The City of God: An Introduction

by Edmund Waldstein, O.Cist.

1. Occasion and Intention

The sack of Rome by the Visigoths in 410 shook the Roman world to its foundations. Although Rome was no longer the residence even of the Western Emperor, nevertheless she was the symbol of the civilized world. To many Romans this catastrophe seemed to be a refutation of Christianity. Clearly, the Christian God was unable or unwilling to protect the city in which he was now honored. Christianity was unable to fulfill the function that political theology assigned to it of assuring the safety of the empire, and especially of that city from which the empire had originally sprung.[1] Saint Augustine of Hippo responded to this argument in The City of God.

The City of God is a comprehensive attack on pagan political theology and political philosophy. In elaborating his attack, Augustine is led to expound the full scope of the Christian understanding of reality— of God and the world, and the way in which God’s providential plan is realized in history. The resulting “magnum opus et arduum,” great and arduous work,[2] manages to cover every conceivable subject, but always with the main aim in view. The first ten books refute the idea that the pagan gods ought to be worshiped— whether for the prosperity of this life (I-V) or of the life to come (VI-X)— the remaining 12 books treat the origins (XI-XIV), development (XV-XVIII), and ends (XIX-XXII) of two cities: the City of God and the Earthly City.[3] It would be a mistake, however, to see the treatment of the two cities in the second half as straying from the original intention of the work.[4] The most convincing refutation of the charge against the Christians is to show that far from being of detriment to civil life, Christianity is true civil life, true politics.

In order to understand Augustine’s argument it is necessary to recall some of the main features of the pagan political philosophy and political theology that he was attacking, and how that political theology interacted with Christianity before Augustine. In this introduction I will therefore give a sketch of those themes (2-3), before outlining the main line of Augustine’s argument (4).

The City of God was a key influence on the development of Catholic teaching on the relation of spiritual and temporal power, and on the common good of political society. The great medieval popes and theologians constantly referred to Augustine, or paraphrased him in their exposition of these themes. Modern interpreters have, however, tended to deny that the medieval developments were really Augustinian, arguing that Augustine’s own position would imply a much less “integralist” view of political life. I will defend the medieval interpretations, giving reasons for thinking that the medieval “Political Augustinianism” was really a development from premises to be found in The City of God (5-6). Finally I will offer a detailed outline of the structure of the work (7).

2. Pagan Political Theology

In the Greek city-states the worship of the gods was deeply interwoven with social and political life. Political authority was as religious as it was political, because, as Ittai Gradel puts it, the dichotomy “was unknown to, or at least irrelevant to, traditional Graeco-Roman worship.”[5] Historians have recognized this as far back as Numa Denis Fustel de Coulanges’s enduring classic, The Ancient City, first published in 1864. Fustel argued that in the early phase of the development of ancient cities gods were seen as being tied to specific cities, “patriotism was piety, and exile excommunication[.]”[6] Important religious rites were performed by the rulers themselves to ensure the security, peace, and prosperity of the city. In short, “religion, law, and government were confounded, and had been but a single thing under three different aspects.”[7] Fustel’s interpretation of the evidence has of course been qualified in various ways by later historians, but his basic insight into the unity of the religious and the political has only been confirmed.

The character of ancient civic religion was slowly modified by the development of philosophy, which debunked primitive myths, as well as social factors such as increased trade and political alliances.[8] But this did not lead to a separation of religion and politics. Aristotle still considered worship to be an essential function of the πόλις, the city: “Fifthly, or rather first, there must be a care of religion, which is commonly called worship.”[9] To Aristotle the independent city-state or πόλις was the complete human community, in which the goal of human life was to be attained. Politics, the art of directing the πόλις, was therefore an architectonic activity to which all other human activities were ordered. In the Nichomachean Ethics, Aristotle argues that since politics directs all the other activities of man, its end must be the end for the sake of which those other activities pursue their ends. Political philosophy, therefore, is chiefly concerned with understanding the final end and highest good achievable by human action.[10] The point can be difficult for modern readers, accustomed to a liberal, procedural understanding of the state that sees the end of life as being a private matter. For Aristotle, as for much of classical philosophy, the end of life was a public matter. And therefore, religion had to be fully integrated into politics.

The early religion of the city of Rome was similar to that of the Greek cities. Through the development of Roman power over large swaths of the Mediterranean world, and through the influence of Greek philosophy, it was slowly modified. But the function of divine worship continued to largely to the securing of political/imperial success. As John Scheid puts it, “the Romans regarded the gods as earthly partners maintaining relations with mortals with an eye toward reciprocal earthly benefits.”[11] Thus the word religio, which we tend to translate with “religion” meant reverence not only towards the gods, but also towards human superiors.[12] The Romans considered themselves to be particularly pious, and the city cult of Rome was “an integral part of the Roman constitution.”[13] The saw in it an important reason for their spectacular military successes. In the Aeneid, the national epic that he wrote for Rome, Virgil describes Rome as having a divine mission to give the whole world the order of law: “totum sub leges mitteret orbem;”[14] to impose peace by crushing the proud and sparing the weak: “pacique imponere morem, / parcere subiectis et debellare superbos.”[15] Roman imperialism was supposed to preserve what was best about the Greek philosophical ideal of the city-state— concern with the good of the citizens— the empire was still nominally the res publica, the common good of the people. And it was to overcome the petty particularism of individual cities by realizing the Stoic ideal of a universal society of all rational beings. Virgil saw a certain tension remaining between those two elements, since the scale of imperial life seemed to render the sort of political participation that the Greek tradition saw as an essential element of human happiness impossible. But for Virgil too, politics was the architectonic art, in which religion was included.[16]

