Tuesday, February 5, 2013

City of God: Book 2

(Book 1 is here.)

For centuries, up until the last couple hundred years, really, Christianity had a serious disdain for fiction.  It seemed evil, somehow- like lies.  Good Christians read nonfiction.  (Well, to be honest, most good Christians, like most of everyone else, couldn't read.  But if they did, they would have felt guilty about reading fiction.)  The novel is still a pretty recent concept.

And wow, if they disdained fiction- they hated the theater.  Oh, sure, eventually you could go see a production of Shakespeare and that was okay, but anything else was evil, lust-filled, or a blatant invitation to sin.  And the actual actors and actresses themselves?  Were seen as the very worst.  Not accepted in "polite" society, never really acknowledged for their gifts and work.

If you want to know why?  Read this book.

Book 1 was about the looting of Rome, and Book 2, in a pleasant change of pace, is all about the evils and vices practiced in Rome before the looting.  In particular, Augustine has a real bee in his bonnet about the theater, and acting.  I suppose it's possible that a few of the shows he's talking about were actually as provocative and lewd as he claims, but all of them? 

Part of me wonders if, while writing this book, he was thinking back to the time he said, "Give me chastity and self-control, Lord, but not yet" and thinking he really should have held out longer. The extended, loving descriptions of how shocked and horrified proper ladies should have been at these shows are a little suspect, is all I'm saying.

To make it clear, the shows he's talking about weren't the kind of plays we're used to.  These were shows at festivals for the Roman gods, in honor of the gods and illustrating their lives.  Now, if you've read any Roman mythology (stolen shamelessly from the Greeks, like their laws, which Augustine also has a bone to pick with- more on that later) you know not to be surprised there might be some- err- R-rated material.  But spending over half the book on how horrified he was by these shows?  I have to think he must have gone to an awful lot of them, to write this extensively.

Speaking of the Romans stealing their laws from the Greeks!  Augustine's larger point about the Roman festival shows was that if the Roman gods were decent at all, the shows would have given good moral content to the crowds.  He later goes on in this book to point out that if the Roman gods had given the Romans good morals, then they wouldn't have had to send ambassadors to Solon's court in Athens to copy down his laws.  And even if they'd had to do that, they wouldn't have tried to change them and vote on them when they got back.  (Still not really sure how that part of the argument is supposed to work.)

There is, I admit, one section of this book which I'm going to have to reread.  His section on Cicero's opinion on the Romans actually has some worthwhile political philosophy in it, and seems worth perusing again.

Anyway, this book ends with Augustine denouncing the Roman gods one more time, and then talking about how wonderful Christianity is in comparison.  I have to say, I'm really looking forward to the parts of this that have actual Christian theology in them- I'm kind of getting tired of the one-note "Romans suck!" melody here.  We'll see what Book 3 holds.

No comments:

Post a Comment