Stagger onward rejoicing

Tag: Augustine (page 1 of 1)

Class Notes: Enchiridion

Second in a series of reflections on what I’m teaching. 

Late in his life, Augustine wrote his Enchiridion in response to a request from someone named Laurentius. What Laurentius wanted was a handy summary of Christian teaching that he could “always keep beside” him, to have ready when questions arose. He also wanted the handbook — for that is what enchiridion means — to contain refutations of other philosophies and theologies, but Augustine tells him that that kind of thing wouldn’t fit in a handbook, but rather would require several bookshelves full of books; and in any case, if one wishes to refute falsehoods, what one needs most of all is “to have a great zeal kindled in one’s heart.” 

Augustine doesn’t say this, but in his day the best-known and most influential Enchiridion was that of Epictetus — which was, to be precise, a selection from Epictetus’s writings made and organized by a disciple of his named Arrian. It’s clear (if unstated) that Augustine thinks that Epictetus got it all wrong by starting from inadequate initial principles. Epictetus says that we need to begin by learning what is within our power and what isn’t. Augustine, by contrast, says that we have to begin by understanding that “the fear of the Lord, that is wisdom.” Nothing is within our power; everything comes from the Lord, and returns to him. (Exitus et reditus.) To fear the Lord is to worship him, and the “graces” by which we worship him are faith, hope, and love. Therefore a proper Enchiridion must be a guide to faith, hope, and love. Q.E.D. 

And of course “the greatest of these is love.” For Augustine, human flourishing is never about assessing the scope of our power and adjusting our expectations accordingly. It’s about altering the direction and force of our loves, about turning away from self-love — ceasing to be incurvatus in se, uncoiling our self-constricted mode of being — and turning outwards, towards an ever-expanding love of God and neighbor. 

Cities 10: last things

Book XXI of the City of God is about Hell, and as a result isn’t very interesting. Now, you might reply that Dante certainly made Hell interesting — but, see, Dante didn’t write a poem about Hell. The Divine Comedy is an allegory, and the subjects of the three canticles are sin (Inferno), sanctification (Purgatorio), and blessedness (Paradiso). In the Inferno Dante isn’t trying to tell us what he thinks Hell is actually like, he’s trying to tell us what he thinks sin is actually like, how it works, its weird twisted logic. Hell itself isn’t interesting, for reasons noted by C. S. Lewis in The Problem of Pain:

You will remember that in the parable, the saved go to a place prepared for them, while the damned go to a place never made for men at all [Matthew 25:34–41]. To enter heaven is to become more human than you ever succeeded in being on earth; to enter hell, is to be banished from humanity. What is cast (or casts itself) into hell is not a man: it is ‘remains’.… We know much more about heaven than hell, for heaven is the home of humanity, and therefore contains all that is implied in a glorified human life: but hell was not made for men. It is in no sense parallel to heaven: it is the “the darkness outside,” the outer rim, where being fades away into nonentity.

So, enough about Hell.

Now, the condition of the blessed is infinitely more interesting, but perhaps not totally relevant to the inquiry I have been pursuing. My self-appointed task has been to try to understand the relationship between the two cities, the City of God and the City of Man, as it obtains here and now, as they are mixed together, like Besźel and Ul Qoma.

As I noted in the first post of this series, Augustine says at the outset of his great work,

I have taken upon myself the task of defending the glorious City of God against those who prefer their own gods to the Founder of that City. I treat of it both as it exists in this world of time, a stranger among the ungodly, living by faith, and as it stands in the security of its everlasting seat.

In his final book, Augustine tries to describe the condition of the blessed, and his thoughts there are, or ought to be, fascinating for all Christians. Central to his concluding reflections is his claim that the blessed in heaven will possess true freedom, not because they can do anything they want, but because they cannot sin. They are free because they have been delivered from bondage to sin; their wills fully assent to the will of God; they are no longer divided selves. Dante expresses this very point at the end of Purgatorio XXVII, when Virgil, having guided Dante-the-pilgrim through his sanctification and deposited him back in the Garden of Eden (which stands at the top of the Mount of Purgatory), utters his final words:

libero, dritto e sano è tuo arbitrio
e fallo fora non fare a suo senno:
per ch’io te sovra te corono e mitrio.