As polytheists, the Romans respected the civic religion of other cities that came under their sway. Everyone was to worship the gods of their ancestors. But Romans were not allowed to worship foreign gods, unless their worship had been ordered by the senate, since this implied disrespect for the gods of Rome.[17] The Senate tended to order new cults only under the pressure of crisis. Thus, when the Roman gods seemed to be too weak to defend Rome against Carthage in the Second Punic War, the Senate decided to import the Phrygian goddess Cybale.[18] Religions without the ancestral sanction of a respectable city, however, were looked at with mistrust. Oriental sects associated with ecstatic disorder, insubordination of the lower classes, sexual immorality, and cannibalism were looked on with special disapproval.[19] In imperial times,[20] the offering of sacrifices to the emperor’s genius, or to the emperor himself, was seen as “the token of loyalty to the Imperial house.”[21]

3. Christianity and Caesar Before Augustine

Roman officials looked with suspicion on the movement of the Christians, whose founder had been a criminal executed by a Roman governor, and whose adherents were initially found mostly among the lower classes. Pliny the Younger, in his correspondence with the Emperor Trajan, writes that his custom when persons are accused of being Christian is to ask them three times whether they are, and if they persist in claiming that they are Christians he puts them to death: “For I do not doubt that, whatever kind of crime it may be to which they have confessed, their pertinacity and inflexible obstinacy should certainly be punished.”[22] He considers their religion a “depraved and extravagant superstition,” but does not actively seek them out, and ignores anonymous denunciations.[23] Anyone who denied that he was a Christian, and proved it by offering incense to the emperor, was discharged.[24] Trajan approved Pliny’s method of proceeding, and his letter can be taken as having legal weight.[25]

The Christians reacted to the attitude of the Roman officials by stressing that they were loyal to the emperor in all things, paying him taxes and praying for him, but they would not pray to him.[26] The distinction made little sense to the Roman officials, for whom, as noted above, the difference between honor paid to gods and honor paid to powerful humans did not differ in kind.[27]

Christian apologists were, however, able to make use of the rational approach to the divine in classical philosophy to argue for the plausibility of the Christian God as a transcendent and unique principle on which reality depended. Thus, as time went on, Christianity came to be seen as a locus of skepticism towards the irrationality of traditional pagan religion. By the time of Constantine, Christianity had adherents among the educated elite, as well as among the poor.[28]

A turning point in the history of the relation of Christianity to worldly power was the conversion of the Emperor Constantine (c. 272 – 337).[29] The Christians formed only about 10% of the population of the empire, but in a Christian catechumen emperor they found a powerful patron, who assured them legal rights, built them churches, and gave them an unprecedented prestige. Christian writers such as Eusebius of Caesarea greeted him as a kind of savior who had honored God and the Church and “destroyed all polytheistic error,” and therefore deserved to receive the reward of a prosperous reign on earth, and eternal glory in Heaven.[30] Constantine’s conversion seems to have been sincere.[31] His abolition of pagan sacrifices at state functions not only opened up the way for Christians to seek public office, it also dealt a massive blow to Roman political theology.[32] And yet, of course, Constantine was inclined to think of Christianity in terms borrowed from pagan political theology: the worship of the true God would assure the prosperity of the empire.[33]

Constantine’s successors also saw Christianity’s role as being analogous to that of the gods in Roman civic religion. This lead at times to tension with Church leaders. Christian bishops were happy to take imperial help in suppressing heresy and preserving Church unity,[34] but they also thought that the Church should be able to criticize worldly power. As Martin Rhonheimer argues, they developed two principles for the relation of Christianity to imperial power: first, “the primacy of the spiritual over the earthly/worldly affairs,” and second, “the ordering of all earthly/worldly affairs to the heavenly and eternal.”[35]

An important figure here was Augustine’s friend St. Ambrose of Milan (c. 340 – 397). In 390, when the Emperor Theodosius I ordered a massacre to punish the murder of magistrates in a riot, Ambrose sent him an astonishing rebuke (Epistle 51), calling him to repentance, and threatening him (in thinly veiled terms) with excommunication if he refused to do penance.[36] Subsequent generations were to see this as an inspiring example of the primacy of the spiritual. As Hugo Rahner put it, the letter, “remains for all time a monument of courage in the face of autocracy, a hymn to strength of conscience and liberty of spirit.”[37]

Already six years earlier, in a letter to the young emperor Valentinian, Ambrose had forcefully argued that the Christian emperor is a servant of God, and must promote the true religion. He must be “zealous for the true faith,” and not give equal rights to error. Political justice cannot be reduced to a balance of interests in which various influential groups are conceded something of what they want. Rather, justice consists in giving what is truly due to each, especially in giving the one, true God what is His due, by promoting Christian worship and suppressing pagan idolatry.[38]

4. True Civil Life

The main theme of The City of God is that the true “city,” the complete community, in which the highest end of human life is attained, is not the ancient free πόλις, but rather the community of those who love God. The true eternal city that will grant peace and unity to the world is not Rome, but rather the community of Christ. This community is hidden now, living by faith in the fleeting course of time, but it will be revealed at the last judgement when it will rejoice in final victory and peace. Already now it is submitting the whole world to a new law: the law of love and grace. The City of God is the true res publica, because she is united in the love of the true supreme and common good of all, God Himself. The love of this true good is unifying because it is not competitive, it is not diminished by being shared:

For a person’s possession of the good is by no means diminished when another comes or continues to share in it. On the contrary, goodness is a possession that spreads out more and more widely insofar as those who share it are united in undivided love. In fact, anyone who is unwilling to share this possession will find that he does not possess it at all, but, the more he is able to love the one who shares it with him, the greater he will find that his own possession of it becomes.[39]

Rome, in contrast, is not a true city or a true res publica at all. It is an instantiation of the rebellious anti-city that has since the beginning opposed the City of God: the Earthly City. This city is founded on “the love of self, even to the point of contempt for God.”[40] In his relentless polemic against Rome, Augustine shows that her claims to serving the common good were mere pretense. Roman imperialism did not serve the true good of its subjects, but rather the love of praise (amor laudis) and the lust for domination (libido dominandi) of its leaders. These passions are destructive of true human community, because they are by nature competitive— to have the glory of great praise presupposes that others receive less praise, and to dominate many demands many who are dominated. Thus, Romulus murdered Remus, so that the whole glory of founding Rome could be his alone.[41]

