Political Philosophy Theology

Augustine’s City of God, VII: The City of Man

The second half of City of God (Books XI through XXII) deal with the origins and ends of the two cities.  Here Augustine shifts from his cultural criticism to a more exegetical, historical, and political focus.  Augustine begins to develop his allegorical hermeneutic of the church in these chapters, reflects on human history as contained in the Bible and from the Roman historians, and develops his own political philosophy premised on limited government, non-harm, and mutual assistance.

The two cities are based on their loves.  The city of man is based on the love of self while the city of God is based on the love of God and others.[i]  The two cities are also intertwined and intermixed in the plane of the saeculum (the current age) and won’t be untangled until the end of the world and the Last Judgement.[ii]  As Augustine will endeavor to show, the city of man is only rooted in the world and will end with the world.  The city of God has two roots, one in the world and one in eternity where the root in the world will eventually reunite with the root in eternity; the city of God exists both in time and outside time, in the world and outside the world, on earth and in heaven.

The City of Man

“We see then that the two cities were created by two kinds of love: the earthly city was created by self-love reaching the point of contempt of God, the Heavenly City by the love of God carried as far contempt of self.  In fact, the earthly city glories in itself, the Heavenly City glories in the Lord.  The former looks for glory from men, the latter finds its highest glory in God, the witness of good conscience.”[iii]  These two cities, founded on two different loves, are “are entangled together in this world, and intermixed until the last judgement effect their separation.”[iv]  As such, they conflict with each other in the world and through history.  Augustine sees dialectical conflict as the norm of earthly life, which is what prevents peace which properly only exists in Heaven.

In a scandalous reading of the Old and New Testament, at least to dispensationalist Protestants, Augustine charts the two cities even into the seed of Israel. There is an Israel of the spirit which becomes the people of the Promise and, after Christ, the Church, and there is an Israel of the flesh which is unfaithful Israel in the Old Testament (the whore and harlot) and remains unfaithful Israel after the crucifixion of Christ. To make his case, he starts with the Apostle Paul in Galatians 4:

There was indeed on earth, so long as it was needed, a symbol and foreshadowing image of this city, which served the purpose of reminding men that such a city was to be rather than of making it present; and this image was itself called the holy city, as a symbol of the future city, though not itself the reality. Of this city which served as an image, and of that free city it typified, Paul writes to the Galatians in these terms: “Tell me, you that desire to be under the law, do you not hear the law? For it is written, that Abraham had two sons, the one by a bond maid, the other by a free woman. But he who was of the bond woman was born after the flesh, but he of the free woman was by promise. Which things are an allegory: for these are the two covenants; the one from the mount Sinai, which genders to bondage, which is Hagar. For this Hagar is mount Sinai in Arabia, and answers to Jerusalem which now is, and is in bondage with her children. But Jerusalem which is above is free, which is the mother of us all. For it is written, Rejoice, you barren that bear not; break forth and cry, you that travail not, for the desolate has many more children than she which has an husband. Now we, brethren, as Isaac was, are the children of promise. But as then he that was born after the flesh persecuted him that was born after the Spirit, even so it is now. Nevertheless, what says the Scripture? Cast out the bond woman and her son: for the son of the bond woman shall not be heir with the son of the free woman. And we, brethren, are not children of the bond woman, but of the free, in the liberty wherewith Christ has made us free.” This interpretation of the passage, handed down to us with apostolic authority, shows how we ought to understand the Scriptures of the two covenants — the old and the new. One portion of the earthly city became an image of the heavenly city, not having a significance of its own, but signifying another city, and therefore serving, or being in bondage. For it was founded not for its own sake, but to prefigure another city; and this shadow of a city was also itself foreshadowed by another preceding figure. For Sarah’s handmaid Hagar, and her son, were an image of this image. And as the shadows were to pass away when the full light came, Sarah, the free woman, who prefigured the free city.[v]

There are two earthly cities, or, apostate Jerusalem is also part of the city of man but is made particularly prominent in its contrast with the heavenly Jerusalem (which prefigures and constitutes the city of God) and is the spiritual Sodom and fornicator prophesied about by the prophets of Old. Israel is conflicted with itself, between the spiritual and carnal that emanated from the Fall of Adam and Eve in Cain’s murdering of Abel, “Thus the founder of the earthly city was a fratricide.”[vi] The earthly city is not everlasting, it has a lifespan, and it is torn upon itself.

