Augustine on Civil Government: The Two Cities

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This is the second post in my Right Reason guest series from last year at the now-defunct Right Reason blog.

I want to begin this series looking at Augustine's views on the topic I'll be discussing, but before I get into his views on the direct issue I'd like to present a few of his background views that will be relevant to the more direct discussion of religious motivations in public life and civil government.

Augustine doesn't ever (to my knowledge) discuss the best form of government. He's not really interested in political questions for their own sake. He is interested in God's role in history, in individuals and among nations and rulers, including both good and bad rulers. He does think there are ethical questions about how to govern, and he's interested in how Christians as part of a political entity should live and participate, but his ultimate concern is the relation between what he calls the City of God and what he calls the early city. This does include those in government, and thus he does have some things to say that affect political matters.

The City of God is an important enough concept that he named what's considered by many to be his most important work after it. The City of God is not actually a city or political entity but rather a spiritual reality, manifested by people who follow Jesus Christ. Christians compose the City of God, and their primary identity is in that relationship, not in any political, cultural, social, ethnic, or whatever other identity-forming relations they may have. The stark contrast between the City of God and the earthly city is crucial for understanding Augustine's views on Christians and civil government.

Each group has its own mindset and what we would now call its own value system or worldview. Augustine sees the City of God as valuing what God would value (or at least valuing to move toward valuing those things more). The earthly city, on the other hand, is largely self-interested. It's not that all ethical theories developed by those in the earthly city are hedonistic. Augustine is well aware that that's not the case. He discusses Plato and the Stoics at great length in City of God, and he acknowledges the difference between their views and those of the Epicureans, who were genuinely hedonistic in their explicit normative theory.

But even the views of Plato and the Stoics are self-interested, even if they aren't selfish. All the ancient philosophers were concerned with the good life, i.e. a life of flourishing, a life of well-being. But this mindset takes the good life to be merely what's a good life for me to have. For Plato and the Stoics, the good life is an internal matter. It's what sort of inner state is good for me to have. For Epicurus, it's also internal to me. It's about avoiding pain. The ancient skeptics sought to avoid having beliefs. Even Aristotle, who recognized external goods, was primarily concerned with how such goods help the individual to flourish, to lead a fulfilling life.

In contrast, Christianity places primary value outside oneself, in God, and in the concerns of a God who is directed by the concerns of his creation. He does say that such a life is the most fulfilling, the life with the most value for me. But what gives it that value is not merely that it's the best life for me to have. This is why he thinks those outside the City of God are in a sense merely self-directed. Without a divine purpose, he sees nothing but what kind of life you want for yourself, even if the life you want for yourself involves doing altruistic deeds.

It's also worth being aware of Augustine's views on human motivation. He sees all human beings since the fall as having disordered desires. We don't want what's best, at least not in a way that reflects how good different things are. We want things that are less good more than we want things that are more good. He sees virtue or excellence as having rightly-ordered desires, having your desires organized in a way that your highest priorities are the things most worth desiring, with other things occupying a lower priority level. Disordered desire is a consequence of the fall, and only those whose priorities are reordered by God in conversion to following Christ can begin the process of moving in a direction of excellence. This is ultimately his explanation of why the earthly city doesn't have the most important good (i.e. God) as its highest-motivating factor, and the City of God does (at least when its members are not sinning). That allows him to form such a stark contrast between these two mindsets. There's a metaphysical difference between the two groups.

Posted by Jeremy Pierce on July 14, 2007 8:48 AM

I understand that the concepts of "City of God" and the "Earthly City" have been subject to numerous interpretations. One view identifies the City of God with the spiritual power of the Church, and the Earthly City is with the diabolic power represented in political power; initially the Roman Empire.

Other interpretations of these contrasting cities -and apparently the most accepted- consist in identifying the City of God with God's chosen, and the Earthly City with the rejected ones (those not belonging to God's realm). "City" in this interpretation has a mystic meaning: two mystical cities. These two cities are found mixed on this earth - real people, but separated in God's plan.