Cicero had defined the res publica as the common good of a people who are bound together “juris consensu et utilitatis communione” (“by a common sense for what is right and a community of interest”).[42] But, Augustine asks, how can there be a common sense for what is right (jus) when there is no justice? Justice is, after all, to give each his due (i.e. his “right”). A truly common sense for what is right would therefore mean that perfect justice was being done. But in the Rome justice was undermined at its very root, because Rome did not give God his due, because the Romans did not give themselves to God who created them.[43] Therefore Rome was not truly a res publica at all. Its civic life was turned into a mockery by that fundamental injustice, because, as Rowan Williams puts it, “a social practice which impedes human beings from offering themselves to God in fact denies that central impulse in human nature which Augustine defined as the unquenchable desire for God and his truth.”[44] Roman politics was therefore not truly politics, but anti-politics. Roman imperialists had claimed that Rome’s rule of her subjects was just because it was advantageous to them, like the rule of the soul over the body. But, if the souls of the Romans did not serve God, then there was no legitimacy to the rule of their souls over their bodies, or of their city over other cities.[45]

The civic virtues of the Romans were therefore in a fundamental sense vices. They were able in some sense to subordinate the passions to reason, but since reason itself was enslaved the love of praise and the lust of domination, the civic courage and devotions of the Romans was ultimately anti-civic. Since, however, on Augustine’s view evil has no independent being, but is always only a misdirecting of the good, it must therefore render and unwilling tribute to the good by imitating it. Thus, the Roman virtues bear a certain resemblance to true virtue, and the earthly peace that Roman virtues established is an imitation of true peace. Thus, in a less strict sense, Rome was a res publica, a group of persons united by “common agreement on the objects of their love.”[46]

Augustine can therefore understand the relation between the true peace of the City of God, and the imitation peace of the Earthly City as the relation between a Platonic form and its image in the world of change. The purpose of such images is to point the “receptive soul” to “what lies beyond.”[47] Thus Augustine holds up the Roman virtues as an example to be emulated by the citizens of the City of God.[48] Indeed, in the greatest of the Romans, Marcus Regulus, the pagan semblance of virtue comes so close to true virtue that it almost achieves it: “a paganism on the point of over-coming itself, of an earthly city in process of becoming—but it is impossible—a heavenly city.”[49]

The citizens of the City of God make a certain use of the earthly peace, and directs it toward the true peace of Heaven.[50] Here Augustine counters the pagan suspicion that loyalty to the City of God would undermine concern for the common good of visible cities like Rome.[51] On the contrary, he argues, it is of great advantage for the earthly peace if the rulers are Christians, since they understand what true virtue is.[52] They understand that true virtue cannot be attained by human effort but only received by the repentant who submit to Christ.[53] They use the sword to restrain evil-doers, but moderately; they are “slow to punish and quick to pardon,”[54] because they understand that “the just society is penitential.”[55] Above all, they use their power to “spread the worship of God as much as possible.”[56] Augustine praises Christian emperors such as Constantine and Theodosius for living according to such principles.[57] But even they were not able to achieve true peace on earth. True peace is to be found only in Heaven. And therefore, God does not always give earthly prosperity to Christian emperors for “no one should be Christian except for the sake of eternal life.”[58]

Here Augustine strikes at the very heart of ancient political theology. True religion does not exist for the sake of securing the transitory order of this world, but rather for the sake of building up a city that will only be realized in eternity. Since earthly cities are not the highest goods, Christians are not committed to preserving them at any cost. A Christian ruler will therefore not suspend the ordinary rules of right and wrong (for example by killing innocents) even if the survival of the city depends on it. But this radicalization of the Socratic principle that it is better to suffer injustice than to commit it, does not subordinate the political to some “private” moral concern; rather it subordinates the uncertain fortunes of earthly politics to the common good of a better city whose advantage can never be served by injustice.

5. The Question of Political Augustinianism

The City of God was a key influence on medieval theories of the relation of the two powers, and particularly on the development of theories of the plenitude of power of the pope. It tended to be interpreted in a very particular way. The City of God came to be more and more identified with the visible Church and the pope as its visible head. And since no justice could exist except in the City of God, political powers could only be just if they recognized the authority of the visible Church. As R.W. Dyson puts it:

The political community can become a moral community, a community in which justice is present; but it can do so only through submission to the authority of the visible Church: an authority not subject to the deficiencies that infect the institutions created by fallen men.[59]

This was the principle from which the teaching of the papal plenitude of power was to be developed. In the 20th century, Msgr. Henri-Xavier Arquillière was to dub this medieval use of Augustine “political Augustinianism.” Arquillière argued that while Augustine’s later followers were to go much further than Augustine himself in subordinating temporal power to the hierarchy of the visible Church, Augustine’s own pessimism about nature and insistence that true justice could only be found through grace were the seeds from which the medieval developments sprung.[60]

There has been much debate about the extent to which “political Augustinianism” was really developed out of Augustine’s own thought. Many have seen it as “the reverse of true Augustinism.”[61] Augustine’s actual principles, they argued, imply something more like the modern separation of church and state. R. A. Markus, building on the work of Henri-Irénée Marrou, gave a sustained account of this position in his landmark study Saeculum. According to Markus, Augustine’s comprehensive refutation of political theology leaves no room for a Christian re-sacralization of political power:

Augustine’s attack on the ‘sacral’ conception of the Empire liberated the Roman state, and by implication, all politics, from the direct hegemony of the sacred. Society became intrinsically ‘secular’ in the sense that it is not as such committed to any particular ultimate loyalty. It is the sphere in which different individuals with different beliefs and loyalties pursue their common objectives in so far as they coincide. His ‘secularisation’ of the realm of politics implies a pluralistic, religiously neutral civil community. Historically, of course, such a society lay entirely beyond the horizons of Augustine’s world.[62]

Markus is not of course arguing that Augustine himself was a modern liberal, but rather that his idea of the saeculum as the passing age in which the City of God and the Earthly City live mixed together, and must cooperate on practical penultimate concerns, implies a sort of pluralism that was only to be realized centuries later, after a long detour through a Medieval Christendom that was really a betrayal of true Augustinianism.