That is: “Your will now is free, upright, and sound, and not to heed it would be wrong: Lord of yourself I crown and mitre you.” Dante-the-pilgrim is his own king, his own bishop; purged of sin, he is able to follow his own inclinations because those inclinations are perfectly sound. So Dante-the-poet here, and Augustine in Book XXII of the City of God, both depict the citizens of the City of God as they “stand in the security of [their City’s] everlasting seat.” Their wayfaring is over; they’re home to stay.

But that’s not where we are. We’re in the midst of our pilgrimage, living among — and often being friends with, often loving — neighbors whose citizenship is elsewhere and whose great city (figured in Scripture as Babylon) will, we believe, someday fall. They of course think that our City is imaginary, an illusion that will eventually dissipate. But in the meantime, here we are, all mixed up together, working in the same businesses, attending the same sporting events, voting in the same elections — for all the world looking like we’re citizens of a single city, which we are not.

In China Miéville’s fictional world, the citizens of Besźel and Ul Soma alike deal with the mysterious Cleavage in the same way: by ignoring one another, and when ignoring is impossible, unseeing. By and large, we in our world do not; instead, we practice a series of variable and ad hoc negotiations, often speaking of one another in ways that contradict our actions, often worrying — all of us — about the problem of divided loyalties. A hundred years ago many Americans found it axiomatic that a Roman Catholic could not be a true American because he owed loyalty to the Pope; today many fundamentalists and conservative evangelicals declare that America is a Christian Nation down to its bones — thereby declaring the Cleavage null and void, and perceiving non-Christians as, in effect, stateless vagrants. It’s a mess.

I began this series with a suspicion: that what many Christian thinkers call the “theology of culture” is misnamed and therefore misconceived, and that we need instead a theology of the Two Cities. I now feel more strongly even than I did then that “What is the proper relationship between Christ and culture?” is a fruitless question, one doomed to lead nowhere (not least because, as I have noted, I can’t figure out what theologians mean when they talk about “culture”).  I am convinced that the much more fruitful questions, and ones more grounded in the biblical story and the Christian account of the world, are: How do we live charitably and justly with our neighbors whose citizenship is other than ours? What is the common good that we share with them? What are the instruments — the tactics, the tools, the arts, the practices, the dispositions — by which we might pursue that common good? And, finally, when and how must we make it clear that, while we are all neighbors and owe one another love, we do not belong to the same city?

As I’m continuing to think about these matters, I will certainly draw on Augustine, but I will also — no surprise here for those who know my work — draw on the poetry of W. H. Auden. Perhaps it is no accident that I am reflecting on these themes just as I am concluding my work on a critical edition of Auden’s The Shield of Achilles, which contains his poetic sequence “Horae Canonicae” — one of the most profound exercises in political theology I know. So I will draw this series to a close for now, but continue to meditate on these matters, and when The Shield of Achilles comes out — sometime next year — that might be a very good opportunity to revisit these themes.

It’s possible, of course, that I will issue occasional interim reports; but for the time being, this is a wrap. Ciao!

Cities 9a: the City of God coming down

One brief comment about Book XX: in XX.17 Augustine comments on Revelation 21:2-5: 

And I saw the holy city, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband. And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying,

“See, the home of God is among mortals.
He will dwell with them;
they will be his peoples,
and God himself will be with them; 
he will wipe every tear from their eyes.
Death will be no more;
mourning and crying and pain will be no more,
for the first things have passed away.” 

And the one who was seated on the throne said, “See, I am making all things new.”  

Augustine makes the provocative point that throughout history, as the City of God has made its way along its pilgrim path, drawing others to join it, it has always been coming down out of heaven. What happens at the end is mere the completion of that ongoing descent. 

Cities 9: ends and means

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.


Cities 8: parallels

In Book XVIII of The City of God, Augustine writes a kind of parallel history of the two cities, drawing on the best sources available to him at the time to show simultaneous developments in the City of Man (Assyria, Babylon) and the City of God (Israel, Judah). It’s a fascinating exercise in comparative ethnography.

