Sunday, November 4, 2012

Augustine and Varro

I like parallel historical charts. I still get out the old Timetables of History sometimes, even now in the internet age, and pore over its pages. Historical narrative should make connections and draw conclusions, but the Timetables make no point other than that certain events took place in the same year. Beyond that, it leaves me the freedom to look for my own patterns and causes.

In book XVIII of The City of God, Augustine offers his own parallel history by aligning the timelines of the two societies, or “cities,” that form his subject: the people of God and the kingdom of earthly power. I was interested and a little surprised to see that he centered earthly power before Rome in the Assyrians, skipping the Greeks entirely. But his argument has some sense: the Assyrian empire was larger than that of the Greeks and lasted much longer. We just know more about Greek civilization, he says, because they had good writers. With this view in mind, Augustine records which Assyrian kings ruled during the time of Abraham, the time of Moses, and so on. Unlike The Timetables of History, however, Augustine notes at least one significant pattern in the parallel tracks: God gave Abraham promises and a covenant at the time of the founding of Assyria, and then through the great prophets whose canonized words fill the last portion of the Hebrew scriptures, He spoke of the new covenant, just at the time of the founding of Rome. I’m more reluctant than Augustine to declare the divine purpose in history with any certitude, but the great African saint sees the coincidences as a sign that God knows where earthly power will reside and anticipates its rise with fresh presentations of his offer to reject the world.

Augustine performed his synchronic alignment without a visually helpful chart, and in fact without numbered years. He cites as the source of all his information the Roman writer Varro, who recorded the dates of his history according to the names of the consuls in power for any given year. After reading about Varro’s method, I wondered how he thought he could know the dates of Assyrian kings living before the days of Roman consular elections. I also read with great interest and curiosity about Varro’s accounts of the historical humans behind the legends of the Egyptian, Greek, and Roman gods: the real Isis, the real Mercury, and so on. Augustine sometimes a proper skepticism of the reliability of source texts, but he takes Varro’s word as fact. And so naturally I got interested in reading Varro’s original account and learning more details about what he believed about pre-Roman history and the origins of the gods.

In looking him up, though, I quickly learned to my great disappointment that most of Varro’s works, including the history that Augustine depended on, have been lost. Aaak! How could the course of events do this to me? Just last month I read in Durant of the Renaissance scholars who, excited by the ancient Greek texts recently made available to them, got interested in ancient Latin works as well and started digging through local monasteries. Their searches recovered (what a strange word – shouldn’t that be “reuncovered”?) Quintilian, Cicero’s letters, six books of Tacitus, and many other classics. The Benedictines may have become uninterested in ancient Roman literature by the fifteenth century, but their brothers from an earlier era were the ones who carefully copied all these works and deposited them in their libraries to begin with. Knowing of that history makes me think that if Augustine had access to Varro’s history in the fifth century, it probably still exists on some forgotten shelf in some monastery. But, alas, for now at least, the book remains a gossamer wisp in the imagination, as shadowy as the true identities of Perseus and Andromeda.

P. S. Thanks to those monks who copied Latin, the Renaissance scholars who found a lot of the works, and Merriam-Webster online, I’ve uncovered the source of “recovered” and discovered a distinction that makes sense of the word. It seems that while most English appearances of the combination c-o-v-e-r come from cooperire, to close or overspread or hide, the last five letters in “recover” come from capere, to take. So recovering an ancient manuscript (not to be confused with recovering a worn chair) is not to hide it again but to take it again.

No comments:

Post a Comment