Markus’s liberal reading of Augustine has itself been contentiously debated. A particularly insistent critic is John Milbank, who argues that Markus’s reading is “almost totally erroneous.”[63] Milbank appeals that far from implying that worldly politics ought to be individualistic and pluralistic, Augustine is actually criticizing Roman politics for being too individualistic.[64] Appealing to the sort of reading that I have been offering in this section of the City of God as truly fulfilling the Roman civil ideals that Rome herself was not able to realize, Milbank argues that Augustine is indeed calling for social and political life to be integrated into the Church. Christian rulers will use political force for the ends of the Church, coercion will become “pastoral” coercion.[65]

Milbank thus moves back in the direction of Arquillière’s political Augustinianism thesis.[66] Other thinkers associated with Milbank’s “Radical Orthodoxy” movement, however, have developed Milbank’s reading in a direction which, while opposite to Markus’s, is nevertheless equally opposed to “political Augustinianism.” Thus, William T. Cavanaugh reads Augustine in a Christian anarchist direction. Worldly, coercive power belongs in the Earthly City which is always in conflict with the Heavenly City. The citizens of the Heavenly City should reject the coercive political projects of the age, and live in an anticipatory counter-city that serves as a perpetual sign of contradiction to earthly powers.[67] Cavanaugh of course admits that Augustine countenanced the use of coercive measures by the city of God,[68] nevertheless, Cavanaugh wants to insist that coercive government and the peaceful city of the Church cannot be integrated into one society with a Gelasian division of duties; coercive government will always remain outside the City of God and opposed to her.[69] It is therefore hard to see, how, on Cavanaugh’s reading, Augustine’s endorsement of the use of political power for spiritual ends is consistent with his principles.

R.W. Dyson’s careful analysis of the relation of Augustine’s texts to “political Augustinianism” seems to me more convincing. Although Dyson calls the medieval reception Augustine “selective and tendentious,”[70] nevertheless he shows how Augustine’s principles are open to development in the medieval direction. One might say, Dyson argues, that Augustine “did not follow his theological and metaphysical principles through to their most obvious conclusions.”[71] He illustrates this by references to Augustine’s correspondence with Roman officials. Augustine suggests that the governors rule over bodily life, while he as bishop has the rule of the life of the soul.[72] Augustine’s relations with Roman governors in Africa was not a competitive one, and in trying to enlist their help for his aims, he writes as though they were his equals in a different order. But it is clear that for Augustine the soul is superior to the body, and therefore the relation between bishops and governors is “asymmetrical.”[73] In a changed situation, therefore, in which disputes arose between rulers and bishops it was logical for the “political Augustinian” position to emerge. In other words, Arquillière’s thesis still stands.

Dyson notes that what was just 70 years after Augustine that Pope Gelasius I wrote his famous letter Famuli vestrae pietatis (also known as Duo sunt), which already drew “political Augustinian” conclusions from premises taken from Augustine.[74] Indeed, Dyson calls the Gelasian Dyarchy “Augustinian/Gelasian principle,” since “Augustine is effectively the originator of the view that historians more usually associate with Pope Gelasius I.”[75] Political Augustinianism is thus identical to the “Gelasian Dyarchy,” which would continue to be taught in the most solemn manner by subsequent popes, and it amounts to what I have called “integralism.”[76]

6. Is Man by Nature Political?

Now, Arquillière thought that political Augustinianism was a bad thing. Augustine, he argues, did not distinguish sufficiently between nature and grace, and therefore his later followers were able to absorb the legitimate natural-law institution of political power into the Church.[77] Only the re-discovery of Aristotle in the 13th century would enable the natural character of political life to re-emerge. This argument raises serious questions. Do those 20th century theologians who allegedly made nature a mere “vacuole for grace”[78] have a true predecessor in Augustine? Or, on the other hand, did those 16th century thinkers who found in Augustine an idea of nature totally depraved by original sin find the true Augustine?

I cannot treat these questions in any great detail here. But I would like to give some indications of where an answer is to be sought by comparing Augustine with the greatest of 13th century Aristotelians: Saint Thomas Aquinas. In the great debate between extreme Augustinians and extreme Aristotelians in the 13th century, Saint Thomas refused both sides, and argued that Aristotle and Augustine are actually compatible.[79] But is his resulting synthesis truly Augustinian? Augustine does indeed speak of the Greek philosophers as discovering the natural law of right and wrong.[80] And in the praises of Regulus he portrays a virtue achieved in fallen nature that almost attains to the full being of virtue. Chad Pecknold has argued that Thomas’s understanding of the definition of virtue that he takes from Augustine— “a good quality of the mind, by which we live righteously, of which no one can make bad use, which God works in us, without us”[81]— is truly Augustinian.[82]

One way of approaching the question is to look at whether Augustine thought that political rule was rooted in man’s original nature, or was a consequence of original sin. In other words: would there have been politics if Adam had never sinned? Thomas argues that the political common good is a locus of natural perfection, and since the common good of its nature demands a ruler who directs the multitude to it, there would have been political rule even without original sin.[83] In the first objections to the article in which Thomas makes this argument, he cites a passage of The City of God that later interpreters have often used to argue that Augustine holds the opposite position: “[God] did not want a rational creature, made in his own image, to have dominion [dominari] except over irrational creatures— not man over man but man over beasts.”[84] Dominion is the word that Augustine uses for possession of slaves and private property, as well as coercive political rule, suggests that all of these have been introduced by divine providence after the fall in order to punish and restrain evil-doers. In the body of the article, however, Thomas argues that there are two kinds of rule: one for the sake of the ruler, and one for the sake of the ruled. In saying that there would have been no dominion absent original sin, Augustine was speaking only of the former kind, Thomas argues, and not the later. And Thomas refers to the immediately preceding text of The City of God as evidence:

