History, Providence, and Progress in Saint Augustine’s City of God

In light of the newfound theology of Christianity based on revealed religion, and its encounter with philosophy, this tension necessitated an address regarding nascent problems within political philosophy and civil society in the fifth century. As a Roman, Saint Augustine inherited the philosophy of Plato and Aristotle, and as a Christian he modified that inheritance to suit the requirements of the faith. He represents a unique moment in Western thought. He seeks to harmonize and reconcile two disparate and independent sources: the Bible and classical philosophy. In rejecting Manichaean dualism, Augustine replaces it with a another dualism between the “Heavenly City” and the “Earthly City.” This new dualism is most apparent in his seminal work, De civitate Dei contra paganos (“On the city of God against the pagans” or simply The City of God).

The City of God was written at the end of Augustine’s life between AD 413-427 (it was completed a mere three years before his death). The city of Rome, the “eternal city,” had been sacked causing lawlessness and confusion. The once stable Roman Empire had degenerated into a fragile, vast, and decaying dominion. Roman citizens looked around their world and wondered: what happened to the “eternal city”? Was civilization destroyed as punishment from the gods? Or was Rome destroyed by turning toward a radical new religion (Christianity)? Saint Augustine decidedly argues that Rome has collapsed due to its sinfulness in The City of God. The inheritance of Greece and Rome becomes the embodiment of the Earthly City. Not until the Renaissance do we encounter a legitimate attempt to recapture the majesty of the Greco-Roman world. Later, Edward Gibbon revisits this question of why the Roman Empire collapsed and the possible role of Christianity in the downfall.

While the City of God expounds upon history, politics, and natural philosophy, St. Augustine is first and foremost a theologian. He draws his first principles not from reason but from sacred scripture, whose authority he never questions and accepts as sacrosanct. However, Augustine is also the founder of a new theology which seeks to incorporate ancient philosophy within the new universalist horizon of Christianity. Augustine’s works are written for the benefit of both Christians who seek to gain a deeper understanding of the divine, as well as Pagans who might consider incentives for converting to the faith. Despite his attacks on Rome in the City of God, Augustine reiterates his dazzling delight in the writings of Livy and Cicero, yet he acknowledges that Christianity has eclipsed the heroes of the ancient world. True heroism now becomes Christian heroism, which is “martyrdom.” Despite Augustine’s lambasting of Rome, the bureaucracy of Rome has allowed for Christianity to spread under the empire. Augustine’s argument against Rome is that the seeds of the empire’s decay and destruction have long predated the arrival of Christianity, and that Christianity is actually allows for the flourishing of civic virtue.

There are twenty-two Books in the City of God. It has been divided in various ways since its original distribution. In a letter at the end of his life Augustine had suggested dividing the City of God into two chief sections: Books I-X, an extensive polemic against the culture of Rome as the “Earthly City,” and Books XI-XXII, a praise of Christian theology and the “Heavenly City.” Sallust, Varro, Cicero and others are all critiqued for their works which diverge from scripture in a variety of ways.

Augustine’s intent, which is outlined in Book I, is magnum opous et arduum (‘long and arduous’). The text is to be a “defense” against the “enemies” of Christianity. The City of God is an explicitly polemical work. Augustine begins by acknowledging the destruction of Rome as another example of human strife and conflict, and that history moves according to divine will “…God’s Providence uses war to correct and chasten the corrupt morals of mankind” (Book I, chapter i). Conflict and war come to light as powerful and terrifying teachers according to Augustine. However, the greatest conflict exists between the City of God and the City of Man, and this conflict drives the movement of history. The rise of cities and empires is not due to “chance” (an event that occurs without a cause, or at least no intelligible or rational cause) nor “destiny.” History unfolds according to Divine Providence. Humans have free will to act within the predetermined causes which is foreknowledge only known by God (Book V, chapter ix). Humans are unique in that they participate in the biological world of reproduction (birth, growth, and death) but also humans possess intellect which is only shared with the “angels.” In other words humans are part bestial and part angelic. Their actions are foreknown only by God and the same can be said of cities, empires, and wars. God’s knowledge exists in an absolute present, he does not see things the way we do in past, present, and future. History, according to Augustine, is moving toward a divinely revealed end which Good has always known and offers glimpses to humans through signs and prophecies in the scriptures. It is an eschatological view of history that occurs on a timeline (Augustine firmly argues that the history of humanity can be no more than 6,000 years old).

