On the City of God Against the Pagans

Alan Fimister


The doctrine of the two cities, which finds its greatest expression in the work we are to examine today, is not the construct of some theologian, however great. It is an essential element in God’s revelation to mankind, vital to the correct understanding of the personal and institutional history of each individual and society and of every book of scripture from Genesis to Revelation. The great Pope Leo XIII frequently alluded to this doctrine in his encyclical letters, not least in the thundering opening of Humanum Genus promulgated in 1884.

“The race of man, after its miserable fall from God, the Creator and the Giver of heavenly gifts, ‘through the envy of the devil,’ separated into two diverse and opposite parts, of which the one steadfastly contends for truth and virtue, the other for those things which are contrary to virtue and to truth. The one is the kingdom of God on earth, namely, the true Church of Jesus Christ; and those who desire from their heart to be united with it, so as to gain salvation, must of necessity serve God and His only-begotten Son with their whole mind and with an entire will. The other is the kingdom of Satan, in whose possession and control are all whosoever follow the fatal example of their leader and of our first parents, those who refuse to obey the divine and eternal law, and who have many aims of their own in contempt of God, and many aims also against God. This twofold kingdom St. Augustine keenly discerned and described after the manner of two cities, contrary in their laws because striving for contrary objects; and with a subtle brevity he expressed the efficient cause of each in these words: ‘Two loves formed two cities: the love of self, reaching even to contempt of God, an earthly city; and the love of God, reaching to contempt of self, a heavenly one.’ At every period of time each has been in conflict with the other, with a variety and multiplicity of weapons and of warfare, although not always with equal ardour and assault.”

 The doctrine of the two cities also underlies a key paragraph in the 1992 Catechism of the Catholic Church one of the foremost jewels in the crown of St John Paul II’s magisterium, for which we are daily made more grateful.

 “2244. Every institution is inspired, at least implicitly, by a vision of man and his destiny, from which it derives the point of reference for its judgment, its hierarchy of values, its line of conduct. Most societies have formed their institutions in the recognition of a certain preeminence of man over things. Only the divinely revealed religion has clearly recognized man’s origin and destiny in God, the Creator and Redeemer. The Church invites political authorities to measure their judgments and decisions against this inspired truth about God and man: Societies not recognizing this vision or rejecting it in the name of their independence from God are brought to seek their criteria and goal in themselves or to borrow them from some ideology. Since they do not admit that one can defend an objective criterion of good and evil, they arrogate to themselves an explicit or implicit totalitarian power over man and his destiny, as history shows.”

In order to understand The City of God by St Augustine of Hippo one needs to understand the event which inspired it.

On 24th August 410 AD the City of Rome which had remained unconquered for 800 years was captured and sacked by King Alaric of the Visigoths and his followers. Even when Rome had been sacked in 390 BC by the Gaulish chieftain Brennus the Capitoline Hill seat of the chief shrines of Roman Paganism had not fallen. The sacred geese of Juno alerted the defenders to the sneak attack and prevented its capture. If the sack of 390 BC is therefore deemed incomplete, Rome had never fallen in its entire history from 753BC to 410AD – 1163 years. That the defenders in 390 should have been aroused by creatures sacred to Juno was particularly significant as according to its civic mythology Rome was founded by descendants of the exiles of Troy whose city was put to the sword by Greeks inspired by the wrath of Juno and whose poeple were driven across the Mediterranean by the same jealousy until they settled in Latium. Thus even the goddess least well disposed to the Roman people had by 390BC apparently got with the project. Rome had a lot for which to thank her gods. They had, as Virgil reminded every Roman school boy, promised her imperium sine fine – empire without limit – and they had delivered. For the last five hundred years one quarter of the human race had lived under the dominion of the Roman People. The vast majority of those beyond (so far as the Romans knew) lived in misery and squalor in desolate lands unworthy of the attentions of the Roman army. Edward Gibbon plausibly imagined the motivations of the Romans in omitting to invade the country now known as Scotland,

 “The masters of the fairest and most wealthy climates of the globe turned with contempt from gloomy hills, assailed by the winter tempest, from lakes concealed in a blue mist, and from cold and lonely heaths, over which the deer of the forest were chased by a troop of naked barbarians.”

