Re: What to read before reading 'the City of God' by St. Augustine?
You really don't need any of it. The only really necessary work to read before the City of God is the Confessions, but one should also have an understanding of Platonic, and especially Neo-Platonic, philosophy. For that reason I recommend a cursory reading, at the least of the Enneads of Plotinus, and the Republic and Timaeus of Plato (in reverse order). To place events in a temporal context, knowing a bit of Church History and the doctrinal controversies and heresies that he argues against can be useful, but is far from necessary (especially as the City of God isn't mainly arguing against heresies).
When reading the City of God, I think it is best to skip the first ten books at first, which have little relevance to the modern world, at least on the surface, and are, by and large, an historical relic, and skip straight to book eleven. If you want to know why, read a few pages of one of the first ten books. It's all "background information", and very historically-centered - it may be of more interest to the history student than to the theologian, for there is where he defines the "City of Man" in opposition to the "City of God".
He deals with mythology little, even in the first ten books, but with Neo-Platonism very much. The learning of Greco-Roman mythology is going to be of no benefit when reading Augustine, and of negative benefit when one considers the need to familiarize oneself with the seminal influence on his thought - the Enneads - in the same amount of time. That's nothing against Homer or Virgil: it's just that Homer and Virgil really don't matter, and Plato and Plotinus do. (Just as one would read Aristotle before St Thomas Aquinas, but not Hesiod.)
The Confessions isn't directly related to it, but can serve to ease you in to the Doctor of Grace's style without "jumping in the deep end" (say, the same way as you wouldn't start reading Tom Wright with "Christian Origins and the Question of God" if you had no theological training or knowledge of ecclesiastical history).
So, a cursory reading list (which differs greatly depending on your areas of interest and your previous knowledge, so I'm going to "bare-bones" it so you can trace the trajectory of thought is:
1. Timaeus - Plato
2. Republic - Plato
3. Enneads - Plotinus (try to get an abridged version or read extracts, as Plotinus is longer than the Old Testament)
4. Confessions - Augustine
5. City of God Books 11-22 - Augustine
6. City of God, first ten books - Augustine (if you want)
One could cut out Plato if one had no interest in tracing the trajectory of Platonic thought, but only the proximate causes of Augustine's own thought (in which case reading the anti-Manichaean writings, "Christian Doctrine", "On the Trinity", and some of his homilies/Scriptural commentaries [in the Fathers, commentary and homily were very often one and the same thing] before one reads De Civitate may be useful).
You need to understand Plotinus to understand Augustine's thought. Period. According to his own words, Augustine was converted to Christianity by reading the Enneads. Also, reading the Confessions first helps put in your mind the idea of the development of Augustine's thought - De Civitate was his ultimate work, his magnum opus, and thus is the pinnacle of his thought; it does not situate itself within the context of Augustine's life or religious life (for that reason I also recommend reading some of his homilies, Christian Doctrine, or The Trinity as well). An understanding of Manichaeism, from his anti-Manichaean writings, is also valuable, as Augustine was a Manichee for several formative years before he became a Catholic.
Reading Ammianus Marcellinus (a Roman historian) situates Augustine in his proper historical context, although it doesn't deal with Christianity (it's a history of the twilight years of the Western Empire; one could also read the appropriate volume of Warren Carroll's History of Christendom), and reading a history of doctrine, such as that presented by Jaroslav Pelikan's "The Emergence of the Catholic Tradition AD 100-600" (volume 1 of 5 of "A History of Christian Doctrine") situates him in the midst of the theological battles being fought and the philosophical currents of the time, in a historical manner (i.e. without actually elucidating or teaching the doctrines).
However, all of that is extra reading: it will enhance what you take from the book, and your understanding of it, but by no means is necessary. Ancient mythology actually won't increase your understanding of the material or enable you to take more away from it. Plotinus will increase your understanding and ability to read profitably most of all. Reading it in historical context will add something - a concreteness, a temporal situating - and take away something else, the feeling that one gets when reading theological works of any age, of timeless ideas floating around in some Third Realm, battling it out, with no reference to the temporal order or the affairs of mere mortals.
Study to shew thyself approved unto God, a workman that needeth not to be ashamed, rightly dividing the word of truth. - II Timothy 2:15
Above all things Truth beareth away the victory: ... great is Truth, mighty above all things. - III Esdras 3:12,4:41
Last edited by Khalid; May 1, '12 at 6:36 pm.