The Fighting Spirit of St. Augustine's City of God

It was a bracing experience reading Veronica Roberts Ogle’s fine new study of Augustine’s City of God during the run-up to Holy Week and Easter Sunday. Augustine is the opposite of the milquetoast versions of Christianity that are so much with us these days. To a searching mind, he joined a fighting spirit. A heartfelt disciple of the Prince of Peace, he engaged in countless polemics. These included disputes with those who proffered truncated or distorted versions of the Christian faith and those who claimed to speak in the name of authoritative reason. His was a fighting faith that took on all comers.

Looming large in a massive body of work is his monumental defense of the Christian faith, de civitate Dei. In it, he defended the Christian faith and Church against pagan accusations that they undermined the city, imperial Rome. His defense, however, went well beyond the specific charges and even beyond Rome itself. In effect, he took on all of pagan antiquity and countered with the full truth of humanity and of human, even cosmic, history. The structure of the work indicates this staggering ambition.

It divides into two basic parts: The first ten books argue that the pagan deities of Rome provided neither temporal nor eternal happiness, while the last twelve retrace the “origins-progress-and-consummation” of two “societies” or “cities” of rational creatures, angelic and human. These are the “most glorious City of God” and its shadowy simulacrum, “the earthly city” (civitas terrena).

Everyone knows Augustine’s fundamental distinction. Two loves have built two cities: love of God (amor Dei) carried to the contempt of self makes the City of God; love of self (amor sui) to the contempt of God, the earthly city. Tertium non datur. However, if this contrast were all there is to Augustine’s thought, it would appear to be rather pat and not necessarily convincing. Tertium non datur?

The foregoing synopsis, however, suggests a puzzle and an opening for thought. Where is Rome in the schema of the two Cities? To this, one could add: where is the Church itself, a visible institution chock full of sinners and spiritual mediocrities? Is Rome simply equivalent to the earthly city? Is the Church simply equivalent to the City of God? Augustine’s answer is no, and his thought is accordingly more complex than stark binaries would suggest. Enter Roberts Ogle.

She begins with an ambiguity in Augustine’s own use of one of his two fundamental terms, “the earthly city.” Sometimes he uses it for the nefarious dopplegänger of the City of God, sometimes he applies it to particular “earthly cities,” sometimes he applies it to “the political sphere” itself. The question arises, is this intentional? What does it mean?

In answering, she winds her way between two interpretive extremes, one affirming that in so speaking Augustine damns politics itself, the other saying that the equation is merely coincidental, and that Augustine is being loose in his language. She finds ample reason to doubt both interpretations. Many passages belie the straightforward identification of all politics with the prideful City. And the charge of loose language runs counter to Augustine’s mastery of language.

In fact, it is in his understanding of language—human and divine—that she finds the key to understanding the text as a whole and Augustine’s complex thinking about politics. Her interpretation flows from a recognition of the central Augustinian belief that the Divine speaks.

Augustine wants to understand and then imitate God as Logos, as the One who spoke—and continues to speak—in Creation and in the Scriptures. City of God is a grand, in a sense superhuman, effort to listen to, explicate, and imitate God’s Word. In particular, since rhetoric is “a divine art,” Augustine’s text must reflect it. For Roberts Ogle, this means attending to “the work’s genre.”

Augustine followed—while “Christianizing” —classical writers’ practice of “psychagogy— the art of leading souls to a state of health.” “[L]ike all other authors writing works of psychagogy, he seeks to correct the vision of his readers by carefully crafted rhetorical arguments.” This aim directly impacted his treatment of Roman politics in the first ten books:

Viewed in this way, Augustine’s pessimistic rhetoric about Roman politics aims to liberate his readers from an excessive attachment to Rome so that they might express a proper allegiance to the city of God.

This means that early “pessimistic” statements about Roman politics should not be taken as dispositive, as Augustine’s final word, on the subject of politics. First, he must disabuse Romans, who are unduly attached to their city, then he can state the truth about the political sphere in God’s providential design. This will be complicated, because in addition to the pagan categories of “nature” and “custom” (consuetudo), he will have to add biblical categories. To fully understand politics and the political sphere, one must bring to bear the categories of “creation,” “postlapsarian,” and “eschatological,” among others. Nor is this a simple matter of addition. These biblical categories require a reworking of the pagan categories.