These two interpretations are quite different, with clear implications in the relationship between Christianity and Politics.

Please, comment and clarify how your conception of these cities fits with the more traditional interpretations.


Posted by: Fernando Ruiz | July 15, 2007 6:35 PM

I don't think either of the views you present gets it quite right. I don't see how either city could be mere power, since he speaks of people as being in one city of the other. I also don't see the City of God as being the elect, since some of the elect do not believe yet, and he seems to treat future believers as in the earthly city until they're converted.

I'd say rather that the City of God contains all genuine Christians, i.e. those who have been converted by a genuine work of God to transform them (as opposed to those who merely name themselves 'Christian' but have not be transformed by the Holy Spirit, which he thinks happens at conversion). The earthly city, then, contains those who are still enslaved to their sins, even if some of those will be freed by a work of God to become part of the City of God.

Now I'm not sure how this makes a huge difference, because surely the City of God has divine power behind it, and the earthly city has diabolic power behind it. I don't see how he'd deny either of those. So I'm curious what you think would make such a big difference on these different interpretations.

Posted by: Jeremy Pierce | July 16, 2007 6:55 PM

Jeremy: I appreciate your response and clarifications about these famous two cities of St. Augustine. By the way, the mystical interpretation belongs to Gilson; in this approach the city of God is constituted -not in this world- but in God's realm. Here in the earth, we have human beings sharing the spirit of both cities (human being are imperfect and always sin); the City of God is the city of those that reached final sainthood. In the other interpretation, the political society in this earth is divided in those that follow the Spirit of God under Church guidance, and those under the power of the Devil.

I thought that if we are concerned about the relationship between Christianity and Politics, specifically the political process in the aconfessional State of the secular modern society, the second interpretation seems incompatible with secularism. In this interpretation human political society is divided in two incompatible cities; Christian could not be part of the political process of a pluralistic society (with this interpretation would be quite difficult, if not impossible to conceive a truly secular society).

With the mystical interpretation, human society is not divided in two clearly distinctive groups, as everyone in some way or another, shares the spirit of both cities. This conception seems more compatible with a pluralistic and secular political environment. Christian people can be part of the secular society, as this society is not distinctively and incompatibly divided.

Now, if we follow your interpretation of the two cities, stating that once people convert to Christianity (limiting selfish behavior) they enter into the City of God, we are very close to the second interpretation mentioned (society divided in two groups). But of course, Christian people are not perfect (even good Christian), and don't stop sinning completely; therefore they can not properly belong to the city God in this world. This leads us to the mystical interpretation of the City of God, the city of saints; we human beings in this world at this moment are not quite there yet, if we ever will get there.

The bottom-line seems to be that we Christians are constantly making (or should be making) efforts to behave following Christ's teachings with the help of the Spirit. To participate in politics in a pluralistic, secular -and not infrequently hostile- society is not an easy enterprise. Jeremy the topic of your post is highly interesting, and I am looking forward to learn about this challenging subject.


Posted by: Fernando Ruiz | July 16, 2007 10:05 PM

I recently wrote an eletter for the LampStand Foundation reflecting on the earthly city, which I call the Criminal City.

Here it is:

The Criminal City

The criminal city is the city of men--first mentioned in Genesis--when going to dwell "as a fugitive on the earth at the east side of Eden", after killing Abel and being sent out by God as a vagabond, Cain had children "and he built a city."