 The people of the Roman Empire had no desire for independence. They were Romans, an identity which from the beginning had a civic rather than an ethnic basis. As the poet Claudian explained just before the catastrophe of 410, Rome:

Took the conquered to her bosom,
Made mankind a single family,
Mother not mistress to the nations,
Conquering the world a second time by the bond of affection.

And the Romans enshrined in the heart of their commonwealth the most eloquent possible reminders that failure to maintain the favour of the gods could have the most catastrophic consequences. The Temple of Vesta goddess of the hearth in the centre of the Forum preserved the Palladium, the sacred image of Athena, that Aeneas, last member of the Trojan Royal house had borne from the ruins of Illium, and forever tended by its virgin priestesses was the perpetual flame ignited by the prince from the fires that consumed his city and carried before him to Italy in the course of his founding migration.

The idea that religion might be a special separate sphere to the life of the city (or indeed the tribe or kingdom) was unthinkable to the peoples of the ancient world. In classical mythology the concept of an afterlife of bliss or indeed punishment was remote and exceptional. The vast majority of the dead, good or bad, inhabited a shadowy half-life of memories and regrets. Happiness, if it was on offer, was on offer in this life of love and laugher, flesh and blood, here and now under the sun. If prosperity in this life was to be secured then the propitiation of the powers was its first and indispensable requirement. The highest official of the Roman Republic was the Pontifex Maximus – the high priest or bridge builder in chief – supreme practitioner of the Roman religion. This ancient office was held in his lifetime by Julius Caesar and then by his great nephew and adopted son Augustus and by every Roman Emperor after him.

The concern of the Roman authorities was that the gods be propitiated for the good of the empire. They did not care which gods were propitiated so long as each of their subjects gave due honour to the gods to whom they owed honour and so preserved the good of the lands subject to Rome and so long as the citizens of Rome gave due honour to the gods of Rome herself. Impiety and atheism ought to be punished and it was the Roman magistrate’s business to punish them should they come to his attention; but systematically to seek out and punish impiety was a duty only in respect of Roman citizens. At least, that is, until 212 when the emperor Caracalla extended citizenship to all free-born men in the empire.

The persecution of the Church in the empire had up to this moment been sporadic. Now the elimination of the Christian impiety was a grave duty upon any emperor with a serious concern for the preservation of the state. At the same time, the character of Roman paganism underwent a dramatic transformation.

Up to this moment the Romans desired only that each one worship his ancestral gods. The Jews’ insistence that their God was the only God might be distasteful and gauche but there was a place the Mediterranean syncretism for their national traditions, if only perhaps a despised place. The Christians were another matter entirely. By seeking to win the Emperor’s subjects and fellow citizens away from the gods of their ancestors they struck at the roots of Roman prosperity. They already threatened the stability of his dominions before 212 but now that a vastly greater multitude were citizens of Rome herself the Christians threatened the very survival of the Republic.

Before the third century philosophy had been generally critical of traditional religion. Whatever the plebeian adherent of the gods might seek, the philosopher, particularly the Platonist sought eternal life in a better and higher world. As Gibbon delightedly and admiringly observed “The various modes of worship, which prevailed in the Roman world, were all considered by the people, as equally true; by the philosopher, as equally false; and by the magistrate, as equally useful. And thus toleration produced not only mutual indulgence, but even religious concord.” In the second century St Justin Martyr’s account of Platonism as the penultimate stage on his journey to the Gospel could hardly be more positive. The journey to the Gospel for Justin is the journey to the true philosophy. With the rise, in the third century, of Neo-Platonism the philosophers no longer considered paganism to be false, but rather as a picture language for the higher mysteries of which they were the guardians. Far from merely useful the maintenance of traditional religion was seen by the Neo-Platonists as vital for the preservation and perfection of an empire re-envisaged as the political manifestation of the ontological unity of the cosmos. Christianity in contrast they saw as a dangerous rival. Mumbo jumbo that threatened the social, political and intellectual integralism which was so tantalisingly close to realisation under the reforming government of the Emperor Diocletian.

