Reading Augustine’s City of God: The Two Cities

Augustine’s City of God is one of the great works of Western literature: philosophy, cultural criticism, theology, and development of Christian doctrines.  At 22 books, and over 1,000 pages (most translations), the City of God is not light reading but is generally considered one of the most masterful works ever produced in the Western philosophical tradition.  I have already provided a cursory summary of how to understand the themes in Book I, but now I am expanding out to address the very heart of the book: the two cities.

While the City of God is a work of tremendous cultural criticism and exploration into power dynamics, human-to-human, structural-to-human, human-to-structural, and nation-to-nation analysis, it all boils down to Augustine’s theology of love.  Augustine is remembered as the great doctor of love for his treatment of the human person as, fundamentally, a creature of desire.  This is what separates Augustine, and Christianity, from the other Greek and Roman philosophical movements that were generally subsumed into Christianity – the role and emphasis on love.  Humans are more than social animals, they are loving and relational animals – what humans love will come to define them.  And since humans are social (political) animals, the political will embody and reflect the love of its citizens.

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The city of man was created by the love of self reaching to the point of contempt of God and the heavenly city was built on the love of God to the point of contempt of the self.  The result is that the city of man is dominated by a lust for domination: fear, control, and coerciveness characterize the city of man as it ultimately loves nothing since the self was created from nothing.  The city of man seeks subjugation in order to achieve peace.  The city of God, on the other hand, is rooted in the love of others and the love of God (who is love and truth).  The result is that this city of God fosters an ethic of compromise and want for peaceful coexistence on the pilgrim journey through the world and history.  One city is moved by fear, lust, and the need to control.  The other is moved by love, justice, and seeking to restore virtue and individual empowerment (in the pursuit of virtue).

Augustine’s analysis of the two cities unfolds from his preface up through Book 19.  Because the city of man is premised on the love of self, and this necessarily leads to man being the measure of all things, the city of man ultimately lives by the standards of opinion (falseness) in all things.  Since the city of man lives by the standard of falseness, it is a city that is characterized by death and domination, lies and deceit, fraud and violence.  It is, moreover, the exact opposite of what the philosophers seek and say human nature is opposite: the orderly and social polis.  Seeing that the city of man is all about the self there is nothing but contempt of, and separation from, others in the city of man.

Part of Augustine’s reading and critique of the city of man is his reading of the Roman histories and stories (myths) alongside that of the Biblical account and narrative.  In Genesis, Cain murders Abel in the sin of fratricide.  Cain and his sons end up founding the first cities in the Genesis narrative.  For Augustine, the meaning of this story is the separation of the two cities and the founding love of the two cities.  Cain, representative of the city of man, is a murderer who only loved himself and hated his brother to the point of murder.  When God confronts him Cain rebukes God, “Am I my brother’s keeper?”  It is convenient, for Augustine, the story of the founding of Rome follows the same trajectory.

The story of Romulus and Remus, which Augustine analyzes in Book XV, is the story of Cain and Abel replayed in Roman history communicating the same message.  Romulus, by the way, in its Greek linguistic root, means force.  Romulus murdered Remus to win the glory of founding the earthly city because they could not share glory and prestige with one another.  For Augustine, the city of man is characterized by a zero-sum conflict in which there is never enough earthly goods to go around and share.  The result is violence, conflict, and confrontation.  As Rome was founded on the bloodshed of violence, coercion, conflict, competition, and the sin of fratricide, this is what moved Rome from its infancy to its height of power: Rome’s grandeur was found in bloodshed and nothing more than that.

Just as Romulus was reflective of the Roman city based on force, so too was Cain and his son Enoch.  Cain, in Hebrew, means possession or control.  Enoch, his son, means dedication or duty.  Cain and Enoch, as the duo who are rooted in the founding of the city of man in Genesis, represent what the city of man reflects and embodies: control (Cain) and dedication to control (Enoch).  The symbolism of names will be contrasted with the progenitors of the city of God.

