St. Augustine on the (Temporal) City of Man and the (Eternal) City of God

Citizens of two cities
It would be misleading to conclude that Augustine was preoccupied with inward and individualistic religion merely because he exhibited great personal sensitivity and had a profound understanding of human psychology in his book, Confessions. On the contrary, his wide-ranging interests moved him to commend a Christian faith that addresses diverse issues including biblical interpretations, philosophy of history, political science and ethics.

Augustine’s big tome, The City of God,/1/ a project spanning fifteen years, was spurred by accusations that the city of Rome fell to invading barbarians because Christianity undermined the moral fiber of the Empire. In response, Augustine goes beyond giving a straightforward reply and instead, constructed a comprehensive Christian social philosophy which would demonstrate the intellectual vigor of Christianity. To achieve this ambitious project, Augustine utilized all the tools of classical learning and pressed them into service of Christian scholarship. He displayed familiarity with the intellectual classics of mythology, history, theology and philosophy as he mounted acute polemics against pagan religions and philosophies. He was indebted to classical philosophy like Neoplatonism and the commonsensical wisdom of Cicero. He mastered the works of classical historians like Varro, Caesar’s librarian and author of 490 books, who was regarded as “the most brilliant of his age and most learned man in Rome” (City of God, 6.2) to buttress his case. However, he always maintained his independent Christian perspective. The sheer comprehensiveness of his project displays his confidence that Christianity alone gives a superior account for all aspects of life. All in all, The City of God is a manifesto on how to be an other-worldly but responsible citizen in the world.

Augustine rejects the pretensions of Pax Romana idealized by classical writers. He identifies the driving forces behind the Roman Empire to be greed and the “lust for domination” (libido dominandi). Empires are but “robber bands” on a large scale. Sometimes good rulers bring benefits to their subjects, but the Roman Empire grew through wars and conquests. Historians were proud to glorify Rome’s gifts to the world, especially its legal system, but in real life the common man experienced more brutality and oppression than justice and equality. Even Christians were not spared from being afflicted by the darker forces of Pax Romana.

While Christians may be citizens of the Roman Empire, they were at the same time members of the civita peregrina, or resident pilgrims. Augustine explores the tensions arising from the twin citizenships that these Christians possessed. The City of God begins with Augustine answering directly the charge that whereas paganism helped Rome to rise to greatness, Christianity caused the eventual downfall and sacking of Rome by the Goths. Augustine mounted a cultural critique that demonstrated the hollowness of the Roman religions, citing evidence from Roman mythologies. The founding mythology of Rome’s origin was riddled with moral inconsistencies. Plays that honored Roman gods were staged supposedly to avert plagues. But the performers in these propitiatory plays indulged in orgies “so shameful, revolting, and repugnant to true religion, the seductive and slanderous fables about the gods, and their actions, whether villainously and foully committed or more villainously and foully feigned for the public to see and hear—all these the mass of citizens were taught to drink in. Seeing that they delighted the gods, the Romans believed that they should not only be performed in their honor, but also be imitated” (City of God, 2. 27). One wonders whether the Roman heroes were not more virtuous than their gods! The Christian only needs to point out that decadent divinities like the goddess Caelestis and the lewd Mother Flora were not worthy of worship and were obviously morally inferior to the immutable God who made the heavens (City of God, 1. 29).

Rome supposedly enjoyed the protection of its pantheon of gods which originated from the Trojans, gods who were presumably renowned for their virtues. However, it was not their virtues but rather their vices that were held up in the plays as examples to be imitated by the audience. In reality, Rome was possessed by the lust for domination. Her greatness was gained through deception, war and destruction. “[Rome] extolled courage and placed self-sacrifice and devotion to one’s country above the amenities of a quiet and comfortable existence. But it was nonetheless a purely earthly goal. The efforts expended in its pursuit bore the mark of greatness but not of virtue. Rome, the mistress of the world, was herself dominated by the lust to conquer. Her great men were at best outstanding citizens of a bad city. Most of them did not even possess genuinely political virtues.”/2/ Rome even betrayed its self-proclaimed virtues when it exiled its illustrious general, Scipio, who defeated Hannibal and destroyed Rome’s archenemy, Carthage. Even Cicero, its eminent philosopher-statesman, was arrested and killed as an enemy of the state. The Romans were blind to their own moral inconsistency because their hearts were hardened and blinded by the lust for power. Augustine wryly notes, “what are empires without justice but robber bands on a large scale (magna latrocinia)?” The greatness of the Roman empire, however laudable, is not a measure of its virtue.

