The Virtues of the City

was reading St. Augustine’s City of God with some high school students the other day, and we were talking about the virtues needed to found and maintain a great city.  Augustine began The City of God several years after Rome, “the Eternal City,” had been sacked by Alaric and his Visigoths.  He announces his intention early on to defend Christianity against its opponents in the cultured elite of his time, who were complaining that Rome had declined because it embraced Christianity — a charge often repeated through the centuries, most famously in Edward Gibbons’ monumental The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire.

Augustine points out that many of those from Rome complaining most loudly about Christianity had only survived because they managed to take refuge in one of the Christian basilicas in the city, all of which had been spared by the barbarian invaders.  Rather than complaining about Christianity, says Augustine, these people should be proclaiming Christ’s name in all sincerity, seeing that so many of them assumed his name dishonestly, to escape death.” 

This is a barbed comment for several reasons, the first of which is simply that Augustine knows it was not many years before that his Christian brethren were being martyred in some of those very same spots for refusing to deny the name of Christ.  The “noble” Roman pagans did not show the same courage when they were asked, under threat to their lives: “Are you a follower of Christ?” 

The second implication of his comment, though, is this: “Where were you, O noble pagan, when the city was being sacked?  Were you out manning the barricades?  Were you fighting for your beloved Rome side by side with your Roman brothers?  No. You were cowering in fear in the Christian basilicas, passing yourself off as Christians, sitting next to Christian worshipers to whom you wouldn’t have given the time of day before, and who were probably praying for their Christian brothers and fathers, many of whom were actually out sacrificing their lives for you.  And now where do you direct your complaints?  At Christianity!”

As The City of God progresses, it’s clear that, with regard to the disaster in Rome, Augustine wants his readers to think bigger and smaller at the same time. He wants them simultaneously to see Rome within the larger historical context of salvation history, while never losing sight of their personal responsibility to do whatever good they can in each historical moment.      

           La Cité de Dieu (illustrated page by the Orosius Master, c. 1410) 

 For the Romans, Rome was everything.  Rome gave their lives meaning.  When a merely transient thing gives your life meaning, and then the inevitable happens and it is lost, then what?  Rome, Augustine exhorts them to see, was never an end unto itself, but like everything else, merely plays its part in God’s greater providential design.  There is only one “eternal city,” and it isn’t in this world.  To love this world properly means seeing it within the larger context of divine providence and salvation history.

By the same token, the real crisis that led to Rome’s downfall was much closer than the Romans imagined: it was a crisis of character. The sack of Rome had nothing to do with the loss of the pagan gods, and everything to do with the loss of the authentic pagan virtues.  Cicero and Seneca had seen the truth centuries before: the social order and health of a state depend heavily on the moral order of its people.  There was no way of securing the former without the latter.  The battle wasn’t merely between Roman and Visigoth; the real battle was the one between good and evil, virtue and vice, taking place within the heart of each and every Roman citizen.

There are good reasons why a city’s citizens often look back to the virtues of the founders: the founders usually have a sense of duty, courage, self-sacrifice, and endurance that later generations lack.  When the founders are successful, they make the state rich and powerful, the very things that tend to make citizens soft and corrupt, lacking the virtues needed to keep the state safe and secure.

I was teaching Augustine’s City of God in an air-conditioned classroom in Houston on a hot, humid Texas day.  “Think about the kind of people who built Houston,” I reminded the students, “before the advent of air conditioning.  They must have been tough to take this kind of heat and still love this land enough to live here and die for it. But if a really terrible disaster hits Houston, and the air-conditioning goes out for a long time, don’t depend on Yankees like me to rebuild the city. We’ll all move up north until some tough old Texans get the AC on, and then we’ll move back — when it’s livable again”  

We have tough times in America right now. If Augustine were here, he might tell us the same thing he told his own Roman countrymen: Love your country, but don’t make it an idol.  Rome’s citizens weren’t great because of the glory of Rome; Rome became great because of the spirit of its people

All of history is in the hands of the Lord of History. He controls it, not us. What we can do is change our hearts.  Bear up.  Endure.  Sacrifice for the common good.  Look out for others.  Ask for the grace that will make us virtuous in our hearts so that we all can be faithful to the challenges we face, just as our forebears were faithful to their challenges.  There is no magic potion, no quick fix, no lever to pull that will put it all right.  There is only the long hard road of changing our hearts and minds.

Let’s pray and get to it.  That’s the way to build the City of God. 

Randall B. Smith is a Professor of Theology at the University of St. Thomas in Houston, Texas. His latest book is From Here to Eternity: Reflections on Death, Immortality, and the Resurrection of the Body.