In criticizing Cicero Augustine also attacks one of the great Roman political philosophers for failing to see the hypocrisy and darkness of the Roman Republic and its descent into murderous and conquering imperium.  For Augustine, Cicero was mistaken that the Roman Republic ever cared about justice.  Because the Romans were never united in a concept of right and wrong, apart from their war with Carthage – which only exhausted itself in the conquest and eradication of Carthage – the Romans were always divided amongst each other.  Cicero’s claim that a republic is a republic when a moral and virtuous people are united in right and wrong is not, per se, something Augustine disagrees with.  Rather, he looks at Cicero and critiques Cicero for actually believing this to have been the case with Rome.  Pointing to history and philosophy, Augustine concludes that no society has ever been united in a shared sense of right and wrong.  What unites society is either fear or coercion, not moral fortitude and virtue.

Furthermore, the city of man – beyond being characterized by the lust for domination and living by standards of opinion and falseness – is also one large den of iniquity.  Rolling through Book II Augustine critiques the Roman culture and its pantheon for fostering a spirit of immorality through its educational systems and religious cults.  The gods of Troy never protected the Trojans.  Juno sought to kill Aeneas and the Trojans as they fled to Latium.  Jupiter routinely had sex with mortals and then killed those who questioned his authority.  Where, exactly, is the good and moral teachings from the Roman pantheon?  The fact that the Romans built temples and pantheons to immoral and violent mediators showed that the Romans were an immoral and violent bunch.  If the Romans actually sought truth and moral fortitude, as Cicero and other Roman philosophers argued, then why wasn’t there a temple to Plato or the philosophers?  What a society praises is reflective of what a society desires.  Because the Romans were a society that praised death and conquest, praised immorality and self-aggrandizement, it is no surprise that their religious cults reflected this.  Cicero, Cato, Seneca, Varro and the Roman philosophers and poets may have been worth listening to for they had much good and truth to say – but even they were a bit delusional in conjuring up a romanticized picture of their beloved republic.

In the city of man, man is dominated by other men.  Man is enslaved to man.  Man is dominated by structures and systems in the city of man too.  Thus, man is enslaved to social systems and institutions which coerce and control the lives of men.  Furthermore, man is enslaved to himself – his desires or passions.  Without virtue and character, without responsibility, man lets his lusts control him which has detrimental consequences for himself and others.

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The dialectical contrast to the city of man is the city of God.  Now this is where it’s important to read Augustine carefully.  The city of God is not Heaven.  The city of God does, in fact, exist in the world.  For the city of man and the city of God are intermixed with each other in history as Augustine says.  But what is the city of God?

The city of God encompasses the individual, the social, and the relational.  The city of God is made up of the individuals who live by the standard of truth (or nature).  It is the city that is made up of individuals who love others through God, who love the world through God, and love themselves through God.  It is a city that is made up of individuals committed to justice, compromise, and true piety and virtue.  This city of God exists not merely alongside the city of man, but mixed within the city of man.

To illustrate this example let us stick with Rome which is the focus of Augustine’s city of man (though Augustine does not limit the city of man to Rome: Troy, Babylon, Egypt, and Carthage are all also put under the scrutiny of Augustine’s criticism).  The city of Rome is made up of many people, citizens and slaves, Romans and non-Romans, etc.  Within the city of Rome are people who may or may not be citizens of the Roman state, but they are citizens of the city of God because of how they live their lives and what they love.  Someone may be a Roman citizen who is also a citizen of the city of God because he lives by the standards of nature and the love of others.  Someone may be a slave of Rome but he too may be a citizen of the city of God because he lives by the standards of nature and the love of others.  These pockets of individuals who exist within the city of man who live by a different standard comprise, for Augustine, the universal city of God scattered throughout the world speaking all kinds of different languages, made up of people from all kinds of different races, and part of all kinds of different cultures.

