In “The City of God,” Augustine systematically lays bare the empty ideology of the city of man and the Roman empire in a breathtaking counter-narrative that remains remarkably modern and relevant for today. In contrast to the city of man, the City of Love, Augustine argues, is the godly city to which Christians belong and is the city for which Homer and Virgil longed.
Love is the central feature of Augustine’s writings. All humans, irrespective of their state of grace, Augustine argued, desire to love and be loved. The role of love has a direct impact upon the political in Augustine’s political theology since humans are political animals defined by their loves. What people love will become the aim of politics and society.
The Origin of Christian Criticism
The city of man, founded on its love of self, inevitably exhausts itself in its lust for domination and an ethos of coercive domination in (false) hope to satisfy the self. The city of man, therefore, is that “city which aims at domination, which holds nations in enslavement, but is itself dominated by that very lust of domination.” The city of God, by contrast, rooted in its love of God, promotes cooperation and a hopeful restoration of pre-Fall harmony. As he charts out the two cities in The City of God, it becomes clear that Augustine’s theology is also the first systematic form of cultural critique aimed at exposing the empty ideology and propaganda of altae moenia Romae.
This should not be surprising. Many scholars also recognize the critical project of Augustine’s work. Ernest Fortin notes that the aim of Augustine’s critique was to “unmask [the pagan political system’s] vices.” Peter Brown, likewise, argues that part of The City of God was written to critically examine the hypnotizing “myth of Rome.” By analyzing, deconstructing, and unmasking the vices of pagan Rome, Augustine’s political theology is primarily one of critique. Augustine’s political theology is also deeply dialectical and imaginative: It is based on images of contrast.
Augustine makes known that the city of man is characterized by its desire to satisfy its disordered passions. The city of man “was created by love of self reaching the point of contempt of God.” To understand the city of man, of which all humans are transient citizens, we must ask the question quid sit homo: what is man?
According to Christianity’s doctrine of creation, creatio ex nihilo, the proper understanding of humanity is that humanity ultimately came from nothing. Humanity is only truly human when clothed in grace, but the fall of man has stripped man of his grace and he is now “naked” as Augustine explained. Apart from God, “naked of grace,” man is nothing—man is, to put it mildly, a domineering brute captured by lust which is the privation of love.
To love only the self is to love what one is apart from God—namely, the naked and domineering brute who has no grace covering him. Therefore, the love of self is the love of nothing because it rejects enjoying God and, in the process, rejects self-emptying love and goodness which serves as the groundwork for the harmonious unity of humanity with each other, and with creation, prior to the Fall. Following the Augustinian maxim of becoming what one loves, it is also true that the political comes to promote what its citizenry desires. Culture and politics subsequently inculcate what its citizens love through its apparatuses, institutions, and other structural systems creating a mass society united in such a love. Based on his own experience as a citizen, Augustine most poignantly critiques Roman power and institutional structures which promote and inculcate the love of nothingness.
Deconstructing the Myth of Rome
Augustine recounts his time being formed by the conventions and institutions of Roman society and remarks as to what kind of human Roman institutions and systems had made him. The educational apparatus of the late Western Roman Empire inculcated the love of self into Augustine. As he explains in Confessions, he would lie, cheat, and engage in flattery to win the praises of others who honored him a role model and exemplary student. He stole from his parents to barter and possess the toys of his classmates. The rhetorician that he was, Augustine put his command of speech in the service of slavery rather than truth—to get what he wanted and therefore control others in the process. His actions to win the praise of others was symptomatic of his self-love and self-seeking glory that Roman education instilled into him, and he also acknowledged that the educational system—of which system he was upheld as a sterling exemplar—led him astray from God.
In reading Virgil’s Aeneid and appreciating the deep beauty therein, Augustine learned to weep for Dido and her surrender to the sword all the while he sank lower and lower in his own pit of despair. Jupiter too, his teachers informed him, would punish the wicked; yet, Jupiter constantly engaged in immoral acts himself. From this picture Augustine understood that Roman education was shifting the blame of wickedness to the gods—freeing humans to engage in their base actions. (Here, Augustine begins a long tradition in Christian theology that seeks to demonstrate God as free from evil; evil is a product of human free will and not God’s decrees.) In this way the love of self and the self’s desires to remain inward rather than to serve others was justified through the texts and stories that he learned.
