Recently, I have been reading with an undergraduate class St. Augustine’s City of God. Augustine took about thirteen years to write it; it took us nineteen class days, reading fifty-seven pages at a clip, to read it. Anyone claiming to have read all the works of Augustine, a famous quip goes, “is a liar.” The same might be said of anyone, including Schall and his students, who says that he understands every aspect of the City of God. In English, the book is 1091 pages in the Penguin edition. Still, it requires very careful attention.
At the semester’s beginning, I told a class of about seventy students that, at least once in our lives (it is not enough, I know), we should read this remarkable book that bears the Christian title De Civitate Dei and is comparable to Plato’s Republic. The students were to look on reading it as an adventure, as great as any that they will ever undertake. But it is also a task. I asked them if they were willing to try it. I did not want to read only “parts,” the bane of academic life. Under Schall’s cold gaze, they agreed, I think, not reluctantly. With some awe, they mostly enjoyed it. Its reading is one of life’s soul-moving experiences, like reading Aristotle’s Metaphysics, or The Brothers Karamazov, or the Epistle to the Romans.
Throughout, Augustine keeps explaining to the reader the order of the book. He knows it is a difficult read, and its parts need constant repetition. At the end of Book 10, Augustine explains: “The first five books (of twenty-two) have been written against those who imagine that the gods are to be worshipped for the sake of the good things of this life, the latter five against those who think that the cult of the (Roman) gods should be kept with a view to the future life after death.”
When Augustine finishes with these dubious theses about the pagan gods, not much is left of them. The next twelve books, in blocks of four books each, are devoted to three topics concerning the two cities, the City of God and the City of Man: “I shall treat of their origin, their development, and their destined ends.”
The occasion for writing this remarkable book was a letter Augustine received from his friend Marcellus, who wanted some guidance on dealing with elite pagans. They had witnessed the sack of Rome in 411, and concluded that the angry gods allowed this devastation of the Eternal City because its religion had changed to Christianity under Constantine in 325 A.D.
Not unlike Plato’s brothers in The Republic, who, when they wanted to hear justice praised for its own sake, turned to Socrates, the one man who might be able to deal with the question, so Marcellus turned to Augustine. Augustine knew enough classical and Roman history to point out that these pagan gods had not always protected Rome. He also knew enough philosophy to see the incoherence of the salvific claim of the pagan gods.
The City of God brings up for our consideration the rise and fall of nations, of whether a “purpose” is found in secular things. Earlier Christians wanted to see secular history as providential. Augustine was quite careful here. He had, as it were, bigger fish to fry. Scripture did contain factual historical events. The City of God is full of Augustine’s examination of times and places. He knows about Caesar Augustus and Christ’s birth, the time of the Crucifixion. He is himself a Roman citizen, from one of the African conquests.
But The City of God is not about the rise and fall of nations except insofar as they provide the arena in which what really happens in history is carried out. Augustine has two sources of knowledge, reason and Scripture. He places them together in a coherent whole. Both arise from the same origin. Perhaps the most famous part of The City of God is Book 19, where he gives the 288 different philosophic definitions of happiness.
In the first chapter of Book 19, we find Schall’s favorite sentence in Augustine: “Nulla est homini causa philosophandi nisi ut beatus sit — Man has no cause to philosophize other than that he be happy.”
The City of God, briefly, relativizes all political institutions insofar as they claim to make man eternally happy, as so many do. The City of God is composed of all of those who, in the course of their lives, in whatever place or era, choose God as their end in the plan that God reveals. The City of Man is composed of all those who, in their lives and thought, reject this gift. The purpose of the cosmos and our place within it is to make possible, in each particular case, that this decision be freely made.
Modern politics, science, and culture almost never mention that truth, which is why Christians have to return again and again to the thousand-plus pages of The City of God.
James Schall, S.J., is a professor at Georgetown University, and one of the most prolific Catholic writers in America.
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