Here’s a passage (XVIII.27) that shows what the exercise looks like:

Michah also records this period, after the reign of Uzziah, as the time of his prophecy. For he names the three following kings, named also by Hosea: Jotham, Ahaz, and Hezekiah. These men are found by their own statements to have prophesied simultaneously at this period. To them are added Jonah, also in Uzziah’s reign, and Joel, when Jotham, Uzziah’s successor, had by now ascended the throne. The dates of those two prophets can be found in the Chronicle, not in their own books, since they say nothing about their times. Those times extend from Procas, king of Latium, or his predecessor Aventinus, to Romulus, now a king of Rome, or even to the opening of the reign of Numa Pompilius, his successor, seeing that Hezekiah, king of Judah, reigned up to that time. So we see that those men, two springs, as it were, of prophecy, gushed out together, at the time when the Assyrian Empire failed, and the Roman Empire started. It was obviously designed that, just as in the first period of the Assyrian Empire, Abraham made his appearance and to him were given the most explicit promises of the blessings of all nations in his descendants, so in the initial stages of the Western Babylon, during whose dominion Christ was destined to come, in whom those promises were to be fulfilled, the lips of the prophets should be opened, those prophets who in their writings as well as by their spoken words gave testimony to this great event in the future. For although there was scarcely any time from the beginning of the monarchy when the people of Israel had been deprived of prophets, those prophets had been solely for the benefit of the Israelites, with no message for the Gentiles. However, when a beginning was made of writings with a more openly prophetic import, prophecies that would be of value to the Gentile nations at some later date, the appropriate time for that beginning was when this city of Rome was being founded, which was to have dominion over the nations.

The key point here is that, while the City of Man is hostile to the City of God, is devoted to its own ambitions and the false gods it worships, nevertheless the true God providentially oversees the course of the City of Man in such a way as to bring blessings to His people. The development of prophecy in Israel and Judah is synchronized with the decline of Assyria and the rise of Rome. When a great city arises that will “have dominion over the nations” and will therefore have the power to disseminate knowledge to those nations, then at that moment God inspires the prophets to speak words that will show that he cares for and seeks to save all the nations, not just Israel. And this synchronization of the development of the two cities can be seen as early as the simultaneous rise of Assyria and appearance of Abraham.

Here’s how Augustine concludes Book XVIII:

But now at last we must bring this book to its close. In it we have brought our discussion to this point, and we have shown sufficiently, as it seemed to me, what is the development in this mortal condition of the two cities, the earthly and the Heavenly, which are mingled together from the beginning to the end of their history. One of them, the earthly city, has created for herself such false gods as she wanted, from any source she chose — even creating them out of men — in order to worship them with sacrifices. The other city, the Heavenly City on pilgrimage in this world, does not create false gods. She herself is the creation of the true God, and she herself is to be his true sacrifice. Nevertheless, both cities alike enjoy the good things, or are afflicted with the adversities of this temporal state, but with a different faith, a different expectation, a different love, until they are separated by the final judgement, and each receives her own end, of which there is no end. And those different ends of the two cities must be the next subject for our discussion.

As I’ve previously noted, each city in the end gets what it wants — just as individual human beings do. Augustine’s teleological imagination applies at every level, from the personal to the imperial: a person, or a city, may be oriented to caritas — which Augustine defines as “the motion of the soul towards God” — or cupiditas, which is self-love, self-gratification. The person moved by cupiditas becomes, Augustine says, incurvatus in se, curved in on himself, growing ever more crabbed, ever smaller. Think of the Tragedian in Lewis’s The Great Divorce.

But this happens on a cultural level too, the level of the City or Empire: any given society may be growing towards God or seeking its own gratification. The latter kind of society inevitably becomes both sclerotic and isolated — it is always playing a zero-sum game with other societies. (It is not enough that Rome should succeed, Carthage also must fail. Carthago delenda est.) But the City motivated by caritas, like the person motivated by caritas, will grow more expansive — will find and welcome companions along the way, along what Augustine in De Trinitate wonderfully calls “the street of love.” (Cf. the companions — Faithful, Hopeful — that archetypal wayfarer Christian finds in Pilgrim’s Progress.)

I also find myself thinking here of the opposite of Christian’s finding of companions, the breaking of fellowship — which is the theme of one of Cavafy’s finest poems, “Myres: Alexandria, A.D. 340.” The poem is narrated by an Alexandrian pagan, whose dear friend (and perhaps lover) Myres has just died. The speaker goes to Myres’ house to see his friend for the last time, but “the dead boy’s relatives kept staring at me / in strange astonishment and displeasure” — so he remains in the vestibule, he dare not enter. The relatives do not wish to have a pagan interrupt their Christian mourning.