Of course, this conception of Christianity was quite absurd. It was Neo-Platonism that represented the novelty in the third century. Its attempt to marshal Imperial autocracy, classical myth and pagan ritual into a coherent body of belief and practice underpinned by a mighty systematisation of Platonic thought was a direct response to the imminent prospect of Christian triumph. The Neo-Platonic project was concocted in imitation of the Church and bore no resemblance to traditional paganism. The Great Persecution of 303 to 313 was the terrible offspring of this last desperate attempt to prevent the conversion of the Roman Empire. It failed. Constantine embraced the Gospel. He took the Palladium away with him to his new capital of Constantinople. The Church was compensated for its material losses under persecution. Her clergy were given the privileged status of the pagan priesthood. The privileges and subsidies of the traditional religion were withdrawn one by one. In 380 the Catholic Faith was decreed to be the religion of the Roman Empire. The title of Pontifex Maximus was transferred to the Bishop of Rome. The altar of victory was removed from the Senate House and finally in 394 the vestal fire itself was extinguished by the Emperor Theodosius. At the First Council of Nicaea Constantine read out Virgil’s Fourth Eclogue, his ecstatic vision of the coming of a divine child who would redeem the world. Far from being the great enemy of the Roman Empire the Church was the reason the One True God had created Rome in the first place.

As Prudentius, a statesman and liturgical poet in the administration of Theodosius, explained:

“What is the secret of Rome’s historical destiny? It is that God wills the unity of mankind, since the religion of Christ demands a social foundation of peace and international amity. Hitherto the whole earth from east to west had been rent asunder by continual strife. To curb this madness God has taught the nations to be obedient to the same laws and all to become Romans. Now we see mankind living as citizens of one city and members of a common household. Men come from distant lands across the seas to one common forum, the peoples are united by commerce and intermarriage. From the intermingling of peoples a single race is born. This is the meaning of all the victories and triumphs of the Roman Empire: the Roman peace has prepared the road for the coming of Christ.”

In his Oration in Praise of Constantine Eusebius of Caesarea had already provided the perfect triumphalist synthesis of Imperial political theory and Christian ecclesiology.

“No mortal eye has seen, nor ear heard, nor can the mind in its vesture of flesh understand what things are prepared for those who have been here adorned with the graces of godliness; blessings which await you too, most pious emperor, to whom alone since the world began has the Almighty Sovereign of the universe granted power to purify the course of human life: to whom also he has revealed his own symbol of salvation, whereby he overcame the power of death, and triumphed over every enemy. And this victorious trophy, the scourge of evil spirits, you have arrayed against the errors of idol worship, and hast obtained the victory not only over all your impious and savage foes, but over equally barbarous adversaries, the evil spirits themselves. For whereas we are composed of two distinct natures, I mean of body and spirit, of which the one is visible to all, the other invisible, against both these natures two kinds of barbarous and savage enemies, the one invisibly, the other openly, are constantly arrayed. The one oppose our bodies with bodily force: the other with incorporeal assaults besiege the naked soul itself. Again, the visible barbarians, like the wild nomad tribes, no better than savage beasts, assail the nations of civilized men, ravage their country, and enslave their cities, rushing on those who inhabit them like ruthless wolves of the desert, and destroying all who fall under their power. But those unseen foes, more cruel far than barbarians, I mean the soul-destroying demons whose course is through the regions of the air, had succeeded, through the snares of vile polytheism, in enslaving the entire human race, insomuch that they no longer recognized the true God, but wandered in the mazes of atheistic error. For they procured, I know not whence, gods who never anywhere existed, and set him aside who is the only and the true God, as though he were not.”

Indeed, Eusebius explains while the pagan theorists saw the Roman polity as the one universal legitimate commonwealth, in fact legitimacy belongs exclusively to that polity which worships the One True God in the manner He has appointed.

“truly may he deserve the imperial title, who has formed his soul to royal virtues, according to the standard of that celestial kingdom. But he who is a stranger to these blessings, who denies the Sovereign of the universe, and owns no allegiance to the heavenly Father of spirits; who invests not himself with the virtues which become an emperor, but overlays his soul with moral deformity and baseness … surely one abandoned to such vices as these, however he may be deemed powerful through despotic violence, has no true title to the name of Emperor. For how should he whose soul is impressed with a thousand absurd images of false deities, be able to exhibit a counterpart of the true and heavenly sovereignty? Or how can he be absolute lord of others, who has subjected himself to the dominion of a thousand cruel masters? A slave of low delights and ungoverned lust, a slave of wrongfully-extorted wealth, of rage and passion, as well as of cowardice and terror; a slave of ruthless demons, and soul-destroying spirits?”