Conflict is the result, for Augustine, of the fallen reality of the world each attempting to exercise the lust for domination against the other.  Fear motivates this concern and only through the eradication of the other can this anxiety be assuaged:

But the earthly city, which shall not be everlasting…is often divided against itself by litigations, wars, quarrels, and such victories as are either life-destroying or short-lived…If when it has conquered, it is inflated with pride, its victory is life-destroying; but if it turns its thoughts upon the common casualties of our mortal condition, and is rather anxious concerning the disasters that may befall it than elated with the success already achieved, this victory, though of a higher kind, is still only short-lived; for it cannot abidingly rule over those whom it has victorious subjugated.[vii]

What drives the city of man is the love of self which manifests itself in the conceit of pride.  Self-absorption and the inability to share is what drives the city of man onward to its doom.  Moreover, the city of man seeks totalizing control over everything because only in this total control can that anxiety over security be assuaged. This, however, will fail. Moreover, this pursuit of domination not only causes damage to those who embark on such endeavors, it brings exhaustive and incalculable damage to those whom the war for universal security is waged. Apart from his famous definition of the city of man at the close of the fourteenth book, Augustine also provides a very clear definition of the city of man at the beginning of the eighteenth book, “The society of mortals [the city of man] spread abroad through the earth everywhere, and in the most diverse places, although bound together by a certain fellowship of our common nature [i.e., mortality], is yet for the most part divided against itself, and the strongest oppress the others, because all follow after their own interests and lusts.”[viii]

Augustine latches on to two stories to see this truth about the city of man: Romulus and Remus (from Roman history) and Cain and Abel (from biblical history).  He reads both stories as archetypal of the libido dominandi and the sad and depraved condition of the city of man.  As Cain and his son are the founders of the first cities according to the biblical narrative, and as Romulus murders Remus in the Roman narrative, Augustine can’t help but see parallels between the two.[ix]

Cain and Romulus both share a brother whom they cannot share glory with (Abel and Remus respectively).  Cain and Romulus both murder their brother in the sin of fratricide out of their own lusts for domination.  But unlike Remus, Abel is archetypal of the Heavenly City where his murdered Roman counterpart was the unfortunate victim of man’s lust for domination in the earthly city divided against itself.

In reading the biblical account alongside the Roman tale of the founding of its city, Augustine employs his ecclesiological readings of the Genesis narrative to make his point. He rests on the meaning of names to make his point.  Cain, as Augustine argues, means “possession” or “control” and his son, Enoch, means “dedication.”[x]  Augustine sees the two as intertwined as father and son.  Thus, the earthly city according to the author of Genesis invokes the names of its founders as meaning dedicated to control.  The city of man literally lusts for domination in all things—this is the meaning of Cain and Enoch being the founders of the first cities in the Genesis narrative.[xi] It is a perpetual representation of the first sin in the Garden in lusting for control of something earthly.

And this symbolic truth is replayed, Augustine poignantly notes, in Rome’s founding.  It is true of the traditional story of Romulus and Remus.  It is equally true in the story of Aeneas where he slaughters Turnus and takes his bride-to-be (Lavinia) to be the founder of that race of Romans whose walls stand high and stretch afar.  The murder of Remus by Romulus highlights the tensions of earthly society, the conflict between men, and the conflict between cities;[xii] something that Rome knows all too well (refer to Augustine’s criticism of Roman immorality and how their “greatness” came from war and conquest).  But the murder of Abel by Cain represents the conflictual tension between the city of God (symbolized by Abel) and the earthly city (symbolized by Cain).  Of course, this tension between heaven and earth—with heaven wanting to redeem the earth but the earth shunning heaven—played itself out in the crucifixion of the incarnate Son of God.  In fact, the story of Cain and Abel is a prophetic prefiguration of Christ’s crucifixion according to Augustine.[xiii] So the city of man not only wars with itself, it also wars with the city of God in its bid for control over the earth which leads to endless bloodshed, litigations, and quarrels.

The origins of the city of man, then, is in the lineage of men born after the Fall of Adam and Eve who exist outside the promise of the covenant and the gift of grace and faith. Cain is not only representative of the city of man but a child outside the promise—something repeated with Esau and Jacob, “Of these two first parents of the human race, then, Cain was first-born, and he belonged to the city of men.”[xiv] This follows with his son, Enoch, and even with Hagar and Ishmael, Esau, Nadab and Abihu, “fleshly (or earthly) Israel” (the Israel not of faith), and so on; “Now this name [Israel] was given him by the angle who wrestled with him on the way back from Mesopotamia, and who was most evidently a type of Christ. For when Jacob overcame him, doubtless with his own consent, that the mystery might be represented, it signified Christ’s passion, in which the Jews are seen overcoming Him. And yet he besought a blessing from the very angel he had overcome; and so the imposition of this name was the blessing. For Israel means seeing God, which will at last be the reward of all the saints.”[xv]

This people, whom we might call the people of the flesh as opposed to the people of the promise and the spirit, are born outside of God’s promise but not outside of his providence and sovereignty. What God gives to them, as long or short as they live, is given to them by God’s mercy as the wages of sin is death—and death they shall when whatever imperfect felicity that they enjoy in their earthly life comes to an end. Staying with Augustine’s ecclesiological and typological hermeneutic, he notes on the death of Jacob (Israel) in Egypt represents the death of fleshly under sin (represented by Egypt) but the true saints of the Promise enter the Promised Land under Joshua who is a type of Christ while Moses, though a great prophet but representing the Law, was unable because the Law does not bring salvation and the Law is not the true Promise which Paul was speaking of between the earthly and heavenly Jerusalems.[xvi]

