QUOTE FROM AUGUSTINE’S CITY OF GOD (354-430)
For, of course, no one would dare to believe or declare that it was beyond God’s power to prevent the fall of either angel or man. But, in fact, God preferred not to use His own power, but to leave success or failure to the creature’s choice. In this way, God could show how both the immense evil that flows from the creature’s pride and also the even greater good that comes from His grace. (p.321)
St. Augustine lived from 354 to 430 A.D. Other than the City of God, he is known for his Confessions. Augustine is the key transitional figure between the end of antiquity and the beginnings of the Middle Ages. Too, he is considered the founding father of what became the papacy, as the Vicar of God on earth. He wrote the City of God in response to the widespread belief that Christianity, with its morality of the weak, brought down the Roman Empire by subverting martial virtues. Augustine was of the opinion that it made no difference what form of government a people endured, for it was just punishment for original sin. Too, what was life when measured against eternal time? Augustine justified slavocracy as just punishment for his animal existence and human values, though he did prefer governments that improved the religious character of their citizens. He also argued for the defense of property, even if stolen, as right because it was most important to keep order in civil society through the laws. Justice is the love of God, not earthly goods. Rome fell not because of Christianity but because of its worship of false gods and hence its impious, pagan virtues that pivoted on ambition and hubris. He acknowledged that indeed Rome produced a great civilization by earthly standards, but measured against the City of God there could be no real comparison. He believed that people should be forced to be free, that is converted to Christianity. In this evangelical militancy lay the seed of future intolerance when the communion of true believers emerged as a bureaucratic Church with hierarchy, engendering the quest for wealth, the imposing of dogma, and the inspiring of ambition to be a worldly secular power that then set out on campaigns for military glory and self-enrichment. Note: This will be a theme in Machiavelli. Augustine believed that the earthly city and the divine city could be reconciled only if the former deferred to the latter. That set of views still constitutes the world view of Roman Catholicism.
I wish that we be concerned how this quotation affects the manner in which we live on the earthly city, namely in a political society. Ethics concerns good conduct. Given the fall from Adam, expelled from the Garden of Eden, is it possible to be a good man and a good citizen, with free choice and liberty, in a fallen state of grace? Are we all damned if we do not give ourselves completely to God, since the pursuit of earthly virtues, entailing the quest for glory and power, results in sin? Let us use what we know about free will and freedom to construct a society where God and man can coexist in this temporal world until the Day of Judgment. What would this political society look like? Remember the Earthly City was founded by Cain; the City of God by God’s sacrifice to mankind in Jesus the Christ. Augustine considered the earthly city merely a pilgrimage of man through a vale of tears for a few seconds compared to eternal time that is forever in perpetuity. Thus, the function of the political is to shape man into a better creature to prepare him for the Day of Judgment. He could never achieve salvation through the political but only risk damnation by pursuing glory, money, and praise on this earth. That is why Rome fell because of these pagan virtues, which to a true Christian is anathema. But the true Christian is not meek. He might have to fight a just war to preserve the earthly city because it prepared men on a lower level to meet his Maker.
Americans live in a republic where the three branches of government check power with power to limit it. Can we have a great republic, with our worship of domination and the almighty dollar, which is compatible with God’s grace? If so, what we citizens have to do to be free of sin? If you reject Augustine’s Roman Catholicism, are we all beyond redemption? Are there grounds for a revolt against an “unjust” government that reflects the majority’s will but defies God’s sovereignty? Augustine did not believe in man’s rationality, as did Enlightenment thinkers. He had a dark view of human nature in which evil collided with the good. You could never triumph on earth. Hence, you needed the grace of God to attain the City of God. Hence, Augustine was relatively indifferent to forms of government; rather he concerned himself with your human nature and how you fought against your inner demons.
The key idea is that of grace. It is not so much a matter of doctrines per se, but rather if in our pursuit of life’s everyday goods, we still honor God. The goods for which we quest can be a means to purify ourselves for eternal time. For instance, St. Augustine uses the example of education to demonstrate that a person can be made more ethical. Is that why we pursue higher education? Though of a lesser magnitude, Augustine would allow man to pursue earthly goods, so long as the intent was worthy. The rule of the people on earth can be a preparation, a purgatory, for the City of God, where in a commonwealth of like-minded people, who have been saved, they necessarily live in a state of beatitude.
Let us say you live in an outright tyranny such a Hitler’s Germany, which was manifestly evil in its state policies. Must you submit your will to the National Socialist Party or to Him? If to Him, then have you grounds for tyrannicide?
In the Kingdom of God, there is perpetual peace and a hierarchy of beings, which climax in the lordship of Him. This vision can be hardly said to be democratic. Might it be used to justify a strong man in a multicultural state whereby there is a hierarchy of beings to those who submit to the authority of an all knowing person, who very well might be the Anti-Christ?
Augustine greatly influenced Hannah Arendt in the twentieth century because of his investigations and disquisitions on the nature of free will and good and evil.