Ellul (1970) reflecting on this wrote:

"Cain has built a city. For God's Eden he substitutes his own, for the goal given to his life by God, he substitutes a goal chosen by himself--just as he substituted his own security for God's...The city is called Enoch. "Enoch" means "initiation" or "dedication" Cain dedicates a new world." (The Meaning of the City, p. 5-6)

The city is a metaphor of predatory human behavior--founded by the first predatory human-- where, piling on top of one another with the alpha human in the pyramidical penthouse, it vividly portrays the materialism driving its life, where struggling for money is struggling for life, and struggle is marked by predation, noted by Mumford (1964):

"Though the crowds on Fifth Avenue bear witness to the intense and varied life that the great city offers, the vices, perversions, corruptions, parasitisms, and lapses of function increase disproportionately: so that Parasitopolis turns into Patholopolis, the city of mental, moral, and bodily disorders, and finally terminates in Necropolis, the City of the Dead." (The Myth of the Machine: The Pentagon of Power, p. 340)

The first criminal founded the first city of men and it is from that beginning and within those precincts that the truth of the world has grown, forming the criminal city.

From the truths of the prince of the world, criminals see what is proclaimed and respond, acting boldly appropriating the goods of men and relishing the corrupted life animating the criminal city.

The criminal's carceral eyes sees the proclamations of greatness given to leaders in the world who violate their own precepts openly and whose fortune and fame have also been built upon deceit and crime, but whose wealth ensures greatness within the criminal city.

Would a criminal then become a fool and not steal and lie if the truth of the world is the only truth he knows? For he has not yet comprehended the great and certain truths of the Catholic Church resonating through the centuries since its birth on the shoulders of Peter from the blessing of Christ.

To move from the criminal city, the beginning of transformation and redemption, the Gospel teaches what lies in store for us:

"If the world hates you, know that it has hated me before it hated you. If you were of the world, the world would love its own; but because you are not of the world, but I chose you out of the world, therefore the world hates you." (John 15:18-19)

The criminal will not move from the comfortable confines of the criminal city he knows, to the unknown city hated by the world, except in the company of friends--reformed criminals--who've traveled the path before him.

The truth of the unknown city lies close to the hidden heart as St. Augustine teaches:

"There was indeed on earth, so long as it was needed, a symbol and foreshadowing image of this city, which served the purpose of reminding men that such a city was to be, rather than making it present; and this image was itself called the holy city, as a symbol of the future city, though not itself the reality. Of this city which served as an image, and of that free city it typified, Paul writes to the Galatians in these terms: "Tell me, ye that desire to be under the law, do ye not hear the law?""(The City of God, Book XV: II)

Posted by: David H. Lukenbill | July 16, 2007 10:09 PM

Fernando, I'm still not clear on why the two views should have different political implications. The basic ideas of both seem compatible to me. Why couldn't they both be true to enough of an extent that it makes no difference politically? One view says that there's a spiritual reality, a heavenly entity (which in my view the Bible calls "the church" or the "gathered ones", using imagery of people gathered around Christ's throne in heaven). The other view insists that these people are in the spatial, physical world. There is a real body of people who are citizens of each city.

Both things could be true at the same time. You might use the term "City of God" to refer to one or the other (and so with "earthly city", but that's an issue of what a particular term means, which is a matter of language and not metaphysics. You could mean either thing by it while insisting that both things are true on the metaphysical level. So I'm not sure how interpreting the phrase "City of God" one way rather than another could have political implications unless you deny one of the two realities. But I don't, and I don't think Augustine would.

That's the general reasoning, anyway. You do make some specific points, but I don't think they affect what Augustine says. He does think the mindsets of the cities are incompatible in their basic value system, but he also thinks there's room for compromise in terms of which things the two value systems will ultimately agree on. They might converge on actions and policies, even if the justifications are completely incommensurable.

I don't see how Augustine would endorse a secular society in the sense of a society that's contrary to Christianity, but he is willing to tolerate a secular society in the sense that the outcomes and effects Christians and non-Christians can agree on will be beneficial both according to the Christian mindset and according to the non-Christian mindset but for different reasons ultimately. That's one of the things the next post in my series will cover, so I'll refrain from giving the details at this point. I hope it's enough to see how it might go, though.

Posted by: Jeremy Pierce | July 17, 2007 6:52 AM

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