Augustine’s City of God, I: Origins and Cultural Critique

Saint Augustine of Hippo is arguably the most influential Christian philosopher and theologian who ever lived.  This is not to say he is unique among Christians; several of his writings reaffirmed already prevailing orthodoxy from the first through fourth century church fathers.  However, his reading of the Scriptures—especially Saint Paul—his theological anthropology (concerning the human will, heart, and mind), and his vigorous defense of the goodness of corporeality (against the Manicheans) had consequential reverberations throughout the Latin West and become central to the formation of Catholic orthodoxy and held tremendous sway on many of the Reformers, including Calvin, Zwingli, and Luther.  While he authored important and equally influential works like Confessions, De Doctrina Christiana (On Christian Doctrine), and De Trinitate (On the Trinity), as well as lesser known but important works like Enchiridion and thousands of sermons and letters, we will primarily examine Augustine’s most consequential work of theology, philosophy, and hermeneutics—De Civitate Dei (The City of God).

At over 400,000 words, the City of God is a towering work of Western literature, philosophy, and theology.  It is the last great magnum opus of the venerable Latin language which was the native tongue of luminaries like Cicero, Virgil, and Apuleius, and it follows in the footsteps of Tertullian and Lactantius as the culmination of great works of Christian apologia in the Latin language.  The work, long as it is, can be broken down into two sections.

The first half of the work is largely a work of cultural criticism.  In it Augustine critiques the “pagan” critics of Christianity, the flaws of Roman culture and religion, and the shortcomings of Greek philosophy (notwithstanding the immense influence of Greek philosophy over Augustine).  The second half of the work (commencing with Book XI) is largely a work of systematic biblical theology and exegesis; the second half contains Augustine’s hermeneutical development and thought as he explores the Old Testament from a Christological and ecclesiological lens and how the “city of God” stands against—though intertwined with—the “city of man.”  The second half also includes scattered fragments of ruminations on political theology, reflections on philosophical concepts like space and time, angels and demons, and comparative historiography.

Late Antique Cultural Criticism

What prompted the writing of City of God was the Visigoth sack of Rome in 410 A.D.  The Visigoth king/chief Alaric, and his tribe, were servants of the Roman state at the time.  Rome had largely begun to employ mercenaries (the “barbarians”) for their military service but harsh economic and financial conditions meant that Roman authorities did not always pay their mercenary forces.

Alaric served in the Roman army until feeling betrayed after the Battle of Frigidus during a period of civil war between the eastern and western halves of the empire.  (It is technically inaccurate to think of the “Western Empire” and “Eastern Empire” as it was still one unified Roman polity governed by the Tetrarchy then the diarchy.)  Rebuffed despite his services, Alaric marched on Constantinople but was turned back by the Roman forces.  As such, he launched a campaign against the western half of the empire until the Roman-Barbarian general Stilicho stopped him.  After Stilicho’s execution by Honorius—Stilicho being half-Vandal was a personal enemy to many native Roman leaders who wanted him gone—Alaric succeeded his march against Rome to vent his frustrations with being a utilized instrument of the Roman State.  The sack of Rome was a traumatic event for all involved.

In the aftermath of the sack of Rome two things prompted Augustine to respond in what serves as the foundation for his work.  First was the non-Christian criticism of Christianity; “pagan” Romans blamed Christianity for the disaster arguing that since Rome abandoned their traditional gods the old gods allowed the city to be sacked by Alaric and his forces.  Second was the shattering of the idea of the imperium Christianum—“Christian Empire”—a popular though never dogmatically sanctioned idea that the Roman Empire as a political institution was to Christianize the world and bring about the Second Coming.

