Rome’s empire was collapsing. It had been a Christian empire for the better part of a century, but now the barbaric Goths were kicking in its doors. So Augustine tried to shore up the faith of his flock with a book he called The City of God.

Written more than 15 centuries ago, it is now an undisputed classic. Begun in 413 A.D. and appearing in installments over the next 13 years, Augustine’s masterpiece has spawned innumerable other books and articles since. Later philosophers and theologians have been deeply influenced by it, with its impact being felt from literature and historiography. Its greatest influence has been within the Christian church itself, as one might expect of a book written by a bishop who was a great theologian as well as philosopher and administrator.

It was written in response to a particular historical context. In 410 A.D., Alaric and his Goths, Germanic barbarians from the north, sacked Rome. Since Rome had been undisputed queen of civilization for a millennium, her fall shocked the ancient world. As Jerome put it, “The whole world perished in one city.” Josef Pieper notes, “To Augustine himself and to all with whom he dealt, Rome was nothing less than the symbol of order in the world.” Many blamed Christianity for Rome’s fall, suggesting that the pagan gods were angry because Christianity had been promoted by the empire. Augustine’s answer was The City of God.

The book covers an astonishing range of topics. As one might expect from its title, it contrasts “the City of God” with “the city of men.” But it also deals with creation, time, the origin of evil, human freedom, divine knowledge of the future, the resurrection of the body, final judgement, happiness, the Incarnation, sin, grace, and forgiveness ...

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