Augustine continues his critique of the city of man on other accounts, separating from the city of man which is fleshly Jerusalem to the city of man which is reflective of the earth more generally.  He notes how the philosophers have identified man’s social nature as a reason for association in the city for his social animus will bring happiness when consummated.[xvii]  He then criticizes how the earthly city is often a-social and people have few relationships (if any) in the city that they call “home.”  The Heavenly City, by contrast, truly is the center of what the heart desires.  The city of God is founded on the social lives of the saints,[xviii] the communion of believers who live in a community in their earthly city but also a community in the church, the city of God has true justice—dispensing to each their just due (akin to Aristotle)—and is the only place where justice truly reigns,[xix] and it is the Heavenly City where filial piety, patriotism, and household honor truly exists.[xx]  As with the Roman critics of Christianity not seeing Christianity as actually embodying everything they claimed to desire and embody, so too does the earthly city fail to see the Heavenly City as the full fruition of its natural desires.

The city of man, as Augustine notes, is founded in the world.[xxi]  It is founded in the world of opinions and falsity—self-deception and sin.  As such, the city of man, despite the temporal goods it does offer—and that we should work to preserve and enjoy—descends to hell through history time and again. The key force the moves the city of man is the lust for domination—the misdirected love of the self; that to make the self happy and secure entails the subjugation of others in service of the self. To win “glory” in the earthly city is to utilize others to sing your praises and honor you by force.

In a dazzling reading of earthly history, Augustine shows how the history of the city of man is tragedy after tragedy. It is one long, painful, and teary-eyed spectacle of domination, pillage, and rape from Troy, to Rome, to Athens, to Babylon. The real tragedy is that out of this lust for domination and destruction came the ideas of “greatness” and “glory” in nothing but death. Women are raped constantly—as seen in the pitiable tale of Lucretia.[xxii] Children are butchered left and right. Men are taken captive and treated as cattle. Physical power, that lust for control, is all that moves the city of man.

Whatever glimpses of goodness and charity the city of man has, it cannot sustain. As I’ve written in a fuller treatise on Augustine’s theology of love and justice,[xxiii] the city of man is not devoid of any justice but devoid of true justice. The city of man is a shallow and corrupt reflection of the heavenly city because its founders—sinful men of the world—are interested only in themselves. The city of man is founded on the love of self which cuts people off from one another; it is a city whose relationships are built on the ethic of domination. The telos of the city of man is separation from God, which is a separation from love and relationships first and foremost, and so ends apart from God and God’s love: Damnation. This manifests through the ethos of domination which cuts off the city of man from that original relationality with God, others, and the world. The ethos of domination which enslaves the city of man is what pushes the city of man to endless struggle, backstabbing, and conflict. To achieve the corrupted form of “peace” the city of man seeks, it must subjugate all others to itself through a coerced peace; in other words, a peace brought about by domination which will never last.

We find in Augustine a two-layered understanding of the city of man. There is the city of man within Israel, the Israel of the Law and earthly promises which is unfaithful and moved by idolatry and lustful passions of its own; and there is the city of man of sin, born outside of the Promise, and not even under the Law, and this city is brutal and enslaved by the lust to dominate. As Augustine explained with Cain and Enoch, who found the first cities in Genesis, the city of man is dedicated to the lust for possession. This lust for possession, conceived in sin, and realized in acts of violence (fratricide), causes the earthly city to be rife with conflict. The city of man “is yet for the most part divided against itself, and the strongest oppress the others, because all follow after their own interests and lusts.”

[i] See City of God, 14.28.

[ii] See R.A. Markus, Saceulum: History and Society in the Theology of St. Augustine for a fuller explanation of just this little aspect of City of God.

[iii] See City of God, 14.28.

[iv] Ibid., 1.35.

[v] Ibid., 15.2.

[vi] Ibid., 15.5.

[vii] Ibid., 15.4.

[viii] Ibid.,18.2.

[ix] Ibid., 15.5.

[x] Ibid., 15.17.

[xi] Ibid.

[xii] Ibid., 15.5.

[xiii] Ibid., 15.18.

[xiv] Ibid., 15.1.

[xv] Ibid., 16.39.

[xvi] Ibid., 16.43.

[xvii] Ibid., 19.3.

[xviii] Ibid., 19.5.

[xix] Ibid., 19.4.

[xx] Ibid., 19.5.

[xxi] Ibid., 15.4; 15.17.

[xxii] Ibid., 1.19.

[xxiii] See Paul Krause, “Augustine On Love, Justice, and Pluralism in Human Nature,” December 5, 2018, VoegelinView. <https://voegelinview.com/augustine-on-love-justice-and-pluralism-in-human-nature/>


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