For example, according to Roberts Ogle, “Augustine’s writings are shot through with a grammar that reflects his Christianized notion of Platonic participation—what I call a sacramental grammar.” In a fancy phrase, she declares that “only a sacramental semiotics provides a conceptual framework that [is] adequate” to Augustine’s rhetoric and argument. Bringing these two aspects together, she wants to provide a “sacramental reading of Augustine’s prose.”

Thus, rhetorical sensitivity and Augustine’s sacramental view of reality are two pillars of a proper interpretation of the text. In so arguing, Roberts Ogle follows Augustine’s own lead in de doctrina Christiana (“On Christian teaching”). In that text, Augustine developed a semiotics, a theory of signs and of communication, that enabled him to interpret God’s creation as the grand external expression or Sign of His goodness, wisdom, and purpose, and to explain why, even though language is natural to human beings, they would regularly abuse this God-given capacity.

Justice is imperfect in this life, its full realization requires a Divine Judge and another life.

The deepest source of this abuse of language is human self-love, that is, amor sui. Above, in characterizing “the first half” of Augustine’s work, Roberts Ogle declared that it “aims to divest readers of the logic of amor sui by calling the worldviews it generates into question.” Amor sui generates worldviews. Accordingly, she lays out Augustine’s exposition of its fundamental nature and dynamics: willfully disobedient to divinely established order, it is at once “deceived and deceiving.” She then explains his critical analyses of a series of worldviews generated by it. The series begins with Rome’s proud view of itself as the grand civilizing empire, moves to the “popular religion” instituted by its leaders to keep the multitude in line, and culminates with “the philosopher-statesmen” and “philosophers” who saw through these fictions and ended up mired in religious skepticism or aspiring to some impersonal transcendent principle. Despite these different results (skepticism or transcendent aspiration), both sorts trusted entirely in their natural powers. Augustine is relentless in exposing the unacknowledged contradictions and only partially acknowledged inadequacies of Roman practice and thought. He is a Christian gadfly puncturing Roman—and Greek—claims to superiority, self-sufficiency, and godlike status.

There is a singular difference, however, between the original gadfly (Socrates) and the Christian one. On his opponents’ own accounts, the truth they sought, the good they desired, and the immortality that was their ambitio, they failed to achieve. Augustine aimed to show that acknowledging this humiliating truth was the necessary prelude to the real elevation of human beings, one effected, paradoxically, by humilitas. Unlike superbia, humility was the royal road, the divinely laid out and trodden road to real and eternal bliss. “I am the Way, the Truth, and the Life” (Jn. 14: 6) had declared the Mediator, the God-man, Jesus Christ.

Therefore, undergirding and bringing all the above—rhetoric, metaphysics, semiotics, critique, and hope—into a unity is Augustine’s understanding of Scripture. Scripture for him is the key to everything—and Christ, the key to Scripture. This comes as no surprise, of course: it’s to be expected that a Christian believer will credit and place Sacred Scripture and Christ at the center of his thinking. But there are important issues lurking here. I’ll raise two, before turning to her presentation of Augustine’s final views on the political sphere and politics after the advent of Christ, that is, in temporibus Christianīs.

I can begin with a sentence I read in Peter Brown, the famous Augustine scholar, many moons ago. He wrote that “Augustine’s God speaks like a fourth century Roman rhetorician.” The serious issue in the jocular observation is the fact, and necessity, of interpreting Scripture at least in part in non-Scriptural terms. As we have seen, Augustine appropriated pagan rhetoric and philosophy and “Christianized” them. But the path runs both ways. Scripture can be read intra-textually— Scriptura ex Scripturā—and it can be read in the light of Cicero and Plato. Augustine did both. There’s a delicate operation at work. When do we have exegesis that draws out the inherent meaning of scripture, when do we have eisegesis that distorts it with infusions of pagan philosophy? History has shown that both are real possibilities. Some criteria are in order.