Far from the humanistic education that Cicero advocated, Roman education, whose moral collapse Cicero identified as the cause of the downfall of the Roman republic and its transition into empire, extolled wickedness and self-centeredness as the highest aspiration. Because Roman society loved only the self, Roman society ultimately loved nothing, and it aspired to nothing and promoted this aspiration to its future generations. And the individual who best embodied this love of nothingness was hailed as a great role model to others.
From Augustine’s point of view, Jupiter, then, is not punishing the wicked for transgressions but punished simply out of a display of his own power and egotistical desires. Jupiter does what Jupiter does because he has the power to do so; moral guidance or the moral law is not a factor in Jupiter’s activities. The Roman Empire demonstrates this reality of domineering exploitation by modelling itself on Jupiter Invictus Rex Caelis.
This love of self, Augustine charged, was the reason for the existence of the Roman pantheon. The civic religion of Rome, like its educational system, promoted the love of self, acting on which individuals could win flattery of the people and the approval of the gods. The civic cults only furthered the promotion of self-flattery and egotism above any higher truths or moral rectitude.
As Augustine subsequently mused, if truth or moral fortitude was the aim of Rome, as its defenders often claimed, then why was there not a single shrine to Plato? The Roman gods embodied immorality and thereby sanctioned wicked imitation of the gods. The Roman people became puppets of (immoral) gods. What was most disconcerting for Augustine was that he was formed and instructed to be one of those immoral puppets, and joyfully and willingly embraced that lifestyle for much of his early, pre-conversion life.
One of the constant themes of Roman inculturation, beyond its brutality, was the celebration of death. The Homeric epics, Virgil’s Aeneid, and the stories of Jupiter smiting the immoral with thunderbolts (all the while he engaged in immoral activities himself) all celebrate death and destruction in some manner—a manifestation of humanity’s self-destructive impulses. Perhaps the most tragic example of this praising of nothingness (death) was the rape and suicide of Lucretia whose story was one of the most important founding myths of the Roman people. According to Rome’s mythology, Lucretia’s rape by one of Tarquin’s sons and her subsequent suicide awakened the slumbering sentiments of the Roman people to the tyrannical monarchy and spurred them to overthrow the king. Thus, Lucretia was revered as a virtuous heroine who played a role in the founding of the Roman republic in the place of tyranny.
Leading up to Lucretia’s suicide, Augustine began his commentary on suicide more broadly as a topic. Therein he concluded that suicide is not a viable option for dealing with trauma and the absurdities of life. Suicide is the result of fear of punishment, shame, or guilt. Augustine was perplexed by the dilemma in which Lucretia found herself: Was she chaste or had she committed adultery? As he poignantly asked, “If she is adulterous, why is she praised? If chaste, why was she put to death?”
For Augustine, the rape and suicide of Lucretia highlighted the moral depravity of Roman society, its institutions, and its aims. Lucretia had done nothing wrong. And yet, she ultimately decided to end her life. As Augustine concluded, it was the feeling of shame from defilement fostered by Roman society which caused her to commit suicide. Her blood was as much on the hands of the Romans as it was on Tarquin’s son. Shame, the product of Roman culture, killed her.
The burden of shame of no longer being able to live up to the Roman ideal purity pushed her to her death. As Augustine tragically noted, Roman society had inculcated into her a drive of self-pride and honor, and when it was ripped away from her because of “another’s foul deed committed on her, even though not with her, and as a Roman woman, excessively eager for honour, she was afraid that she should be thought, if she lived, to have willingly endured what, when she lived, she had violently suffered.” Romans held up Lucretia as a paragon of virtue only because she killed herself out of guilt and shame.
The guilt Lucretia felt was caused by the loss of self-love, pride, and purity which Roman society praised so highly. As St. Thomas Aquinas later noted, in a hopeless society people die to avoid shame. To avoid the shame of having lost her purity, Lucretia had no hope and consequently chose death. Had she not killed herself, Augustine’s reflection implies, she would have been mocked and scorned by the same Romans who eventually celebrated her.
