No work of Christian theology has left such an impact on the world and biblical interpretation and understanding as St. Augustine’s “City of God.” We who read the Bible do so, often unknowingly, through the eyes of the bishop of Hippo.
In 410 A.D., the city of Rome was sacked by the Visigoths. Rome was not the capital of the Western half of the Roman Empire at the time. But Rome, in her mystique and mythos, was the heart of the Roman vision and the civilized world. To be Roman, or to have the honor of Roman citizenship, invoked that city over all the other cities of the empire. As such, Rome remained the spiritual capital of the Western Roman Empire and its people.
Upon hearing the news of Alaric’s entry into the city and three days of looting, St. Jerome famously said “the city which had taken the whole world was itself taken.” While undoubtedly reflective of Jerome’s florid style, there is a great truth to what Jerome said. Before Alaric and the Visigoths stormed into the city to settle an old debt unpaid for their service to the empire, Rome’s hand stretched across the Mediterranean. Rome was the mythic city which had supposedly brought peace and civilization to much of the known world. Rome was also the city in which Christians and pagans alike had staked their livelihoods and hopes.
The City of God is no ordinary book. For a work of theology, it is also the first work of systematic cultural criticism. For an apologia against the pagan critics of Christianity, it discusses literature, Hellenic philosophy, and world history. The City of God is the first attempt to outline, in a systematic effort, a theology of history. If Karl Löwith was right, and all subsequent “philosophy of history” is rooted in theology, St. Augustine was also the father of the historical imagination along with being the discoverer of psychological interiority.
As such, The City of God is the quintessentially catholic work. That is, it is a universal work. Its pages contain reflections for all to draw on. And in its pages are contained the inescapable reality of universal movement; the universal movement of two cities, two loves, and two destinies, both united in a hypostasis to God’s sovereignty. Considering Löwith’s point of the “meaning of history,” secularists may not speak of God’s judgement and God’s sovereignty, but in substituting God with the “judgement of History” and being on the “wrong side of History,” we make sense of his point that what passes for secular history is, in fact—in its primal beginning—a theology. As Jaroslav Pelikon said of Augustine, “There has, quite literally, been no century… since the conversion of Augustine in which he has not been a major intellectual, spiritual, and cultural force. For more than a millennium and a half, continuity with the thought of Augustine has been one of the most persistent themes of Western intellectual history.”
The book which we have today as The City of God was almost not. The work can be broken down into two parts. The first part, the first ten books, deal with Augustine’s cultural criticism but doesn’t chart out the famous legacy of the city of God in her earthly pilgrimage from creation to eschaton. Here, Augustine takes to the pen, rather than the sword, to defend Christianity against its pagan critics. Augustine’s genius, and his irony, comes into full display in these books of his magnum opus. As such, the first part of Augustine’s City of God is, without argue, the first work of systematic criticism and deconstruction in the Western literary tradition.
Examining the arguments of the pagan critics of Christianity, Augustine begins to deconstruct their arguments and show their hollowness and folly on their own terms. Augustine plays by the rules of the pagan critics to show their vacuousness. Drawing on Roman history, Roman literature, and the Roman pantheon, Augustine painstakingly shows how the mythology crafted around Rome doesn’t stand up to withering scrutiny. Far from a city that was protected by the dispossessed pantheon of the Trojans, far from a city that won renown by her own virtues and moral character as Cicero claimed, and far from a city in which truth and moral fortitude was a concern, Augustine shows how Rome’s liberty was really a captive bondage to what he called the lust for domination (libido dominandi) and how her greatness came through destruction, deception, and war. In doing so, Augustine “unmasked Rome’s vices.”
If Rome was interested in truth, as Augustine ironically bemused, she would have built temples to Plato rather than to conniving and deceitful deities which rewarded deceit rather than honesty. If Rome truly honored patriotism, Scipio—the greatest of Roman patriots who served and saved his country faithfully in defeating Hannibal and bringing the Carthaginian civilization to its knees—would not have been scorned by his countrymen and exiled to die alone in a small villa. If Rome was virtuous and moral, then Cicero—the most moral and virtuous of all the Romans—would not have been arrested and killed as an enemy of the state. In fact, by killing Cicero Rome showed herself to be an immoral state. Augustine’s cultural criticism of Rome is also the greatest exposure of irony in the ancient world. Everything Rome claimed to stand for her history, written by her own historians, begged to differ. It was Christianity, not “Rome,” which fulfilled the Roman heart. But the hardened hearts of the Romans, their blinded eyes and deaf ears, could not grasp this truth.