Some old women near me spoke in low voices
of the last day of his life —
that the name of Christ was constantly on his lips,
that he held a cross in his hands. —
Then into the room entered
four Christian priests fervently saying
prayers and supplications to Jesus,
or to Mary! (I do not know their religion well.)

Myres’ friend reflects that he had always known that Myres was a Christian, though he had not thought about it much; now various reminders of that difference between them, events little noticed when they had occurred, return to his memory. He watches and listens to the prayers, then:

And suddenly a queer impression
seized me. I had the vague feeling
that Myres was leaving my side;
I felt that he was united, a Christian,
with his own people, and I was becoming
a stranger, a total stranger; I also sensed
a doubt approaching me; perhaps I had been deluded
by my own passion, and I had always been a stranger to him. —
I flew out of their horrible house,
I left quickly before the memory of Myres should be
snatched away, should be altered by their Christianity.

Obviously we are meant to feel for this man who loved Myres; obviously we should, we should grieve with him. But — this is why Cavafy is great — we are also forced to consider the possibility that this doubt that assails him marks something real, substantial: that Myres is indeed separated from this pagan man who loved him and united instead “with his own people” — the people with whom he shares a citizenship in the City of God. “Myres was leaving my side.”

I have often wondered whether this poem was inspired by the great story in the fourth book of Augustine’s Confessions about the illness of the young Augustine’s dearest friend, a friend he had managed to turn aside from the Christian faith:

When he was sick with fever, for a long time he lay unconscious in a mortal sweat, and when his life was despaired of, he was baptized without his knowing it. To me this was a matter of no interest. I assumed that his soul would retain what it had received from me, not what had happened to his body while he was unconscious. But it turned out quite differently. For he recovered and was restored to health, and at once, as soon as I could speak with him (and I was able to do so as soon as he could speak, since I never left his side, and we were deeply dependent on one another), I attempted to joke with him, imagining that he too would laugh with me about the baptism which he had received when far away in mind and sense. But he had already learnt that he had received the sacrament. He was horrified at me as if I were an enemy, and with amazing and immediate frankness advised me that, if I wished to be his friend, I must stop saying this kind of thing to him. I was dumbfounded and perturbed; but I deferred telling him of all my feelings until he should get better and recover his health and strength. Then I would be able to do what I wished with him. But he was snatched away from my lunacy, so that he might be preserved with you for my consolation. After a few days, while I was absent, the fever returned, and he died.

And so they too were separated … though, Augustine came to believe, only for a time.

There must be a great divorce between the two cities, then, because they are driven by “a different faith, a different expectation, a different love.” Thus they must be “separated by the final judgement, and each receives her own end, of which there is no end.” Each receives, that is, the end which it has chosen.

But that final judgment of the two cities, that great divorce, is yet to come, and in the meantime — for the time being — “both cities alike enjoy the good things, or are afflicted with the adversities of this temporal state.” To return to a comparison from my first post in this series: the rain falls on Besźel and Ul Qoma alike. We are eschatologically two opposing cities, but topologically linked and paired. If we must be separated one day, that doesn’t mean that we don’t have common cause to make today. Temporary alliances are not as meaningful as eternal fellowship, but they are not meaningless either. We live within this tension and cannot, except through illusion, escape it.

Cities 7: a digression on reading

I’ve heard from a number of people, via email, about this series, and almost all of the responses have been negative. This has surprised me. 

Most of the criticism is based on a misunderstanding of the project. My critics seem to think that I am seeking to describe “the Augustinian view of X” or “the Augustinian position on Y,” and so they want me to talk about something that Augustine writes in one of his other books or in a sermon. But I’m just trying to read a book, you know? Just read one book, a big complicated book. 

There may be another misunderstanding at work in these critiques. The assumption seems to be that for any X there’s one “Augustinian view,” on any Y there’s one “Augustinian position.” But maybe he changed his mind about some things, or framed some complicated issue differently in one book than he had in another. Maybe also — I’m speaking from experience here — when you write millions of words over several decades you kinda forget some of what you’ve said. There’s a funny moment in CD XVIII.41 where Augustine contrasts the disagreements of the philosophers with the unity of the authors of Scripture, and when I came to that I made a little marginal note that this reminded me of his earlier statement that Babel/Babylon mean “confusion” (XVI.4). But then a couple of pages later he writes, “For ‘Babylon’ means ‘confusion’, as we remember having said already.” Oh right, I said that already. (It me.)  

