Old and Relevant: Augustine's City of God

No doubt many of our readers are very familiar with all the quotable (and some unquotable) C. S. Lewis, so they should not be surprised to be reminded that the eminently understandable academician said, “The only palliative is to keep the clean sea breeze of the centuries blowing through our minds, and this can be done only by reading old books.” Our own intellectual blind spots can be uncovered by availing ourselves of the perspectives of the living and the dead.

This is one reason I’ve been reading Plato, Aristotle, and Augustine on poli-sci. Every time CNN or Fox News makes a claim about politics they both operate with certain assumptions that quietly unite them against the ideas of past and future ages; in order to uncover those assumptions and critically assess them we must compare the general outlines of our thought to those who held very different opinions.

Augustine’s City of God against the Pagans is a massive compilation of twenty-two volumes attempting to shift the Roman empire’s cyclical and pagan interpretation of history and government to a linear interpretation based upon the Christian theology and anthropology. While the tome addresses much more than political science issues, it lays a foundation for centuries of later political thought.

Among the major concepts that form this foundation is Augustine’s formulation of the summum bonum or Supreme Good, a formulation that expands upon previous classical thinkers like Plato and that shapes subsequent political discourse by directing it toward its appropriate end.

Eternal life is the Supreme Good, and eternal death the Supreme Evil, and that [in order] to achieve the one and avoid the other, we must live rightly.” (City of God, XIX.4).

In other places he argues that God is that Good by which all things are made good and is that good which we desire for its own sake. Augustine distinguishes between the Good, or God, and the highest and best human good, which is sometimes described as clinging to God, as seeking God, or that life of perfect peace and fellowship with God. He recognizes, as does Plato, that there is a difference between the Good Itself (or Himself) and the highest good of man, which is to commune with, or be in fellowship with, or contemplate the Good. Plato argues that the highest good is to live according to virtue and that the true and highest good is Being and the source of all things. Like Augustine, Plato acknowledged a difference between the Good Itself and the highest good of a man, which is to contemplate the Good.

While Augustine and Plato agree on the Good as Being (though they may have semantic disagreements as to its/his proper name), they disagree on the highest good for man. Plato holds that the highest good is to live according to virtue and contemplate, as much as one is able, the Good. Augustine, on the other hand, contends that the highest good for man is eternal life, the life in which he will dwell in a state of peace and felicity in pure and true worship of God. Augustine notes this difference between the Christian and Platonic positions, and characterizes it like this, “with wondrous vanity, these philosophers have wished to be happy here and now, and to achieve blessedness by their own efforts.”

By placing the final and supreme end of all human action in the afterlife, or eternity, Augustine raised the sights of political inquiry from analysis of human institutions and actions confined to field of human effort in the present, to a political analysis that included reference to God. The arguments of the City of God were directed at Romans who blamed Christians for the fall of Rome to the Visigoths and who argued that, in order to return to her former splendor, Rome needed to renounce the Christian God and restore the older civic institutions and civic religion. However, Augustine argues that a proper political order includes reference to God—to that Supreme Being Who is and is Good; all other political endeavors are destined to fail (as the Roman empire did) since they fail to account for all the relevant data affecting human action.

No doubt our society rubs its eyes in amazement at the suggestion that men must include the fact of God’s existence and nature in their analyses of the proper ends of political bodies and governments. It seems preposterous to suggest that the discussions about God be moved from the highly privatized realm of religion to the public forum of politics. However, for the millions of individuals living in the West in AD 476—philosophers, statesmen, and citizens—it was assumed that immaterial beings existed and influenced the affairs of men. For brilliant thinkers like Plato, Aristotle, and Augustine, it was preposterous to act as though there was no Supreme Good that ordered and affected the course of human affairs.

As we come to recognize the limitations of our political systems we ought to consider whether a contributing factor to their failures is due to our refusal to admit all the facts to our inquiry.

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  • http://www.mereorthodoxy.com Jeremy Mann

    Tex, how can this contributing factor to their failures be addressed in secular states? Should it be done in political contexts?

  • http://mereorthodoxy.com Tex

    Good question Jeremy. I’m thinking through whether or not we can address “the God question” in political contexts or not. At the moment, I’m inclined to think that there is no one solution, no silver bullet, that will fix things if we could only figure it out. Rather, since human beings are complex and intricate, their minds and hearts are affected, influenced, and change through a complex network of means. I think “the God question” needs to be asked and pressed in a variety of contexts—school, entertainment, business, and yes, politics, too.

    We need humility in order to ask ourselves hard questions about our assumptions and our beliefs, and constantly be looking for our blind spots. This character trait (dare we call it a virtue?) needs to be developed wherever it can be so that when difficult questions are raised in political contexts, or any other context, we are willing to listen and try to learn.

  • http://www.2knowtruth.com Jim Roane

    I really don’t think we have a choice. If the subject is not relevant in a political context; how then are we to expect God’s prevenient grace to operate in the field of human affairs?

  • http://mereorthodoxy.com Tex

    Jim,
    Could you expand on your point/question? Are you suggesting that the operation of God’s prevenient grace is contingent upon human action?

    At first glance I don’t see a refusal to discuss theological matters in a political context as necessarily inhibiting the operation of grace in human affairs.

  • http://www.2knowtruth.com Jim Roane

    Matt,
    For a starter Romans 10:17. Perhaps my question was more retorical than in making a theological statement. My contention, perhaps along the line of Barth, is that the κήρυγμα must be present for the implied intention of prevenient grace to operate in society. Hope that helps.

  • http://www.2knowtruth.com Jim Roane

    In light of Romans 8: 29, which reads (as you know) that “For whom he did foreknow, he also did predestinate to be conformed to the image of his Son, that he might be the firstborn among many brethren” do you see an eschatological possibility that the contemplation of the Good will ever merge into the essence of the Good, or is man at best forever destined to contemplate the Good? A supportive parallel to this possibility—if, indeed it is a possibility— is the Lord’s prayer in John 17:21 that [the disciples may all] be one; as thou, Father, art in me, and I in thee, that they also may be one in us: that the world may believe that thou hast sent me. Or, are both of these references an expression of purpose rather than an ultimate ontological possibility?

  • http://www.2knowtruth.com Jim Roane

    Perhaps, it would clarify the question somewhat if instead of saying the “contemplation of the Good,” the sentence was made to read “the contemplator of the Good” will ever merge into the essence of the Good. Sometimes my brain and editorial skills don’t jive. Sorry.

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