Hanging Out in the Civitas Signae:
An HTMLodrama in 3 Acts and 47 URLs

Gary Shank
Department of Foundations and Leadership
Duquesne University
Pittsburgh, PA 15282

Paper prepared for a WWW page in conjunction with a
Symposium for SIG: Semiotics in Education
AERA Annual Meeting
Chicago, IL
March 1997

Act I: De Civitas Dei

"This work which I have begun makes good my promise. . . In it, I am undertaking nothing less than the task of defending the glorious City of God against those who prefer their own gods to the Founder." (Augstine, 426/1958: p. 39)

With these words, Augustine begins the 22 book masterpiece which will take him 14 years to complete; the De Civitate Dei, or the City of God. As Etienne Gilson points out in his Foreword to the 1958 Image Books translation of the City of God, Augustine is responding to the most momentous act in the "seam" between late antiquity and the medieval period:

"On August 24, 410, Alaric entered Rome, and, although a Christian, pillaged the city for a period of three days. On the fourth day, his troops left the city, carrying off vast booty and leaving a mass of corpses and ruins." (Gilson, 1958: p. 16)

Beyond the simple physicial actions, there was a greater allegorical aspect to Alaric's deeds:

"Such a lesson is not easily forgotten. The capture of Rome by the barbarians made a deep impression on the entire Empire. The endless polemics between Christians and pagans increased in violence and bitterness.... The Empire had become Christian and it was during the reign of a Christian emperor that Rome, for the first time in her long history, was conquered and sacked. How could anyone fail to understand a lesson so tragically clear?" (Gilson, 1958: p. 16)

Augustine spent fourteen years, from 412 to 426 (from the age of 59 to the age of 72) writing the City of God to answer the charge that Rome had brought about its destruction by embracing Christianity and turning away from its old gods (who had presumably protected the Republic and then the Empire for centuries). In the first five books, Augustine argues against the claim that there is any evidence that the pagan gods helped make Rome great (assuming that they even existed). The greatness of pagan Rome Augustine defined as an act of the grace of providence helping bring about the Christian empire of the latter days of antiquity. In books 6 through 8, Augustine examines the philosophical and theological foundations of paganism, and finds them seriously wanting. By the ninth book, though, his purpose begins to shift. He spends the bulk of this book comparing the Christian concept of angels with the ways and doings of demons. He is beginning to set up a vision of what the heavenly kingdom must look like, and how it is reflected on the earth. In book 10, he summarizes with a comparison of Christian worship to Platonic theology. Finally, at the end of book 10, Augustine seems to feel that he has made the claim that Christianity is not to blame for the fall of Rome, and that we need to move on to bigger and better things:

"In these ten Books, perhaps, I may not have lived up to the expectations of all, but, to the extent that the true God and Lord has deigned to help me, I have satisfied some, at least of my refutation of the objections of the pagans who prefer their own gods to the Founder of the holy City, which I undertook to discuss. The first five of these ten Books were directed against those who think that the gods should be worshipped for the sake of the goods of this life, and the following five against those who believe that the gods should be worshipped for the sake of the life after death. My next task is to keep the promise made in Book I and, with God's help, to discuss all that seems necessary concerning the origin, progress, and appropriate ends of these two cities which are inextricably intermingled, as I have said, in the concrete reality of history." (Augustine, 426/1958: p.204)

In Books 11 through 14, Augustine describes the origins of the two cities:

"God was not unaware that man would sin and, being subjected to death, would propagate mortals destined to die; and that these mortals would go so far in the monstrousness of sin that even the beasts without power of rational choice... would live more securely and peacefully among their own kind than men.... However, God also foresaw that a community of saints would be called to supernatural adoption... and finally be united with the holy angels in eternal peace so that, at last, the enemy death will be destroyed." (Augustine, 426/1958: pp. 262-263)

According to Augustine, when Adam and Eve disobeyed God they realized the split that God had already anticipated. This realization then created a love of the pleasures of the flesh and a propensity to die; not just at an individual level, but at the level of entire cultures and societies:

"This is the reason why, for all the difference of the many and very great nations throughout the world in religion and morals, language, weapons, and dress, there exist no more than the two kinds of society, which, according to our Scriptures, we have rightly called the two cities. One city is that of men who live according to the flesh, the other is of men who live according to the spirit. Each of them chooses his own kind of peace and, when they attain what they desire, each lives in the peace of his own choosing." (Augustine, 426/1958: P. 295)

At this point, we have the two cities: the Civitas Dei or the City of God and the Civitas Mundi, or the City of the World. Augustine traces the historical development of these cities in Books 15 through 18. Finally, he completes his vision of the two cities in the final four books. The Civitas Mundi, whose ruler ultimately is the Devil, is destroyed in the Last Judgment, and the saints who live in the Civitas Dei are rewarded with everlasting life.