Nor is this question of exegesis or eisegesis a tangential matter of secondary importance. It bears upon the fundamental ideas of City of God. Roberts Ogle allows us to see this with commendable candor. First, she acknowledges that “there is much scholarly speculation about the Platonic, Stoic, and Manichean influences on his conception of the two cities.” Then, she cites (and follows) the authority of J. Van Oort, who has studied the matter closely: “Van Oort concluded in his 1991 book that the idea is fundamentally scriptural.” But in a footnote, she reports that “it is true that Oort also thinks that Augustine read the idea of the opposition of the two cities back into Scripture from the tradition.” Exegesis or eisegesis? A bit unsatisfyingly, she concludes that “[f]or our purposes, it is enough to say with Van Oort that “Augustine speaks of two cities because in his opinion the Scriptures themselves already do so.”

I don’t want to be misunderstood. I have not said anything approaching what could and should be said about possible Scriptural warrant for Augustine’s fundamental concepts. I have only indicated a fundamental issue that Roberts Ogle’s treatment raised, but didn’t resolve. She herself is quite aware that there are mysteries—or at least “mystery” —here.

Scripture, for Augustine, is the communication of eternal vision translated into time. As such, it can only be translated into an eschatological vision—the kind of vision that we penetrate “through a glass darkly” (1 Cor. 13: 12). Thus, when these two cities are revealed, they are revealed as eschatological realities—societies made visible in light of their destiny and destination. This is a perspective that must be received as gift, and, fundamentally, as mystery.

We can convey the gist of Roberts Ogle’s understanding of Augustine’s final views of earthly politics and the political sphere by citing two passages of her book. Through his critique of Rome, and his presentation of the two Cities, Augustine “wants to resituate patriotic love within its proper context.” This means that by

  [m]aking conceptual space between natural political community, postlapsarian political necessity, and sinful political behavior, … Augustine … does not concede the political sphere to the earthly city. Instead, he urges us to participate in our political communities without participating in the earthly city. Thus, … when it comes to politics, the psychagogic goal of City of God is that we participate as pilgrims, striving to be a healing presence within our political communities while seeking a good beyond them all the same.

Christian citizens should see political community as an expression of our God-given “social nature,” they should see rule and authority as opportunities for “service,” not self-aggrandizement, and they should recognize that today’s “enemy,” whether political or religious, might be tomorrow’s—or eternity’s—“friend” and “brother.” Given human sinfulness and the constant grasping presence of “the earthly city,” however, they should have sober expectations of politics and the political order. “True justice” (vera justitia) and “true peace” (vera pax) are theological categories, categories pertaining to the City of God, not the cities of human beings. Justice is imperfect in this life, its full realization requires a Divine Judge and another life. The peace that one can experience in this life is a combination of the supernatural gift of a “peace that passes all understanding” and an ever-fragile “earthly peace.” For individuals and communities, earthly life is a trial and it is “passing,” it should be lived in the light of these great facts and of the journey’s end.

As my synopsis indicates, in her rendering of Augustine’s thought about earthly politics, Roberts Ogle keeps everything at a general level and does not descend to contemporary circumstances and issues.  As it happens, though, there are any number of passages that lend themselves to contemporary application. I will leave that task to the next reader of this fine study of Augustine’s City of God.

As for Roberts Ogle, I will end with a friendly criticism and a recommendation for her next work.  They are prompted by an important thing I found missing in her account of Augustine on politics, a feature found very much in his soul and central to the political teachings of his pagan masters and antagonists, Plato and Aristotle. I refer to what they called “thumos” or spiritedness. The term, however, only makes one appearance in her book, as “thumotic rage.”  That cannot be the full truth of the thing, as Augustine’s own example as a spirited defender of the Church indicates.

In our day, when both the Church and the country are under attack from enemies foreign and domestic, and therefore in need of stout defenders, I would hope that Roberts Ogle would turn next to the place and role of spiritedness in Augustine’s moral and political thought, and, secondly, to the question of how Augustine discerned “friends” and “enemies.” That would have important applicability at a time when we have an administration headed by a baptized and self-professed Catholic, but which is foursquare against the natural sexual order stoutly defended by Augustine and, concomitantly, against religious freedom. Augustine’s example should inspire us to challenge such hypocrisy along with policies of “equity” and “diversity” that set citizen against citizen and ruin civic comity. Merely invoking “love thy enemy” or the Christian duty “to heal the wounds of sin” will not do all the work that needs to be done.