In the household of the just person who lives by faith and is still on pilgrimage far from the heavenly city, however, even those who give commands are at the service of those whom they appear to command. For they do not give their commands out of any desire for domination but rather out of dutiful concern for others, not out of any pride in ruling but rather out of compassion in providing for others. This is what the order of nature prescribes; this is the way God created man.[85]

Robert Markus, however, argues that “this is the way God created man” refers not to the preceding text about benevolent rule, but only to the following text about God setting man over animals, rather than his fellow men.[86] He argues that Augustine really means that political life in its entirety is a result of the Fall. Man would have been social without the fall, but not political.[87] “Men are driven ‘by the laws of their nature’ to enter a social existence; but Augustine conceives this ‘natural’ society as a society of equals living in concord and subject only to God.”[88] Markus recognizes a text that presents certain problems to his position. Namely De genesi ad literam XI, 37, in which Augustine argues that women would still have been subject to their husbands before the fall, and distinguishes two sorts of subjection:

The punishment, then, given to the woman is also understood in a literal sense; and furthermore we must give consideration to the statement And you shall be subject to your husband, and he shall rule over you, to see how it can be understood in the proper sense. For we must believe that even before her sin woman had been made to be ruled by her husband and to be submissive and subject to him. But we can with reason understand that the servitude meant in these words is that in which there is a condition similar to that of slavery rather than a bond of love (so that the servitude by which men later began to be slaves to other men obviously has its origin in punishment for sin). St. Paul says, Through love serve one another. But by no means would he say, “Have dominion over one another.”[89]

Many interpreters had seen in this text the same distinction between two kinds of rule that Thomas made, and have argued that it is reasonable to presume that Augustine would have held that this sort of rule would have held in a state of innocence. But Markus argues that while we can conceive of a father directing a family without coercion, we cannot conceive of non-coercive politics. Politics he thinks is essentially coercive.

But why would Markus presume that Augustine shared his Hobbesian/Weberian understanding of politics? The reason, I think, has to do with a claim that he wants to make about freedom. “The Augustinian tradition, in excluding political authority from [the state of innocence], implied that any interference with a subject’s activities constitutes a restriction of his freedom.”[90] He goes on to argue that while Augustine had a “negative” understanding of freedom, Thomas and other Aristotelians had a “positive” understanding of freedom—in the sense given those terms by Isaiah Berlin.[91] I believe that we have here another example of Markus’s “almost totally erroneous” attempt at finding a protoliberal in Augustine. The idea of Augustine as promoting a negative concept of freedom is frankly bizarre.[92]

I am therefore in agreement with interpreters such as Otto Schilling, John Neville Figgis, and Ernest Fortin, who read Augustine as distinguishing between the sort of dominium involving coercion that is a result of the original sin, and the benevolent direction of political affairs that would have existed even in the absence of sin.[93] They can point to Augustine’s “table of peace,” in which the peace of a particular city is seen as an intermediate good between the household and the City of God:

The peace of the body is, then, the properly ordered arrangement of its parts; the peace of the irrational soul is the properly ordered satisfaction of the appetites; the peace of the rational soul is the properly ordered accord of cognition and action; the peace of body and soul together is the properly ordered life and wellbeing of a living creature; peace between mortal man and God is properly ordered obedience, in faith, under eternal law; peace among men is the properly ordered concord of mind with mind; the peace of a household is the properly ordered concord, with respect to command and obedience, of those who are living together; the peace of a city is the properly ordered concord, with respect to command and obedience, of its citizens; the peace of the heavenly city is perfectly ordered and wholly concordant fellowship in the enjoyment of God and of each other in God. The peace of all things is the tranquillity of order, and order is the arrangement of things equal and unequal that assigns to each its due place.[94]

And they can point to Civ. Dei, XV,4 where the good of earthly cities is defended as a true good.

Rightly understood, therefore, political Augustinianism does not deny the natural common good of particular cities. But it sees that the natural common good of temporal life must be healed and elevated by grace, and directed by the infused virtue of charity to the supernatural common good of the Heavenly City.[95] Grace does not destroy nature; it liberates it: “What gives birth to citizens of the earthly city is a nature vitiated by sin, and what gives birth to citizens of the heavenly city is grace liberating that nature from sin.”[96]

7. Analytical Division of the Text

Augustine himself gives us a detailed account of the structure of The City of God in his Retractions, which I quote at length:

Meanwhile, Rome was destroyed as a result of an invasion of the Goths under the leadership of King Alaric, and of the violence of this great disaster. The worshipers of many false gods, whom we call by the customary name pagans, attempting to attribute its destruction to the Christian religion, began to blaspheme the true God more sharply and bitterly than usual. And so, ‘burning with zeal for the house of God,’ I decided to write the books, On the City of God, in opposition to their blasphemies and errors. This work kept me busy for some years because many other things, which should not be deferred, interfered and their solution had first claim on me. But finally, this extensive work, On the City of God, was completed in twenty-two books.
The first five of these books refute those persons who would so view the prosperity of human affairs that they think that the worship of the many gods whom the pagans worship is necessary for this; they contend that these evils arise and abound because they are prohibited from doing so. The next five books, however, speak against those who admit that these evils have never been wanting and never will be wanting to mortals, and that these, at one time great, at another time slight, vary according to places, times, and persons; and yet they argue that the worship of many gods, whereby sacrifice is offered to them, is useful because of the life to come after death. In these ten books, then, these two false beliefs, contrary to the Christian religion, are refuted.
But lest anyone charge that we have only argued against the beliefs of others, and have not stated our own, it is just this that the second part of this work, which consists of twelve books, accomplishes; although, when there is need, both in the first ten books I state my own opinions, and, in the last twelve, I argue against those opposed to them. The first four of the following twelve books, then, deal with the origin of the two cities, one of which is of God, the other of this world; the next four books treat of their growth or progress; but the third four books, which are also the last, deal with their destined ends. And so, although the entire twenty-two books were written about both cities, yet, they have taken their title from the better one, and consequently are called, On the City of God.[97]

