Augustine’s City of God, XII: Understanding the “Saeculum”

Another one of Augustine’s great themes that rides through the City of God is the concept of the saeculum.[i] It has been brought to attention of late by scholars like R.A. Markus and historians like Peter Brown, James Wetzel, and Peter Leithart. What is the saeculum, and why is it important to Augustine’s understanding of history, time, and God?

Debating the Saeculum and Sacred History

Saeculum is the Latin word for “of the age.” It is also the word which we derive “secular” (the worldly age). One of the many ironies of history and Christianity is that in separating sacred and profane history, in separating the Elect and the Damned, Christianity provided the framework for the emergence of the secular and secularity. Prior to Augustine history was entirely sacred; the sacred histories and mythologies of the pagan historians and poets whom Augustine (among others) had to confront in this battle for history. In doing so Augustine, and later Augustinians like Orosius, helped to separate sacred history and “secular” history and with the displacement of the sacred following the Enlightenment, history became entirely secular—the separation of history into these two spheres thanks to Christianity means that secularity is one of the children of Christianity.[ii]

Augustine understand history in epochs. The epochs of history mirror the days of creation; there are seven epochs of history. The final epoch of history—at least for Christians—will be the union of the Elect with God in the Beatific Vision in Heaven. Until then, however, Christians and non-Christians alike live in the age of the saeculum, the present age in between God’s entrance into history with the incarnation and his Second Coming. Thus, the saeculum is that age and plane in which sacred and profane meet, where good and bad mix, where Elect and Reprobate interact, and where the present church struggles (ecclesia militans). It is pre-eschatological messiness where wheat and tares are not yet separated.

Tied to other themes in City of God, profane history is driven downward by the lust for domination. Sacred history is drawn upward by sacrificial love. Lust for domination and sacrificial love are also entangled and colliding with one another in the saeculum. For this is the contest of the two cities in the saeculum. One city “advances” (it is really falling) through the lust for domination. The other city advances (rising) through sacrificial love.

The problem, for Christians, and Augustine, is what to do in the saeculum; especially for Christians in the service of the civitas terrena. And this becomes the subject of controversy between followers of R.A. Markus and followers of John Milbank in reading Augustine’s conception of the saeculum. Do Christians help to bolster the “secular city” even though they know, from the promises of God, that the city is destined to hell? Markus says yes. Milbank says no.

Part of the problem with Augustine’s conception of the saeculum is, taken solely from the writings in the City of God, Milbank stands on better ground. Taken from Augustine’s many letters, especially his writings to the general Count Boniface,[iii] Markus seems to stand on firmer soil. A deeper reading of the role of love in moving the City of God and the citizens of the city of God seems to support Markus. Since the citizens of the city of God are moved by sacrificial love, sacrificial love bleeds into the civitas terrena for, however imperfect, the order and justice that imperfect human polities offer. As Augustine says in one of his letters to Boniface, “Do not think that it is impossible for anyone to please God while engaged in military service.”[iv]

Love demands that humans do their best in service to others. And when the secular city, Rome, calls upon her citizens to sacrifice it is the call of the Christian to answer to help promote the common good in whatever country they find themselves in. This became part of the bedrock foundation of Catholic social ethics and enshrined in the Catechism of the Catholic Church. Milbank and others challenge with the call to conscience—should Christians serving in politics advance and serve anti-Christian policies?

The context of Augustine’s writing is important to remember. By the time of Augustine’s episcopacy, the Roman Empire had officially adopted Christianity. Many of its civil servants, from generals to lowly government officials, were Christians. The Christian imperium that was now Rome was not identical with the city of God. That was one of the reasons for Augustine’s writing of the work: To challenge the idea of imperium Christianum. But Christians, Augustine seems to imply in City of God, and his letters make evidently clear, should serve to help their brothers and sisters wherever they may be; Christian and pagan alike. For all share in the common good of the secular order. The Christian, however, knows that his heavenly citizenship makes him a better earthly citizen. This has also been a foundational Christian perspective. Heavenly citizenship helps one be a better citizen of the city of man during one’s pilgrimage through the saeculum.

The saeculum, then, is the age of time (and place) where pre-eschatological history takes place. Augustine was not a dispensationalist premillennial. As such, Augustine was uninterested in seeking after “future prophecy” about the end times. What matters is the here and now, the struggle against sin in the present, en route to the destination in heaven where eternal happiness awaits.

Technically, for Augustine, all History is Sacred History. God is enthroned above, and all History moves according to his Divine Plan. But the ambiguities of Augustine did lead, it seems, to the bastardization of the sacred and profane dialectic—not one of unfolding unity and parallel, but of two entirely separate movements with no connectivity to each other. But in the clearest example of Augustine’s Divine History, the movement of the covenant of salvation through history:

Afterward, being divinely commissioned in the power of the Spirit of God, he overcame the magi of Pharaoh who resisted him. Then, when the Egyptians would not let God’s people go, ten memorable plagues were brought by Him upon them — the water turned into blood, the frogs and lice, the flies, the death of the cattle, the boils, the hail, the locusts, the darkness, the death of the first-born. At last the Egyptians were destroyed in the Red Sea while pursuing the Israelites, whom they had let go when at length they were broken by so many great plagues. The divided sea made a way for the Israelites who were departing, but, returning on itself, it overwhelmed their pursuers with its waves…so that, in the meantime, the first promise made to Abraham began to be fulfilled about the one nation, that is, the Hebrew, and about the land of Canaan; but not as yet the promise about all nations, and the whole wide world, for that was to be fulfilled, not by the observances of the old law, but by the advent of Christ in the flesh, and by the faith of the gospel.[v]

In other words, the crushing of Egypt in Exodus was done by God because of his love for spiritual Israel and ensuring the coming of the Messiah. The two cities are entangled, but however “secular” this age is, however “secular” history seems to be, all history is, indeed, Sacred History for Augustine. The real issue that can be raised with the saeculum and sacred division is that the Old Testament was undoubtedly sacred because of the Coming Messiah, and the New Age, post-resurrection and ascension, is seemingly less so though there is still the Second Coming and the pilgrim struggle to run the race and enter the Father’s House.

 

[i] The most preeminent study of the subject is Robert A. Markus’ Saeculum: History and Society in the Theology of St. Augustine (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1970).

[ii] This is not a controversial subject in philosophy and history of philosophy; the most recent work addressing this phenomenon is Larry Siedentop’s Inventing the Individual (Cambridge: Belknap Press, 2014).

[iii] See Letters 189 and 220 in the Collected Letters of Saint Augustine.

[iv] Letter 189.

[v] City of God, 16.43.

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