Augustine seems to finally be saying that the fall of Rome was a blessing in disguise, because it allowed for the building of a society which was truly Christian and pointed toward the heavenly City, rather than having to remodel an earthly empire whose foundations were grounded in the very mantle of the worldly City. It is no exaggeration to hold that De Civitas Dei is nothing less than a blueprint of the evolution of Christendom which would serve as the foundation of Western civilization for the next thousand years. Another way to look it is to say that the fall of Rome signaled the end of the Age of Antiquity. In the face of the collapse of an old and venerated Age, a sense of dread grips an entire society. Scapegoats are sought out; in this case, the Christians. But Augustine understood that the end of an Age is the inevitable beginning of another Age. So, master rhetorician that he was, he turned the attack against Christianity by the dying advocates of both the Empire and more importantly the Age, into a chance to map out the birth of a new Age which genuinely turned to his beloved Christianity as the keystone.

Act II: Hanging out.....

When I was growing up in Charleston, West Virginia in the 50s and 60s, the only game in town was hydrocarbons. A parade of barges laden with crushed coal navigated the Kanawha River, docking at the numerous chemical plants and unloading their cargo of raw ore. These plants, from Union Carbide in Belle through Dupont and FMC and Monsanto and Union Carbide again in South Charleston all the way to Nitro, some fifty miles of plants strung along the narrow river valleys and islands of the Kanawha, turned this coal into nylon and antifreeze and explosives and plastics.

They also turned the air into an ammoniac-smelling soot that irritated the sinuses and sifted down on windless days to coat windshields like a light dusting of black powder snow. But the ever-present grit and the faint odor of the inside of a diaper pail also meant work, jobs, and prosperity. Amazingly, these jobs had not even existed prior to the invention of chemical manufacturing from raw materials.

We also looked through the soot and smog to the skies. Echo, the shiny mylar ball launched into orbit, could be seen as a moving bright spot of light in the evening sky. Other unexplained bright lights in places like Lubbock and Mount Rainier were causing people to wonder if we were the only creatures in the cosmos trying to leave the bounds of their own planets. A week of chores for my ailing grandmother would net me a dollar or two every Saturday, which I would then take to the Arcade Newsstand or Major's Bookstore downtown, and convert into several science fiction paperbacks.

Science fiction was the holy scripture of my childhood. My parents never bothered with church or seeing that my brothers and I received any religious education. But we were instilled with the virtues of learning and getting an education, and when I showed some interest in science, mainly via science fiction, that interest was nurtured even when it strained our meager financial resources. I may have had only two pair of pants and one pair of shoes at any given time, but I had a chemistry set and subscriptions to science fiction book clubs and magazines. My uncle contributed to my cause by giving me several hundred of his old pulp magazines from the 30s and 40s. These dusty old magazines made me sneeze and gave me an allergic rash, but I poured over them nonetheless.

Never was the Civitas Scientiae, or the City of Science, more fully realized than in the pages of these early pulp magazines and paperbacks. If you did not belong to this magical world of the science fiction fan, you were a member of the "mundane" world. So, when I grew to be a young man, I put aside my childish desires and manfully enrolled at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute to pursue a degree in Chemistry and to eventually take my place as an organic chemist, hopefully at the Tech Center for Union Carbide in South Charleston. Oddly enough, I also quit reading science fiction at about the same time.....

When I came out of the other side of engineering school with a degree in Psychology, not Chemistry, I realized that I had always been fascinated with people and their strangenesses. The bizarre landscapes of the alien worlds, and the odd shambling gaits of alien creatures were simply mirrors for the vast and endless fascination of discovery to be found in the human psyche. I moved into the Civitas Scientiae at its furthest outpost -- the study of the human mind trying to educate other human minds.