And yet, even as Theodosius extinguished the Vestal Hearth there were signs that the immortal empire was imperilled. In 376 a vast host of Goths had appeared at the Danube on the Imperial frontier. They were seeking permission to migrate to the Empire for fear of the Huns, an Asiatic tribe that had driven them from their homes above the Black Sea. The Romans had little interest in settling barbarian auxiliary troops on a frontier they were only crossing in terror of the very tribes against which they would be expected to defend it. On the other hand, they had arrived in worrying numbers. The Romans resolved to pretend that they were acceding to the Goths’ petition, invite them across the Danube, isolate their leaders at a banquet, murder them and then massacre the rest at leisure. Unfortunately for the peace of the world this desecration of sacred hospitality was detected in time by the Goths who rose up in fury, rampaged across the Balkans, and defeated and slew the Emperor Valens at the Battle of Adrianople in 378.

It was in response to the chaos engendered by this defeat that Theodosius himself was raised to the purple. He managed to restore order to the frontier but there was no crushing victory. The Goths were bought off. On 31st December 406 in the reign of Theodosius’s sons Arcadius and Honorius the other great European frontier river of the Empire froze sold and a vast host of Vandals, Alans and Suebi poured into Gaul across the Rhine. The Empire never recovered. It was in the midst of the ensuing anarchy that Alaric and his Visigoths resolved to blackmail the Western Emperor by laying siege to the Eternal City itself. They assumed their demands would be met and that Honorius would never allow the capital to be desecrated. Honorious in turn assumed the Goths would starve before they were ever able to breach the Aurelian walls. They were both wrong and, as Jerome put it, “The City which had taken the whole world was itself taken.”

Rome herself was a bastion of Paganism. Despite being the seat of the first of bishops and the resting place of the prince of the apostles the capital was also the residence of the greatest patrician families of the empire, the people whose ancestors had built the temples and held the sacred offices of the pagan priesthood. They protested strongly against the disestablishment of the Roman religion. The removal of the altar of victory had occasioned a long struggle between the leaders of the Senate and St Ambrose bishop of Milan (the city where the emperor actually resided at the time). Although Rome had long ceased to be the habitual residence of the Emperors who needed to station themselves much closer to the frontiers, this had only served to strengthen its sanctity and greatness in the minds of men.

The reaction of the pagan aristocrats of Rome can easily be imagined. A mere sixteen years after the quenching of the Vestal fire Rome had fallen. What more eloquent testimony to the madness of Constantine need there be? The promise of his vision that the Triumphant Cross would be the guarantee of endless victory had been cast into the ashes of the Capitol. The pagan account of human history had been vindicated.

It was in response to this catastrophe that St Augustine wrote his greatest work. The magnum opus et arduum the twenty-two books concerning the City of God, Against the Pagans.

Augustine was of course a native of North Africa. It is a constant frustration to the modern historian that we do not know whether the ancient Punic language was his mother tongue (or even if he spoke it at all). He was raised and educated most thoroughly in the classical style until he ate, drank, dreamed and breathed the words of Cicero, Virgil, Caesar and Sallust. And yet, he was a native of the land of Rome’s greatest enemy and we may suspect that he allowed himself a little more emotional distance from the calamities of 410 than the majority of his contemporaries.

How most of Augustine’s fellow Christian’s reacted to the charge that they had deprived the empire of its genius and fortune we shall never know but it is often supposed that their answer may have resembled that implied by Augustine’s friend and admirer Paul Orosius in his Seven Books of History Against the Pagans. Orosius sought to show that worse disasters had befallen man in the past when paganism prevailed everywhere outside of Israel and thus placed in perspective, the vicissitudes of the present time could not be laid as a convincing charge against the truth and efficacy of the Gospel.

Augustine’s approach was altogether more radical. Already the title De Civitate Dei implied that the great African would refuse to accept the assumptions behind the question posed to him by his pagan opponents. The purpose of history and of God’s providential guardianship thereof was not, Augustine argued, to preserve and glorify the temporal commonwealth of the Roman people, nor was that commonwealth, even as transfigured by its acceptance of the Christian Revelation, the supreme community of man and final recipient of his loyalty. This honour belongs by right and alone to the Catholic Church – the City of God. Thus the argument of the work is phrased as a defence of this eternal city against those who disparage it and the good for which it is established in favour of the temporal good of the city of Rome or any other earthly polity.

