Ramblings about Augustine and history

(Wednesday I was advised about classes for the spring. Deo volente, I’ll be graduated from college with a Bachelor’s of Arts in Creative Writing in December next year. Which means I have to stop avoiding a decision about graduate school. And with the way Of the North has been, I’m not so sure about Realm Makers next year. . . maybe the year after? We shall see.)

A few weeks ago for Historiography we read a bit of the City of God. The teacher said that with S. Augustine living during “a crucial time” in Christian history (I wondered if the pun was intentional, but didn’t ask), with debates over fundamental doctrines such as the Trinity, the fact that he titled this book De Civitate Dei contra paganos is of note. (Had I known at the time that four days later I’d be listening to Mormons dividing the Trinity’s essence, I might have taken more note of it.) It’s a bit of a pity I discovered such a good teacher here so soon before I leave.

I found it entertaining that Augustine spends quite a bit of time establishing that the earth was not quite six thousand years old. The pagan idea of history was that it went in circles, with things repeating themselves every so often, including the beginning and ending of the world. Augustine shreds the position to pieces, and I wonder what he would have done with theistic evolution. A slow process of things evolving and dying off again sounds a bit too close to the cycles in which the world comes into existence and fails again. Creation, Augustine says, marks a definite point where things began to be, which exactly contradicts the neverending cycles.

This idea changes the way we look at history. If, like the Greeks, we believe history repeats itself (human nature being unchanging), then the purpose of history is to provide moral lessons, so we can learn from our mistakes and lessen our chances of repeating them. Perhaps. But, human nature being unchanging, and it being the habit of humans in the past to ignore those lessons, we’re pretty much doomed to repeat history. This kind of thing makes the historian’s job pretty hopeless, and perhaps that’s why Thucydides said he would write about neither gods nor heroes.

If the world has a beginning point, and a middle point, and an ending is foretold, then, if the rules of logic apply at all, it can’t go in circles forever. In fact, it can’t go in circles at all with the middle point Augustine has in mind. Everything comes either before or after it. It’s unrepeatable. In the words of Chesterton, “The cross is the crux of the whole matter.”

Not that this view, which our teacher calls the linear view of history (and said still influences the way people think about history even when they’ve tried to disassociate themselves from the Christian worldview in other ways), was original with Augustine. For the class before that one, we read some of Daniel and Revelation, which unsurprisingly have the same view of history coming to a definite and certainly unprecedented end. And not that Daniel was the first person ever to hear the idea either. From the protoevangelium in Genesis we can pretty easily figure out that this view was foreknown (divine passive) and made known to men pretty early on in history — the third chapter, in fact. The professor said you can make a good argument that some people held, or were given enough evidence to hold (if they read it right), the linear view of history, before Daniel.

Once the Christian view of history is in place, the dating system changes drastically — from being “in the second year of so-and-so being proconsul”, it’s “In this number of years before (or after) Christ’s birth”. One of the interesting things about Bede is that in the correspondence with Rome that he reproduces he includes subscriptions which often are in “in the second year of so-and-so the Emperor” form, but the heading of the year is always Anno Domini.

The teacher began class by saying the average American high school idea of history is that the Greeks were pretty smart, invented philosophy and things, then the Romans took over and were more interested in fighting than thinking, then Christianity took over and made everybody stupid, crushed science, kept people from asking questions, wouldn’t educate anybody, was afraid of people thinking, and then we had the Enlightenment and the Greeks were rediscovered and now we have America. It was funnier when he said it.

And everyone knows that Columbus sailed around the world and discovered that it was round, because nobody knew it before, because the Church suppressed science.


Except that Bede, a Church-educated monk in the eighth century, who if all that was true would be the person you’d expect to be the best example of the Church holding the world in darkness, said England was close to the pole. What good is a pole at the top of the world if the world is flat?

Except that Bede wrote in Latin. That he looked critically at sources and didn’t accept testimony simply because it was written down.

That he believed in miracles doesn’t make him a bad historian, either.


About Nolie Alcarturiel

Creative Writing major and Philosophy minor, contemplating a Master's degree in Medieval History. I enjoy practically anything to do with medieval history, including the domestic arts, with an especial emphasis on the Anglo-Saxon Era. In my spare time I read endlessly, do medieval living-history, hold philosophical debates at the drop of a hat, and write books on even slighter provocation.
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2 Responses to Ramblings about Augustine and history

  1. I’m glad to hear about your teacher. Perhaps the frustrations at the first bring greater appreciation of the present. In any case, that’s definitely the drum beat I heard through much of high school, even in junior high, as a 14-year-old boy, for that matter. I remember the irritation I felt, not only in hearing wrong history, but also toward the scornfulness that was so evident in the teacher’s delivery. Thankfully, we did have some bright spots.

    Good point about Bede and the pole.


    • The point about the pole was the teacher’s. I didn’t even connect the two facts when I read that part.

      Such ignorance persists even in some college professors — I’ve got one this semester who said the church practiced circumcision in the 18th century. It does make one appreciate the good teachers more, and wish there were even more of them.


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