Rome is not spared from Augustine’s critical insights. After dispensing with the mythology of Romanitas, Augustine turns to the shortcomings of Greek philosophy. While Augustine generally appraised Platonism for pointing to the Truth of the Incarnate Christ, he is nevertheless still critical of the elements of Platonism incompatible with Christianity before turning his criticism to Stoicism and the arrogance of Porphyry and contradictions of Hermes Trismegistus. Augustine’s criticism of Porphyry, which is a stand-in for the arrogant philosopher of feeble reason, is both blistering and tragic. Augustine sees Porphyry as a heart crying out in the wilderness for truth. Yet, Porphyry’s pride—which is the same sin as that of Lucifer and Adam and all men—prevents him from accepting the truth of Christ. To accept Christ means Porphyry would no longer be the center of the universe and the measure of all things. Porphyry, like most philosophers, would rather live in falsity rather than submit to truth.
It is the first part of Augustine’s book that is less fondly remembered in Christian circles but more fervently drawn upon in secular circles. The postmodern and deconstructionist movement, as well as psychoanalysis, draws upon Augustine in this regard. The spirit of cultural criticism and mythological deconstruction undeniably flows out of Augustine’s pen. This is one of those strange continuities between the great Christian bishop from North Africa and the contemporary Western cultural and intellectual tradition which Pelikan writes of.
The City of God doesn’t come into being until the second half of the work. By the start of the eleventh book, what began as a Christian bishop’s entry into a culture war, becomes a work of biblical and historical exegesis and synthesizing and systematic theology which Christians more fondly remember and will be familiar with. The City of God comes into its own at this point as it shifts from the first work of cultural criticism to the first attempt at an understanding of the movement and events of history from the eyes of a faithful Christian trying to make sense of life in the world with the revealed promises of salvation as contained in Holy Scripture—principally from the epistles of Saint Paul and the Apocalypse of St. John.
If Confessions was Augustine’s spiritual story, then The City of God is, as Thomas Merton wrote, Augustine’s attempt at giving the Church her story. For it is in the latter half of Augustine’s grand epic that he develops his so-called allegorical hermeneutic. Augustine’s allegorical reading of the Bible is not, as moderns might take it to mean, an early attempt to de-mythology. On the contrary, Augustine’s reading of Scripture is heavily mythological. For mythology, in Augustine’s day, simply meant proclamation by word. Myth had no entailment of falsity as it does today. Rome’s myth was wrong. But the Church’s myth, spoken from God Himself, was the True Myth.
Augustine is not necessarily original in his Christological, typological, or ecclesiological reading. The likes of St. Irenaeus and Origen already began expositing such deeper readings before the birth of Augustine. But what Augustine achieved, which his predecessors did not, was tie such a reading of Scripture to the pilgriming life of the Church in history. Irenaeus, for instance, considered the “death” of Adam upon partaking in the eating of Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil as prefiguring, or foreshadowing, Christ’s atoning death. Origen, likewise, argued that the Christian reading of Scripture should always point to Christ and cause love of others and God to grow in the individual. Augustine, however, goes a step further by showing how God always worked through his Church from the beginning of creation to the present through the eschaton and how the deeper meaning of Scripture tells the story of Christ and His Church.
It is, therefore, somewhat misleading to claim Augustine read the Bible allegorically. Augustine believed himself to be reading the Bible literally—deriving the “true” meaning of Scripture as the other Church Fathers who read the Bible “allegorically” before him. It would be more appropriate to say that Augustine’s allegorical hermeneutic is an ecclesiological and Christological hermeneutic, hence why Merton rightly says that The City of God is the autobiography of the Church.
I will highlight just a few examples which the reader will encounter in their pilgrimage through the book of pilgrimage. When Cain murders Abel, Augustine understands this episode as a prefiguration of the separation of the wheats and tares, the separation of the two lines of men, and the two cities, moving to their respective ends based on their respective loves. Cain is representative of the earthly city moved by his lust to dominate for himself. It is not accidental that Cain’s name means control, or domination, from Augustine’s insightful pen. Abel, by contrast, is a prefiguration of Christ. Abel is the good shepherd put to death by the vengeful and hateful city of man. It is not coincidental for Augustine that the founding mythology of Rome is also a fratricide and that the lust for domination consumes the city of Rome from Romulus and Remus to Aeneas.
