The Origins of Political Authority in Augustine of Hippo, City of God 19 (Part 1)

Augustine of Hippo’s (A.D. 354-430) massive City of God Against the Pagans (New Advent online ed. here; the Dyson translation that I primarily use is available here) consists in twenty-two books, written in sections over the course of thirteen years, beginning in A.D. 413, three years after the famous sack of Rome in A.D. 410 under Alaric. There had been social and political tensions between pagans and Christians before this (though not always-and-everywhere). In a letter to Augustine dated to 408/409, the Christian Marcellinus reported several criticisms of a certain pagan Volusianus. Among the inventory of criticisms was the charge –a “common allegation”– that

Christ’s teaching and preaching must be incompatible with the ethics of citizenship. For he told us –it is agreed– to return to no one evil for evil [Rom 12.17; 1 Thess 5.15], to offer the other cheek to an assailant, to give our cloak to someone demanding a tunic, and to go twice the required distance with someone who wants to requisition us [Mt 5.39–41]. [Volusianus] alleges that all these commands are contrary to the ethics of citizenship. Who would allow an enemy to steal something from him? Who would be unwilling to inflict evil, in the form of a just war, as recompense for the ravaging of a Roman province? […] Volusianus thinks that […] it is obvious that under the Christian emperors the empire is in a very bad way, even though they have on the whole observed the Christian religion. [Augustine, Political Writings ed. Atkins & Dodaro (New York: Cambridge, 2001), 29]

“[P]agans” as Peter Brown notes, “had begun to fear that Christianity had proved itself incompatible with Roman statecraft.” [Peter Brown, “Saint Augustine”, in Trends in Medieval Political Thought, ed. Beryl Smalley (Oxford: Blackwell & Mott, 1965), 9] The sack of Rome brought this frequently-played note out, and sounded it loudly. Augustine’s City of God is a more developed response to this and other such claims; book 19 is quite “possibly the most studied part of” it. [Gerard O’Daly, Augustine’s City of God: A Reader’s Guide (New York: Oxford Clarendon, 1999), 196]

Prior to the City of God, and anticipating a few of its themes, Augustine replied to Volusianus’ charges by arguing that the heart of the command to return no one evil for evil is “to shrink from a passion for revenge” [Letter 138, Political Writings, 35], which restraint the best of the founders of pagan Rome observed, and the best writers –such as Sallust and Cicero– praised. A city, Augustine argues (following Cicero), is “a group of men united by a specific bond of peace” [Political Writings, 35]. Exhortations to peace, then, do not weaken the city, but strengthen it. It is not peace that began “the decline of the Roman commonwealth” [Political Writings, 38], as Roman writers themselves testified, but the lust for power, the libido dominandi, the corruption of simplicity through the “admiring” of lovely things, then the “stealing” of them, resulting in an appetite that knows no bounds, and which engages even in “robbing temples” — quite reminiscent of the movement of Genesis 3:6 (the Tree prohibited by the divine command — recognized as good for food, a delight to the eyes, and desirable for one’s own benefit, through an appetite that acknowledges no boundaries). According to earlier pagan writers, Roman poverty was part of Roman virtue, but Roman wealth led to the corruption of Roman character. [Political Writings, 39] Augustine claims that Volusianus’ emphasis on violence leads to factionalism, and that the quarrelling of the Roman gods, if imitated, would shatter the bonds of peace of the earthly city. [Political Writings, 35] Further, it is best if an evildoer is “won back to peace” by “patient goodwill” rather than by “force or violence”. [Political Writings, 36] Augustine thought that human beings were equal by nature, though in their brokenness they did not regard one another as such in the artificial conditions of fallen sociality. As a result, he saw the coercion between human beings as the unnatural result of the corruption of sin, and institutions of coercion (such as what we would call “the state”) as the voluntary and contingent creations of humans within this condition (rather than instituted by God). So in his Tractates on John (in the first batch of tractates, delivered in A.D. 406-407) he wrote:

Let your reflection now turn to the human soul to which God had granted intellect for discovering its creator, for discerning and distinguishing between good and evil, that is between the just and the unjust. How many things it does through the body! Observe the whole world organized in the human commonwealth itself. With what administrations, with what classifications of powers, constitutions of cities, laws, customs, arts? All this is accomplished by the soul and this power of the soul is not seen. (Tractate 8.2) [Augustine, Tractates on the Gospel of John 1-10 transl. John W. Rettig (Washington, DC: Catholic University of America Press, 1988), 181]