The irony of the story is that it encapsulated the Roman infatuation with power and death and, through the propaganda machinery of Roman education and embodied ethos, subsequently turned it into one of “virtue” and “sacrifice.” Lucretia had become the sacred outcast, though through no fault of her own, and paid the ultimate price for her defilement at the hands of another. She was innocent of the crimes which had caused her to choose death over life, but, moreover, she was a victim of social sin and structural pressure.
When dignity was stripped from her, having become objectified by Tarquin’s son, Lucretia had nothing left to live for and so thrust the sword into her heart with Roman society cheering her every step of the way. In Lucretia’s story we see the most poignant reflection of Augustine’s understanding of the libido dominandi, the turning of a subject person into an object of predatory control.
Augustine reads the rape of Lucretia as a damning indictment against social sin, structural power, and egotistical culture which culminated in the tragedy of Lucretia’s suicide. What is made all the more egregious is how blind the Romans were to this reality, cloaking everything with the celebratory veil of virtue, only because it was not they who had suffered and died like Lucretia. In other words, better her than them. In Lucretia’s story one sees that coercive domination hard at work through social forces as much as through institutional and systematic forces. It was only through Lucretia’s death that she won the self-honor and self-praise Roman society aimed for—but as an objectified thing. The pressures of Roman society, that self-love inculcated through Roman “virtues” and social systems, pushed Lucretia out of society not because of her own deeds but by the foul deeds of another upon her, as Augustine so poignantly noted.
In Lucretia’s story the ultimate self-reduction of the city of man based on the love of the self, and only the self, is manifested: Everyone becomes an object to be objectified in the sight of the beholder. Augustine openly acknowledges that this is what happened to him. In seeking love and happiness he sought after something to love. Therefore, it was only natural that he sought after things to satiate his desires. And so, Lucretia had become an object to be used by Tarquin’s son and an object extolled by the Romans after her death.
Never once was there a trace of seeing other humans as images of God made in love for love. The love of self reduces itself to either objectifier (becoming an agent of coercive objectification) or objectified (becoming the passive object of objectification). Augustine saw the tragic irony of the fate of Lucretia: It was only in her objectification and subsequent death that she won the praises of the city of man. The love of self, inculcated and writ large, can only win praise by arriving at self-love’s final end: death. Roman heroes, in Augustine’s critique and reading, were only remembered for how they died or conquered others—never in how they loved and served others.
Likewise, Augustine doesn’t spare the other great founding myth of Rome from critique: the story of Romulus and Remus. Augustine immediately recognized that the founding of Rome, like the founding of earthly cities in the Genesis account, stems from the sin of fratricide. Romulus murders his brother Remus out of lust for domination, which characterizes the city of man. Both sought the glory of Rome’s founding for themselves.
This want for self-glory and self-honor led to the lust for domination, forming a competition between the two, which ended in murder. “For this is how Rome was founded, when Remus, as Roman history witnesses, was slain by his brother Romulus. The difference from the primal crime was that both brothers were citizens of the earthly city. Both sought glory of establishing the Roman state, but a joint foundation would not bring to each the glory that a single brother would enjoy.” As Augustine also poignantly noted, the founding myth of Rome is not only one covered in the blood of fratricide but also internal division (and filial division at that). For the city of man cannot be united since love of self cannot bind people together: “Thus the quarrel that arose between Remus and Romulus demonstrated the division of the earthly city against itself.”
One can see in Augustine’s critique of the city of man that the city of man became what the human heart desired: domination. The very machinery and institutional apparatus of the city subsequently embodied that ethos and perpetuated it in its many systems. The political was entirely organized on the principle of the love of self, leading to its debasement and self-destruction.
Augustine’s city of man, rooted in the love of self, is what we might call a vile state, a base state, and despotic state wrapped altogether in one aimless, coercive, and domineering city. Augustine’s reading of self-love in the city of man is that it must necessarily exhaust itself in the pursuit of power and it cannot be satiated until dominion is established over everything in the world. After all, the founding myths of Rome—Romulus and Remus, Aeneas, and Lucretia—all involve death and domination. And that other great story of Rome, the murder of Julius Caesar in the name of saving the Roman republic, was yet another repeat of the only thing Rome knew—that blood must be spilled for praise, honor, and liberty to be won.