It is after Abel’s death that Eve gives birth to a new son, Seth, whom Augustine considers the prefiguration of Resurrected Man after Christ’s sacrificial atonement. It is from Seth that his son, Enos, meaning “Son of the Resurrection” according to Augustine, begets the Sethite line that leads to Noah and his two good sons, Shem and Jepheth, that from them descends Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob (from Shem whose name means “Christ in the Flesh”) and the Gentiles (from Jepheth whose name means “Enlargement” which prefigures the enlargement of the seed of salvation to the Gentiles). In reading the story of the Deluge, Augustine remarks how the Church is like the Ark, how the wood of the Ark is the wood of the Cross on which hung the Savior of the world, and how only those who are inside the Ark—inside the Church—find salvation and find that happy rest on the mountain top of heaven which came about through a baptism of purification (the Flood) and the seal of the Holy Spirit (the dove). Augustine subsequently develops this ecclesiological hermeneutic as he charts out the history of the two cities from Genesis through Revelation from the eleventh book of The City of God to its conclusion in the twenty-second book. (Though Augustine is not unique in this hermeneutical approach.)
Moreover, Augustine’s ecclesiology depends on biblical historicity. The two cities are, as Augustine says based on “the love of self unto the contempt of God” and the other, “the love of God unto the contempt of self.” (City of God, xiv.28) One city, founded by Cain and his seed, which is separated from God, is based on the love of self and the lust for domination. The other city, the Heavenly City, is the seed of the supernatural promise of faith and salvation. All the stories that prefigure and point to Christ must be real for the signification to be meaningful.
What Augustine subsequently develops in the second half of The City of God is nothing short of remarkable. Virtually all intellectual disciplines are touched upon in these books which constitute the heart of the work. From Scriptural exegesis to political theory, from psychology to soteriology, from the philosophy of time to the theology (or philosophy) of history, Augustine’s output outshines all others in this regard. There is not a point in the work that someone, anyone, can’t find use of.
The latter half of The City of God seems to chart the path of sacred and profane history. But such a dualistic reading is erroneous. God is sovereign over all history and the profane is a part of the sacred; indeed, it magnifies the sacred. Augustine’s dialectical thought is unique in that it is unitive. Augustine’s dialect is not one of conflictual destruction but contrasting signification—still drawing upon his signification theory from De Doctrina Christiana. Just as light is magnified and truly known through its opposite, darkness, sacred history is truly revealed by its contingent contrast. Profane history does not exist apart from God’s sovereignty and salvation history. God uses the profane to make clearer the beauty of the Church and total history which is nothing but sacred history.
Furthermore, the eighteenth book left another consequential legacy—itself but a smaller part of broader ecclesiastical debates Augustine found himself part of during his life—in the outlining of the “mixed church.” Drawing upon St. Matthew’s gospel, the role of Judas in the passion and Salvation History, the Psalms, and Acts, Augustine highlights how the mixed church includes the reprobate and Elect in the nets of God’s Church until reaching shore where God sorts out the good from the evil on Judgement Day. Augustine also reflects on how the famous “speaking in tongues” episode in Acts was a prefiguration of “the unity of the catholic Church [which] would embrace all nations, and would in like manner speak in all tongues.” (City of God, xviii.49) This doctrine of the mixed church has become another one of Augustine’s strongest legacies in the catholic understanding of the Church.
