Macquarie University POL167: Introduction to Political Theory

Augustine, The City of God - R.J. Kilcullen, 1996

From Aristotle to Augustine

After Aristotle the circumstances of Greek life were greatly transformed.
Alexander The Great led a Greek army into the Persian empire and defeated it.
Large Greek kingdoms were established in the area formerly held by the Persians,
including Egypt and Palestine. In Egypt the new Greek city of Alexandria became
an important cultural centre, with philosophical schools as important as those
of Athens. In fact Alexandria became the centre of the education industry.

When the Romans took over the Greek kingdoms the Roman empire became culturally
Greek. The culture of the Mediterranean world became hellenistic , meaning
Greek-influenced; Greece itself became something of a backwater. The polis or
city was no longer the highest political unit. Some of the philosophers called
themselves "cosmopolitans", citizens of the cosmos, the world, rather than
citizens of this or that particular city. In the Roman empire cities became very
large, and there was little participation by ordinary people in politics. New
philosophies became current, notably Stoicism. New religions were tried out by
residents of the cities, and eventually Christianity prevailed. The Christian
religion began among Jews but spread among Greek-speaking people throughout the
Mediterranean region and then among the Latin-speaking people of the western
part of the Roman empire.

From the first to the sixth centuries of the Christian era is often called the
Patristic period -- the period of the "fathers" (patres) of the Church, writers
and churchmen who helped formulate orthodox Christian doctrine, drawing not only
on the bible but on Greek philosophy. The fathers of the Church include
Athanasius, Chrysostom, Origen, who wrote in Greek, and Ambrose, Augustine,
Jerome and Gregory, who wrote in Latin.

The beliefs of Christians during these early centuries are best summarized as an
historical narrative . The world did not always exist (Aristotle and other Greek
philosophers had held that it did). Before the world came into existence God
existed eternally. God is a single being but is also three persons, Father, Son
and Holy Spirit. God created the world, including the first human pair, Adam and
Eve. He created them in a state of innocence; they were originally sinless, and
lived a happy life in the Garden of Eden. However they fell from innocence by a
first sin, and were expelled from the garden. From then on human beings lived in
sin and misery. To one particular favoured race, the Jews, God sent prophets,
i.e. messengers, Moses being the first. Eventually he sent his own Son, Jesus
Christ, who was God himself become man. Jesus allowed himself to be put to death
by crucifixion, but rose again alive from the dead. By his death and
resurrection Christ saved mankind and made it possible for some human beings to
enjoy eternal happiness with God in heaven, in the next life, after death.
Christians believed that the soul is immortal (i.e. that it does not die when
the body does) and that on the last day the body will rise again and be reunited
with the soul. When Jesus returned to heaven he left on earth the Christian
Church. Human beings are saved by being baptised as members of the Church, by
participating in its worship and living in accordance with its teachings. The
leader of the Church in each district was its bishop. The bishops throughout the
world on occasion met in ecumenical (world-wide) or general councils to discuss
common concerns and to decide disputed doctrinal questions.

Notice some terms often encountered in Christian authors:

"The Garden of Eden", in which Adam and Eve lived before  they sinned. "Our
first parents": Adam and Eve, from whom all human  beings are descended. "The
state of innocence": their state before they  sinned, and state in which their
descendants would have lived in if  they had never sinned. "Original sin": the
first sin of Adam and Eve,  transmitted to their descendants. "The fall": the
loss of innocence when the first sin occurred. "Heaven": life with God after
death. "The future life": life after death, in "the next  world" -- life of the
soul, and then of soul and body reunited.)

Like the Jewish religion, Christianity had a bible ("bible" comes from the Greek
word for book), consisting of the Jewish bible, which the Christians called the
Old Testament, and the New Testament. The Old Testament had been translated from
Hebrew into Greek by Jews living in Egypt. This version is called the Septuagint
. The New Testament was originally written in Greek. It includes the four
gospels (of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John), which report the words and deeds of
Jesus Christ, "The Acts of the Apostles", recording the early days of
Christianity in Jerusalem and the missionary journeys of Paul which disseminated
it among the Greeks, letters written by Paul and others to Christians in various
cities, and a book called "Revelation" or "the Apocalypse", which is a
denunciation in cryptic style of the evils of the time (often in later times
taken as prediction).