The work is divided into two parts corresponding, in reverse order, to the subjects indicated in its title: On the City of God, Against the Pagans. The first part consisting of the first ten books may be designated ‘Against the Pagans’ and the second part ‘On the City of God’. Part one is further divided in two. Books one to five refute the arguments of those who prefer the earthly city to the City of God because they seek in it and in its gods temporal happiness. Books six to ten refute the argument of those who prefer the earthly city and its gods because they seek from them happiness in the life to come. That is, the first five books are a refutation of the more traditional paganism of the ancient world while the next five are a refutation of the newly minted Neo-Platonic version in which Augustine was well schooled as it had played a decisive role in his own journey to Christianity.

Augustine has a number of effective rhetorical opening salvos. If the Roman gods were so wonderful why did they abandon Troy, forcing the Trojans to migrate to Italy in the first place? The pagans of Rome who never embraced Christianity anyway can hardly blame it for their own misfortune. They were however happy to shelter in the churches and basilicas of the faithful during the sack where they were left unmolested by the Goths who, having been converted to the Arian form of Christianity did not wish to desecrate these shrines. Where, Augustine wonders, is it recorded in the history of earlier times and the annals of pagan warfare that such scrupulosity was maintained by the conquerors of a fallen city?

Even by their own lights the pagans knew that true happiness, even in this life, is the reward of, indeed is to be identified with the exercise of, virtue. Such virtue as the pagans boast is not truly worthy of the name because it is not, in fact, directed towards the true glory prepared for man with God in eternity. It is practiced for the sake of pride and earthly glory. But the Lord is as good as His word. As He says ‘they have had their reward’. While the Romans practiced this simulacrum of true virtue God gave them temporal prosperity. But the even pseudo-virtue practiced in the service of demons whose every fable, rite and ritual is bent towards the moral destruction of their worshipers cannot long endure and Augustine chronicles the moral and civil decline of the Roman people even by the corrupted light of natural reason until the final demise of the Republic amidst the incessant civil war and personal squalor of the first century before Christ. By the time the Saviour entered the world to establish the universal boundaries of His City, the Roman commonwealth and the virtues it claimed had already by the testimony of their own greatest authors (overwhelmingly republicans) perished from the earth. In truth, the sort of earthly peace the pagans of the more recent centuries really desire is the minimum of security and wealth necessary to indulge an empty hedonism unmolested by external interference. To be deprived of this kind of peace is a blessing.

Augustine has much fun describing the lurid details of popular superstition and the clumsy and self-contradictory efforts of pagan authors to rationalise the members of the traditional pantheon. As he passes on to the second section of part one – against those who worship the pagan Gods for happiness in the next life – he finds no more difficulty in destroying the attempts of the Neo-Platonists to reconcile traditional religious practice with their hierarchies of emanations. Why would such entities, if the pure angelic beings the Neo-Platonists allege, wish to be honoured with sacrifices and spectacles inextricably bound up with the treacheries, lusts and perversions recounted of Jupiter, Venus, Mars and their gang? Why would pure angelic beings desire to usurp the worship of the One God? Why would they encourage the foolish blasphemies of magicians and sorcerers? Insofar as there are benign entities corresponding the beings the Neo-Platonists postulate they are the angels of the True God who have no desire to be worshiped by men and who will assist their Lord in punishing such idolatry at the end of time. Insofar as there are invisible beings who do indeed approve of the practices that the pagan philosophers seek to salvage with their speculations they are the unclean demons fallen from the divine service at the beginning of time and tireless in their determination to involve mankind in their rebellion and their ruin.

