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St. Augustine on The City of Man

September 16, 2022

In 410 A.D., Rome had been invaded by the Goths led by Alaric, a Christian. The“pagan”non-Christian citizens of Rome blamed the Christians for the fall of Rome, and in reply to this slander, Augustine wrote The City of God.

His immediate purpose was to defend the Christian religion from an unjust charge, and this he accomplished with great skill. By identifying Christianity with the city of God he rhetorically analyzed the complete bankruptcy of classical culture as the city of man. St. Augustine had shifted the critics of Christianity on to indefensible ground.

St. Augustine’s concept of the city of man was not, as the title of his work suggests, his chief focus, rather, it was a necessity of the inner logic of his defense: “. . . as the plan of this work we have undertaken requires, and as occasion offers, we must speak also of the earthly city.”

Nevertheless, a survey of Augustine’s investigation of the concepts of peace, happiness, and virtue will serve to show the depth of his critique of the pagans and the consequences of that critique for politics in the West.

The peace which the city of man “desires cannot justly be said to be evil, for it is itself, in its own kind, better than all other human good.”  It desires this peace “for the sake of enjoying earthly goods.” It has existence, and though it is perverted it “must of necessity be in harmony with, and in dependence on, and in some part of the order of things.” That the peace of the earthly city is perverted, however, and cannot “be called peace in comparison with the pace of the just,”  seems obvious to Augustine who refers to this earthly peace as having “vied with war in cruelty and surpassed it: for while war overthrew armed hosts, peace slew the defenseless.”

“Even the heavenly city,” nevertheless, “while in its state of pilgrimage, avails itself of the peace of the earth, and, so far as it can without injuring faith and godliness, desires and maintains a common agreement among men regarding the acquisition of the necessaries of life’, “The heavenly city, or rather the part of it which sojourns on earth and live by faith, makes use of [the peace of the earthly city] only because it must. ” The peace of the earthly city is maintained by “manners, laws, and institutions,” while the heavenly city, in its pilgrim state, possessed peace by “faith.” The end of the earthly peace is “the combination of men’s wills to attain the things which are helpful to this life. ”  The peace of the heavenly city, the only peace which can truly be called peace and esteemed by “reasonable creatures,” consists “in the perfectly ordered and harmonious enjoyment of God and of one another in God:”

This peace is attained only in death, implies Augustine. “When we shall have reached that peace, this mortal life shall give place to one that is eternal, and our body shall be no more this animal body which by its corruption weighs down the soul, but a spiritual body feeling no want, and in all its members subjected to the will.” In such a view of life, peace on earth can be only “the solace of our misery” rather than “the positive enjoyment of felicity.”

The joy of the members of the city of man, Augustine compares to “glass in its fragile splendor, of which one is horribly afraid lest it should be suddenly broken in pieces.”  The happiness of the citizens of the city of God is contentment, Augustine implies: “For who does not know that the wicked exult with joy? Yet `there is no contentment for the wicked, with the Lord.’ And how so, unless because contentment, when the word is used in its proper and distinctive significance, means something different from joy ?”  The distinction between joy and contentment is an important one, and may be made clear by applying the “test of tranquility.”  Augustine applies his test to two hypothetical men. The one is rich, but is burdened by fears, discontent, and enemies, while the other, a man of “middling circumstances” is the possessor of “real felicity,” while the other possesses only the “mere show of happiness.”

The wisdom of the philosophers, he writes, is a deceitful and proud virtue upon which they attempt to construct happiness in this life.

The city of God, however, and the felicity which is the portion of its members, is not based on wisdom, but on godliness. True happiness is to be found in the knowledge of eternal life which is an “endlessly happy life. ” And this hope of eternal life directs the Christian’s actions towards “piety and probity” which “suffice to give them true felicity, enabling them to live well the life that now is.”

True virtue “makes a right use of the advantages” provided by times of peace and “makes a good use even of the evils a man suffers. ” This virtue refers all actions, regardless of the conditions under which they are made, “to that end in which we shall enjoy the best and greatest peace possible.”

Augustine is saying here that for actions to be virtuous they must be made in light of the supreme good of the city of God. “For there is no true virtue,” he writes, “except that which is directed towards that end in which is the highest and ultimate good of man.”

The virtue which makes the good life has its throne in the soul.

Plato and Aristotle formulated a view of politics which sought to give direction to political community by delineating its proper ends, identifying the forms of right government, and the moral limits upon government. These limits were found in a critical definition of human action which saw the nature of man in its openness to transcendent divine reality. These insights were absorbed by Christianity, and through the Christian synthesis of noetic and pneumatic theophany, became principal aspects in the Western concept of order.

To this edifice, St. Augustine added something not present in Plato and Aristotle, a total critique of worldly existence. Plato and Aristotle essentially found the world comfortable. St. Augustine did not. Through his critique of the city of man, therefore, he limited our perspective of what could and could not be accomplished in political existence. The soul of man remained the locus of right order, but its guardian became the Church, not the state. To the state was consigned an important, but limited role. This view of an essentially limited state, the product of his critique of the city of man, became in turn a basic Western political attitude.

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