This is the fifth post in my Right Reason series on Augustine, faith, social philosophy, and political participation.
In my last post in this series, I looked at Augustine's views on authority and his analogy between civil government and other levels of authority. That took me through City of God 19.16, and now I'm ready to move into section 19.17, which is where he focuses on the main question I wanted to move toward. I thought the issues I've been expositing so far are important to have some grasp of to see what motivates Augustine on these issues, but this is the real payoff. In 19.17, Augustine gives us his view of how members of the earthly city and members of the heavenly city interact in society, and that leads to his discussion of the principles I'm going to want to apply to Christians interacting with a society like what we have in the U.S. today.
So far we've seen the value Augustine places on order in society. It's relatively easy to see why order and authorities in society would be important within the system of the earthly city. It's a compromise between human wills much like the kind of social contract some of the ancient philosophers envisioned (most notably the Sophists and Epicureans). Augustine has no problem talking about that as an explanation of how it is that governments or slave relations might form, at least when they do so in as ideal a manner as is possible from the mindset of the earthly kingdom. People seek rulers for an ordered society and thus give up what they might otherwise be able to do in order to protect themselves from further harm and get what they can of peace in this life. People thus compromise and unite because it would be worse for them not to.
could also be explained this way in some cases, since in some cases it
was something like the bankruptcy system of the ancient world. You
would sell yourself into slavery to serve someone else for a certain
period of time, and your benefactor would thus assume your debt and pay
it off. You transfer a debt you can't pay for a debt you can pay, but
it means giving up your economic independence for a time. Even slaves
taken as a result of war are exchanging service for someone for the
chance to continue living rather than to die as a result of being the
spoils of war. So even forcible slavery can in many cases be seen as a
kind of compromise between two wills.
But what about the heavenly city? How can its incompatible mindset cooperate with the earthly city's self-interest-based social contract? Doesn't it have higher aims? According to Augustine, the heavenly city in this life also has the limitations of this life and the surroundings of evil people, and thus there is a need to participate in such systems. The people of the heavenly city really belong elsewhere, but for now they're here and thus need to participate while awaiting the restoration of the ideal state when such things are no longer necessary. So the earthly city and the heavenly city are thus intertwined in a sense, both seeking the same goal of peace in what form it can be had here.
The earthly city seeks that as its only possible goal (given that others will prevent one's absolute self-interest), and the heavenly city seeks it as the best possible thing for now (but with the expectation of something greater to come). Members of the heavenly city should seek to obey laws, honor authority in the earthly city, and observe the kinds of earthly relationships that exist in this life that will not be necessary in the next, because that's important for loving our neighbor. Members of the early city will do the same out of self-interest. Thus for both the earthly city and the city of God, this seeking of order in society through authority and law is merely a means to an end, even if the ends differ for the two groups. The intermediate goal is common to both, and it thus makes sense for the two to agree to seek the intermediate goal to the extent that it fits within the ultimate goal of both cities.
What about cases when they can't agree on intermediate goals? If laws in the earthly city involve religion, and they conflict with the heavenly city's obligation to serve God first and foremost, then the heavenly city's laws take precedence. But this also means that the heavenly city couldn't have laws in common with the earthly city that involve religion, since the heavenly city's laws would not serve the interests the earthly city has carved out for itself. If it really knew what was best for it, it would serve God and not whatever other religion it may follow (if any), but everyone serves something, and the earthly city replaces the true God with other things, whether gods or other pursuits. In the early Christian period, this meant persecution of Christians for not following the religious laws of the earthly city.
heavenly city thus follows whatever laws do seek some sort of earthly
peace, provided that they don't conflict with the obligation to follow
God above all. Those in the heavenly city should follow whatever
different methods of seeking peace their particular earthly government
follows, which will differ in different governmental systems.
In my next post, I'll look toward how Augustine might apply this in our contemporary setting.