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Old and Relevant: Augustine's City of God

February 3rd, 2010 | 4 min read

By Tex

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.