And in a letter to Firmus he writes:

There are twenty-two sections [quaternions]. To put all these into one whole [corpus] would be cumbersome. If you wish that two volumes [codices] be made of them, they should be so apportioned that one volume contain ten books [libros], the other twelve. For, in those ten, the empty teachings of the pagans have been refuted, and, in the remainder, our own religion has been demonstrated and defended—though, to be sure, in the former books the latter subject has been dealt with when it was more suitable to do so, and in the latter, the former.
If, however, you should prefer that there be more than two volumes, you should make as many as five. The first of these would contain the first five books, where argument has been advanced against those who contend that the worship, not indeed of gods, but of demons, is of profit for happiness in this present life. The second volume would contain the next five books, where [a stand has been taken against those] who think that, for the sake of the life which is to come after death, worship should be paid, through rites and sacrifices, whether to these divinities or to any plurality of gods whatever. The next three volumes ought to embrace four books each; for this part of our work has been so divided that four books set forth the origin of that City, a second four its progress— or, as we might choose to say, its development,— the final four its appointed ends.[98]

Those passages, together with internal evidence in The City of God itself give us the following general division of the text:[99]

Part One: Books 1 – 10: Against those who believe happiness comes from the worship of the Roman gods

1 – 5: Against those who believe that the worship of the gods leads to happiness in this life

1 – 3: The gods did not prevent moral and physical evils in Rome’s history

1: The Fall of Rome not due to conversion to Christianity. Why disasters happen.

2: Moral evils not prevented, but caused by the Gods

3: Physical disasters not prevented by the Gods

4 – 5: Roman power and glory not due to the gods, but the one God

4: Roman power is not due to the Roman gods

5: Power and glory was given by God to the Romans

6 – 10: Against those who believe that the worship of the gods leads to happiness in the life to come

6 – 7: Official Roman polytheism

6: The civil religion of Rome cannot provide eternal happiness

7: The select or principal gods of Rome cannot provide eternal happiness

8 – 10: The religion of the Platonists

8: Platonic religious philosophy and polytheism

9: Worship of good and bad demons among Platonists

10: The religion of the Platonists and the Christian religion compared

Part Two: Books 11 – 24: The origin, development and ends of the city of God and the earthly city

11 – 14: The origin of the city of God and the earthly city

11 and 12: The origin of two cities among angels

11: The origin of the city of God in the good angels; creation of a good world

12: The origin of the earthly city in the fall of the angels; the creation of man

13 and 14: The origin of two cities among men

13: The fall of man: Adam and Eve; death

14: Detailed analysis of the fall and its effects

15 – 18: The development of the two cities

15: The two cities in the first age (Adam to Noah)

16: The two cities in the second age (Noah to Abraham);

the city of God in the third age (Abraham to David)

17: The city of God in the fourth age (David to Babylonian captivity)

and the fifth age (Babylonian captivity to Christ)

18: The earthly city in the third to fifth ages;

the city of God in the sixth age (Jesus to the end-times)

19-20: The ends of the two cities

19: The supreme good and evil: definitive peace and definitive war

20: The end-times and the final judgment separates the two cities

21: The end of the earthly city: eternal damnation

22: The end of the city of God: eternal happiness


[1] See: Peter Brown, Augustine of Hippo: A Biography (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2000), ch. 25.

[2] Augustine, Civ. Dei, I, praef.; Sancti Aurelii Augustini episcopi De civitate Dei libri XXII., ed. B. Dombart and A. Kalb, Bibliotheca scriptorum Graecorum et Romanorum Teubneriana, 5th ed. (Stuttgart-Leipzig: Teubner, 1993), 2 vols.; The City of God, trans. William Babcock, The Works of Saint Augustine: A Translation for the 21st Century, vols. I,6-7 (New York: New City Press, 2012).

[3] For the division of the books see section 7 below.

[4] For such a reading see, e.g.: Thomas Merton, Introduction to Augustine, The City of God, trans. Marcus Dods, The Modern Library (New York: Random House, 1993), p. xii.

[5] Ittai Gradel, Emperor Worship and Roman Religion (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002), p. 3.

[6] Numa Denis Fustel de Coulanges, The Ancient City: A Study on the Religion, Laws, and Institutions of Greece and Rome, trans. Willard Small (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1980), p. 381.

[7] Fustel, The Ancient City, p. 381.

[8] Fustel, The Ancient City, Bk. V.

[9] Aristotle, Politics VII,8 1328b 13; trans. Benjamin Jowett, in: The Basic Works of Aristotle, ed. Richard McKeon (New York: Random House, 1941).

[10] Aristotle, Nichomachean Ethics, I,1-2 1094a-b; cf. Politics, I,1 1252a.

[11] John Scheid, The Gods, the State, and the Individual: Reflections on Civic Religion in Rome, trans. Clifford Ando (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2016), p. 139.

[12] Gradel, Emperor Worship, p. 4.

[13] Gradel, Emperor Worship, p. 12.

[14] Virgil, Aeneid, IV, 231, ed. H. Rushton Fairclough, Loeb Classical Library, vol. 63 (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2004).

[15] Virgil, Aeneid, VI, 852-853.