The bible is a collection of many books originally written separately by
different authors. The list of which books are to be included in the bible is
called the canon of scripture. For the Old Testament the early Christians used
the Septuagint canon, which included a number of books not included in the
Hebrew bible. In the 16th century Protestants adopted the Hebrew canon and
referred to the extra Septuagint books as apocrypha , meaning "hidden", perhaps
because their authorship is obscure. There are also some "apocryphal" books
associated with the New Testament, e.g. a gospel ascribed to Thomas. For a
translation of the bible which makes all this clear, see The Holy Bible ,
Revised Standard Version, containing the Old and New Testaments with the
Apocrypha/ Deuterocanonical Books (Collins, 1973). (Quotations in these notes
are from that edition. References are by the abbreviated title of the book,
chapter and (after a colon) verse -- e.g. "Mk. 10:46" refers to the Gospel of
Mark, chapter 10 verse 46. See that edition, pp. xii-xiv.) See Hennecke, The New
Testament Apocrypha .

From early times and throughout medieval times Christians interpreted the bible
in what might now be called a fundamentalist way. That is, they believed that
each and every statement anywhere in the bible, no matter what its subject
matter, was certainly true, and therefore consistent with every other statement
in the bible. A text might be metaphorical or figurative, its meaning might be
obscure, it might be misunderstood; but in whatever meaning was intended by its
author it must be true. They believed that the Holy Spirit, that is God himself,
had guided the writers so that they included no errors of any sort.

For example, in Mk. 10:46 we read:/P
And they came to Jericho; and as he was leaving Jericho with his  disciples and
a great multitude, Bartimaeus, a blind beggar, the son  of Timaeus, was sitting
by the roadside. And when he heard that it  was Jesus of Nazareth, he began to
cry out and say "Jesus, Son  of David, have mercy on me!" And many rebuked him,
telling him  to be silent; but he cried out all the more, "Son of David, have
mercy on me!" And Jesus stopped and said, "Call him."  And they called the blind
man, saying to him, "Take heart; rise,  he is calling you." And throwing off his
mantle he sprang up and  came to Jesus. And Jesus said to him, "What do you want
me to do  for you?" And the blind man said to him, "Master, let me  receive my
sight." And Jesus said to him, "Go your way;  your faith has made you well." And
immediately he received his  sight and followed him on the way.

In Lk. 18:35 we read:
As he drew near to Jericho, a blind man was sitting by the roadside  begging;
and hearing a multitude going by, he inquired what this  meant. They told him,
"Jesus of Nazareth is passing by."  And he cried, "Jesus, Son of David, have
mercy on me!" And  Jesus stopped, and commanded him to be brought to him; and
when he  came near, he asked him, "What do you want me to do for  you?" He said,
"Lord, let me receive my sight." And  Jesus said to him, "Receive your sight;
your faith has made you  well." And immediately he received his sight and
followed him,  glorifying God.

The modern reader would hardly hesitate to say that these are two accounts of
the same event. But note that in Mark it happens "as he was leaving Jericho", in
Luke "as he drew near to Jericho". The modem reader's reaction would probably be
to say that this is a small discrepancy, of no importance: the main thing in
both narratives is the miracle. But Augustine writes:

Now the name of the city, and the resemblance of the deed, favour the
supposition that there was but one such occurrence. But still, the  idea that
the evangelists [gospel writers] really contradict one  another here, in so far
as the one says, "As He was come nigh  unto Jericho", while the others put it
thus, "As He came  out of Jericho," is one which no one surely will be prevailed
on  to accept, unless those who would have it more readily credited that  the
gospel is unveracious, than that He wrought two miracles of a  similar nature
and in similar circumstances. But every faithful son  of the gospel will most
readily perceive which of these two  alternatives is the more credible, and
which the rather to be  accepted as true. (Augustine, Harmony of the Gospels ,
p. 159.)

