TEXT 1: de vera religione 1.1

First in an occasional series of texts from Augustine posted with translation and brief commentary.

cum omnis vitae bonae ac beatae via in vera religione sit constituta, qua unus deus colitur, et purgatissima pietate cognoscitur principium naturarum omnium, a quo universitas et inchoatur et perficitur et continetur: hinc evidentius error deprehenditur eorum populorum, qui multos deos colere, quam unum verum deum et dominum omnium maluerunt, quod eorum sapientes, quos philosophos vocant, scholas habebant dissentientes et templa communia. non enim vel populos vel sacerdotes latebat, de ipsorum deorum natura quam diversa sentirent, cum suam quisque opinionem publice profiteri non formidaret, atque omnibus, si posset, persuadere moliretur; omnes tamen cum sectatoribus suis diversa et adversa sentientibus, ad sacra communia nullo prohibente veniebant. non nunc agitur, quis eorum verius senserit; sed certe illud satis, quantum mihi videtur, apparet, aliud eos in religione suscepisse cum populo, et aliud eodem ipso populo audiente defendisse privatim.

Since the path to the good and happy life is founded entirely in true religion, by which the one god is worshipped; by which with the most purified fidelity the foundation of all that comes to be is known (from which the universe takes its beginning, finds its completion, and is sustained) -- it is all the clearer how far astray people go when they prefer to worship many gods rather than the one true god and lord when you see how their wise men, whom they call philosophers, have different schools but the same temples. For neither priests nor people fail to observe how variously the philosophers think about the nature of the gods, since each one boldly professes his own opinion in public; but all of them, with their followers of every divergent and incompatible stripe, come to the common rites with no one to prevent them. It's not a question for now of which one has the truer opinion, but surely this is clear enough, it seems to me, that they accept one thing with the people in matters of religion and then defend something else off by themselves but in the presence of the same listening public.

It may seem obvious to moderns that a Christian writer of the fourth century should write a book about "true religion", for we are accustomed to think of religion as something that makes claims about historical and metaphysical realities inaccessible to other forms of knowing. Accordingly, there is something slightly disconcerting about the exposition here at the outset of one of Augustine's most fluent and commanding early works.

The de vera religione is the last work of Augustine's private life, written in 391 shortly before he was ordained a priest at Hippo. It expounds his views of the relations between faith and reason, to the advantage of the former. (See on this theme in the early Augustine R. Holte, Béatitude et Sagesse [Paris 1962].) The work is of considerable interest, especially when juxtaposed with the de utilitate credendi written shortly thereafter on a somewhat similar theme, but with -- to my eyes -- far less success.)

This paragraph had the effect of sending me not long ago to the CETEDOC CD database of patristic Latin, to look after the history of the idea that religio could be "true". To my surprise and interest, I find that the phrase is almost unexampled before Augustine. The only pre-Augustinian occurrences of the phrase that I find (in Tertullian, Cyprian and Novatian) clearly do not regard "vera" as denoting the doctrinal veracity of the cult, but the authenticity of the cult itself: the phrase would read more like "real religion" or "religion that does what it says it will". (This is the sense in which I would take a text pointed out to me by Andrew Wiesner: Lactantius, De Ira Dei 2.2: "Primus autem gradus est intellegere falsas religiones et abicere inpios cultus humana manu fabricatorum . . . ") When Augustine himself in City of God 10.3 says "hic est dei cultus, haec vera religio, haec recta pietas, haec tantum deo debita servitus" it must be argued that he is still using the phrase in that older sense. Where it is taken up after Augustine, it is in writers who have been reading Augustine (Quodvultdeus, Fulgentius, Primasius [all three Africans], Caesarius of Arles, Cassiodorus, Gregory the Great, Bede]). It is in Jerome a few times, but without close analysis of the texts it seems to me to be there in the older sense as well. (But that is also a reminder that "religio" for Augustine's world is distinctly "cult", that is to say, liturgical activity. I harp on this point too often for some tastes, but I think it central.) The extreme of clarity is reached in Eriugena, de divina praedestinatione 1, "conficitur igitur veram esse philosophiam veram religionem, conversimque veram religionem esse veram philosophiam." Cicero would have scratched his head over that sentence, I venture.

Such results need to be read with care, bearing in mind the limitations of such databases, the multiple ways in which the predication of "truth" can be made, and the invisibility of the everyday linguistic practice of the church that lay behind what surfaced in iceberg-tip texts. If we are to pursue the point interpretively, we might want to suggest that the emergence of a self-conscious community of producers of Christian texts as well as readers of the central scriptural texts was favorable to a religious movement's choosing to emphasize the textual accuracy of its documents and the relevance of the content of those documents to what was practiced in church. There is certainly something of this to be found in early Christianity, and there is certainly movement towards a more and more explicitly text-centered management of religious truth and practice.

But for the moment I prefer to stay with this text and its content, to explore the implicit audience for this opening. Observe the following: the link between happiness and goodness on the one hand and religious activity on the other: religio by which men colere god; the consequent link between purification and cult on the one hand and knowledge of truths about the world on the other; then the insistence on the logical connection between worship and teaching, an insistence expressed by noting the way the link is not made by the philosophers. The idea that scholae and templa ought to be concordant is Augustine's; but in various ways this text shows that his view is not transparent or obvious to his world. What emerges most clearly at the end of this text is that there is an important deeper structure than the easy modern juxtaposition of "philosophy" and "religion" (or as a maiden aunt of mine, back when they still had maiden aunts, earnestly asked me over the Thanksgiving table my freshman year in college, was my religion a religion of faith or a religion of reason?). For Augustine's world, the last sentence demonstrates that the real fault line separates public from private, community from individual. Cult is public and common and must be undertaken in unison. Doctrine is private, and divergence and contradiction permitted there. What you do is public, but what you think is private, and so no conflict is felt.

But, and this is my last point, there is a hint already of how Augustine can make his case stick. The last sentence again points to the blurring of that line. The philosophers defend their private opinions in what now to Augustine only too clearly appears as public: "eodem ipso populo audiente". The strategy for his case is to emphasize that the boundary between doing and thinking, between public and private, has already been ruptured, and that it is a simple matter to call people to account for the consistency of their beliefs and deeds.

That his argument seems to us somehow transparently true says something about how our world is different from the face-to-face world of antiquity and how the public/private dividing line (perhaps now almost about to collapse completely in post-electronic cyberspace and videospace) was differently drawn then. At any rate, we owe Cicero, I think, some apologies, for the blithe way in which we (by which I mean I) have teased him for indulging in public ritual superstitiously while going home privately to pooh-pooh it. Augustine's text here is a sharp reminder that it was possible to observe such behavior and find it perfectly reasonable and normal; and that Augustine's linkage of the two is the later, more idiosyncratic view. It was a very substantial hostage Augustine and his age gave to fortune, of course, for it is precisely on the grounds of truth that Christianity has been most vigorously opposed in modern times.

Posted October 1995

FOOTNOTE: George Lawless objected in a review of my commentary on the Confessions to my dismissal of de utilitate credendi and in my response I promised to revisit the topic. I have not yet done so formally, but a recent occasion to revisit the text left me still feeling strongly its defects. I do hope to get back to the subject.