Friday, May 29, 2015

St. Augustine and the City of God (c. 425 AD)

“Two cities have been formed by two loves: the earthly by the love of self, even to the contempt of God; the heavenly by the love of God, even to the contempt of self.”

St. Augustine, Bishop of Hippo Regius, (354 – 430) is a towering figure in the Western intellectual tradition – second perhaps only to Plato and Aristotle in influence in the Mid Eval world, and still in the first rank of ancient philosophers today. He was born into a family of some local prominence in the North African town of Thagaste, was ambitious for a career in the Roman administration, and set out to win his fame and fortune in Carthage, and later in Rome. He had long wrestled with philosophical questions, and was at various times a Manichaean and a Neo-Platonist. He was impressed by the eloquence of St. Ambrose in Milan (then the seat of the imperial government), and by the asceticism of St. Anthony, the Egyptian hermit who founded Christian monasticism. Under their influence he became a Christian. He resolved to imitate Anthony in his own life, and returned to North Africa with the intention of withdrawing from the world. However, the congregation at Hippo Regius pressed him into service as their Bishop, and he was thus occupied for the rest of his life. In his spare time he wrote works of theology and philosophy – including the enormously influential City of God.

It began as a reply to Pagan critics who blamed Christianity for the sack of Rome in 410. From the time of Constantine the Emperors had all been Christian (with the exception of Julian “the apostate”), and the new faith had become quite fashionable. Theodosius made Christianity the official state religion in 380, probably in the expectation, first advanced by Eusebius, that God would reward the Romans with victory. Something rather different had happened. After Theodosius’ death in 396 his son, Honorius, became emperor in the West. Honorius was a non-entity, but his general and adviser, Stilicho, was a general of the highest quality. During one of the periodic wars between the Romans and the Goths he stripped the Rhine of its garrison. When an unusually-cold winter caused the river to freeze over, the tribesmen on the other side walked across. Stunned by this stroke of extraordinarily bad luck, and turned against his adviser by jealous courtiers, Honorius executed Stilicho on suspicion of conspiring with the barbarians. The army mutinied, resistance to the invaders ended, and the Western half of the Empire effectively collapsed. Alaric, the Gothic king, besieged Rome in the hopes that he could intimidate Honorius into making him Stilicho’s replacement. Honorius refused, and Alaric sacked the city. It was the first time Rome had been occupied by a foreign enemy in eight hundred years.

From the time of Polybius Romans had been accustomed to thinking of their Empire as an immovable fixture of the cosmos, and had never dreamed they could be permanently beaten by the Barbarians. The sack of Rome, however, made it plain that Roman power in the West was in decline. Despite the face-saving compromise that preserved the imperial office in the West until 476, the writing was on the wall. For Pagans, the explanation for this calamity was clear – the old gods were angry that their rites were being ignored, and had sent the Germans to make their displeasure felt. On this theory, the Romans could expect to start winning battles again once they had slaughtered enough pigs and cows on the altar of Jove. Christians, for their part, felt they had some explaining to do, for they had made extravagant promises on God’s behalf, to which recent developments had given the lie.

Augustine’s answer to this situation was in part to show that the Romans had always endured calamities, including the sack of their city by the Celts in 387 BC, the bloody purges and civil wars in the time of Sulla and Marius, and later in the time of Caeser and Cato Minor, as well as military disasters such as the defeat at Cannae and Teutoberg Forest. If the old gods were so powerful, why hadn’t they protected the Romans then? Further, it was simply untrue that the Roman Empire had been built up by virtue. Just the contrary, Augustine argued, it had been won by pirates who plundered the whole Mediterranean, and slaughtered entire nations, in the quest for wealth and glory.

Augustine reversed Eusebius by arguing that God was not especially concerned with the fate of the Roman Empire or any other state. He pointed out that there had been empires before – the Assyrian, the Babylonian, the Persian, and so on – and that they had all regarded themselves as the special creation of the gods. The Roman Empire seemed to him no different. The obligation of the Christian, he said, was not to the Roman Empire specifically, but rather to civil government in general. In the absence of such government, life would be intolerable. In so much as Christians had to live in a fallen state, and in a fallen world (the doctrine of original sin was first advanced by Augustine), the imperfections of such states were inevitable. Nevertheless, Christians had an obligation to obey the laws, and also to defend the state in time of danger, for they depended on it for their life in this world.

For Augustine, all history was the story of two communities – the City of God, and the City of Man. Both were bound by common loves, the one of God, the other of the world. This was by no means to say that God only cared about Christians, for Augustine argued just the opposite – that there were many called Christians who would not dwell with God for eternity, and many who were not who would. There was no way to know in advance who would end up where, for the two cities were inextricably caught up with one another, and would not be fully separated until Judgment Day. This was part of the reason why Christians owed service to the state, even though it was a product of the City of Man rather than that of God. Nevertheless these two communities existed in perpetual enmity, and Augustine agreed with the Neo-Platonists that the world of sense-objects was irrevocably corrupt.  Rather than seeing people as belonging in the world, as the Greek philosophers had done, Augustine saw them as exiles in it. Their true home was in heaven (or in hell), and this life merely a place of sorrow, exile, and illusion. Until the world was redeemed in the final judgment, true happiness in it would always be impossible, and what joys people could find came to them by way of consolations rather than as things to be expected.

The history that mattered was therefore that of the City of God, defined by the covenant between Him and his people. The history of the City of Man seemed to Augustine little more than a kaleidoscope of meaningless events, mostly wicked, the ultimate pattern of which only God could know. Rather than trace the rise and fall of nations, the Christian should be concerned with events of spiritual significance – the fall of Adam, the incarnation of God as Christ, the final judgment that would bring all history to a close, all the lesser mediations between God and man in between, and most especially the individual’s private journey toward, or away from, their creator.

In a sense, Augustine was returning to an earlier, timeless conception of the past, such as we saw in Homer. History as Herodotus or Tacitus understood it was alien to Augustine’s philosophy, based as it was on the notion that events of real significance stood outside of the normal flow of time, while those that did stand within it were neither intelligible nor meaningful. For Augustine, as for Homer, continuity was real, change only apparent. Similarly, space and time are radically contracted, for the events that matter in large scale history are completely outside of any one person’s ability to influence, while those that they can influence are wholly private in nature. This theology, though gloomy, had certain advantages. It equipped people to face the problem of evil squarely, of equipping people to bear stoically the inevitable burdens, pains, and misfortunes of life, and of counselling love and patience toward all people. This was the view of life and history that dominated the Western tradition for over a thousand years. Indeed, we find Bossuet imitating it in 1681, and the philosophers of the Enlightenment reacting against it in the generations afterward.

Augustine completed the City of God shortly before the Vandal conquest of North Africa. Seeing the enemy approach, he had his library sent to friends in the Eastern provinces, while he determined to remain at his post. Hippo Regius held out for eighteen months hoping for relief that would never come. During the siege, Augustine was carried off by plague. He was by then an old man, who had given the better part of his life to the service of the community and the quest for truth. He could not know, when his exile came to an end, that he had written an enduring classic of Western philosophy.

Full text of the City of God:

Part of a Series on the Ancient World.

Part of a Series on the Philosophy of History (IX of XXXV)

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