In other words, the veracity (truthfulness) of the gospel guarantees that two
similar miracles occurred, one on the way into Jericho and one on the way out.
It was not enough to accept the bible as substantially true, or true on matters
of religious significance; a Christian had to accept each and every statement,
about no matter what, as certainly true.

But although they treated the bible as infallible the fathers of the Church did
not regard it as the only source of truth on religious matters. They made much
use of Greek philosophy . Their purpose was not only to formulate orthodox
doctrine, but also to understand, as far as possible, and for that they found
philosophy useful (though they used it critically). They also took much of their
teaching about morality from the Platonist and Stoic philosophers. Their
writings transmitted and disseminated many of the ideas of the Greek
philosophers through the centuries and throughout the world.

Augustine, The City of God

(References are by book and chapter -- "XIX. 17" refers to chapter 17 of book
19. Quotations below are from the translation by G.G. Walsh, D.B. Zema and G.
Monahan (New York, The Fathers of the Church, 1950.)

Augustine's life and thought

Augustine was born in North Africa, then a province of the Roman Empire, in 354
AD. He became a teacher of rhetoric, was converted to a religious life, and
became bishop of Hippo in 395. His writings have had a great influence on
Christian thought. This is especially true of his writings on grace, against
Pelagius. Pelagius, a popular preacher, taught that everyone could live a good
life if they wanted to -- intending this as encouragement to good living.
Augustine answered that no one can live a good life, or even want to, without
special help from God which he does not always give. God's help is a "grace" --
that is, it cannot be earned or deserved, but is given gratuitously, and only to
"the elect" (chosen), i.e., those to whom God has chosen from eternity
(predestined) to give it.

Augustine also elaborated the doctrine of Original Sin, i.e., that all human
beings are subject to punishment because of Adam's sin. The punishment consists
in ignorance and weakness of will which result in further sins which deserve
eternal punishment -- unless God gives grace. On Augustine's doctrines of
original sin, predestination and grace see Kelly Early Christian Doctrines
(BT/2S/.K), pp. 357-69.

In political thought Augustine's most influential writing was The City of God .
In 410 the Goths burnt Rome and pagans blamed Christians for the calamity. In
instalments from 413 over thirteen years Augustine published The City of God,
arguing in books I-V that the pagan gods never gave Rome any protection, and in
books VI-X that paganism offered no eternal salvation. The rest of the work is
about the origin, development and destination of two cities, the city of God and
the earthly city. Thus it includes a discussion of the relationship between
Christian and non-Christian views of life, and between Christianity and secular
political life. In the course of this long work Augustine discusses many topics
of philosophy and history:

SUICIDE, I.2-27;

The two cities

The idea of the two cities is as follows. The "city of God" consists of those
who will enjoy eternal happiness with God in heaven, the "earthly city" of those
who will not. The city of God is not identical with the Church, since not all
members of the Church will be saved. During this age, before the Day of
Judgment, the members of the two cities are mixed in together, no one knows with
certainty who are the elect. Although Augustine sometimes seems to identify Rome
as the earthly city, at least in later sections of the book the earthly city is
not identified with any particular state. Members of both the city of God and
the earthly city will be among the citizens of any particular state. The members
of the two cities have different ultimate values but have many intermediate ends
in common -- for example, they both desire worldly peace. Insofar as any
particular state serves such common ends it will have the cooperation of members
of the city of God.

To learn more about the two cities see I. 1, I.35, XI. 1, XIV. 1, XIV.28, XV.
1-2, XV.4, XIX. 17. For most of these passages you will need to consult a
complete text of The City of God .

The following selections in the Readings Book relate to politics. The first few
extracts relate to the question why did God allow the non-Christian Roman empire
to become so large and powerful? The opponents of Christianity say that the
Christian god is unreal; it was the old Roman gods that favoured the Roman
empire -- its success shows that those old gods were real and powerful.

Read IV.3,15.

Like Plato and Aristotle, Augustine was no admirer of militarism or empire.
Peace is one of his favourite themes. The question, "In the absence of justice,
what is sovereignty but organised brigandage?", and the story of Alexander and
the pirate, were often repeated by later writers.

