One of the most distinctive elements of Augustine’s method in the City of God looks like this: Now I wish to explore Z, but I cannot explore Z until I first explore X and Y. Thus in Book V he wants to ask why Rome ruled so widely and for so long, but he knows that many Romans — including his nemesis Virgil — believe that it was simply Rome’s destiny (fatum) to rule the world, and he has to refute that; but then he also knows that the belief in fate is buttressed by the belief in astrology, so he has to refute that. Only after all that preparatory work can he then explain why he thinks Rome became so dominant. As we saw in an earlier post, he thinks it was because of the virtues of the greatest Romans. It takes him a long time to get there, though.
(By the way, T. S. Eliot’s essay “Virgil and the Christian World” is still really useful on Virgil’s understanding of fatum and how it relates to the Christian understanding of God’s Providence.)
So here we are at the beginning of Book XIX, where we see that same methodological strategy at work. I’ll add in brackets some of the relevant Latin terms:
It is clear to me that my next task is to discuss the appointed ends of these two cities, the earthly and the heavenly. Hence I must first explain, as far as is allowed by the limits I have designed for this work, the arguments advanced by mortal men in their endeavour to create happiness [beatitudinem] for themselves amidst the unhappiness [infelicitate] of this life. My purpose is to make clear the great difference between their hollow realities and our hope, the hope given us by God, together with the realization — that is, the true bliss [beatitudo] — which he will give us; and to do this not merely by appealing to divine authority but also by employing such powers of reason as we can apply for the benefit of unbelievers [infideles]. Now the philosophers have engaged in a great deal of complicated debate about the supreme ends of good and evil; and by concentrating their attention on this question they have tried to discover what it is that makes a man happy [qui efficiat hominem beatum]. For our Final Good [finis boni] is that for which other things are to be desired, while it is itself to be desired for its own sake. The Final Evil [finis mali] is that for which other things are to be shunned, while it is itself to be shunned on its own account. Thus when we now speak of the Final Good we do not mean the end of good whereby good is finished so that it does not exist, but the end whereby it is brought to final perfection and fulfilment. And by the Final Evil we do not mean the finish of evil whereby it ceases to be, but the final end to which its harmful effects eventually lead. These two ends, then, are the Supreme Good [summum bonum] and the Supreme Evil [summum malum]. The search to discover these, and the quest for the attainment of the Supreme Good in this life and the avoidance of the Supreme Evil has been the object of the labours of those who have made the pursuit of wisdom their profession….
So: What is the end, the telos, of the City of Man? Well, naturally, it wants to achieve happiness — by which, as you can see above, Augustine means something far more than what we usually mean by happiness, and maybe even something stronger than the Aristotelian concept of eudaimonia: he means a condition of blessedness, absolute bliss. Such happiness is our Final Good, the thing most desired, and to experience that is to attain or possess the Supreme Good. So what, exactly, for citizens of the City of Man, is the nature of the Supreme Good that they want to attain and the Supreme Evil that they want to avoid? That’s where Augustine has to begin.
Spoiler alert: Augustine doesn’t think any of the philosophers are correct. But the one that he seems to have the most respect for, in these matters anyway, is Varro. Varro, Augustine claims, says that the supreme good for human beings “consists in the combination of goods of both his elements, of soul, that is, and body” (CD XIX.3). But one also must possess virtue, because it is virtue that enables you to enjoy the goods of soul and body properly and not to dissipate or destroy them. Philosophers like Varro also agree that the happy life for human beings is social.
Augustine devotes some considerable time to demonstrating that a mortal being in this world can never be secure in either goods of the body or goods of the soul, that misfortune can come to people at any time, and that virtue itself is no guarantee of happiness because virtue is constantly warring with, and often losing to, vice. Because of the inevitable vagaries of this life — because of the unexpected and the unpredictable, including our own internal unpredictability — we can never rest secure in our possession of any this-worldly goods. By contrast, Christianity perceives that “eternal life is the Supreme Good and eternal death the Supreme Evil, and that to achieve the one and escape the other, we must live rightly. That is why the scripture says ‘the just man lives on the basis of faith’” (CD XIX.4). This, Augustine says is a secure inheritance that we can count on even when the goods of this life, whether of the body or the soul, fail us – even when virtue fails us. (Remember here that Augustine says in the previous book that the citizens of the two cities have many of the same experiences — they are differentiated merely in how they respond to them, and in what they hope for. The sun shines on Besźel and Ul Qoma alike. The instability of human fortune is a topic he returns to in XX.3, where he invokes the wise words of Solomon, primarily in the book of Ecclesiastes, in support of this view.)
But all of this is, effectively, boilerplate. What Augustine is really interested in is this matter of the social character of happiness. That’s relevant to everyone, since we are all involved in a shared existence, a common life. Augustine writes that the better and more reputable philosophies “hold the view that the life of the wise man should be social [socialem]; and in this we support them much more heartily. For here we are, with the nineteenth book in hand, on the subject of the City of God; and how could that city have made its first start, how could it have advanced along its course, how could it attain its appointed goal, if the life of the saints were not social?” (CD XIX.5) So the identity and character of the City of God is bound up with this conviction that the good life is inevitably social.
Augustine then spends a lot of time considering the afflictions that beset our social life. It is being attacked at all times by a wide range of forces — even “the friendship of the holy angels” is troubled by the deceits of demons (CD XIX.9). So under what circumstances is it possible for social life to be what it supposed to be, to bring the blessings it is meant to bring? This happens, Augustine says, only when we experience peace. And Augustine insists – this is one of his most essential ideas, it seems to me – that all rational beings seek peace. We should never forget that those whom we think of as our enemies desire peace just as much as we do. What Augustine would say then about the citizens of the City of Man is not that they don’t seek peace — even war, he says, is engaged in for the purpose of achieving peace – but rather that they misunderstand what peace actually is and the means by which it can be achieved (CD XIX.12).
This is where Augustine gets into some of his deepest questions about what a commonwealth is, that is: Under what circumstances may we live in a society in which there is a genuine common good? Augustine thinks that the City of Man can never experience peace, and it can’t experience piece because it cannot achieve a common good, a common weal, because it doesn’t understand what the Supreme Good actually is. Therefore he wants to argue that according to Scipio’s definition of a commonwealth – “he defined a ‘people’ as a multitude ‘united in association by a common sense of right, and a community of interest’” (CD XIX.21) — no earthly city can ever actually be a commonwealth. Because it worships false gods and because it doesn’t understand what our Supreme Good really is, it will always be mistaken in its “sense of right” and its “interest” will always be in the wrong things, on things that do not in fact lead to peace. (No genuine peace can ever be achieved through the unloosing of the libido dominandi.)
So Augustine says that a better definition of commonwealth is “the association of a multitude of rational beings, united by a common agreement on the objects of their love” (CD XIX.24) – but if you love something other than God, then your city will not have true justice, and if it does not have true justice, it will not have true peace, and if it does not have true peace, it will not make possible a social life conducive to the Supreme Good. To return to a theme from earlier posts in this series: the City of Man will get what it asks for, but it will not ask for the right things. It does not possess the orientation required in order to ask for the right things; it is not walking along the street of love, but rather motoring down the superhighway constructed by the libido dominandi. And so, in the end, the Great Divorce will be effected.
This is the subject of Book XX: the Last Judgment and what the Bible tells us about it. Reading that book is quite a bit like reading Hal Lindsey or Tim LaHaye. Not my primary interest. As I keep saying, we live in-the-midst and must decide how to dwell charitably and wisely with these citizens of another city — and that is what I’m trying to figure out.