emperor and the citizenry of Rome was responsible for its sack by Alaric and its other troubles.  He gives a thorough review of the calamities that befell the Republic and the Empire long before Christ walked the earth and asks sarcastically, why didn’t your gods protect you?   Obviously, it was not the fault of Christianity, since it hadn’t appeared yet.  Morever, excellent rhetorician that he is, he points out that if Christians had been around during the bloodshed of the Gracchi, the various Punic Wars, the civil wars, and so on, the pagans would have immediately argued that it was the presence of Christians that was bringing down the wrath of the gods on Rome.  So since there were no Christians, shouldn’t they blame their own gods?

It’s entertaining to see the lengths to which Augustine will go to make his points, but we have to recall he was writing for an educated audience that was very interested in these ‘spiritual’ questions, and not above enjoying some sophisticated repartee at the same time.  So, he dwells with glee upon the burning of one temple and the incineration of its sacred idol that claimed the life of a high priest who tried to save it.  What!  Your all-powerful gods not only could not save themselves from a mere fire, but couldn’t even lift a finger to save the priest who tries to save them? What sort of gods are these, he asks?  I’m waiting for the clearcut demonstrations of the beneficent power of the Christian god that comes later on.

1200 years later on, I’m halfway through Don Quixote, the novel, or is it a chronicle?, or maybe just a daydream of a bookworm on drugs, and an argument is underway.  The Don, his squire Sancho, and a few local people with some learning are discussing the first part of The Adventures of Don Quixote which was just published.  Everyone’s talking about it!  The second part is coming soon.  [I am reading the second part.]  The characters compare themselves to their depiction in the novel, pointing out inaccuracies and complaining a bit of how they are shown.  The author of the second part will, it is hoped, be better than that of the first.  After all, it is known that there is another version of the story circulating that is a downright fraud, a blatant ripoff of the idea, written and published by some hacks.  For his part, Sancho is peeved that the story is a little too accurate for comfort regarding his humiliation at the inn, when he was hurled into the air on a trampoline-blanket by some tricksters.  Some verbal trickery from the Don assures him that he wasn’t really there, even if his body was.


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