The Origins of Political Authority in Augustine of Hippo, City of God 19 (Part 2)

Continued from part one, which both introduced one or two themes from The City of God  and summarized the synopsis of classical thought with which Augustine opens Book 19.1-3 of the same. Here, we cover the first half of 19.4.

Having listed Varro’s summary of all possible philosophies, Augustine concurs with him that any possible philosophy ultimately reduces to one of  three positions. Happiness, the ultimate good of the human being (which is a body-soul unity), is had (A) for the sake of trained virtue, or (B) trained virtue is had for the sake of certain natural goods (vi&., the health of mind and body), or (C) both virtue and natural goods (i.e., health of mind and body) are desired together. Like Varro, Augustine opts for (C), conceding that the soul and its pleasures are greater than those of the body, but granting that both virtue and natural goods are desirable for their own sake. Varro also opines that the life of virtue should be pursued both for one’s own sake and that of others, that his positions are certain (against the Sceptics of the New Academy), and that the path to the final good entails both the active and the contemplative life. (Varro is indecisive on the matter of whether one should adopt the manners and lifestyle of the surrounding culture, of that of the Cynics.)

Augustine now gives “what response the City of God makes when questioned on each of” the points of Varro’s summary of classical thought. [XIX.4, Dyson, 918] 


His opening remarks  will not please everyone, and we’ll look more carefully at some of the objections below. Augustine opens by saying that, if asked “what response the City of God makes […] on each of these points”, the answer would be that “eternal life is the Supreme Good, and eternal death the Supreme Evil, and that to achieve the one and avoid the other, we must live rightly” (so he cites, “The just man lives by faith”). [XIX.4, Dyson, 918]

While “[t]his reply appears remarkably simple and direct”, as R. H. Barrow writes, it is also the case that “[a]t first sight the reply seems to be no reply.” If Augustine’s abbreviation of Varro’s summary is to be believed, then classical moral theory uses terms such as “pleasure, happiness, the ‘primary objects’, virtue” &c.; and yet “Augustine retorts in other terms” such as “life, right living, faith, prayer, aid, God.”

In short, he does not believe that the problem is to be approached primarily by way of the categories of traditional classical theory, which was guilty of defective analysis of human nature; new terms are needed […]. [R. H. Barrow, Introduction to St. Augustine The City of God (London: Faber & Faber Ltd., 1950), 187]

The new terms are not needed because Augustine is merely ignoring the classical ones, steamrolling over them with his own school opinions. New terms are needed because, according to the implications of what is evident to all, “[w]e do not yet see our good, and hence we must seek it by believing.” [XIX.4, Dyson, 919] As Augustine will outline in the rest of chapter four, the dislocations and dissonances found in the life of this saeculum are ineliminable, and cannot be simply surmounted to leapfrog into the good we seek as achievable-here-and-now. Gerard O’Daly agrees:

Thus, two principles of philosophical enquiry are rejected: the principle that the good sought, and thus happiness, is to be found in our temporal, earthly existence, and the belief that happiness, and so virtue, can be found by unaided human effort. Augustine, by contrast, stresses the tensions and difficulties of social life. [Gerard O’Daly, Augustine’s City of God: A Reader’s Guide (New York: Oxford Clarendon, 1999), 199]

The tensions are sustained by faith and hope in the resolution of things in the age (the saeculum) to come. “The philosophers”, Augustine shakes his head, “[…] have supposed that the Final Good and Evil are to be found in this life. […] With wondrous vanity, these philosophers have wished to be happy here and now, and to achieve blessedness by their own efforts.” [XIX.4, Dyson, 919] Augustine shall repeat this as a refrain at the end of the chapter. We have left unattended the charge: “by their own efforts.” The final good, Augustine clearly writes, can only be thought of as deferred, or rather, as future. Moreover, this future good is not dreamed up by humanity, but the faith and hope that look to it are given by God, who must give and sustain the faith and hope of those believing and hoping: the future good is given by a divine promise. Joining the chorus of authors, and addressing this point, is Peter Brown:

For an ancient Greek, ethics had consisted of telling man, not what he ought to do, but what he could do, and, hence, what he could achieve. Augustine, in the City of God, told him for what he must live in hope. It is a profound change. In substituting for the classical ideal of an available self-perfection, the idea of a man, placed as a stranger in an uncomprehending land, a man whose virtue lies in a tension towards something else, in hope, in faith, in an ardent yearning for a country that is always distant, but made ever-present by the quality of his love, that ‘groans’ for it, Augustine could well be called the first Romantic. [Peter Brown, “Saint Augustine”, in Trends in Medieval Political Thought, ed. Beryl Smalley (Oxford: Blackwell & Mott, 1965), 12]

Romantic, perhaps, but neither misanthropic nor world-hating. Augustine’s descriptions here are drawn from the earlier, pagan Roman philosopher Cicero; yet Augustine’s own son Adeimantus had died relatively young, and he knew heartbreak firsthand. He also knew the joys of the mind, however, and the joys of life in common in a fellowship of like-minded souls. He knew the delights of sexual intimacy, and defended the joys of the marriage bed against those who saw nuptial pleasures as sinful. He praised the sensuous and intelligible joys of the world, and even expressed what seems like a cautious optimism about the possibilities of what hidden things of the world humans could discover through ingenuity, both to understand and to remedy the many ills of life.

(some) objections & (some) clarifications

Augustine writes that “eternal life is the Supreme Good”, and this could be (mis)read as a very crass attempt to extend earthly life perpetually, and to dodge death. That is, the seeming emphasis on duration may seem to make it appeal to baser instincts. It also could be taken to indicate a kind of extrinsic reward given in return for hoping — a great deal, just as the lower-brow souls must love great bargains on the cheap. Barrow is not immune from the apologetic impulse, but he very helpfully cites some historical context for this kind of phrasing here: the sack of Rome in A.D. 410. Two notes on this phrase, “eternal life”.

First, it resonates with the expectations that Romans had concerning the eternity of their City. “To confidence in the extension of Rome’s dominion ‘without limit’ had been added faith in her rule as unending.” [Barrow, 191] The sack of Rome, thus, came as a shock to many. “Romanitas, the proud tradition painfully and triumphantly built up for more than a thousand years, was crumbling away before their eyes, and the future, hitherto filled with the destiny of Rome, was a void, offering only chaos and uncertainty and perhaps extinction.” [Barrow, 192] Augustine offered them another City, an eternal one, in lieu of the Roman one they had lost. “Here was eternity which could be counted on never to disappoint its believers.” And yet, with regard to this eternity,

it was inevitable that in performing the task which he had undertaken in the [City of God] he should seem to overstress the quantitative and understress the qualitative nature of eternal life.  [Barrow, 192]

Eternity, however, in Augustine, is not simple futurity: “eternal life” is ‘life lived with God’, and this divine “eternity” is, as Augustine clarifies in other works, not extended duration, but an eternal now, and this can be intimated in moments of spiritual ecstasy (such as in the Confessions). Neither “eternal” nor “life” are something other than “the life of God”, and in Augustine, this is present here and now by faith, hope, and love, Barrow argues. [Barrow, 190]

Secondly: the life lived rightly is not a mercantile “means” to the “end” of “eternal life”: they are of the same order, “different aspects, artificially isolated, of what is essentially one process.” [Barrow, 193] The reward does not come after death, however: “it is now and will be the [eternal] life itself.” [Barrow, 193]

Barrow takes issue with Augustine’s language about “eternal death”, and sometimes on the grounds of what Augustine elsewhere states as principles; but we are already over our word count…

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