The city of man, then, truly is the city “which aims at domination” (to try and satisfy the self). The love of self necessarily leads to a dissolved and dissipated body, itself a corrupted parody of the original condition of harmony, integrity, and mutual respect founded on common love (of God). That common love which binds together, rather than separates and divides, is a “love that is the whole-hearted and harmonious obedience of mutual affection.” And so, it is in love that Augustine’s criticism of Cicero is most properly brought to light. Cicero and Augustine both agree that a republic is based on the common good, but Augustine understood that common good is an extension of a common love; for the good is tied to love itself. Without a common love there is only division and the reduction of life to tyranny as Rome’s history testified.
Cicero called the republic a republic only insofar that the populace was united in a common sense of right and wrong. Cicero even acknowledged the importance of morality in the foundation of the republic and that without that morality the morality ceased to exist in all but name. Yet Augustine questions as to whether this republic of Cicero’s imagination ever existed at all. Cicero may have been a light in the darkness, but he was otherwise blind to the fact that political apparatus of Rome promoted the very opposite of what he claimed the republic embodied. Only from that common sense of right and wrong could justice be dispensed, but Augustine bleakly asserted such a republic never existed, even according to Cicero’s own definition:
For unjust human institutions are not to be called or supposed to be institutions of right, since even they themselves say that right is what has flowed from the fount of justice; as for the notion of justice commonly put forward by some misguided thinkers, that it is the ‘the interest of the strongest’, they hold this to be a false conception… Therefore, where there is no true justice there can be no ‘association of men united by a common sense of right’, and therefore no people answering to the definition of Scipio, or Cicero.
Because Rome was organized on self-love, rather than a common love which consummated in recognition of subjects of love, it could never possess that shared community of right and wrong which comes only from love of God. Everyone would love his own vision of the good and seek to manifest it. Justice was therefore always centered on the self for the end of self-gain resulting in republics and kingdoms devolving into “criminal gangs.” There was no healing and uniting dispensation of justice in Cicero’s time, before Cicero’s time, or after Cicero’s time, precisely because the republic he so courageously defended was founded on “the love of self reaching to the point of contempt of God.”
Since Cicero’s republic was centered on self-love (and self-praise), its sense of right and wrong was relativized, and the justice, for which the republic stood, was incomplete and equally relativized. Because of the nature of relativism with regard to the justice of the Roman republic, which benefited those in power for self-aggrandizing ends, there was never a unity of “right and wrong.” In The City of God, Augustine mostly critiques Cicero’s blindness to the truth that the Roman Republic was an immoral entity predicated on domination and slavery; it was therefore “useless for Cicero to cry out against [immorality]” because the very republic he was eulogizing was a republic founded on the very immorality he was excoriating.
Partly because the city lives by the standard of falsity rather than of truth, the city of man descends into self-exhausting destruction. Since God is Truth itself, the city of man, in rejecting God, rejects Truth. Without truth there can be nothing to keep the city of man united. This is what Cicero ultimately failed to realize.
Cicero, ironically, spoke only to himself befitting of the reality of Rome’s promotion of the love of self. Rome had no hope, as most brutally revealed in Lucretia’s rape and suicide.
The politics of lust and domination drive the city of man to its extirpation. As Augustine then goes on to show, Rome’s rise to greatness was predicated on its lust to control the world—not by any virtue of its own, as its apologists claimed. The haunting words of Virgil remind us of this reality: genus unde Latinum Albanique patres atque altae moenia Romae (then came the Latin race, the lords of Alba, and the high walls of mighty Rome).
The City of God and the Hope of the World
If the city of man stands for coercion and the lust for domination, what does the city of God embody than just “the love of God to the point of contempt of the self”? Augustine defines the Trinity as a relation of love, and if one saw and embodied love, one saw and embodied the Trinity. The consequence of Augustine’s thought is the idea that the love of God is most purely manifested through the love of one’s neighbor.
As Augustine recounted, how could have that city embodying the “honourable love of friends” started “if the life of the saints were not social”? Augustine’s city of God does not flee from the many ills, wrongs, enmities, war, and other “undoubted evils” that exist, but directly engages with the world—love requires engagement rather than retreat. Augustine’s political theology encourages a social life preoccupied with loving service, seeking justice, and the dispensation of that justice to individuals and parties that have been wronged by “grievous ills” and “criminal trials” which plague the city of man.