Augustine rejects those who appeal to fatalism on grounds that the fate of Rome was written in the stars. He rejects astrology as a source of genuine knowledge by arguing that even twins born under the same star can exhibit different characters and experience different outcomes in life. Augustine insists that the rise and fall of Rome was due to intelligible causes, including a combination of free human choices and the sovereign providence of God. “God knows all things before they happen; yet, we act by choice in all those things where we feel and know that we cannot act otherwise than willingly…our main point is that, from the fact that to God the order of all causes is certain, there is no logical deduction that there is no power in the choice of our will. The fact is that our choices fall within the order of the causes which is known for certain to God and is contained in His foreknowledge – for, human choices are the causes of human acts” (City of God, 5.9).

Augustine does not explain how human action harmonizes with divine providence at this point. Neither does he claim to have completely fathomed the depths of divine counsel behind the rise of Rome. He affirms that the greatness of a city is not evidence of its virtues. The Romans rightly affirmed and desired virtue and peace, but they were mistaken to believe that their city embodied the virtues they proclaimed because they lacked the true piety that flows from worship of the true God. True virtues are not the achievements of human nature, still less of the flesh; they are fruits of the will that is sanctified and empowered by God. “The virtues on which the mind preens itself as giving control over the body and its urges, and which aim at any other purpose or possession than God, are in point of fact vices rather than virtues…Just as our flesh does not live by its own power but by a power above it, so what gives to a man the life of blessedness derives not from himself, but from a power above him” (City of God, 19.25). In reality it is the Christian God and not “eternal Rome” who provides the power to attain the moral virtues acclaimed by the Romans.

While Augustine rejects the metaphysical dualism of the Manichaeans, he maintains that human history unfolds as a blend of two intertwined cities, one comprising men who are of good nature and will, and the other comprising men who are evil. In his words, the two cities are formed by two loves – one, a “selfish love which dared to despise even God” and the other, “the love of God that is ready to trample on self” (City of God, 14.28). Citizens of the earthly city serve false gods who demand service and sacrifices; those of the heavenly city journey as strangers and pilgrims on earth and serve no God other than the true God. The earthly city is based on the love of self and the lust for domination and self-aggrandizement. The conflict between the two cities began early in human history when Cain murdered his brother Abel. The significance of this primordial murder is that it prefigures the founding mythology of Rome which chronicles Romulus murdering his twin brother, Remus. Since then, the history of Rome was pervaded by the same lust for power and domination.

In contrast to the earthly city which lusts for power and domination, the heavenly city trusts and honours God in all ways. The result is the blessing of peace and harmony in all the parts of the civic body. Augustine summarizes his vision of the heavenly City in Book 19. Drawing from the Platonic tradition, he writes that the peace of the irrational soul is the balanced adjustment of its appetites or desires, while the peace of the reasoning soul is the harmonious correspondence of conduct and conviction. As the foundation for order and health of the living being is the ordered equilibrium of all its parts, likewise the peace of a home is ordered harmony of authority and obedience between the members of the family. The peace of the political community is the ordered harmony of its citizens and finally, the peace of the heavenly City is the perfectly ordered and harmonious fellowship based on faith, hope and love. “Order is an arrangement of like and unlike things whereby each of them is disposed in its proper place” (City of God, 19.13).

Augustine does not draw a clear boundary between the earthly city and the heavenly city, that is to say, the two cities are not neatly divided between the church and civil society since both wheat and the tares are found in each of the two spheres and the two cities are inter-mixed, sharing a history which unfolds from beginning to the end. Both cities will alike enjoy temporal goods and suffer temporal ills. In this respect, the saeculum /3/ does not only refer to the time between Christ’s resurrection and his second coming, but it also refers to a time of ambiguity when the wheat and tares intermingle.

There is no such thing as a totally evil society or a totally good society. Goodness is perverted by sin, but sin is restrained by God’s providence. Augustine is mindful of the parable which teaches that the wheat and tares will coexist until the final judgment when they will finally be separated. Only God knows precisely who the citizens of each city are and this will become clear on judgment day. Nevertheless, human history is neither cyclical nor dualistic. God is sovereign over both sacred and secular history. Just as the brightness of light is enhanced when contrasted with darkness, sacred history and the beauty of the City of God is fully perceived when contrasted with the secular history of the City of Man. Ultimately, the so-called secular history is nothing but sacred history. God in his sovereignty inexorably propels both sacred and secular history to an eschatological goal. Eric Gregory shares a central insight into Augustine’s understanding of the unfolding drama of sacred-profane history.