The old Roman gods were unreal; there is only one true God. So then there is a
question, why did that God help the builders of the pagan Roman empire?

Read V.12,13,19,20.

Is he praising the old Romans for their love of glory, or condemning them?

Love of glory or honour is not a virtue but a vice, according to Augustine; yet
politically it has similar effects to virtue: love of honour inhibits other
vices. In this respect it is an image or imitation or likeness of real virtue.
Augustine's philosophy was much influenced by neo-Platonism. Plato distinguished
especially between two levels of reality: the Forms, and the things of our
experience which imitate or resemble the Forms in an inferior way. The
neo-Platonists extended this to many levels: Reality has many levels, each of
which is a reflection or imitation of the level above it. This makes Augustine
perhaps surprisingly tolerant of lower things: the lower levels are not merely
evil, they are an imperfect imitation of higher levels. The "virtue" of the
ancient Romans was inferior, but it was worth something.

On p. 124, LH side, he says: "The better way to reach honour ... is by virtue",
but to be virtuous for the sake of honour is the prostitution of virtue - in
fact it is not genuine virtue. At the bottom of the LH side he says: "There is
no true virtue save that which pursues the end which is man's true good". Second
paragraph of chapter 13: "The love of glory is a sin." But there are worse
things than seeking glory -- for example, seeing domination without caring what
anyone thinks (chapter 19). So the old Romans, though they sinned in seeking
glory, were not as bad as they might have been; their sense of honour was at
least an imitation of virtue. So on p. 126, RH, he explains that God aided the
Romans because virute motivated by glory is better than no virtue at all.

The Stoics despised honour and sought virtue for its own sake (the opening
sentence of V.20 is a reference to the Stoics, "those others" are the
Epicureans, who said that virtue is good because it makes life more pleasant).
However, some try to seem to despise honour only to attain more honour. And some
who genuinely do not care about admiration from others still like to admire
themselves (perhaps for despising honour). "Their virtue, if they have any, is
just as much a slave to glory, though in a different way. For what is the
self-complacent man but a slave to his own self-praise?" This is a point worth
making. If you pride yourself on your independence and integrity you may still
be playing to an admiring audience, yourself. One of the reasons why people read
Augustine is that he is good at pointing out some of the subtleties of human
self-deception -- he'd been there himself.

So one of the themes in these chapters is the distinction between real virtue
and certain approximations or imitations, without meaning to dismiss the
approximations as worthless.

Read XIX.5,7.

This is part of an argument (XIX.4-10) that complete happiness is not to be
found in this earthly life. He goes through several levels of social life --
family life, life in the city, life in the world community. On this topic
Augustine is more realistic than many of the Stoic writers, who identified
virtue and happiness; or perhaps we should say that Augustine is using
"happiness" to mean something close to what we mean by it, and acknowledging
that virtue cannot guarantee happiness in that sense. In passages not in the
Readings he says: "When virtues are genuine virtues -- and that is possible only
when men believe in God -- they make no pretence of protecting their possessors
from unhappiness, for that would be a false promise; but they do claim that
human life, now compelled to feel the misery of so many grievous ills on earth,
can, by the hope of heaven, be made both happy and secure" (XIX.4). "On earth we
are happy, after a fashion, when we enjoy the peace, little as it is, which a
good life brings; but such happiness compared with the beatitude which is our
end in eternity is, in point of fact, misery" (XIX.10).

From XIX. 11 the topic is peace. "The kind of peace that is based on
injustice... does not deserve the name of Peace"; XIX. 12.

Read XIX.13, first paragraph.

Once again, notice the neo-Platonic habit of attending to many levels and seeing
analogies between them. The levels here include the body, the soul, the home,
the city, etc.; at each level there is a kind of peace, and each kind of peace
consists in a certain kind of order. Notice that order requires that temporal
goods be used as means to eternal life. (See XIX.25 in a complete text of the

Read XIX.14

Obedience is due only to those who serve by ruling -- no other sort of ruling is
justified. This is of course Plato's thesis again, that ruling is an art that
seeks the good of the ruled. Notice the service Augustine says the ruler owes to
the ruled: to help them to love God.