In his reply to Volusianus here, Augustine seems to claim that a redeemed (and natural) authority-as-care-and-service could be exercised within the bounds of institutions that were man-made. Since Augustine sees these institutions as characterized by a disfigured and disfiguring root of authority-as-coercion, which coercive drive infects human relations through the dislocations of sin, this is remarkably optimistic.  Moreover, even when exercising fallen and coercive political authority externally, these evangelical exhortations to peace can be observed, for they “are more relevant to the training of the heart within than to our external activity.” [Political Writings, 37] If these evangelical precepts are held to, “then even wars will be waged in a spirit of benevolence” [Political Writings, 38], with an eye to “taming unrestrained passions” and “destroying vices”, and not for vengeance against wrongdoers (which can only occur at the end of time, when all possibility for reform has expired), but for the reform and restoration of those who are in the wrong, and who have violated the bonds of peace. Augustine here diagnoses Roman ills and vices almost exclusively from Roman writings, and defends the evangelical precepts to peace as rather bolstering the health of the commonwealth, instead of leaving it vulnerable. He concludes, however, seemingly a bit at odds with some of what he just wrote, that if “those who want the commonwealth to remain with its vices unpunished” resist “reform”, “we should tolerate” them. [Political Writings, 40]

As mentioned, however, Augustine was not content to leave the matter alone from the time of his reply onward, and writes that he shall take up, point-by-point, Volusianus’ reply to his letter. As we have seen, the question of the legitimacy of coercive power wielded by a Christian –or rather, the question of whether a faithful Christian can wield coercive power in faithfulness to his or her commonwealth while simultaneously remaining faithful to the precepts of Christ– is part of Volusianus’ charge, as is the character of peace, and book 19 of The City of God addresses both topics: peace, and coercive power. 


Augustine wrote the City of God in several stretches. Book 19 begins the last stretch that he wrote, from book 19 through the end at 22, so it also reflects some of his most mature thought. However, nearly every significant change of mind he had –or of which I am aware– had already happened after his reading of the epistles of Paul in the mid 390’s [R.A. Markus, Saeculum: History and Society in the Theology of St. Augustine (New York: Cambridge, 1970/2007), 209], which was decades before A.D. 426, when books 19-22 were finished.

Augustine nowhere offers a theory on the origins of the state, or a political theory or a political program, though among his writings, it is book 19 of the City of God that is most often examined with regard to political matters. We summarized R. A. Markus’ book Saeculum earlier, which looks at Augustine advancing the saeculum, this age, as a mixed field in which final good and final evil, the city of God and the city of man, are bound up together, cutting across cultures, institutions, and across the heart of every person. They are only disentangled after the completion of history.

What does book 19 offer us regarding both the character of peace and the nature of political authority? What do we find there concerning the origins and character of various institutions, what does it say about coercive authority?


It is helpful to begin by offering a summary of it. Book 19 opens by stating that it will “discuss the proper ends of these two cities, the earthly and the Heavenly.” [XIX.1, Dyson, 909] (“Ends” is a technical term, referring to the “final, inalterable states” of these two cities, not their termination [O’Daly, 196].) It is a teleological question, drawing on Cicero’s De Finibus while asking about the final good, “that for the sake of which other things are to be desired, while it is itself to be desired for its own sake”, the final evil being “that for which other things are to be avoided, while it is itself to be avoided on its own account.” [XIX.1, Dyson, 909] In chapters 1-3, Augustine begins his discussion of the final good with a sweeping summary of classical thought (he will then proceed, after chapters 1-3, to interact with this summary for the rest of book 19).