The love of others, on which the city of God is founded, is not a call to separation but a call to the shepherding and transforming of the earthly city in imitation of the heavenly. It is, in Reinhard Niebuhr’s words, the call of moral man into immoral society and not the call of moral man to withdraw entirely from immoral society. In this manner Augustine, like Aristotle and Cicero before him, tacitly critiques the Cynic and Epicurean traditions which called for societal withdrawal. What use is love and the virtue if one withdraws back into isolation? This retreat is, in some way, analogous to the denial of bearing one’s cross and imitating Christ.
Just as the city of man embodied, reflected, and forcefully promoted the love of self, the city of God exists in dialectical opposition to that city run by criminal gangs and criminal trials; the city of God embodies, reflects, and compassionately promotes—through imitation—the love of God through the social lives of the saints. The city of God is imitatio Christi writ large: “The Heavenly City…serve[s] one another in love.” After all, Christ’s command to the disciples was to baptize the nations and not atomized and solitary individuals.
The city of God is social, and its love is social—the city of God is itself the embodiment of the whole of the Law, which Christ taught is loving God and neighbor. The love of God necessitates the love of neighbor, which has social implications and ramifications for life in the earthly city. The search for love and justice is grounded in one’s family, but it does not remain situated with the family. This love eventually spreads outward to others.
It is fair, then, to assess that Augustine’s city is founded not on the family, per se, but on love and justice in whose fostering the family plays an integral role. For without love there can be no family, so love comes first from which all else flows. In the city of man, lust comes first from which all else disintegrates. Augustine stands apart from Aristotle and Cicero who both identify the family as the cornerstone of civilization—Augustine’s theology reveals something deeper than the family: Love (and more specifically, Amor Dei). Love is what gives birth to the family and where love is first nurtured; love precedes the family and therefore love is the first cornerstone of civilization (thus we see how a republic cannot come into being without a common love first).
The love of others is fully revealed in Augustine’s recount of the Sack of Rome when Christians in the city sheltered pagan Romans in their hour of need: “The sacred places of the martyrs and the basilicas of the apostles bear witness to this, for in the sack of Rome they afforded shelter to fugitives, both Christian and pagan.” In fleeing from the bloodlust and rampage of the Visigoths, Roman pagans suddenly found themselves being aided by the Christians whom they ridiculed.
The demand of the city of God, then, is the call to self-emptying. That “love of God to the point of contempt of the self” is the opposite of self-love and lust. This was seen most dramatically during the sack of Rome. During this tumultuous moment Christians did not discriminate against those whom they would shelter from the horrors of the slaughter outside the walls of their sanctuaries but truly embodied that ethos of self-emptying love even toward those whom they knew despised them at every level of their being.
We can conclude that Augustine is the strongest critic of social sin of the patristic period and remains one of the greatest critics of “immoral society” and what it does to individuals. Far from bleakly pessimistic, Augustine’s political theology offers a glimpse of the city of love and the love of others which constitutes the pulsating heart of city of God. The city of God is not merely a distant city where souls go after death; it is the city in which living persons exhibit the love of others (rather than the love of self). That city will transit, or make passage, into the Heavenly City—but it has roots in this world passing into the next. The city of love and the relations of love in this world prefigure the City of Love to come, which St. Paul says is the true hope of Christians and the only hope for the world. For this City of Love and Peace, which Augustine argues is the destination of the Christian, is also the city Homer and Virgil longed for.
In the first half of The City of God Augustine systematically lays bare the empty ideology of the city of man and the Roman imperium in a breathtaking counter-narrative that remains remarkably modern and relevant for today. Those blinded by their own imaginary Rome, like Cicero, fail to see the darkness that so governed the so-called “eternal city” challenging that other eternal city toward which Christians are pilgrimaging. But this is pitiable from Augustine’s perspective. For in their blindness Augustine extends a hand of mercy and love to his critics; he extends his loving hand to those lost in the sea of domination by referencing Virgil and directing them to true city that will satiate their desires: “Now take possession of the Heavenly Country, for which you will have to endure but little hardship; and you will reign there in truth and love for ever.”
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The featured image is a detail from An Architectural Capriccio With Figures Among Roman Ruins by Giovanni Paolo Panini (1691–1765) and is in the public domain. It has been brightened for clarity and appears here courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.