The Two Cities

In his book Saeculum (1970), widely acknowledged as one of the most important attempts to unpack Augustine and to situate him as civic and political theorist, Robert Markus argues that Augustine aimed to achieve a number of complex things with his characterization of the two cities. One was to sort out the story of all earthly cities. Augustine, he argues, provides an account of the earthly city (civitas terrena) from Assyria through Rome, and shows the ways in which even the cherished goal of peace all too often ends in conquest and domination, hence no real peace at all. The fullness of peace is reserved for the heavenly city (civitas dei) and its eternal peace. In this way Augustine creates barriers to the absolutizing and sacralizing of any political arrangement. His repudiation of the theology underwriting the notion of an imperium Christianum lies in part in his worry that any identification of the city of God with an earthly order invites sacralization of human arrangements and a dangerous idolatry. At the same time, earthly institutions have a real claim on us, and our membership in a polity is not reducible to misery and punishment. Augustine begins with a presumption of the priority of peace over war, and he repudiates all stories of mythical human beginnings that presume disorder and war as our primordial condition. The earthly city derives from our turning away from love and its source (God) toward willfullness and a "poverty stricken kind of power." Because earthly potestas is tied to the temptations inherent in that form of power we call dominion, there can be no such thing as an earthly sacral society or state.

Augustine begins his unpacking of "the origins and ends of the two cities" in The City of God, part II, book XI. The poverty stricken kind of power is here referenced and human beings are likened to the fallen angels who have turned away from God. In book XII Augustine continues the theme of "turning away," tying the two cities to ordered or disordered wills and desires. With book XIV we get the disobedience of the first man leading not to death everlasting, as would have been the case without God's grace, but to division - within the self, between self and other, between nations and cultures. Whatever the culture or nation, none is whole unto himself or itself, complete and perfect; each is marked by the divisions Augustine here calls "the standard of the flesh" by contrast to "the standard of the spirit" (1972: 547). This is not a screed against the body but against the abuse of the body under the rule of the flesh.

With book XV he writes of "two classes" or "two cities, speaking allegorically": a warning to any who would conflate specific earthly configurations with his dominant metaphor. It is an allegorical representation of a great mystery. The clean and the unclean come together within the framework of the church, within the boundaries of human communities (1972: 648). But the city of God is turned toward God's will, with which it hopes to be in accord; the city of man is constructed and run according to man's standards and designs. Given that there is a "darkness that attends the life of human society," few should sit comfortably on "the judge's bench," but sit there the judge must, "for the claims of human society constrain him and draw him to this duty; and it is unthinkable to him that he should shirk it" (p. 860).

One must not shirk worldly responsibilities, because temporal peace is a good, whether it is the peace of the body, or fellowship with one's own kind, or the provision made for food and clothing and care. Amid the shadows that hover over and among us, there are, as already noted, two rules within our reach and that we should follow: "first, to do no harm to anyone, and, secondly, to help everyone whenever possible" (1972: 873). The most just human civic arrangements are those that afford the widest scope to non-harm-doing and to fellowship and mutuality. If mutuality, even of the earthly imperfect sort, is to be attained, there must be a compromise between human wills and the earthly city must find a way to forge bonds of peace. This she finds very difficult by definition, given the distortions of the lust to dominate.

By contrast, the heavenly city on earthly pilgrimage is better able to forge peace by calling out "citizens from all nations and so collects a society of aliens, speaking all languages." She - the civitas dei - does this not by annulling or abolishing earthly differences but even through maintaining them so "long as God can be worshipped" (1972: 878). The life of the saint, the life of the citizen, is a social life. There must be a balance in our attention to earthly affairs; thus a person ought not "to be so leisured as to take no thought in that leisure for the interest of his neighbor, nor so active as to feel no need for the contemplation of God." If we are to "promote the well-being of common people," we must love God and love our neighbor and the one helps to underscore and to animate the other (p. 880). In his reconsideration of book XIX of Augustine's masterwork, Oliver O'Donovan argues that Augustine reformulated something like the traditional concept of society and morality in new terms which would give due recognition both to the reality of the moral order which makes social existence possible and to its fundamentally flawed character. Augustine embarks on a radical, but not revolutionary policy of characterising all politics in terms of moral disorder, which itself provides an explanation of their political order, since, in Augustine's firmly Platonic view, disorder is nothing but a failure in the underlying moral order ... A vice, in other words, is a perversion of virtue; it is a disorder which is predatory on some order. (O'Donovan 1987: 102)

Refusing to grant a free-standing originary status to disorder or to sin is not only one way Augustine argued against the Manicheans; it remains a radically provocative account that bears profound political implications for our understanding of political evil and evil-doers, a theme I consider in the concluding section below (Elshtain 1995).

Here it is important to note that whatever Augustine's acquiescence in the received social arrangements of his time, he left as a permanent legacy a condemnation of that lust for dominion that distorts the human personality, marriage, the family, and all other human social relations, including civic life and membership. Augustine is scathing in his denunciation of arrogant pridefulness; unstinting in his praise of the works of service, neighborliness, and a love that simultaneously judges and succors (judges because we must distinguish good from evil, selfishness from kindness, and so on). Love and justice are intertwined, on earth and in heaven. Yet the world is filled with horrors, including war. How does Augustine square his regretful justification of a certain sort of war with his call to love and peace? It is to this theme that I now turn.

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