Read XIX.15

This chapter has usually been taken to mean that if there had been no sin (if
the Fall had not taken place, and mankind had continued in the original state of
innocence) the institutions of government and slavery would not have existed.
Medieval interpreters of Augustine took this to mean that the authority of a
husband and father is natural , whereas the authority of the master of slaves
and of government is not natural, though it is legitimate for other reasons.
("Natural" here means "part of human nature as God originally created it",
whereas for Aristotle nature was seen best in the fully developed, not in the
primitive or original.)

Read XIX.17

Thus Christians participate in the earthly city, and value its peace. (Cf. XV.4
in a complete text of the work.) Notice that merely earthly peace is worth
something, just as the virtue of the old Romans motivated by desire for glory
was worth something; the lower levels are imperfect, not evil. Augustine is
saying here that Christians can cooperate with non-Christians in seeking
worldly, but still worth-while, order and peace.

Read XIX.21, last para. of 23, and 24.

The back-reference is to II.21. There (after promising to prove that by Cicero's
definition the Romans never had a republic), he says: "However, according to
some definitions that are nearer the truth , it was a commonwealth of a sort",
just as its peace was peace of a sort. Some medieval writers (e.g. Giles of
Rome) held that true justice and a true polity are not possible except among
Christians and sometimes quoted from City of God IV.4 in support of their
position. Some historians use the term "Political Augustinianism" for this
position, but here in XIX.21 and in XIX.24 Augustine rejects it. It is only by
an unduly narrow definition that it can be said that non-Christians cannot form
a commonwealth.

Read XIX.26-27.

"We can make use of the peace of Babylon" (which represents the earthly city):
cf. XIX. 17

Notice in all of this the idea of order: one thing is under another, exists for
the sake of another, must obey another... Even when order is not perfect there
must be some order -- evil is never absolute. (See XIX.12 in complete text, 13;
cf. XI1.3 in complete text.) Peace, Justice, and Happiness depend upon Order,
and are less perfect the less perfect the order.

Augustine on war

Augustine rejected pacificism, which to some seemed to be implied by Jesus words
about not resisting evil and turning the other cheek.

Before Augustine became a Catholic he had been a Manichee. In his book Against
Faustus the Manichee he explains and justifies his rejection of their views. The
Manichaeans accepted the New Testament but rejected the Old Testament as being
unworthy of God: for example, it says that God commanded the Israelites to
despoil the Egyptians, that he commanded Abraham to sacrifice his son, that he
commanded the Israelites to engage in ruthless war.

Read Augustine, Contra Faustum , Book XXII, chapters 74-6.

"Wars of Moses": What Faustus had said is not recorded. Perhaps he referred to
some passage like the following: "In the cities of these peoples that the Lord
your God gives you for an inheritance, you shall save alive nothing that
breathes", i.e. not women, children, animals, "but you shall utterly destroy
them... as the Lord your God has commanded; that they may not teach you to do
according to all their abominable practices which they have done in the service
of their gods"; Deuteronomy 20:16-18.

Notice: "What is the evil in war?"

The quotations are from the gospels.

Note that normally the soldiers are not to blame if they carry out the orders of
even an ungodly king.

In his letter to Marcellinus, Augustine also discusses war. He answers the
objection that Christ's teachings will weaken the state by making citizens
unwilling to fight.

Read extract from Augustine, Epistola 138.

"Christ's preaching": E.g. in the "Sermon on the Mount" Christ said, "You have
heard that it was said, "An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth". But I say
to you, Do not resist one who is evil. But if any one strikes you on the right
cheek, turn to him the other also; and if any one would sue you and take your
coat, let him have your cloak as well; and if any one forces you to go one mile,
go with him two miles" (Matthew 5:38-41).