Maybe people are always this way, but I think in our own moment — I wrote about this in How to Think — the stream of information and misinformation so overwhelms our sensorium that we crave fixity, we like being done with something. Encountering a writer as prolific and various as Augustine, we perhaps look to manage the torrent of words by finding “the Augustinian position on Y” and putting it in our pocket for later use. 

However valuable that might be, it’s not what I’m doing here. I’m just trying to read a book, and I think the reading of books — especially big complicated books — is pretty much a lost art. You read and you think, and then you read more and you decide that you thought wrong, you reflect and revise your interpretations — and you do so over a fairly lengthy period of time. (I may be adding second and third thoughts to this project a decade from now.) It’s a good intellectual exercise, I commend it to you. 

Also: that’s why I’m organizing these posts in a Zettelkasten style: Every time I introduce a new topic I use a new number, but when I go back to revisit an earlier topic I create an appendage. So I might have topic 3 and then follow-ups I designate as 3a and 3b. Later I might add 3a1 and 3a2. Eventually I’ll create a page that lists all the posts in the proper reading order. 

I’m traveling this week; posting will resume soon. 

Cities 6: causes

In a previous post I wrote, “The Pax Romana is not a telos, it’s merely an event among other events, subject to varying interpretations and to the power of change.” But it’s it at least curious that Rome grew so powerful. What led to that power?

Here we have to invoke the idea of multiple causes. For Augustine, of course, God is the Final Cause of everything. In CD IV.33 he writes,

It is therefore this God, the author and giver of felicity, who, being the one true God, gives earthly dominion, both to good men and to evil. And he does this not at random or, as one may say, fortuitously, because he is God, not Fortune. Rather, he gives in accordance with the order of events in history, an order completely hidden from us, but perfectly known to God himself. Yet God is not bound in subjection to this order of events; he is himself in control, as the master of events, and arranges the order of things as a governor.

Though he says here that “the order of events in history” is “completely hidden from us,” a little later he wonders whether at least some of these divine purposes, and the order of events emerging therefrom, might be readable by humans. In the Preface to Book V he writes, “Let us therefore proceed to inquire why God was willing that the Roman Empire should extend so widely and so long.” And then he lays (at least some of) his cards on the table:

The cause of the greatness of the Roman Empire was neither chance nor destiny, in the sense in which those words are, somewhat arbitrarily, employed, when ‘chance’ is used of events which have no cause, or at least no cause which depends on any rational principle, and ‘destiny’ of events which happen in an inevitable sequence, independent of the will of God or man. Without the slightest doubt, the kingdoms of men are established by divine providence.

But then Augustine has to do things like discredit astrology — which is often used to show that human affairs are predestined — and it’s not until V.12 that he returns to the question: “Let us go on to examine for what moral qualities and for what reason the true God deigned to help the Romans in the extension of their empire; for in his control all the kingdoms of the earth.“ At this point we should remember that Augustine is replying to pagans who say that Rome flourished because of its devotion to its gods, and when Rome ceased to worship its gods, those gods withdrew their patronage. And Augustine has already demonstrated (to his satisfaction anyway) that those gods were either sheer fictions or weak and ineffectual demons, in either case unworthy of any devotion and incapable of assisting humans in their endeavors.

No, Augustine says, the real explanation for Rome’s success lies altogether elsewhere, and you can see where he’s headed if you note the phrase “moral qualities” (mores). Briefly, Augustine makes this remarkable argument: Rome flourished because, and insofar as, its citizens loved it. When Romans loved their city and sacrificed their personal interests to its needs, then it flourished. Yes, many Romans did this in order to gain the praise of their neighbors, which is not ideal — only the praise of God should really matter to us, and even pagan poets like Horace understood the dangers inherent in the love of praise (V.13) — but it is better to want to be praised for virtuous acts than to pursue vice.

Augustine has several points he wants to make about all this.

  1. Those who sacrificed their own personal interests out of love for their city “received their reward” (V.15). They got the earthly happiness they wanted.
  2. But they did not get, because they did not seek, eternal life and true happiness (beatus). This is a constant theme of Augustine’s writings: In the end, we pretty much get what we want.
  3. And the Romans succumbed to the libido domanandi — you can see in the Aeneid, as I noted in an earlier post, this gradual shift from (a) wanting one’s city to flourish to (b) wanting one’s city to rule.
  4. And this lust for political domination leads to a lust for personal domination. The infection spreads. In the days of the Republic, before the mania for imperial conquest set in, it wasn’t unusual to find virtuous Roman leaders, virtuous by the world’s standards anyway; now, at the fag-end of Empire, vice rules all. There could be no fifth-century Cato. 