All philosophies drawn up by “mortals in their efforts” [XIX.1, Dyson, 909] can be classified, so Augustine thinks (following Varro, a fellow student with Cicero under the instruction of Antiochus of Ascalon), according to the respective ways in which they advocate the final good can be laid hold of and the final evil avoided. The final good sought by philosophers “is not the good of a tree, or of a beast, or of God, but of man” [XIX.3, Dyson, 916]; therefore, the question of the final good is anthropological, and concerns human happiness. Happiness is the final good sought after in all cases, according to all philosophies, even if it is “variously conceived”, and the road to it variously understood. [R.H. Barrow, Introduction to St Augustine (London: Faber & Faber Ltd., 1950), 184]

Again, following Varro, Augustine notes four things that all people naturally, instinctively find valuable prior to, and apart from, any thoughtful consideration, effort to understand, or instruction — (1) pleasure [from the swamps of basest appetite to the pinnacles of aesthetic or even spiritual rapture], (2) rest [quiet, the “calm ‘pleasure of equilibrium'” Barrow, 185], (3) a combination of these [“a ‘harmony of mind and body’ brought about by the limitation of desires” Barrow, 185], or (4) “the primary objects of nature” [XIX.1, Dyson, 910], i.e., bodily and mental health.

Since Varro, like Augustine, holds that virtue (“the art of living” or “the art of conducting one’s life” [XIX.3, Dyson, 916, 917]) is learned by instruction (unlike (1)–(4), goods which we long for by nature, the desire for which is thus implanted in us from the beginning), either (A) these four natural goods can be desired for the sake of virtue (i.e., the acquisition of these natural goods occurs necessarily on the path toward virtue, though virtue is what is truly desirable in itself [see Dyson, 910-911]), or (B) virtue can be desired for their sake (i.e., virtue is the best means to secure our hold on the primary goods of (1)–(4), which goods are what we are to desire in themselves), or (C) because both they and virtue are desirable in themselves. Virtue is imposed on nature by doctrina, instruction or teaching. It concerns culture and training and convention. Virtue makes use of natural goods for its own goods. [XIX.3, Dyson, 917]

Depending on the lifestyle that results from the various combinations of these, and further questions and possibilities that arise from these other combinations, this process fractals out into a total of 288 possible positions (a-priorily exhaustive of all possible philosophies, rather than empirically inventorying all concrete ones). However, only the first two sets of distinctions matter (i.e., (1) through (4), and (A) through (C)). As it turns out, (1)–(3) can be folded into (4) [O’Daly, 198], further reducing the relevant distinctions. All of the other distinctions have nothing to do with the final good or the final evil, but with manners of life. [XIX.1, Dyson, 912]. (In Varro’s catalogue, habits, styles of dress and eating, and the question of whether the active or contemplative life took priority –or whether they were of equal worth– were among the factors that, initially, further differentiated the variety of philosophies.) Even the question of skepticism doesn’t really have an impact on factoring differences in philosophies: whether the final good is thought to be certain or uncertain makes no difference regarding its identification and the object pursued, and thus, the classification of a philosophy. [XIX.1, Dyson, 913] In the end, then, the final good is either “in the soul, in the body, [or] in both.” [O’Daly, 198] Varro reasons that it is in both, and that, in sum

happiness is given by a supreme good compounded of goods of the body and goods of the mind; virtue has its own goods and employs the goods of body and mind to its own ends; happiness is social; knowledge is within man’s reach; any considerations relating to external habits of life and dress are irrelevant; and both an active and a contemplative life are necessary. [Barrow, 186]

The happy life is a social life, which begins with friends and family and can extend even to the cosmos (to gods/angels — and Augustine maintains that the beings which the pagans call “gods” are called “angels” by Christians). [XIX.3, Dyson, 918]

This summary of Varro’s is important because Augustine will be interacting with its contents throughout the entirety of book 19.


A brief postscript on the first three chapters of book 19: here, Augustine has summarized Varro’s work, now lost. It is not surprising that Augustine has done so, as Varro here inventories every possible philosophy, and Augustine’s goal here is to engage with the whole of the classical tradition. As Reginald Haynes Barrow wisely notes [Barrow, Intro to Augustine, 181-182], this Late Antique summary of Augustine’s prefigures other later Late Antique Latin works that summarize inherited knowledge, such as Boethius’ transmission of the commentary tradition on Aristotle, or Isidore of Seville’s Etymologiae; scholars in the early Middle Ages (in the Latin West) and in the early Modern period relied on such summaries for much of their knowledge of earlier epochs.



6 thoughts on “The Origins of Political Authority in Augustine of Hippo, City of God 19 (Part 1)

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