[16] See: John Alvis, Divine Purpose and Heroic Response in Homer and Virgil: The Political Plan of Zeus (Lanham: Rowman and Littlefield, 1995), ch. 3. I would not, however, go as far Eve Adler, who argues that Virgil’s religion was a “noble lie,” an esoteric teaching meant to prop up imperial authority, but which Virgil himself did not believe: Eve Adler, Vergil’s Empire: Political Thought in the Aeneid (Lanham: Rowman and Littlefield, 2003). Here it seems to me that the Victorian critic Frederic Myers’s reading of Virgil’s religion is still more convincing: F.W.H. Myers, “Virgil,” in: Essays: Classical (London: Macmillan, 1883), pp. 106-176.

[17] See: W.H.C Frend, Martyrdom and Persecution in the Early Church: A Study of Conflict from the Maccabees to Donatus (Eugene: Wipf and Stock, 2014), p. 106.

[18] Frend, Martyrdom and Persecution, p. 107.

[19] Frend, Martyrdom and Persecution, pp. 108-114.

[20] Frend sees the cult of rulers as being principally an imperial development, and as being influenced by Greek customs. Against this see Grandel, Emperor Worship and Roman Religion, ch. 2, who argues that emperor worship had deep roots in republican custom.

[21] Frend, Martyrdom and Persecution, p. 118.

[22] Pliny the Younger, Ep. 10, in: Henry Bettenson and Chris Maunder, Documents of the Christian Church, 3rd edition (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999), pp. 3-4, at p. 4.

[23] Pliny, Ep. 10, p.4.

[24] Pliny, Ep. 10, p.4.

[25] See: T. D. Barnes, “Legislation against the Christians,” in: The Journal of Roman Studies 58 (1968), pp. 32-50.

[26] See: Hugo Rahner, S.J., Church and State in Early Christianity, trans. Leo Donald Davis, S.J. (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1992), p. 9.

[27] See: Gradel, Emperor Worship, pp. 1-4.

[28] See: Mark Edwards, “The Beginning of Christianization,” in: Noel Lensky (ed.), The Cambridge Companion to the Age of Constantine (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2012), pp. 137-158; Gradel, Emperor Worship, pp. 368-369.

[29] A clear and concise account of Constantine’s life and reign is given by Hans A. Pohlsander, The Emperor Constantine, 2nd ed. (London: Routledge, 2004).

[30] Eusebius, Life of Constantine, trans. Averil Cameron and Stuart Hall (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1999), IV.75; p. 182.

[31] See: Peter Leithart, Defending Constantine: The Twilight of an Empire and the Dawn of Christendom (Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2010).

[32] Leithart, Defending Constantine, ch. 6.

[33] Leithart, Defending Constantine, pp. 84-90.

[34] See: Rhonheimer, Christentum und säkularer Staat, pp. 49, 51.

[35] Rhonheimer, Christentum und säkularer Staat, p. 46: “der Primat des Spirituellen über das Irdisch-Weltliche […] die Hinordnung alles Irdisch-Weltliche auf das Himmlische und Ewige.”

[36] Ambrose, Epistle 51; Saint Ambrose: Letters, trans. Mary Melchior Beyenka, O.P. The Fathers of the Church: A New Translation, vol. 26, (Washington: The Catholic University of America Press, 1954), pp. 20-26.

[37] Rahner, Church and State, p. 78.

[38] Ambrose, Epistle XVII: (accessed July 24, 2017); cf. Hans A. Pohlsander, “Victory: The Story of a Statue,” in: Historia 18 (1969), pp. 588-597.

[39] Civ. Dei XV,5; trans. Babcock.

[40] Civ. Dei XIV,28; trans. Babcock.

[41] Civ. Dei, XV,5; cf. Rowan Williams, On Augustine (London: Bloomsbury, 2016), p. 116.

[42] Civ. Dei, II,21, XIX,21, trans. Babcock.

[43] Civ. Dei, XIX,21.

[44] Williams, On Augustine, p. 112.

[45] Civ. Dei, XIX,21, 25.

[46] Civ. Dei, XIX,24; trans. Babcock.

[47] Robert W. Dyson, St Augustine of Hippo: The Christian Transformation of Political Philosophy (London: Continuum, 2005), p. 67.

[48] Civ. Dei, V,18.

[49] Pierre Manent, Metamorphoses of the City: On the Western Dynamic, trans. Marc Lepain (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2013), p. 249; cf. Chad Pecknold, “Reading St. Augustine’s City of God with St. Thomas Aquinas,” Lecture, The Thomistic Institute at Harvard, Cambridge, MA, April 27, 2017: (accessed July 24, 2017). Regulus had been a prisoner of the Carthaginians. The Carthaginians sent him to Rome to negotiate an exchange of prisoners, binding him by an oath to the gods that if he was unsuccessful he would return. Regulus, however, persuaded the Romans not to agree to the exchange, since he thought it was not conducive to Rome’s advantage. He then kept his oath, returning to Carthage to be tortured to death. Civ. Dei, I,15. For Augustine, Regulus is thus an example both of selfless devotion to the common good of Rome, and of recognition that justice towards the divine requires giving up all earthly advantages for the sake of fidelity to divinity. His virtue was, however, radically vitiated by the fact that his devotion was payed to false gods, rather than the one true God.

[50] Civ. Dei, XIX,17.

[51] See: Ernest L. Fortin, “The City of God,” in: Ever Ancient, Ever New: Ruminations on the City, the Soul, and the Church, Collected Essays, vol. 4, ed. Michael P. Foley (Lanham: Rowman and Littlefield, 2007), pp. 71-81, at p. 73.

[52] Civ. Dei, V,19.

[53] See: Robert Dodaro, Christ and the Just Society in the Thought of Augustine (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004).

[54] Civ. Dei, V,24; ed. Dombart and Kalb, vol. 1, p. 237; trans. Babcock, vol. I,6, p. 178.

[55] Dodaro, Christ and the Just Society, p. 112.

[56] Civ. Dei, V,24; ed. Dombart and Kalb, vol. 1, p. 237; trans. Babcock, vol. I,6, p. 178.

[57] Civ. Dei, V,25-26.

