Augustine and Images

In City of God IV.31, VII.5, and VII.27-VII.29, Augustine makes some interesting points about the corrupting influence of images on true religion. The remarks are part of his extended critique of pagan “civil” and “natural” religion. At the moment I don’t have time to devote to comparing these passages in detail. At the very least, though, it seems like it’s an important key to the oft-noted fact that the City of God “de-divinizes” politics.

In Book VII, Chapter 34, Augustine relates the intriguing story of the accidental discovery of the religious books of Numa Pompilius, the second of Rome’s legendary seven kings, who reorganized and established the Roman civil religion as a means to control the warring nature of the people. The books were found and read by the senate, and in them were recorded the reasons why Numa had set up the various rites and cults. After reading the account, the senate approved it….and then had the books burned. Why? Augustine thinks there was something in the account that shows Numa had discovered secrets of the demons and that he kept them secret so as to avoid incurring the demons’ wrath.

The interesting thing about this story is that, as Augustine put it, the Roman senate “recoiled from the prospect of condemning their ancestral religion, and therefore felt obliged to approve Numa’s action.” More intriguing still, the senate had Numa’s books burned because “they believed it essential that those ceremonies should continue, and they deemed it more tolerable that the community should remain deluded, in ignorance of the reasons for those ceremonies, than that it should be distressed by learning the truth about them.” What this seems to imply is that because Numa set up the Roman religion as a means of ordering the Roman state, the overthrow of his religion would entail the overthrow of the state. Consequently, no free inquiry into the foundations of his religion could be allowed.

And so, as Augustine has developed his argument, the reason that the Empire has always had such profound trouble with disasters and wars is because they refused to worship the true God but instead worshipped the many things which He created as being themselves gods and goddesses. Having previously abominated the public theatrical shows which the worship of the gods demands (IV.26), Augustine ties these directly to the civil religion that helps hold Roman society together: “[The pagans] know that the theology of the theatre and of fable depends on their ‘civil’ theology, which is reflected in the verses of the poets as in a mirror. They have not the courage to condemn ‘civil’ theology, but they give a detailed exposition of it, and then criticize its reflection in terms of reprobation” (VI.9).

The Roman civil theology, with its images and rites and cults, is itself an image of a demonic original (ibid.), and it is by this means (images) that the possibility of achieving true religion was held down. Later, he makes the intriguing remark that the demons “demand from the civic authorities and the pontiffs the presentation in the theatre of the buffooneries of the poets” (VIII.20). Indeed, the Roman people “were enslaved to those demons by the superstitious beliefs to which they were inured, thanks to all those ceremonies, and all those temples” (VIII.22). Hermes Trismegistus, a legendary Egyptian philosopher of a somewhat Platonic bent, claims, according to Augustine, “that the visible and tangible idols are in some way the bodies of gods; certain spirits have been induced to take up their abode in them, and they have the power either to do harm, or to satisfy many of the wants of those who offer them divine honours and obedient worship” (VIII.23).

Augustine thinks this is a very interesting observation, for it means that men literally have the power to create real (but false) gods by “a kind of technique of attaching invisible spirits to material bodies, so that the images dedicated and subjected to those spirits become, as it were, animated bodies” (ibid.). The statues of the Roman civil religion, like those spoken of by Hermes Trismegistus, are images of the divine made by men and inhabited by demons in order to work deceiving miracles. One is reminded in this connection of the various stories of miracles and prodigies which Plutarch remarks upon in his Lives of some of the more important Romans. The point about statues as images of the divine extends to the whole society: for Hermes Trismegistus, Egypt itself was an “image of heaven” in which “we have the transference, the descent to earth, of all that goes on in heaven, under the guidance of God” (VIII.23). The civil order mirrors the divine order, and so the civil order is divinized politics.

It would seem, then, that Augustine’s point about the story of Numa is that the senate had Numa’s books burned because if they had been able to be freely read and studied, the Romans would have come to understand that they were in the name of their traditional virtue of pietas (piety) publicly and enthusiastically celebrating either abominable demons or else merely dead men whose memories had become encrusted with fantastic legends (VII.35). In either case, the danger to the Roman civil religion, and therefore to the Roman state itself, would have been potentially fatal.

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