Sunday, 12 December 2010


Peter Iver Kaufman's 1994 essay 'Augustine, Martyrs, and Misery' starts with a nice line from Augustine's Sermones (105:7:10):
Augustine said that Rome fell frequently, all too often into "utter moral depravity," occasionally into the hands of the city's enemies. Maybe Aeneas was to blame. He had shown poor judgment, hauling to Italy the gods that failed to save Troy. Subsequently, when the Gauls came to Rome's gates, those divine and purportedly vigilant protectors did remarkably little protecting. They later offered no resistance when Nero reduced Rome to rubble. Augustine held Aeneas's eulogist responsible for the terribly inflated expectations that made the city's humiliations all the more demoralizing; Virgil misled citizens, suggesting that Rome would stand forever. Christians should have known better. They had it on higher authority that heaven and earth would pass away.
I like this: the idea that the penates were 'failed gods', because they had not prevented the destruction of Troy (where Christ, who failed to prevent the destruction of Jerusalem is ...?) Or maybe there's something else going on here. The penates were 'originally the tutelary deities of the storeroom, Latin penus, the innermost part of the house, where they guarded the household's food, wine, oil, and other supplies. Cicero explained that they "dwell inside, from which they are also called penetrales by the poets. The 2nd-century A.D. grammarian Festus defined penus, however, as "the most secret site in the shrine of Vesta, which is surrounded by curtains." Macrobius reports the theological view of Varro that "those who dig out truth more diligently have said that the Penates are those through whom we breathe in our inner core (penitus), through whom we have a body, through whom we possess a rational mind."' In other words, the gods who failed were the inward gods, the gods of interiority, of consciousness. The God who succeeded, in Augustinian idiom, was the exterior God of outside judgment. There's a moral there, I suspect.

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