Everybody should read Augustine’s City of God. (Go ahead; I’ll wait. All done? Great.) To do our part toward that end, we assign it as mandatory first-year reading in the Torrey Honors College. But “vast is the work, and arduous,” as its author noted, so our tradition is to cut the page count by half, and spend our three three-hour sessions discussing that half.
Which half? Good question.
The short answer is, read books 1, 5, 8, 11, 12, 14, 15, 20, 21, 22.
The long answer is, we have tried to preserve the structure of the total work by reading the sections of it that allow a reader to follow the train of thought, in hopes that this half-reading can be an abbreviated experience of the flow of the total work. Augustine himself gives a very clear outline of City of God‘s structure in his later book, The Retractations. Looking back on City of God, he lays out its twenty-two books in this way:
The first five of these books refute those persons who would so view the prosperity of human affairs that they think that the worship of the many gods whom the pagans worship is necessary for this; they contend that these evils arise and abound because they are prohibited from doing so. The next five books, however, speak against those who admit that these evils have never been wanting and never will be wanting to mortals, and that these, at one time great, at another time slight, vary according to places, times, and persons; and yet they argue that the worship of many gods, whereby sacrifice is offered to them, is useful because of the life to come after death. In these ten books, then, these two false beliefs, contrary to the Christian religion, are refuted.
But lest anyone charge that we have only argued against the beliefs of others, and have not stated our own, it is just this that the second part of this work, which consists of twelve books, accomplishes; although, when there is need, both in the first ten books I state my own opinions, and, in the last twelve, I argue against those opposed to them. The first four of the following twelve books, then, deal with the origin of the two cities, one of which is of God, the other of this world; the next four books treat of their growth or progress; but the third four books, which are also the last, deal with their destined ends. And so, although the entire twenty-two books were written about both cities, yet, they have taken their title from the better one, and consequently are called, On the City of God.
Following this lead, here’s a diagram of the whole thing, with our recommended reading in bold:
Part I: Attack on the Gods of Rome
A. Pagan Gods do not satisfy in this life
READ BOOK 1: The gods did not protect Rome.
Book 2: The gods are obscene troublemakers.
Book 3: The gods didn’t save Troy. Rome is depraved.
Book 4: So many gods, so little value. There is one true God.
READ BOOK 5:. Astrology and fate. Rome’s success is due to her real virtues.
B. Pagan Gods do not satisfy in the afterlife, or improve the soul
Book 6: Kinds of roman gods. None of them help in the afterlife.
Book 7: The “select” gods. Is Jupiter supreme? On the world soul.
READ BOOK 8: “Natural” theology; Greek philosophy; Platonists; demons.
Book 9: More demons. They’re all bad. Neoplatonism.
Book 10: True worship. The angels. Platonists and Christ.
Part II: Demonstration of the Gospel of God’s City
A. The Origins of the Two Cities
READ BOOK 11: Scripture; Creation; Time; Angels; Evil; much indeed.
READ BOOK 12: Evil is non-existent. When was creation?
Book 13: Creation of man. Death and resurrection.
READ BOOK 14: Spirit and flesh. Stoicism and apathy. Two cities.
B. The Growth of the Two Cities
READ BOOK 15: From Cain and Abel to Noah. (read only through ch. 8)
Book 16: Noah to Judah.
Book 17: Prophecies preparing for Christ.
Book 18: The two cities down to Christ (or from Abraham to the end).
C. The Ends of the Two Cities
Book 19: Man’s supreme Good. Peace.
READ BOOK 20: Last Judgment. Law and order.
READ BOOK 21: Eternal punishment.
READ BOOK 22: Creation and resurrection. Miracles now. The vision of God.
As you can see, we skimp a bit on the first, destructive part, in order to give more attention to the second, constructive part. We’d love to read it all, and we’re sorry to miss out on Augustine’s sometimes hilarious and always penetrating critiques of Roman religion. Those first ten books are a powerful and well-structured critique of Rome on the physical and spiritual plane. But if we have to make cuts for the sake of time, we privilege the constructive account of the city of God.
If you want to host a book discussion, you could certainly assign one book per meeting, if you’ve got about 9 meetings to devote to it. (But to be candid, if you’ve got a group of friends willing to make that kind of investment of time in Augustine, you should probably just dare them to do the whole book! Fair warning, though, the first ten books are more meaningful to readers who are already familiar with quite a bit of Greco-Roman mythology and philosophy.)
We go at a faster pace, appropriate for a university course, reading three books for each three-hour discussion session, in these groupings:
For session one, read Books 1, 5, 8
For session two, read Books 11-12, 14-15.1-8
For session three, read Books 20-22
1 The Retractations in The Fathers of the Church: A New Translation (Washington, DC: Catholic University of America Press, 1968), Translated by Sister Mary Inez Bogan, 209-210. From pages 210 to 214, the editor canvasses numerous other places where Augustine makes remarks about the City of God.