June 07, 2010

The virtuous Pagan

Amongst Augustine's damning critiques of paganism is the critique of hypocrisy. Augustine argued that he produced a philosophy that did not hide. He contrasted that to pagan philosophers who at the same time extolled ceremonies including play acting and temple rites, whilst criticising them at the same time. Augustine contrasted the primitive beliefs of the pagans with the sophisticated ruminations of the philosophers: he ridiculed in particular Varro who 'confess[ed] that, if he were founding a city anew, he would consecrate the Gods, and give them names, according to the principles of nature... as it is, however finding himself among a people already ancient, he says that he must adhere to the names and titles of the Gods traditionally received from antiquity' (IV 31). Augustine pokes fun at paganism with its plethora of deities but the impossibility of Paganism is further evidence of its ridiculousness.

Augustine believed that philosophy was an action. When he says of Varro that 'this most acute of men indicates clearly enough that he is not revealing all that he knows', he is not complimenting Varro for his knowledge but condemning him for failing to declare the truth. These 'supposedly wise men' create a situation in which lies masquerade for truth, a situation in which 'malignant demons are wonderfully delighted by such deceit, for by it, they posses deceivers and deceived alike'. (IV 31). Even Varro's wisdom and that of other sage Romans is not the result of their own clear sightedness: 'whenever such men as Varro have included passages in their writings which tend to show how ridiculous the many gods of Rome are, they have done this because compelled by the hidden will of God to confess the truth' (IV 31).

Augustine's argument suggests that the great Pagans are guilty of a dishonest deceit. Their wisdom is useful to God in his providential pattern but it is evidence of their greater sin. The fact that paganism is intellectually destroyed (in Augustine's view) is further evidence of the hypocrisy and unworthiness of the pagan elite: not merely does he tell Christians, these are the arguments to take on the pagans, he also tells them why they do not need to be fearful of their adversaries. The City of God is a rallying cry as well as a political and theological pamphlet: part of that rallying is to persuade his Christian contemporaries that they had the intellectual armory ot attack pagans and he does that by suggesting both that pagans secretly agreed with Christians and that the only reason they did not openly do so was because of a moral failure to recognise the truth publically.