At IV.28 Augustine writes of the Romans, “though they could not have exercised dominion without the consent of the true God, still, if they had ignored, or despised, that multitude of false gods, and had recognized the one God, and given him the worship of sincere faith and pure lives, they would have had a better dominion – whatever its size – here on earth, and would have received hereafter an eternal kingdom, whether they had enjoyed dominion in this world or no.“ But instead they got what they asked for; they have their reward. So it is always with the City of Man.

Cities 5: a digression on longtermism

Not closely related to my main argument, but just a brief note: 

Longtermism is the version of effective altruism that wants us to think about our ethical imperatives on a much vaster historical scale; it warns us against discounting the value of the lives of future people. (In his retelling of the Good Samaritan story, Phil Christman could have added a longtermist who would have scorned the Effective Samaritan for thinking only of the local and immediate. A longtermist, seeing a wounded man by the side of the road, would surely have “passed by on the other side.”)

Augustine is a kind of longtermist, in the sense that he thinks we should focus not on our immediate desires and concerns but on our eternal destiny. Thus his indifference to politics as we usually conceive of it: “As for this mortal life, which ends after a few days’ course, what does it matter under whose rule a man lives, being so soon to die, provided that the rulers do not force him to impious and wicked acts?” (CD V.17) 

C. S. Lewis is writing very much under the sign of Augustine when, in his great sermon “The Weight of Glory,” he says this: 

It is a serious thing to live in a society of possible gods and goddesses, to remember that the dullest and most uninteresting person you talk to may one day be a creature which, if you saw it now, you would be strongly tempted to worship, or else a horror and a corruption such as you now meet, if at all, only in a nightmare. All day long we are, in some degree, helping each other to one or other of these destinations. It is in the light of these overwhelming possibilities, it is with the awe and the circumspection proper to them, that we should conduct all our dealings with one another, all friendships, all loves, all play, all politics. There are no ordinary people. You have never talked to a mere mortal. Nations, cultures, arts, civilization—these are mortal, and their life is to ours as the life of a gnat. But it is immortals whom we joke with, work with, marry, snub, and exploit — immortal horrors or everlasting splendours. 

It is a view that, if does not consign politics to the realm of adiaphora, quite radically decenters it.

We often hear that evangelicalism — and, often, other forms of orthodox Christianity — has been “too heavenly-minded to be of any earthly good.” It has been so focused on “pie in the sky by and by” that it has neglected the prophets’ call to seek shalom — justice and peace in the City. And that critique is absolutely valid. But maybe we could use a little more longtermist decentering of politics these days. 

Cities 3b: City and Church

My friend Brad East wrote with a partial dissent to something I say in this post:

When you say the City of God precedes the church, it seems to me you’re making a semantic decision that determines your conceptual interpretation. Such a claim makes sense only if you have predetermined that “church” means something like “the visible institution begun at Pentecost and continued in the public apostolic succession of episcopal administration” (or whatever). But all kinds of Christian writers have used the term “church” to mean something different and larger than that. In which case it’s not that the City of God isn’t the church; it’s that the church means something different than we often suppose in our colloquial speech.

Suppose “church” is coextensive with “the people of God,” which in turn is coextensive with “Abraham’s children,” which in turn is coextensive with “God’s children.” (You could add other convertible terms: “all the elect” and/or “all the saved” and/or “all who shall see God face to face.”) If that’s true, then you no longer have to distinguish between “City of God” and “church,” arguing that in Augustine’s or our usage the latter doesn’t mean the former. Rather, the conceptual range of “city” clarifies and expands our ordinary, or at least theological, usage and definition of “church.” So that “the City of God is the church and vice versa” redraws the boundaries of the rather [crabbed] definition some of us presuppose when we use the word “church.” So that, further, Augustine is narrating the course of God’s church from Adam/Abel to the Parousia and beyond into the new creation, it’s just that Augustine is helping us to understand what “church” means, or should mean, in our concepts and speech. 

