Letter 38: Ripped from Today’s Headlines?

Last week I decided to start listening to an audio recording of St. Augustine’s The City of God.  I had read excerpts in college, and an abridged version while in law school.  Augustine was prompted to write The City of God by the sack of Rome by Alaric the Goth in AD 410.  He reflects on society, Roman history, the nature of Man, government, and of course the Christian’s true home.

I haven’t made it very far, but I was seized by the applicability of his comments on the Roman people.  He could have written those words today.  How easily we wish to be cosseted and amused.

I was also appreciative of a traditional liberal education, where I was able to read such things.  In our rush to a more job-focused, or culturally driven education, we often forget the value of ancient wisdom that has no direct benefit one’s chance of getting a job.  We seem to have forgotten that one of the original purposes of higher education was teaching us how to live.

“But the worshippers and admirers of these gods delight in imitating their scandalous iniquities, and are nowise concerned that the republic be less depraved and licentious. Only let it remain undefeated, they say, only let it flourish and abound in resources; let it be glorious by its victories, or still better, secure in peace; and what matters it to us? This is our concern, that every man be able to increase his wealth so as to supply his daily prodigalities, and so that the powerful may subject the weak for their own purposes. Let the poor court the rich for a living, and that under their protection they may enjoy a sluggish tranquillity; and let the rich abuse the poor as their dependants, to minister to their pride. Let the people applaud not those who protect their interests, but those who provide them with pleasure. Let no severe duty be commanded, no impurity forbidden. Let kings estimate their prosperity, not by the righteousness, but by the servility of their subjects. Let the provinces stand loyal to the kings, not as moral guides, but as lords of their possessions and purveyors of their pleasures; not with a hearty reverence, but a crooked and servile fear. Let the laws take cognizance rather of the injury done to another man’s property, than of that done to one’s own person. If a man be a nuisance to his neighbor, or injure his property, family, or person, let him be actionable; but in his own affairs let everyone with impunity do what he will in company with his own family, and with those who willingly join him. Let there be a plentiful supply of public prostitutes for every one who wishes to use them, but specially for those who are too poor to keep one for their private use. Let there be erected houses of the largest and most ornate description: in these let there be provided the most sumptuous banquets, where every one who pleases may, by day or night, play, drink, vomit,[1] dissipate. Let there be everywhere heard the rustling of dancers, the loud, immodest laughter of the theatre; let a succession of the most cruel and the most voluptuous pleasures maintain a perpetual excitement. If such happiness is distasteful to any, let him be branded as a public enemy; and if any attempt to modify or put an end to it let him be silenced, banished, put an end to.”

St. Augustine of Hippo, The City of God, Book 2, Chapter 20

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Filed under Education, politics, virtue

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