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Posted February 19, 2007

Book: St. Augustine of Hippo
Author: R. W. Dyson
Continuum Studies in Philosophy. London. 2005. Pp. 195

An Excerpt from the Jacket:

St. Augustine of Hippo was the earliest thinker to develop a distinctively Christian political and social philosophy. He did so mainly from the perspective of Platonism and Stoicism; but by introducing the biblical and Pauline conceptions of sin, grace and predestination he radically transformed the ‘classical’ understanding of the political.

Humanity is not perfectible through participation in the life of a moral community; indeed, there are no moral communities on earth. Humankind is fallen; we are slaves of self-love and the destructive impulses generated by it. The State is no longer the matrix within which human beings can achieve ethical goods through cooperation with other rational and moral beings. Augustine’s response to classical political assumptions and claims therefore transcends ‘normal’ radicalism. His project is not that of drawing attention to weaknesses and inadequacies in our political arrangements with a view to recommending their abolition or improvement. Nor does he adopt the classical practice of delineating an ideal State. To his mind, all States are imperfect: they are the mechanisms whereby an imperfect world is regulated. They can provide justice and peace of a kind, but even the best earthly versions of justice and peace are not true justice and peace. It is precisely the impossibility of true justice on earth that makes the State necessary.

An Excerpt from the Book:

The Two Cities

At the same time as he was working out his views on damnation, grace and predestination, Augustine was developing the account of world history that we find expressed through his image of the two Cities: the City of God and the Earthly City — the civitas Dei and the civitas terrena. The image is, of course, most associated with the work usually regarded as Augustine’s masterpiece. De civitate Dei, begun as a defense of Christianity against pagan reproaches following the sack of Rome in 410. But we find the same theme and imagery in a number of other places; the idea of the two Cities had apparently formed in Augustine’s mind before he commenced to write De civitate Dei I n413. He tells us in his De Genesis ad litteram, the literal commentary on the Book of Genesis composed some time before he began De civitate Dei, that he is intending to write a book on the nature of the two civitates brought into being by the fall of the angels.

Augustine’s imagery has a deliberately biblical resonance: ‘Glorious things are spoken of thee, O City of God,’ says the Psalmist. But it is plausible to suppose that Augustine had in his mind also the familiar idea of the Stoic ‘cosmopolis.’ his two ‘Cities’ look very like expressions of Stoic cosmopolitanism reformulated in Christian language and interpreted in terms of a Platonist ‘other’ world. His choice of terminology has the potential to mislead, and his use of it is not always consistent. Viewed broadly, however, his meaning is clear. The two Cities are not temporal entities. They do not exist in a determinate place or at a particular time. They are the two all-embracing categories — the ‘camps’ as Fr. Coplestone puts it — into which mankind had been divided by sin throughout the world’s history. The City of God is ot what some of Augustine’s medieval admirers took it to be. It is in no way synonymous with the institutional church, the Church Militant on earth. It is the communio sanctorum: the society of grace, the entire community, past and present, of those who love God without dissimulation. The City of God is the Church, but it is the Church in the widest sense. Its citizens are those who live ‘according to God.’ They are of three kinds: those angels who remained loyal to God and who serve Him eternally in heaven; those of the Elect who have already died and whose souls are now in heaven awaiting the resurrection of the body; and those of the Elect who are at any given time alive on earth. This last category Augustine calls the civitas Dei peregrina, the pilgrim City of God. The City of God has an earthly contingent, but this contingent is only a small, and for the time being exiled, fraction of its total membership.

By the same token, the Earthly City, though exemplified most clearly in the great pagan empires — Assyria, Babylon, Rome — is not any one earthly State, nor does the expression symbolize the totality of earthly States; although, once again, Augustine’s language is not always unambiguous. The Earthly City is the community, the ‘camp’ of all those, past and present, from whose hearts love of God is shut out by love of self. Sometimes Augustine calls it the civitas diaboli: the Diabolic City. Just as Christ is King of the City of God, so the Earthly City is ruled by the devil. The Earthly City is the society of those to whom, in the Divine economy, the gift of grace is not given. It is a society that lives ‘according to man,’ not ‘according to God.’ Again, its population consists of three categories: the fallen angels; those of the reprobate who have died and now suffer with those angels the punishment of hell; and those of the reprobate who are for the time being alive on earth. Without departing from Augustine’s meaning, we might suggest that the two Cities have potential or future memberships also: the souls, as yet uncreated, of those who, whether Elect or reprobate, will be born during those ages of history remaining before the Final Judgement.

Table of Contents:

1. Sin, free will and grace: the Two Cities

2. The State in a sinful world

3. Private property and slavery

4. War and peace

5. Church and State