Divinized Politics (Augustine on Images, II)

In the entry below “Augustine and Images,” I mentioned that Augustine’s City of God “de-divinizes” politics. This is a such a fascinating thought that I wanted to give it its own post, especially in light of a certain error of Medieval papalism (thankfully corrected by the Reformation, which returned to Augustine on this point).

In the City of God, Augustine summarizes the statement of the legendary Egyptian philosopher Hermes Trismegistus that statues of divinities, though the works of men’s hands, are actually able to become the bodies of invisible spirits, thus bringing the divine order into direct conjunction with the temporal order (VIII.23). According to Hermes, because ancient men “went far astray in their conception of the gods, on account of their lack of faith and their neglect of divine worship and true religion, they invented the art of creating gods” – that is, they “brought in a power derived from the nature of the universe as a supplement to this technique, suitable for their purpose, and by this addition (since they could not create souls) they called up the souls of angels or demons and made them inhere in sacred images and in divine mysteries, so that by their means the idols could have the power of doing good or inflicting harm” (VIII.24).

Now when these animated statues become part of a system of rites and cults centered on the preservation of the civil realm, a “civil religion” is born – in a word, politics is “divinized.” Augustine cites Hermes as saying that Egypt itself is a divinized realm, 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). Yet Hermes also predicts a time when this system will fall, and “it will be apparent that it is in vain that the Egyptians have kept up the worship of the gods with reverent piety and attentive devotion.” In his polemic against the pagans, Augustine has already said that the welter of Roman gods and goddesses with their attendant civil religious obligations enslaved the people (VIII.22). In VIII.23, he thinks that the great pagan was “predicting the present time when the Christian religion has overthrown all these deceitful images with an irresistible finality corresponding to its truth and holiness, so that the grace of the true Saviour may set man free from these man-made gods, and subject him to God, man’s creator.”

For Augustine, the tempora Christiana (Christian times) have come, and this means that the true worship of the true God is busily undoing the divinized politics of the pagan way. Significantly, “The demon attached to an image by an impious art has been made a god by man, but a god for this particular kind of man, not for all mankind. What sort of a god then is this who could only be made by a man who is in error, who lacks faith, who is estranged from the true God?” (VIII.24, emphasis mine). An interesting implication here is that the civil religion of an idolatrous nation is good only for that particular nation because its images have been made by particular men for their own particular purposes. This fits well with the observed fact of ancient household gods, as we see in the story of Jacob’s wife, Rachel, stealing her father’s gods, and in the story of Aeneas, flying from the sack of Troy, taking his private family gods with him to plant them anew elsewhere.

Augustine deals with this superstition of merely provincial gods in City of God II.16 and III.14, where he shows how the gods of Rome have actually been transplanted at least three times (once from Troy to Lavinium, once from Lavinium to Alba Longa, and once from Alba Longa to Rome), and each time they have failed to preserve the city which came under their protection. Nevertheless, the point remains that in the pagan way of thinking Augustine is describing, the worship of visible images of the divine, in the form of statues, rituals, and temple ceremonies is fundamentally wrapped up with the origin story and hopes for preservation of the particular cities in which it is found. In this way of thinking, the political system is “divinized,” or, as Hermes Trismegistus put it when describing Egypt, the political system is 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.” As a side note, but one worth following up on, in the Republic, Socrates says that “no State can be happy which is not designed by artists who imitate the heavenly pattern” (500e). A bit later he says that the artisans of the State, gazing constantly at the heavenly pattern, will continually tweak the State’s constitution “until they have made the ways of men, as far as possible, agreeable to the ways of God” (501c).

In Books I-VII of the City of God, Augustine demolishes this notion with respect to the pagan Roman Republic and Empire, and so it is intriguing to realize that Christianized Rome, in the office of the feudalized papacy, brought the idea back into play by conflating man’s temporal and spiritual ends and making both subject to the pope alone. Politics was again divinized, the temporal order again made to be an “image of heaven.” For those who are familiar with the papalist propaganda of the mid-13th century on, it is important to see how this point of divinized politics in a Christian context came complete with a veritable “god on earth,” a man standing in the place of Jesus Christ, a man who could not be questioned by any authority on earth since his will by definition just was the divine will. Augustine’s understanding of the societas Christiana was buried, and the idolatrous civil religion pattern of men such as Numa Pompilius and Hermes Trismegistus revived.

If you live across the Tiber and find yourself wondering what good there was in the Reformation, there’s as good an answer as any. Augustine of Hippo was quite simply superior to, and far more Christian than, Augustinus of Ancona.:”(The latter figure was a major canon lawyer of the 13th century, and a simply rabid defender of extreme papal supremacy. He believed the pope to be God on earth, and held that all other authorities were not just subject to the pope, but actually derived their power and legitimacy from the pope. In other words, in the context of my post here, Augustinus of Ancona believed that the ecclesiastical order on earth was an image of the divine in heaven, and that what went on on earth under the pope’s guidance was a representation of what God was doing in heaven. Augustinus thus bought into the divinized politics which Augustine had so thoroughly demolished, and given the extremism of his view it is not hard to understand why the Reformation was necessary.)”:


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