Living in an outpost has its charms, but it is more frustrating than anything else. For one thing, you don't have the tools to do what you need to do. Astronomers, for example, have the Hubble Telescope, but what do we have, as educational researchers, that allows us to look deep into our fields of vision? I remember how excited I was to finally discover semiotics, and to realize that this discipline would finally allow me to conduct systematic empirical inquiry into the nature of meaning. Suddenly, I felt like a genuine scientist. Except that I also reluctantly had to admit that this particular form of empirical inquiry was not scientific.

Act III: Moving to the Civitas Signae

Augustine would recognize many of the dynamics of our time. We are living at the time of the dying of the Age of Science. The Civitas Scientiae is starting to collapse. And just as when the high tide finally peaks and recedes and leaves first that stretch of beach it last touched upon, the Age of Science is receding first in the area of the human and social studies.

The Civitas Scientiae has never been too comfortable with the denizens from education, and the trench warriors of the battle to educate our young have never really trusted the educational researcher to make the war any easier.

After a life-long commitment to science, first through scientific romance, and then through training and finally practice, I am personally ready to call it quits. I am not a scientist, have never been a scientist really, and never will be a scientist. I am an empirical researcher in education and a semiotician and a qualitative methodologist.

Instead of hanging around the fringe of the Civitas Scientiae as we have always done, I am inviting my fellow educational researchers to come and move in with us in the Civitas Signae, the City of Signs. While the Age of Science was wonderful while it lasted, the future for us is in helping to lay the groundwork for the Age of Meaning.

I have written on these matters online, and in journals and books (see the Bibliographic Resources for some of my more relevant contributions); I invite you to check out these thoughts and reply to me at: shank@duq.edu.

Bibliographic Resources

Augustine (426/1958). City of God. (Trans. by G. G. Walsh, D. M. Zema, G. Monahan & D. J. Honan). Garden City, NY: Image Books.

Cunningham, D.J. & Shank, G. (in press). Semiotics, an introduction. To appear in Opcion.

Gilson, E. (1958). Foreword. In City of God, Augustine (Trans. by G. G. Walsh, D. M. Zema, G. Monahan & D. J. Honan). Garden City, NY: Image Books, 13-35.

Shank, G. (in press). Qualitative research, semiotics, North Beach, South of Market, Jack London, and The Grateful Dead. To appear in Signification and Communication.

Shank, G. (in press). Using abductive reasoning in educational research: The legacy of Peirce's ten classes of signs. To appear in MPES Proceedings: 1993-1994.

Shank, G. (1996). If O-ring booster seals were alive. Mind, Culture, and Activity, 3(3), 203-212.

Shank, G. (1995). Collaborating with old dead medieval guys. Cat's Cradle, 1(1), 6.

Shank, G. (1994). Shaping qualitative research in educational psychology. Contemporary Educational Psychology, 19, 340-359.

Shank, G. (1992). Educational semiotics: Threat or menace? Educational Psychology Review, 4, 195-210.

Shank, G. (1990). Qualitative vs. quantitative research: A semiotic non-problem. In Semiotics:1989, T. Prewitt, J. Deely, & K. Haworth (Eds.). Washington, DC: University Press of America, 264-270.

Shank, G. (1988). Three into two will go: The juxtapositional method of research in empirical semiotics. In Semiotics: 1987, J. Deely (Ed.). Washington, DC: University Press of America, 123-127.

Shank, G. (1987). Abductive strategies in educational research. American Journal of Semiotics, 5(2), 275-290.

Shank, G. & Cunningham, D.J. (1996). Mediated phosphor dots: Toward a Post-Cartesian model of computer mediated communication via the semiotic superhighway. In C. Ess (Ed.), Philosophical Issues in Computer-Mediated Communication. Albany, NY: SUNY Press, 27-41.

Shank, G. & Cunningham, D. (1992). The virtues of an educational semiotic. Midwest Educational Researcher, 5(2), 2-8.

Shank, G, Ross, J.M., Covalt, W., Terry, S. & Weiss, E. (1994) Improving creative thinking using instructional technology: computer-aided abductive reasoning. Educational Technology, 34(9), 33-42.

Skaggs, S. & Shank, G. (in press). Codification and inference in verbal communication. To appear in Zed 4.

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