[58] Civ. Dei, V,25; ed. Dombart and Kalb, vol. 1, p. 238; trans. Babcock, vol. I,6, p. 179.

[59] Dyson, St Augustine of Hippo, p. 144.

[60] See: Michael J. S. Bruno, Political Augustinianism: Modern Interpretations of Augustine’s Political Thought (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2014), especially pp. 36-39.

[61] Thus Henri de Lubac, cited in: Bruno, Political Augustinianism, p. 40.

[62] R.A. Markus, Saeculum: History and Society in the Theology of Saint Augustine, 2nd ed. (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1989), p. 173.

[63] John Milbank, Theology and Social Theory, 2nd ed. (Oxford: Blackwell, 2006), p. 404.

[64] Milbank, Theology and Social Theory, p. 405.

[65] Milbank, Theology and Social Theory, pp. 410-411, 423-425.

[66] Milbank indeed argues that the “tragic” character of political life in Augustine gets glossed over in medieval Augustinianism [Theology and Social Theory, p. 425], but Arquillière would not disagree.

[67] William T. Cavanaugh, “From One City to Two: Christian Reimagining of Political Space,” in: Political Theology 7.3 (2006), pp. 299-321; cf. my paper “Integralism and Gelasian Dyarchy,” in: The Josias, March 3, 2016: (accessed July 24, 2017). In that paper I read Milbank as interpreting Augustine in a way similar to Cavanaugh; I now see that Milbank’s interpretation is actually closer to Arquillière’s.

[68] Cavanaugh, “From One City to Two,” p. 312.

[69] Cavanaugh, “From One City to Two,” p. 309.

[70] Dyson, St Augustine of Hippo, p. 142.

[71] Dyson, St Augustine of Hippo, p. 156.

[72] Dyson, St Augustine of Hippo, pp. 149-150.

[73] Dyson, St Augustine of Hippo, p. 151.

[74] Dyson, St Augustine of Hippo, p. 156.

[75] Dyson, St Augustine of Hippo, p. 149; cf. Rahner, Church and State, p. 138.

[76] See my paper: “Integralism and Gelasian Dyarchy.”

[77] See: Bruno, Political Augustinianism, p. 36.

[78] Steven Long, Natura Pura: On the Recovery of Nature in the Doctrine of Grace (New York: Fordham University Press, 2010).

[79] Pecknold, “Reading St. Augustine’s City of God with St. Thomas Aquinas.”

[80] Civ. Dei, II,7.

[81] Saint Thomas Aquinas, Summa theologiae, Ia-IIae, q. 55, a. 4; cf. Augustine, De libero arbitrio, II,19.

[82] Pecknold, “Reading St. Augustine’s City of God with St. Thomas Aquinas.”

[83] Thomas, Summa theologiae, Ia, q. 96, a. 4; cf. Paul J. Weithman, “Augustine and Aquinas on Original Sin and the Function of Political Authority,” in: Journal of the History of Philosophy 30.3 (1992), pp. 353-376.

[84] Civ. Dei, XIX,15, trans. Babcock.

[85] Civ. Dei, XIX,14-15, trans. Babcock.

[86] Markus, Saeculum, Appendix B. Markus’s reading is aided by the traditional break between chapters 14 and 15 which separates “This is what the order of nature prescribes…” from the preceding text. The chapter divisions in Civ. Dei are, however, most likely not from Augustine himself. See: Gerard O’Daly, Augustine’s City of God: A Reader’s Guide (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004), pp. 277-278.

[87] Markus, Saeculum, p. 210.

[88] Markus, Saeculum, pp. 204-205.

[89] Augustine, The Literal Meaning of Genesis, trans. John Hammond Taylor, S.J., vol. 2 (New York: The Newman Press, 1982), pp. 170-171.

[90] Markus, Saeculum, p. 229.

[91] Markus, Saeculum, pp. 229-230.

[92] See my paper: Contrasting Concepts of Freedom, presented at the conference Heute gerecht leben: Impulse zu Ordnungskonzeptionen aus katholischer, orthodoxer und schiitischer Tradition, ViQo Circle, Vienna, September 19, 2016: (accessed July 24, 2017) for a reading of Augustine as holding a strongly positive account of freedom.

[93] Otto Schilling, Die Staats- und Soziallehre des hl. Augustinus (Freibug im Breisgau: Herdersche Verlagshandlung, 1910), pp. 34-76; John Neville Figgis, The Political Aspects of S. Augustine’s ‘City of of God’ (London: Longmans, Green, and co., 1921), pp. 52-59; Fortin, “The City of God,” p. 74.

[94] Civ. Dei, XIX,13, trans. Babcock (emphasis added).

[95] See: Edmund Waldstein, O.Cist., “Integralism in Three Sentences,” in: The Josias, October 17, 2016: (accessed July 24, 2017).

[96] Civ. Dei, XV,2, trans. Babcock.

[97] Augustine, The Retractions, trans. Mary Inez Bogan, RSM, The Fathers of the Church: A New Translation, vol. 60, (Washington: The Catholic University of America Press, 1968), II,69; pp. 209-210.

[98] Augustine, Epistle to Firmus 2*, in: The City of God: Books I-VII, trans. Demetrius B. Zema, S.J. and Gerald G. Walsh, S.J., The Fathers of the Church: A New Translation, vol. 8 (Washington: The Catholic University of America Press, 1950), pp. 399-400.

[99] The divisio textus was made by Michael Waldstein as a handout for a seminar on The City of God, International Theological Institute, Gaming, 1999. I am grateful to him for sharing it with me. I have linked the headings to the translation by Marcus Dods et al. digitalized by Project Gutenberg (vol. I, vol. II). The Dods translation is, on the whole, excellent; Dods’s grand, Victorian prose is a better equivalent to Augustine’s rhetorically polished Latin than more modern translations. The modern translations are, however, sometimes more precise. Hence my references to the Babcock translation above.