Heaven, hell and pagan bashing


November 26, 1999

Augustine's The City of God is an unwieldy monster of a text. Here its 22 books appear in one volume of 1,243 pages in a series in the History of Political Thought. Given the fact that it surveys the history of ancient religion and philosophy in undermining the pagans, proceeds to detail the course of Christianity from creation to heaven and hell, and was a seminal text for the Middle Ages, it might equally well have appeared in a series of ancient history, classical philosophy, medieval or theological texts, and will certainly be of use to students in these, and related, disciplines.

It is rather surprising, that, although The City of God 's wide-ranging influence and continuing interest matches its size, it has not found many translators. R. W. Dyson is the first since the publication of H. Bettenson's Penguin Classics volume 14 years ago and supersedes it in historical accuracy, clarity and faithfulness to the text. The only other real alternatives are the perfectly adequate but less accessible editions in the series edited by M. Dods (1872-8) and the seven-volume Loeb parallel-text edition (1957-72).

Dyson's wonderfully lucid, carefully literal and historically sensitive translation of this all too frequently difficult, obscure, ambiguous and wayward text makes this the edition that most readers will now choose to consult. Dyson provides a very useful biography of all non-biblical names and an introduction of sound and masterly concision but the severe limitations on space, especially for notes (which are generally confined to references), means that it will need to be supplemented by the reader in order to be understood in an informed way.

We must be grateful for this excellent new translation but what we now need is a companion volume of commentary.

Carol Harrison is lecturer in the history and theology of the Latin West, University of Durham.

Augustine: The City of God Against the Pagans. First Edition

Editor - R. W. Dyson
ISBN - 0 521 468 434
Publisher - Cambridge University Press
Price - £15.95
Pages - 1,243

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