All of which brings us neatly to the second part of the City of God, books eleven to twenty-two, divided into three sets of four, dedicated to the exposition of the origin, progress and destiny of the heavenly City and its rival the diabolical city of the world. For the two cities were divided at the dawn of history when the Devil and his confederates fell from the worship of God. This catastrophe was recapitulated in the Fall of Man and although Adam and Eve were repentant, the consequences of their fall endured and were manifested in the murder of Abel by Cain. Cain and Seth thereafter became the founders among men of the rival cities already established in the angelic realm. Augustine notes the numerous earthly achievements of Cain’s descendants recounted in Genesis, starting with Cain himself, literally the founder of the first human city. Like the pagan Romans they have their reward in this life. Their concern is here on this earth with the proud achievements of their own hands not with the gift of God that surpasses all human understanding. He traces the destruction of the antediluvian world to the intermarriage of the sons of God (descendants of Seth) and the daughters of men (descendants of Cain). Hitherto the two cities had been socially segregated their unification spelled the triumph of the earthly city, the extraction of a remnant of eight souls, and the destruction of the primeval world. But even before the murder of Abel within the very flesh of the repentant Adam and Eve raged the war between the penitent spirit, the principle of life and redemption, and the downward pull of delinquent creation. The waters of the flood had no power to end this war or cure man’s essential malady. Once more the bulk of human society was swept into the cause of the earthly city and God extracted in the person of Abraham the remnant from which He fashioned the people of election from which the Saviour would be born.

The Doctor of Grace and Love lays down the path of the two cities through the histories of the Jewish people and the great Empires identified in the visions of the prophet Daniel. Above all however, he focuses on the first and fourth, Babylon and Rome. Babylon as the original Postdiluvian geo-political expression of the earthly city represents a type of which Rome was the fulfilment. In the story of Romulus and Remus Augustine sees a crucial echo of the history of Cain and Abel. As the two cities were separated at the beginning of human history by one innocent and one fratricidal brother so the supreme expression of the earthly city was founded by two equally fratricidal brothers. For the peace of the earthly city is a mere truce of convenience it is only their pragmatic pact to secure the perishing goods of this world which prevents its citizens from turning on each other. Likewise, the faculties and desires of the citizens of the mystic Babylon are perpetually at war with each other for without harmony between God and man there can be no harmony within man himself.

At last Augustine turns to the eternal destinies of the two cities. Strictly only the Heavenly City has such a destiny. For, when the elect depart from it the earthly city and the flesh of its citizens will turn in upon itself and devour itself and it will no longer be a city any more.

 And yet, Augustine writes,

 “…not even the saints and faithful worshippers of the one true and most high God are safe from the manifold temptations and deceits of the demons. For in this abode of weakness, and in these wicked days, this state of anxiety has also its use, stimulating us to seek with keener longing for that security where peace is complete and unassailable. There we shall enjoy the gifts of nature, that is to say, all that God the Creator of all natures has bestowed upon ours—gifts not only good, but eternal—not only of the spirit, healed now by wisdom, but also of the body renewed by the resurrection. There the virtues shall no longer be struggling against any vice or evil, but shall enjoy the reward of victory, the eternal peace which no adversary shall disturb. This is the final blessedness, this the ultimate consummation, the unending end. Here, indeed, we are said to be blessed when we have such peace as can be enjoyed in a good life; but such blessedness is mere misery compared to that final felicity. When we mortals possess such peace as this mortal life can afford, virtue, if we are living rightly, makes a right use of the advantages of this peaceful condition; and when we have it not, virtue makes a good use even of the evils a man suffers. But this is true virtue, when it refers all the advantages it makes a good use of, and all that it does in making good use of good and evil things, and itself also, to that end in which we shall enjoy the best and greatest peace possible.”

And it is in the contemplation of this peace, when the City of God alone remains, transfigured in the glory of the Eternal Jerusalem that Augustine ends his great work.

It would be no exaggeration to say that as Marx’s Capital was to the Soviet Union and the other Communist tyrannies of modern times so was the City of God to Mediaeval Christendom but with results that could hardly be more different. The patriarch of the Mediaeval West, Charlemagne, kept his copy of the City of God beside his bed. St Thomas More lectured on it to the Carthusians of London as he discerned his vocation as the last great statesman of Catholic England. The very same Carthusians who would precede him to martyrdom at the hands of the tyrant who restored his country to the dominion of Babylon.