"They preferred to pardon the wrongs they had suffered rather than revenge
them": This quotation from the ancient Roman historian Sallust, and the
following quotation from Cicero, resemble Christ's teachings. Yet the ancient
Romans were not ineffective in warfare. These sayings, and Christ's sayings,
express a praiseworthy attitude, but were not meant to be acted on literally.

"For what is the commonwealth", etc.: The point of this passage is that the
state cannot exist without agreement and harmony among citizens, which Christ's
teachings foster.

"When these disagreed among themselves": i.e., the pagan gods disagreed among

"What kinds of goods these are": i.e. that they should be despised, not fought

"Interior disposition of the heart": the Christian must always be inwardly ready
to make peace, even while the behaviour of others forces him to fight.

In short, Christ's teaching does not forbid Christians to engage in just

Augustine on Religious Persecution

Augustine changed his mind on this topic. At first he was opposed to any sort of
coercion of non-Christians, on the grounds that belief has to be voluntary. But
later he was persuaded by experience that coercion may produce genuine belief,
by causing people to attend favourably to teachings they would otherwise have
ignored or despised. This opens a wide door.

In North Africa in Augustine's time the Catholics were in conflict with a large
and well-organised Christian sect called the Donatists; a sub-sect of the
Donatists were the Rogatists. Some Donatists, the "circumcelliones", were
violent against the Catholics. Augustine at first took the view that the
Catholics should ask the Christian Roman state only for protection against the
violence of the circumcelliones, but other bishops persuaded the state to make
its forces available to compel the Donatists to become Catholics. Augustine was
struck by the fact that many of the forcibly converted Donatists were grateful
and became ardent Catholics. He writes to Vincentius, a Rogatist bishop, in
defence of the policy.

Read Augustine, Epistola 93, to Vincentius.

"Many who hold and defend the Catholic unity": converted Donatists.

"My colleagues": the other bishops, who had asked the state to compel
conversions, whereas Augustine had wanted merely protection from circumcellion

"Overlook and forbear": cf turning the other cheek.

"Compel them to come in": From the parable of the supper, Luke 14:16 ff. Those
invited to the supper made various excuses and did not come. "The householder
said to his servant, "Go out quickly... and bring in the poor and maimed and
blind and lame". and the servant said, "Sir, what you commanded has been done,
and still there is room." And the master said to the servant, "Go out to the
highways and hedges, and compel people to come in, that my house may be

"When good and bad do the same actions": An action that is right if done by
someone who is in the right may be wrong if done by someone in the wrong. To
judge the act we must ask "who were on the side of truth, and who on the side of

"The good have persecuted the bad": in English "persecute" has come to connote
"wrongly", so that persecution is not something the good are said to do. In
Latin persequor did not have this connotation; neither does the related English
word "prosecute", which is something the good can be said to do.

Similar arguments are found in Augustine's Epistola 185, to Boniface (translated
in Saint Augustine, Letters, vol. 4 (New York: "The Fathers of the Church",
1955), p. 141 ff (BR60.F3 vol. 30). For criticism see Pierre Bayle,
Philosophical Commentary , part 3, in Readings .

So while The City of God suggests a "minimal" or neutral state in which
Christians and non-Christians live peacefully together, other passages in
Augustine's writings suggest that the state should sometimes enforce religious


According to Augustine, secular government cannot secure the happiness of
citizens. Happiness is not possible in this life. The goal of politics is peace
or order -- not perfect peace, but a peace worth having though imperfect, a
remedy for some of the disorder resulting from sin. To secure peace warfare may
be necessary.

Tutorial Topics What is the difference between the City of God and the Earthly
City? What are the various kinds and levels of justice, happiness,  peace and
order in Augustine's thinking? Would there be any need for government, and if so
for what kind  of government, if human beings were entirely good? Was Augustine
right in thinking that "persecution" may  be justified if it gets those who are
in error to consider the truth? According to Aristotle, the goal of politics is
happiness (in the  sense in which he uses the word eudaimonia . According to
Augustine, true happiness is not possible in this life. What are the
implications of this difference for politics? Sometimes Augustine seems to
support a minimal or night-watchman  state, at other times he wants the state to
serve religious truth. Is  this a point on which he was inconsistent?