Augustine’s Archetypes (still cleaning up after joey c)

I came across an interesting passage in Augustine’s City of God recently, and I wanted to commit a bit of time to it. He’s talking about Cain, who is, Biblically, the founder of the first human city, Enoch. Here’s the passage in full:

“The first founder of the earthly city was, as we have seen, a fratricide; for, overcome by envy, he slew his own brother, a citizen of the Eternal City, on pilgrimage in this world. Hence it is no wonder that long afterwards this first precedent – what the Greeks call an archetype – was answered bya kind of reflection, by an event of the same kind at the founding of the city which was to be the capital of the earthly city of which we are speaking” (XV, 5).

Let’s start with some context. The central image of Augustine’s City of God is two cities – the titular City of God, and its dark shadow, the earthly city. Even though this might seem like dualism, it’s not. The City of God is basically the Church – it’s populated by people who abide by God’s will and are generally good people. The earthly city is full of people who’re more interested in pleasing themselves than in doing what’s right – while the two are not mutually exclusive, of course, this is kinda the fundamental concept of good and evil in Christianity. There’s those who live by God’s standard, which is Goodness Itself, and there’s those who do not: “So when [humanity] lives by the standard of truth [they] live not by [their] own standard but by God’s” (XIV, 4). Obviously this leads into all sorts of interesting avenues, because people say “Oh, I want to be a good person”, and logically it would seem that if they are in fact truly good, as so many non-religious people are, then they are living not by their own standard but by God’s even if that’s not how they understand it. Anyway, we’re not talking about that.

So there’s the earthly city and the City of God, the Eternal City. Augustine’s kind of playing around here, because he describes the builder of the first literal earthly city (Cain, Enoch) as the builder of the metaphorical earthly city (that is, the not-City of God one). That’s not entirely accurate, because obviously Adam and Eve got to sinning before Cain, but I think we can allow Augustine his poetic license. So Cain builds the first earthly city, the first monument to self, and then – this is the interesting bit – Augustine says that there’s an echo, an archetype going on. Obviously Augustine’s not talking about Jungian archetypes (because that’s ahistorical, dummy), so put that aside, because we’re not talking about that either. He refers to the term as a Greek one, and I think (I’m not sure) it comes from Plato’s Republic.

Basically it ties into Plato’s theory of forms, which we’ve talked about in brief before. The archetype is the pattern, the fundamental shared characteristics of two similar things which point towards the abstracted realm of forms, where the true essence of those things resides. Think about it this way: there is the abstract essence of chair, and then there are lots of chairs in the real world, all of which possess characteristics derived from the one true chair-essence. These derived characteristics, shared by all chairs in existence, make up the pattern or archetype. It’s how you know that a chair is a chair – it has archetypal chair characteristics.

Anyway – so Augustine’s basically saying that Cain building the city of Enoch has archetypal similarities to the foundation of Rome, with Romulus and Remus: “this first precedent… was answered by a kind of reflection”. Cain kills his brother Abel and founds the city of Enoch; Romulus kills his brother Remus and founds the city of Rome. Note: Augustine’s basically treating R&R as historical, in much the same way as he’s treating C&A as historical. We’ll come back to that soon. This is really interesting though, because it implies that there are certain spiritual fundamentals (such as disobedience to God, the construction of the earthly city, etc) that produce ripples, as it were, in the physical realm. This is pretty much just straight Platonism. There’s also this narrative element to the whole affair – there’s a set of common characteristics. A brother kills a brother and founds an earthly city. By this stage the Jungian psychologists are straining at their leashes, and even Joseph Campbell’s figured out what’s up.

I think the argument Augustine’s making is that indicators of our spiritual condition can be found in certain repeating patterns throughout history. This isn’t an entirely new idea – early Christians saw many Old Testament events as prefiguring those of the New Testament – specifically the life and legacy of Christ. The Gospel of Matthew has a bunch of this – he’s always saying things like “All this took place to fulfill what the Lord had said through the prophets” (Matt 1:22, 2:6, 2:15, 2:18…). But this one with Romulus is interesting, because it’s drawing in events that lie well outside the realm of Judeo-Christian heritage. That becomes particularly significant when you start contesting the historicity of these foundation stories.

Let’s not bicker about archeological evidence and creationism, because I find it entirely uninteresting. Let’s say, for the sake of the argument, that these are just stories, and that God set the evolutionary clock ticking and cultures and people eventually formed out of amoeba or dust or whatever. Whatever. If that’s the case, and if these cultures (Jewish and Roman) developed these stories independently (unlikely, as they’re both running around the Mediterranean), then it’s entirely possible to argue that all humanity shares a similar spiritual consciousness, an awareness of the fallen spiritual state of humanity and the need for redemption. This would strengthen the idea that we talked about at the start of this piece: the idea that people can commit to God and be good people and live good lives without having any idea of who Jesus is (or indeed even who God is). It’s contentious, and it would seem to go against Christ’s statement that “nobody comes to the Father except through me”, but I’m not putting it forward as a fully fleshed theological argument for the salvation of those who are not formally inducted into Christianity. I just think it’s interesting.

And then suddenly Jung and the Wild Hunt come crashing through the window and storm around the place, tearing all the upholstery and thundering up and down the stairs, and poor old Joseph lumbers in behind them and has a confused widdle on the carpet before colliding with a rabid frothy Jungian and forgetting why he was here in the first place.


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