In Book 5 of City of God, Augustine catalogs several instances of Romans (“who were good according to a certain standard of an earthly state,” 5.19) who performed glorious deeds. All of them did what they did for the sake of earthly, temporal glory and earthly, temporal rewards.
If men were willing to subject themselves to horrific physical punishment, act in courage and bravery, face down death and personal loss, all in order to receive a crown that perishes, then can those who do such things (even if they do them only because they are persecuted by another and therefore compelled to) with an eye to eternal felicity in the presence of God–a crown that does not perish, glory and blessedness that does not end–have any ground for boasting, any claim to have merited anything at God’s hand?
Augustine answers, “no.” Men have so acted for much less, and have received their deserved reward; and that reward is not heaven. 1
If Mucius, in order that peace might be made with King Porsenna, who was pressing the Romans with a most grievous war, when he did not succeed in slayingPorsenna, but slew another by mistake for him, reached forth his right hand and laid it on a red-hot altar, saying that many such as he saw him to be had conspired for his destruction, so that Porsenna, terrified at his daring, and at the thought of a conspiracy of such as he, without any delay recalled all his warlike purposes, and made peace—if, I say, Mucius did this, who shall speak of his meritorious claims to the kingdom of heaven, if for it he may have given to the flames not one hand, but even his whole body, and that not by his own spontaneous act, but because he was persecuted by another? If Curtius, spurring on his steed, threw himself all armed into a precipitous gulf, obeying the oracles of their gods, which had commanded that the Romans should throw into that gulf the best thing which they possessed, and they could only understand thereby that, since they excelled in men and arms, the gods had commanded that an armed man should be cast headlong into that destruction—if he did this, shall we say that that man has done a great thing for the eternal city who may have died by a like death, not, however, precipitating himself spontaneously into a gulf, but having suffered this death at the hands of some enemy of his faith, more especially when he has received from his Lord, who is also King of his country, a more certain oracle,Fear not them who kill the body, but cannot kill the soul?Matthew 10:28If the Decii dedicated themselves to death,consecrating themselves in a form of words, as it were, that falling, and pacifying by their blood the wrath of the gods, they might be the means of delivering the Roman army—if they did this, let not the holy martyrs carry themselves proudly, as though they had done some meritorious thing for a share in that country where are eternal life and felicity, if even to the shedding of their blood, loving not only the brethren for whom it was shed, but, according as had been commanded them, even their enemies by whom it was being shed, they have vied with one another in faith of love and love of faith. (City of God 5.18)
What is it that “collects citizens to the celestial country,” then? Augustine answers, “the remission of sins” (5.17).
E.J. Hutchinson is Assistant Professor of Classics at Hillsdale College.
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