The crux of The City of God begins in the second half of the text starting in Book XI. Augustine says, “My task is to discuss, to the best of my power, the rise, the development and the destined ends of the two cities, the earthly and the heavenly, the cities which we find, as I have said, interwoven, as it were, in this present transitory world, and mingled with one another” (Book XI, chapter i). The two cities are connected via a mediator: Jesus Christ. Christians straddle the two worlds as pilgrims or sojourners in the Earthly City, obeying the laws of men, while awaiting the divine bliss of the Heavenly City (or what Jesus calls the “Kingdom of Heaven”). In this way Augustine seeks to preserve the possibility of patriotism despite a Christian perspective.

For Augustine, time begins at the beginning of the world from the moment of God’s creation. He echoes his theory of time in the Confessions, which is that time is a parallel human measurement of God’s rhythm in the world. History unfolds as a timeline with unique and particular moments offered by God as a teaching about things to come. History is also moving in a particular direction; it is both eschatological and progressive as well as dialectical. The idea of history is compared to a beautifully adorned poem. The dialectal tension between the City of God and the City of Man yields beautiful works out of each other’s antithesis (Book XI, chapter xvii). In this way Augustine acknowledges that the heretics actually serve to strengthen the “universal” or Catholic Church. At the end of history God promises “eternal rest” from this strife (Book XI, chapter ix). However, since the dialectic allows for beauty would it not follow that the City of God lacks beauty? The citizens of the City of God pursue “peace” and “rest” in the longing for the future of perfect “tranquility” and “health” in this life while “they sigh for their Heavenly Country” (Book XV, chapter vii).

The Earthly City is compared to Rome -Cicero, Varro, Livy, the Punic Wars, idolatrous gods, and Rome’s sinfulness (which has apparently only increased after the political rise of Christianity). Despite there being a distinction between the two cities, the Earthly City is not evil -Augustine denies the existence of evil per se. There is only the Good (which is closer to God) and the deprivation of the Good. The Earthly City is the product of artists and artisans -the machinations of Cain and Romulus. However, it is also characterized by resentment and fratricide (i.e. Cain slaughters Abel out of envy, Romulus slays Remus to found Rome). The Earthly City is always at risk of dominion and enslavement.

On the other hand, The City of God is universalist and it is characterized by peace and equality. How do we know about this Heavenly City? It is revealed through sacred scripture per the guiding Providence of God. Scripture is infallible and unquestioned. Both cities possess “love” (Book XIV, chapter xxviii): the Earthly City has self-love and seeks its own glory (as well as the “lust for power”), while the City of God possesses a love of God and seeks divine glory. The City of Man is concerned with the self-love of the “flesh” and self-sufficiency, whereas the City of God is abstract, eternal, and ecclesiastical. It also appears that the City of God is infinitely separate from time and space like God according to Augustine.

Contra his contemporary co-religionists, like Eusebius, Ambrose, Prudentius, and Orosius, Augustine does not literally accept the hope for a universal global religion and a holy city on earth (i.e. it would not be best if Christianity was adopted by everyone across the world) though he admits there would be less strife in the world. He marvels at the extraordinary innovations within his own lifetime but he is skeptical that these transformations will lead to moral progress or improvement. Per Augustine, progress only comes through God’s divine Providence. The focus for Augustine is on the Heavenly City. The Earthly City is to be merely tolerated as it rises and falls. The Earthly City is taught to be an instrument of God as a remedy for evil and to issue divine mercy until the joys after death are attained (though Augustine is careful to firmly argue against any inclination toward suicide, despite the the idea of honorable suicide in the classical world). He also argues firmly against lies (like “noble lies”) because the Truth of Christianity is to be available for all humans equally. Thus, Augustine’s theology remains transpolitical while attempting to preserve some aspects of classical political philosophy. The quest for the best regime, as pursued by Plato and Aristotle, is subordinated to the spiritual pursuit of penance in Saint Augustine.

For this reading I used the Penguin Classics edition of Saint Augustine’s City of God translated by Henry Bettenson, an Oxford classical scholars; and Ernest Fortin’s essay “St. Augustine,” in the History of Political Philosophy, 3rd ed., eds. Leo Strauss and Joseph Cropsey (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1987)

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