The drama of the secular lies precisely in the human capacity for good or evil, rather than in some autonomous tertium quid [a third thing that is undefined but is intermediate between known things] that is delivered from moral or religious significance. The “secular” refers simply to that mixed time when no single religious vision can presume to command comprehensive, confessional and visible authority. Secularity…is interdefined by its relation to eschatology. This definition does not deny the Christian claim that the state remains under the Lordship of Christ, providentially secured in its identity “in Christ.” But it does claim that the secular is the “not yet” dimension of an eschatological point of view./4/

It is therefore wrong to conclude that the doctrine of the two cities requires Augustine to advocate that the church adopts a separatist mindset and that Christians should withdraw from the world with its corrupting influence. However, while Augustine bears witness to the transcendent experience and eternal destiny of Christians, he does not advocate that Christians should abandon temporal life. Instead, they have a responsibility to utilize the resources from creation and apply their gifts and talents to the building of God’s City. Furthermore, while the pilgrims must set out on the journey towards their beloved City of God, it does not entail a repudiation of the achievements of Rome and classical culture. Indeed, Christians should feel free to “baptize” into the kingdom the philosophical, literary and artistic achievements of classical culture so long as their lives stay anchored on the Christian values of faith, hope and love. As Cochrane observes, Augustine acknowledges that the greatness of Rome was built on the morals inculcated in families of early Rome such as courage, discipline and loyalty. Augustine suggests that the Roman achievements functioned as one of the preparations of divine providence that contributed to the building of Christian civilization. /5/

The two cities are not defined according to institutions of temporal societies but according to priority of love. Love of God places oneself into the City of God, but love of self leads to an estranged heart with all its disordered desires and misery and puts oneself into the City of Man. Christians as pilgrim citizens must be able to keep an ironic distance and maintain independent thinking and action. Their identity is not preserved by withdrawal from wider society but by living according to a higher love. The temporary resident accepts his inter-dependence with fellow men in their common responsibility to create relative and external peace in the community. He helps to make life in this world more tolerable and is grateful for social life as a gift of God. In short, the temporal mission of the church in the saeculum is to resist any sense of hopelessness in the midst of human brokenness and to promote peace, albeit with modest expectation given the fallenness of humanity. /6/

Relative peace and ordered harmony is possible and ought to be exemplified in the Christian family. Christian pilgrims are to give their full cooperation in the quest for justice and peace. Interestingly, Augustine does not define human community as based on justice and common interests among people of common origin or nationality. In its place he suggests that “A people is an assemblage of rational beings united by a common object of love.” Here he places emphasis on the spiritual foundation of human community and hence his ethics and thoughts are preoccupied with love in human society.

Since loving God also means loving our neighbor, loving the world is a part and parcel of loving God. As such, the people of the City of God cannot keep the blessings of God exclusively to themselves. The church’s spiritual vocation entails a temporal mission, that is, to share God’s love and blessings. This requires Christians to be socially engaged with society, whether in the area of politics, economics, education, and the arts. But Christian pilgrims should keep in mind that the ultimate blessing of God is “heavenly peace which is to be unshakeable and unending. There, all of our natural endowments…will be both good and everlasting…This is what is meant by that consummate beatitude, that limitless perfection, that end that never ends” (City of God, 19.10). The City of God promises its members that they will ultimately enjoy the beatific vision of God which grants them rest from their earthly labor and satisfies all their longings.

It is appropriate to highlight the note of optimism with which Augustine ends his great work. He writes, “Who can measure the happiness of heaven, where no evil at all can touch us, no good will be out of reach; where life is to be one long laud extolling God, who will be all in all…The conclusion is that, in the everlasting City, there will remain in each and all of us an inalienable freedom of the will, emancipating us from every evil and filling us with every good, rejoicing in the inexhaustible beatitude of everlasting happiness, unclouded by the memory of any sin or of sanction suffered, yet with no forgetfulness of our redemption nor any loss of gratitude for our Redeemer” (City of God, 22.30).

Undoubtedly, Augustine experiences for himself all the tensions and ambiguities that a great thinker would face in the course of confronting life in the midst of revolutionary changes. But the challenges brought out in him “the expansive and youthful leader ‘skilled in the wisdom of the Egyptians’, possessed of the antique culture, rhetorical, dialectic, Roman – the man of the world, the developed humanist with enough tincture of Platonism to gild the humanism; and there is the Augustine of the ‘Confessions,’ of the ‘Sermons,’ of the ‘De Civitate,’ the monk, the ascetic, the other-worldly preacher, the biblical expositor, the mortified priest.” /7/

Obviously we cannot do justice to the profound achievements of Augustine in this short chapter. Karl Barth once described John Calvin as a deep forest that would require a lifetime to explore. The same can also be said of Augustine. We shall conclude our modest survey of Augustine by only highlighting those aspects of his work that represent a perennial challenge to Christians to pursue a vocation of exploring the vast and unsearchable wisdom of God and recommending it forcefully and persuasively to an unbelieving world.