Augustine challenged the first criticism by engaging in the first systematic work of cultural criticism in the Western literary tradition.  Responding to the second problem, Augustine developed his influential “allegorical-ecclesiological” hermeneutic to show that God works through his Church and not nations of men; whatever good comes from the nations it is to advance the glory of God—God’s work through nations is incidental, his work through his church is eternal.  Augustine’s work is, therefore, thoroughly one of critique.  It bequeathed to the Western tradition the notion of “Augustinianism”: A robust and systemic philosophy of criticism directed at the prevailing culture to, in the words of Augustine scholar Ernest Fortin, “unmask [its] vices.”[i]  But this criticism isn’t meant to spur a separated Christian nation or community with its own laws.  Rather, Augustine’s criticism is aimed at making a healthier, more just, and patriotic society from within through Christianity.  Fortin remarks the impetus of Augustine’s political philosophy as such:

If Augustine can be said to have any concerns for politics at all, it is not for its own sake but because of the moral problems that it poses for Christians who, as citizens, are willy-nilly caught up in it. These problems have their common root in the nature of Christianity itself, which is essentially a nonpolitical religion. Unlike Judaism and Islam, the two other great monotheistic religions of the West, it does not call for the formation of a separate community or provide a code of laws by which that community might be governed. It takes it for granted that its followers will continue to live as full-fledged citizens of the political society to which they belong and share its way of life as long as they are not forced to indulge in practices that are directly at odds with their basic beliefs, as were, for example, idolatry and emperor worship.[ii]

Moreover, Augustine wanted faithful Christians to be good and virtuous citizens of their particular nation.  However, Augustine warned against conflating the temporal realm of the civil political with the workings of God or the Church.  In other words, Augustine sought a Christian society and not a Christian state.

Thus, Augustine’s criticism of Christianity’s fashionable pagan critics was how the pagan gods never protected Rome in the first place, how the pagan gods were themselves immoral and incapable of producing virtue among its devotees, and how the pagan gods were simply forces of nature wrongly anthropomorphized (which was even suggested by pagan philosophers).[iii]  In contrast, he also aimed to show how Christians were the virtuous citizens of the Roman Empire—the very type of ideal citizen who prayed for the emperor, served their neighbor and fellow citizen, sacrificed for the well-being of Rome, and embodied the ideals of the old republic of Cicero.  At the same time, Augustine’s developed hermeneutic was aimed against fellow Christians who wanted a Christian “nation” (in the form of a State) to be the instrumental hand of God and salvation in the world.  For Augustine, God worked through a church—his chosen community—which comprised of many nations, races, and tongues.

In this sense, Augustine’s cultural criticism is not simply aimed at pagan Rome.  It is also aimed at Christian imperialists (faute de mieux) in between the lines; it is a criticism of the corporate chiliasm of literalist pre-millennialism.  He critiques non-Christians as much as he does Christians.  Non-Christians for their ignorance; Christians for their misguided hope (which does not mean they were not Christians because of it). But what is clear from the pages of the City of God, Augustine’s magnum opus is that it is the first work of systematic cultural criticism in the Western literary tradition and that is what it began as even though it is now more memorably remembered as the first great work of systematic biblical theology and covenant theology.

 

REFERENCES:

[i] Ernest Fortin, “St. Augustine,” in History of Political Philosophy, 3rd ed., eds. Leo Strauss and Joseph Cropsey (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1987), 189.

[ii] Ernest Fortin, “Introduction,” in Augustine: Political Writings, trans. Michael Tkacz and Douglas Kries (Indianapolis: Hackett, 1994), vii-viii.

[iii] See City of God, Book 6, Chapter 8 (hereafter abbreviated by Book and Chapter; example: 1.1 = Book 1, Chapter 1).

3 thoughts on “Augustine’s City of God, I: Origins and Cultural Critique

  1. Quite simply, this summary nails it! I had to read book one a few times to grasp as much as I could but this summary helps me out.

    I am trying to absorb as much as I can from his work as the more and more I read, the clearer the relevance of his work in today’s society becomes.

    Thank you and I look forward to reading more of your work!

    Like

    • Glad you found this summary helpful. Given the calendar season in Western Christianity, I have timed a tour through City of God to coincide with Lent. Hopefully this and the coming summary posts will be of great use for you. My thesis at Yale was on Augustine, and I have several essays and articles, academic and public alike, on his thought. So hopefully I will be able to deliver making Augustine accessible to those who find an interlocutor with him.

      I would second your statement on the relevance of his work today. It absolutely is.
      Cheers!

      Liked by 1 person

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