In commenting on Psalm 47.14 (48.13), ponite corda vestra in virtute eius (“place your hearts in its [Zion’s] strength”), Augustine startlingly says the following:
Quae est virtus civitatis huius? Qui vult intellegere virtutem huius civitatis, intellegat vim caritatis. 1 Ipsa est virtus quam nemo vincit. Huius ignem nulli fluctus saeculi, nulla flumina tentationis exstinguunt. De hac dictum est: Valida est sicut mors dilectio. Quomodo enim mors quando venit, resisti ei non potest, quibuslibet artibus, quibuslibet medicamentis occurras; violentiam mortis vitare non potest, qui mortalis natus est: sic contra violentiam caritatis mundus nil potest. A contrario enim similitudo data est de morte; quomodo enim mors ad auferendum violentissima est, sic caritas violentissima est ad salvandum. Per caritatem enim multi mortui sunt saeculo, ut viverent Deo.
What is the strength of this city? He who wishes to understand the strength of this city should understand the the violence of love. For this is the strength that no on can conquer. No waves of the world, no rivers of temptation put out its fire. About this it is said: “Love is as strong as death.” For just as death, when it comes, cannot be resisted, no matter what skills, what medicines you hit upon–he who is born mortal cannot avoid the violence of death–so, against the violence of love the world can do nothing. For the simile concerning death is given by way of a contrary: for just as death is most violent for bearing away, so love is most violent for saving. For through love many have died to the world, so that they might live for God. 2
Why is love “most violent”? Because it has the most force, the most power, for achieving its end. But this is a paradox: violence is normally used for death, for the taking away of life (or for things that tend thereto). Augustine has ironically reversed this: now power is used to give life for the overcoming of death. However deep death’s fangs sink into its pray, the divine love is stronger. Death destroys, but love heals and makes well. Being and restoration conquer non-being and dissolution.
E.J. Hutchinson is Assistant Professor of Classics at Hillsdale College.
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