a) Augustine displayed a deep understanding of the personal self and human psychology. All too often, Christians yield to the shallowness of their contemporaries who are only obsessed with immediate gratification of their senses and are satisfied with simplistic answers. In Augustine we see a supreme example of purposefulness and tenacity in one’s vocation of pursuing God. A consecrated life enabled him to apply keen insights into the dark turbulence that drives the hearts of men in their restlessness. Christians also need to share Augustine’s willingness to master the full range of secular literature. It is unfortunately true that zealous Christians can end up becoming isolated from life outside the church and thereby lose their sensitivity to the needs of unbelievers. Their witness become ineffective, implausible and irrelevant. Thoughtful and sensitive reading of good novels and literature can help us to become discerning observers of human character. A full diet of the Word of God and a good grasp of the “learning of the Egyptians” will lead to Christian scholarship that is at once faithful and relevant.

b) Augustine maintained a healthy realism uncharacteristic of his contemporaries. Christians today are equally exposed to the pessimism of world-escaping spirituality on the one hand and naive human optimism that undergirds legalistic religions on the other. Both forms of religious spirituality are symptoms of human hubris. They are inadequate to address the problems of life. A healthy realism that affirms the dignity of human beings as creatures made in God’s image and acknowledges the undeniable perversions of evil is attained through willing submission to the judgment of Scripture coupled with ruthless honesty in interpreting one’s experience of life.

c) Augustine’s life and work involved his whole personality. Acute analysis and intense feelings run through all his sermons and writings. There is no pretension, however, in self-aggrandizement and his honest self-portrayal and descriptions of life are marked by authenticity. Truth is best served by intellectual and personal integrity.

d) Augustine often wrote while in the thick of theological battles and acrimonious church politics. His polemics are fired by passion because the stakes are too high to allow courtesy to water down the full proclamation of truth. Obviously, sincerity and piety must be fortified by thoughtful Christian theology to be effective in the defense of faith and the refutation of counter-truths.

e) Augustine’s vocation demanded the total commitment of his whole life as he brought Christian truth to bear on all aspects of life. The quality of perseverance and his superior insights came about only because he was a God-intoxicated man, a man with a deep love and yearning for God who desired to share his knowledge with his fellow men. For Augustine, the love of God proves to be the fountainhead of true wisdom and knowledge.

/1/ Citations from The City of God in this chapter is from Saint Augustine, The City of God, 3 vols. Translated by Demetrius Zema and Gerald Walsh (Catholic University of America, 1950-1954). A more accessible version is Henry Bettenson (Penguin, 1972). For a compact and succinct discussion of The City of God, see Joseph Rickaby, St. Augustine’s City of God (Burns Oates & Washbourne, 1925).

/2/ Ernest Fortin, “St. Augustine,” in History of Political Philosophy, 3rd ed., ed. Leo Strauss and Joseph Cropsey (Uni. of Chicago Press, 1987), p. 189.

/3/ The standard discussion of the meaning and significance of the saeculum in Augustine’s thought is found in R. A. Markus, Saeculum: History and Society in the Theology of St. Augustine (Cambridge UP, 1970).

/4/ Eric Gregory, Politics and the Order of Love: An Augustinian Ethic of Democratic Citizenship (Uni. Chicago Press, 2010), p. 79.

/5/ Cochrane, Christianity and Classical Culture, pp. 456-516.

/6/ On the political thought of Augustine see Herbert Deane, The Political and Social Ideas of St. Augustine (Columbia Uni. Press, 1963).

/7/ J.N. Figgis, The Political Aspects of St. Augustine’s City of God (Longmans, 1921), p. 114.

Original Sources
This article is excerpted from Christianity and the Social Order (Kairos Research Centre, 2023) by Dr. Ng Kam Weng.
An earlier version of the article was published by Ethos Institute of Public Christianity, Singapore on 17 July 2023.


One thought on “St. Augustine on the (Temporal) City of Man and the (Eternal) City of God”

  1. Kam Weng, happy new year and trust you are well.
    I just have some moments to read this after the advent season and new year.. I appreciate your take on this and wish there should be more discussion on this within our churches.

    CDPC Puchong now have a new pastor. The American, Ps Micah has returned to the US. And I posted this to him for his reading. He’s a young pastor graduated from RTS in Michigan. He asked the question how does social engagement in a mix sphere of both the city of God and the city of man would look like. I responded to him by pointing out your quote here “Christians as pilgrim citizens must be able to keep an ironic distance and maintain independent thinking and action. I then added my own comments, “This means that the Christians’ posture and standing within civil society, the city of man must never be a total immersion into the world, neither a total separation. Rather he stands with *respectful distancing* from the order of the world, yet remaining within it to engage for peace, justice and righteousness”. This then followed by a few practical examples.

    My point here to illustrate is, pastors and leaders especially from churches who do not have a strong Christian education on social ethics and the sense to struggle with contemporary issues, will remain at the background, not knowing what and how social engagement in the world would really look like especially the need as you say to integrate various disciplines but within a Christian worldview and theological, confessional thought.

    Still, your short article and reflection here did provide the occasion for more reflection and discussion on this….


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