Here Augustine’s pluralism is also on display.  The principle “unity in diversity” is a Christian theme that reflects the idea of being part of the Body of Christ.  A body is a united organism but has many constitutive elements and parts to it.  Thus, the Roman Christian is one part of the Body of Christ.  The Greek Christian is another.  The Syriac Christian another, and so on and so forth.  They all speak different languages.  They are all different races.  They are all part of different cultures.  But they are all united in their love and want for truth, goodness, and beauty and the Body of Christ – the Church – is made more glorious and diverse through all of these different peoples as part of its body.  It is in the city of God that true diversity is found.  The city of man, in its restless pursuit of domination – the pax Romana – ultimately destroys all difference because difference is a point of contention and conflict.

The city of God is found in the Bible, in Augustine’s ecclesiological and allegorical hermeneutic.  As mentioned already, the murder of Cain and Abel represents the splitting of the two cities in history.  Cain is archetypal of the city of man while Abel is archetypal of the city of God and a type of Christ (shepherd) in which we see the mortal dialectic between the two cities at play.  The city of God is the city and lives of the Old Testament prophets, heroes, and saints, moving into the New Testament community and followers of Jesus.  This is important for Protestants to understand – since Protestants often like to claim Augustine but have very little in common with Augustine.  God has always worked through his Church.  The Church is bound up with the city of God but is not the city of God itself.  For there are members of the Church who are not part of the eternal city and have their names written in the Lamb’s Book of Life.  This is Augustine’s important doctrine of the “mixed church,” (corpus permixtum).  There are people who claim membership and association with the Church who are sinners and grave ones at that, who will forsake God and live lives of sin and therefore be cast to destruction in the Final Judgement.  However, only God knows who these souls are and it is not our business, Augustine says, to seek a pure church.

Abel as a prefiguration of Christ and the city of God is reflected in his name.  Abel means lamentation.  Seth, one of the sons of Adam who is grafted into the city of God, means resurrection.  The two are connected together under the city of God for Augustine because Abel, as a shepherd and type of Christ, in his death is what is lamented.  Seth represents resurrection, the hope that comes from lamentation and the promises of Christ’s resurrection to bring new life, truth, and hope to those counted among the city of God.  Seth, in the Genesis account, is born to Eve after Cain had murdered Abel and Seth literally represents the new birth of a race of men who are tied to God.  We see, then, according to Augustine, the working of the church and city of God from the beginning of time and that the Genesis stories are really about this allegorical ecclesiological hermeneutic.  Cain to Enoch and their descendants are the founders of the city of man rooted in murder, control, and lust for domination.  Abel to Seth and their descendants are the prefigurations of Christ, the Church, and the city of God.

While Abel was a prefiguration of Christ and the city of God on earth, so too was Noah and Noah’s Ark.  As Augustine reads the story of the Flood and Noah’s ark, the story is a prefiguration of all history: the destruction of the city of man in its forsaking God and love (the earth) and the salvation offered in the city of God and its shepherd (Noah and the ark).  Noah is a prefiguration of the living Christ whereas Abel was a prefiguration of the sacrificed Christ killed by the city of man just as Christ was killed by the city of man.  Noah’s ark represents the church and how those who truly belong to her will be saved as it journeys through time and destruction to land on the mountain top that we are all hoping to ascend.

Thus, man in the city of God is virtuous, has self-control and responsibility.  Man is living up to his personhood, (person, from the Latin persona, is a distinctly Christian concept).  Man controls his desires and orients them to the highest good.  He lives in accord with his nature leading to sociality and relationships, the very things that the old philosophers say is integral to man’s nature.  Man lives without the lust for domination in the city of God, and has relations with others and the world from a situated perspective.

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Thus, we see the ends of the two cities on sight in Augustine’s writings.  The city of man, overcome by falsity (darkness) and the lust for domination, cannot actually provide the eternal goods and things which men seek: community, peace, tranquility, love, justice, and relationships.  It cannot provide these things because it does not live in accord with the truth of these things and the truth of nature.  The city of man is a poor shell of nature and the natural order of things precisely because it rejects nature and seeks to live by its own standards or ways.  The city of God, by contrast, in its light, beauty, and truth, is what men seek: community, peace, tranquility, love, justice, and social relationships.  After all, the lives of the saints testify to this in the sociality, love, commitment to justice, and building of communities.