Central to its political power is Augustine’s republicanism. The term Res Publica remained the official designation of the Roman state into Augustine’s own time. The first emperor had claimed not to be founding a monarchy but restoring the republic. The pretence was officially maintained largely until the end of the third century when the Neo-Platonic totalitarianism took over and still in some part up to and beyond Augustine’s own time. But Augustine and the other great Latin writers of antiquity knew all the same that it was a pretence. Augustine relied on the republican writers who witnessed the last embers of Roman liberty, Sallust and Cicero, for his claim that the Roman commonwealth had perished before the coming of Christ. We know from his other writings that, while he held there was place for monarchy, he saw it as a sign of a degenerate age. As he writes in De Libero Arbitrio,

 “Human beings and peoples [do not] belong to the class of things that are eternal, and can neither change nor perish … [but are] changeable and subject to time… Therefore if a people is well-ordered and serious minded, and carefully watches over the common good, and everyone in it values private affairs less than the public interest, is it not right to enact a law which allows this people to choose their own magistrates to look after their own interests – that is the public interest?… But suppose that the same people becomes gradually depraved. They come to prefer private interest to the public good. Votes are bought and sold. Corrupted by those who covert honours they hand over power to wicked and profligate men. In such a case would it not be right for a good and powerful man (if one could be found) to take from this people the power of conferring honours and to limit it to the discretion of a few good people, or even to one?”

But the credentials of the Republic to be a true city bound together by justice and the common good are only in a very secondary sense founded for Augustine on the external liberty of its political institutions. Far more fundamentally they are rooted in the liberty of grace, the glorious liberty of the sons of God.

For this argument which really is the central argument of the City of God Augustine is reliant on a key definition of Cicero’s as to the nature of a Republic. Literally of course a republic is the public thing. That which belongs to the people as a whole and thus it presupposes the existence of a people. Not a mere multitude but a rationally ordered multitude. As Cicero defines it “a multitude united in association by a common sense of right and a community of interest.” This common sense of right or ius cannot exist without justice – iustitia, as defined by the ancients “the constant and perpetual resolve to render under each one that which is his due”. The first requirement of justice is therefore that we render what is due to the One to Whom we owe most, indeed to Whom we owe all things. The first requirement of justice is that we worship the One True God in the manner He has appointed. For “kingdoms without justice” Augustine declares “are but latrocinia” criminal gangs. Brigandage, multitudes of thieves united in association by a common agreement on the objects of their brigandage and the division of the loot. As the first deceiver stretched out his hand to take the divine likeness as if his by right rather than humbly to receive it as God’s gift so all those who have followed him on the road to eternal ruin are thieves and brigands. But only one community is authorised, only one community is able, to worship the One True God in the manner He has appointed through the offering that He Himself made as man on our behalf upon the Cross. For, Augustine concludes “there is no justice save in that republic whose founder and ruler is Christ”. When Romulus founded Rome he gathered its citizens by proclaiming to the outlaws and criminals of the world that they could gather in his city and start afresh as citizens. Here, as in the splendid vices the Romans took to be virtues, we see a shadowy figure of the true Eternal City gathered together by the new song of the Gospel, fashioned by sinners washed clean in the blood of the lamb.

The virtues of the pagans are but splendid vices. They are truly vices but they are truly splendid. For the Romans to embrace the heavenly city and its path is to find everything they wrongly imagined to be great in their earthly republic restored, purified and made true in the grace of God. St Augustine calls out to them,

 “In former times you had glory from the peoples, but, through the inscrutable decision of divine providence, the true religion was not there for you to choose. Awake! The day has come. You have already awakened in the persons of some of your people, in whose perfect virtue we Christians boast, and even in their suffering for the true faith; they have wrestled everywhere against hostile powers, have conquered them by the courage of their deaths, and ‘have won this country for us by their blood.’

It is to this country that we invite you, and exhort you to add yourself to the number of our citizens. The refuge we offer is the true remission of sins. Do not listen to those degenerate sons of yours who disparage Christ and the Christians, and criticize these times as an unhappy age, when the kind of period they would like is one which offers not a life of tranquillity but security for their vicious pursuits. Such satisfactions have never been enough for you, even in respect of your earthly country. Now take possession of the Heavenly Country, for which you will have to endure but little hardship; and you will reign there in truth and for ever. There you will find no Vestal hearth, no Capitoline stone, but the one true God, who fixes no bounds for you of space or time but will bestow an empire without end.”

One thought on “On the City of God Against the Pagans

Comments are closed.