In language very relevant to today’s climate, in elaborating on the Fall of Man we see the canard often wielded by Atheists of claiming a rational man who, thanks to religion, has fallen into superstition which the light of science is now liberating us from. It is ironic that this secular argument is, in many ways, Augustine’s argument. For it was by man’s fall, which was a result of his lust to control for himself what was good and true to procure his own happiness, that man fell into living by lies:
When, then, a man lives according to the truth, he lives not according to himself, but according to God; for He was God who said, I am the truth. When, therefore, man lives according to himself — that is, according to man, not according to God — assuredly he lives according to a lie; not that man himself is a lie, for God is his author and creator, who is certainly not the author and creator of a lie, but because man was made upright, that he might not live according to himself, but according to Him that made him — in other words, that he might do His will and not his own; and not to live as he was made to live, that is a lie. For he certainly desires to be blessed even by not living so that he may be blessed. And what is a lie if this desire be not? Wherefore it is not without meaning said that all sin is a lie. For no sin is committed save by that desire or will by which we desire that it be well with us and shrink from it being ill with us. (City of God, xiv.4)
Augustine’s use of irony manifests itself here yet again. The sin that characterizes the city of man is the sin that characterizes the first sin of mankind: the lust to dominate what would produce our happiness through an inversion of the natural order of right and wrong. Augustine follows the great prophet Isaiah in his reading of the Fall and what its consequences are, “Woe unto them that call evil good, and good evil; that put darkness for light, and light for darkness; that put bitter for sweet, and sweet for bitter” (Is. 5:20). In the words of the Greek philosopher Protagoras, the sin of Adam and Eve was that they sought to be “the measure of all things.”
And this was the pride of man that led to his fall. It was not disobedience and unfaithfulness that was the sin of Adam. It was pride and the lust to dominate that was the sin of Adam. Disobedience and unfaithfulness are bound up in this to be sure, but what truly motivated the sin of humanity’s first parents was to control, for themselves, the power to decide right and wrong which they erroneously thought would bring about greater happiness.
The legacy of Augustine’s confrontation with the Manicheans is also visible in his reading of the Fall. The Manicheans, a heretical Christian sect which Augustine belonged to in his youth and is recounted in Confessions, argued that the body was evil and the soul good. But as Augustine explains in his commentary on the first sin of man and his subsequent fall, the sin of man did not come from the body but from the soul. It was intellectual pride that led Adam and Eve to eat of the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil and bring about the disordering of the passions and knowledge of good and evil.
To return to Augustine’s critique of the pagan Romans on this note, the Romans wrongly associated domination with goodness, scheming with virtue, and destruction of others with peace. The Romans were right, in a sense, to desire goodness, virtue, and peace, they are wrong—deadly wrong—in thinking that their city ever consummated or embodied the virtues they claimed to long for. The Romans misidentified evil with good and good with un-Roman character because of the Fall; to be “Roman” was to dominate, but to truly consummate the desires of the Roman heart was to be Christian because the Roman heart is the human heart. Christianity is the universal religion because it is the religion that satiates the burning desire of the human heart; Christianity is the religion of the human heart because it is the religion of the total human in which true human flourishing is found.
Here enters the tragic heart of Augustine’s reflections. Augustine weeps for those estranged hearts who do, in fact, desire good things but, as a result of the Fall, have disordered desires which bring misery to them and, worse, misery to others. Augustine’s tragedy is tinged with the heart of love for those who are captive to sin. But as Augustine painstakingly shows, especially in the story of Cain, those estranged hearts choose their own misery.
Far from a pessimistic work, Augustine ends The City of God on an optimistic note. It is the most optimistic image anyone can end with. The Beatific Vision, that union with the Trinity which satisfies all longings and which the labors and happiness we seek on earth is finally, and eternally, satiated is where Augustine’s work ends. As Augustine reaches the end of his masterpiece, he writes, “How great shall be that felicity, which shall be tainted with no evil, which shall lack no good, and which shall afford leisure for the praises of God, who shall be all in all.” (City of God xxii.30)
The City of God is a work that outshines most other works beyond comparison. It is a rewarding book for those who pilgrimage through its pages. No work of Christian theology has left such an impact on the world and biblical interpretation and understanding either. We who read the Bible do so, often unknowingly, through the eyes of the bishop of Hippo. We who are Christians, often unknowingly, understand ourselves through the eyes of the saintly bishop of Hippo as well.
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 Jaroslav Pelikan, The Mystery of Continuity: Time and History, Memory and Eternity in the Thought of Saint Augustine (Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 1986), 86.
 Ernest Fortin, “St. Augustine,” in History of Political Philosophy, 3rd ed., eds. Leo Strauss and Joseph Cropsey (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1987), 189.
 Thomas Merton, “Introduction,” in The City of God, trans. Marcus Dods (New York: The Modern Library, 2000; 1950), xvii.
Editor’s Note: The featured image is “The New Jerusalem” by Jean Bondol and Nicholas Bataille, commissioned in the 1370s by Louis I, Duke of Anjou. Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.