To this end Augustine’s commentary over the city of man has confused and perplexed readers for centuries – especially those who are not well-grounded in the Christian tradition.  But the traditional Christian interpretation is not that one discards the city of man.  The city of man does offer some goods to us, however imperfect they may be.

The call of God and the city of God is that all men should turn to him and his truth.  The task of the city of God is to shepherd the city of man and bring out its better side.  Despite all the problems of the city of man Augustine understands the city of man as a wounded and crying city, the wounded and crying millions who are leaping into the Abyss of destruction while hoping it will bring about their salvation.  You cannot separate the city of God and the city of man since they are intertwined with each other until the end of history.  The task of the city of God is to reorient the love of the city of man to the permanent things that they do, ultimately, seek.

The city of man seeks justice, but it is a justice that is retributive in nature because the city of man doesn’t live by love and truth.  The city of man seeks peace, but the peace it seeks to consummate comes through conquest, domination, and the elimination of difference because the city of man doesn’t live by love and truth (pluralism).  The city of man seeks praise and to praise things, but it ends up praising vain tyrants and immoral mediators (the pagan deities) because the city of man doesn’t live by love and truth and the praise of life, truth, goodness, and beauty itself (the True God).  The city of man seeks to love and defend family and fatherland, but often fails because earthly family and nations – not living by the standard of truth – are not proper reflections of the divine order of nature.  For Augustine, all of the wants of the pagans are, in a sense, good.  They are merely in error.  But a very deadly error.

Because the city of man is in error, it proclaims good things in word, but its deeds are hollow, destructive, and violent.  The city of God, in its truth, proclaims the good in all things, and struggles to live in accord with all that is good, true, and beautiful which is humanly impossible without the help of God.  The city of man, in its error, spirals to its own destruction.  The city of God, in living by the way of truth, is aided by the grace of God to achieve its end.  The city of man, in its error, in its love of self – which is the love of nothing and the idolatry of placing man at the center of the universe to be the measure of all things – ultimately exhausts itself in continually living in falseness which is linked to the lust for domination and the wanton destruction of life.  The city of God, in its struggle to conform to truth and nature, is to have its virtues and struggles rewarded with the eternal bliss of the virtuous soul in Heaven.

The city of man is destined to destruction.  The city of God is destined to eternal joy.  The city of man lives by the standard of falseness.  The city of God lives by the standard of truth.  In living by the standard of falseness, all of those who are citizens of the city of man do not live happy and fulfilled lives.  In living by the standard of truth, all of those who are citizens of the city of God live virtuous, happy, and fulfilled lives.  “The truth shall set you free.”  And love is at the center of it: those who love truth and those who love themselves and ultimately do not love truth are the citizens of the city of God and city of man respectively.  There are consequential ramifications of what we love.

Lastly, Augustine’s philosophy is deeply dialectical as should be evidenced from any reading of the City of God or even his Confessions.  This dialectical nature within Augustine’s philosophy makes it, for him, easier to see the contest that is unfolding in the world between the two cities and the two loves (cupiditas and caritas) and what we praise and desire (war, conquest, and death; or peace, love, and justice).

How can we sum up Augustine’s two cities?

(1) The city of man, living by the standard of falseness (does not love truth) exhausts itself in the lust for domination in a vain hope to satisfy the self by placing man at the center of all things.  The end of this city is death and destruction.

(2) The city of God, trying to live by the standard of truth (love of truth) struggles in this world to direct the faculties and energies of man to the good, true, and beautiful by placing the trancendentals at the center of all things which men, and all the creations of men, ought to imitate and reflect.  The end of this city is virtue and life.

In other words, what is at the center of your heart?  Those who have themselves at the center of their own heart build the city of man.  Those who have truth at the center of their heart build the city of God.

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