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Old and Relevant: Augustine and History

January 28th, 2010 | 3 min read

By Tex

In Augustine’s classic defense of Christianity and critique of pagan culture, the City of God Against the Pagans, he introduces a new historical schema that marks a radical departure from prevailing views of history.  Rather than view history as a series of cycles, he argues that all of history can be understood linearly, beginning with the creation of the world and ending with a final judgment of mankind by God. Using the Scriptures as his guide, Augustine argues that the relevant similarities and differences between people groups have little to do with race, language, or geographical location; the determining factor is the religious creed and, ultimately, the regeneration of individual men.  This factor is used to divide all of mankind into two classes, or cities: the regenerate and the unregenerate.

The City of God and City of Man are defined by their loves.  “Two cities, then, have been created by two loves: that is, the earthly by love of self extending even to contempt of God, and the heavenly by love of God extending to contempt of self.”  This love of God and of self is variously described through contrasting pairs, such as living “according to the spirit” or “according to the flesh,” and living “according to God” or “according to man.”  Augustine argues that the efficient cause of action is located in the will, and goes on to say that men choose that which they most desire.  Convinced of this relation between action, causality, and desire, Augustine concludes that the relevant difference or similarity among men is in their loves.

The two cities are defined by their ultimate ends.  The City of God will finally attain peace in eternal life while the City of Man will end in eternal death and suffering.  These ends are intrinsically located in the loves of the citizens of the two cities, for the citizens of the City of God love God and desire to be with Him while the citizens of the earthly city love themselves, even to the exclusion of God and, not aiming to be with God, will suffer the necessary consequences of their love: eternal separation from God.

Augustine breaks with traditional historical views that understood the life, death, and purpose of man to be cyclical in nature.  Things were pursued and termed “good” only as they related to how men lived their 80 or 90 years on earth with no reference to eternity.  The good life consisted of contemplating philosophical truths, reaping benefits of serving others in political activity, and remaining within the sphere determined by ability and social position.  Augustine tears apart this quiet circle and confronts men with the truth that life, indeed all of history, runs along a line and will most certainly culminate in a final state of affairs, a state which illuminates and directs the actions of men living in the present.

The idea that life has a meaning and a purpose that are related to some future state has so infected the minds of men that even now, nearly 1600 years later, a great deal of political theory operates on the assumption that history is linear and not circular. This assumption unites sparring individuals more deeply than their disagreements divide them.  Activists and academics on both sides of debates over the environment, education, economics, war, and human rights ground a good deal of their arguments in certain assumptions about the progress, development, movement, and ultimate purpose of the human race.

Given our shared assumption regarding the meta-narrative of human experience, it would be wise to explore the first principles upon which that grand edifice of human history and chronology is founded.  We may find that outdated ideas like God, sin, creation, and reason are much more relevant than we are disposed to believe.