The Origins of Political Authority in Augustine of Hippo, City of God 19 (Part 3)

Part 1 here; this post continues part 2. Here, we cover the second half of 19.4.


Regarding the distribution of suffering in the saeculum, Augustine asks, “whose eloquence is sufficient, no matter how ready its flow, to depict all the miseries of this life?” He looks to Cicero’s Consolation de morte filiae, written on the occasion of the death of Cicero’s own daughter. “[W]hen, where and how can what are called the primary objects of nature [vi&., health of soul and body] be possessed in this life with such certainty that they are not subject to the vicissitudes of chance?” [XIX.4, Dyson, 919] Whether “pain”, “disquiet”, “amputation or decay of […]limbs”, “deformity”, “sickness”, “weakness”, “lassitude”, “torpor or lethargy” — “are there any of these which may not assail the flesh of the wise man?” So much for seeking the final good in this life. Even the goods of the mind that allow us freedom and the capacity to see the truth –these can go through “blind[ness] and deaf[ness]” or by being “driven insane by some sickness” or by “demonic possession”– these can also befall a wise man. In this saeculum, all goods can be corrupted at their root, and rot.

Even virtue, which “supervenes” on the primary goods of nature (again, health of soul and body), and which “occupies the highest place among human goods”, has as its task “to wage perpetual war against the vices”. [XIX.4, Dyson, 920] This warfare bears witness to the folly of locating the final good in this life: “the constant struggle with an evil which [the virtues] cannot cast out cannot be called happiness.” [Barrow, 199] Augustine goes through the four cardinal virtues that had been traditional since at least Plato.

Temperance (σωφροσύνη, as Augustine notes) is, in a sense, the heart of the virtues. It “bridles the lusts of the flesh and prevents them from securing the consent of the mind and dragging it into every wickedness”, for “vice is never not present”. [XIX.4, Dyson, 920] “[T]hat the flesh cease to lust against the spirit” [XIX.4, Dyson, 921], that there be harmony in us at last — this is the victory that temperance aims at; this is what temperance cannot fulfil in this life.

Prudence aims always to distinguish “good things from bad”, so that error does not “creep in as we seek to pursue good”. This would not be needed if “we [did not] dwell in the midst of evils, or […] evils dwell in us”. [XIX.4, Dyson, 921]

Justice is “giv[ing] to each his due”. Within the order of the world, that means that the body submits to reason, and the soul submits to God. Contemplation of God increases “subordination”; lack of contemplation inevitably results in insubordination, and disorder in both the soul-body relationship and in the world. “[I]n performing this task”, justice shows that “she is still laboring at” it and is not completed. [XIX.4, Dyson, 921]

Fortitude “bears most evident witness to human ills; for it is precisely those ills which she is compelled to endure with patience.” [XIX.4, Dyson, 922] He has some harsh words to say about the Stoics and their recommendation of suicide for the happy man under certain conditions. “O happy life, that seeks the aid of death to put an end to it!”

Augustine finds the Old (Platonic) Academy and the (Aristotelian) Peripatetics far more tolerable than the Stoics, for the Old Academics and Peripatetics both at least admit that suffering is truly evil. The Roman Varro, however, who studied at the Academy, can say that “[t]o be free of [the torments and agonies of the body], you must flee from this life.” [XIX.4, Dyson, 923] “There is great power in the evils which compel a man –and, according to those philosophers, even a wise man– to take away his own existence”. It is true, Augustine concedes, that the “wise man ought, indeed, to bear even death with patience; but”, he qualifies, “a death that comes to him from elsewhere.” No life that is “burdened with such great and grievous ills, or subject to such chances, can […] be called happy.” [XIX.4, Dyson, 924] So Augustine ends where he began: “Let them no longer suppose that the Final and Supreme Good is something in which they may rejoice while in this mortal condition.”


Augustine does not rest on his negative position: “[t]rue virtues […] can exist only in those in whom there is true godliness; and these virtues do not claim that they can protect those in whom they are present against suffering any miseries.” Life, it seems, is an equal-opportunity purveyor of pain. Lacking any firm foundation for happiness in this world, “true virtues” are “happy in the hope of the world to come, and in the hope of salvation.”

As, therefore, we are saved by hope, it is in hope that we have been made happy; and as we do not yet possess a present salvation, but await salvation in the future, so we do not enjoy a present happiness, but look forward to happiness in the future, and ‘with patience’. [XIX.4, Dyson, 924]

The philosophers do not hope in this future salvation, this final good, “because they do not see it”, and so they “contrive for themselves an entirely false happiness, by means of a virtue which is as false as it is proud.” [XIX.4, Dyson, 925]

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