To which I responded: 

Let’s make a distinction between what we — seeking to speak rightly about God’s Church — might want to say and what Augustine says. I’m just trying to understand Augustine, not make any claims myself. So what does he say about the relationship between City and Church? 

Well, he’s not perfectly consistent. At one point he speaks of “the City of God, that is to say, God’s Church” (XIII.16), but I think that’s a moment of carelessness. Much more often he speaks of the Church as the part of the City that hasn’t yet come into its heavenly inheritance, that is still wayfaring. He often says that the angels are the larger part of the City of God, and “with us they make one City of God…. Part of this City, the part which consists of us, is on pilgrimage; part of it, the part which consists of the angels, helps us on our way” (X.7). And the angels are not the children of Abraham, nor are they the “elect.” 

So I think on the Augustinian reading the City of God does precede the Church, because the angels (“all the company of Heaven”) precede the Fall, and it is with the Fall (exitus) that our pilgrimage (reditus) begins. Augustine believed, with virtually the whole Christian tradition, that (a) the serpent in the garden is to be identified with Satan and (b) Satan is a fallen angel. Q.E.D. 

He also speaks fairly often of those who are part of the visible Church, who share the sacraments with the rest of us, but who will not inherit eternal life (I.35).

So for all those reasons I think Augustine does tend to make a fairly clear distinction between the Church — which we might define as “the faithful among the visible ekklesia, those who are genuinely on pilgrimage towards God” — and the City of God, which is a larger and older entity of which the Church (as just defined) is a part. 

Reader, make your own decision! 

Cities 3a: political theology

I got an email from a friend regarding this post: “What do you mean ‘Augustine isn’t interested in political theology or ecclesiology’???” 

Hey, that’s not me (I say, evasively), that’s the great David Knowles. But Knowles makes a powerful point. His introduction to the 1972 Pelican edition of the City of God is by some distance the best brief commentary on the book I’ve ever read. Unfortunately, though that translation (by Henry Bettenson) is still in print, the move from Pelican to Penguin Classics was accompanied by the commissioning of a new introduction, and then, some years later, still another one. Neither is as insightful and useful as the Knowles original. (By the way, the chapter on Augustine in Knowles’s best-known book, The Evolution of Medieval Thought, remains, I think, an outstanding survey of Augustine’s mind.) 

Anyway, in his introduction to the City of God Knowles writes this: 

To our eyes it is remarkable that Augustine very rarely identities the City of God with the Catholic Church. He does so at least once: ‘The City of God, that is, God’s Church’ (Bk xIll, 16). He identifies the other city with the course of Gentile kingdoms before Christ, and the City of God with the ‘People of God’ from Adam to the birth of Christ. After the resurrection those who believe in Christ, the City of God, are in fact the Church, just as those that disbelieve are in fact the Roman authorities and the pagans of the Empire, but there is no confrontation of Church and State. We can see the reason for this. The constituent qualities of the two cities are their two objects of love, the love of God leading to contempt of self, and the love of self leading to contempt of God (Bk XIV, 28). The two cities are therefore two loves, and these are an inward and spiritual, not an outward and political distinction

Augustine repeatedly says that Abel is a citizen of the City of God, so that City not only precedes the Church, it precedes … well, almost everything in human history. 

Later — this regarding political theology — Knowles notes Augustine’s comment (CD V.17) that because life is so short is really doesn’t matter much what kind of political order you live in. And he continues, 

Certainly there is an entire absence of any doctrine of Church-State relationship in the City of God. No doubt it would anachronisic to expect anything of the kind. Yet to most historians who consider the beginnings of that age-old confrontation, the conversion and subsequent patronage, not to say tutelage, of the Church by Constantine marks an epoch, a point of no return, when the Church was first faced with a secular master, benevolent though he might be. Augustine says not a word on this matter, though it had occupied the mind of his father in God, Ambrose. 

That is, for the argument of the City of God, the conversion of Constantine is not significant. Augustine has some things to say about Constantine – for instance, that he was happy (beatus) in a way that no pagan emperor would ever be happy, and was granted the privilege of founding a new city, Constantinople, that contained no temples to demons. But he gives no indication that the existence of Christian emperors changes anything about the characters and conditions of the two cities. Therefore, says Knowles, to think that Augustine is concerned with the nature of the Church or with the proper relationship between the sacred and secular powers is to impose our categories on a book that works in a different manner than we are accustomed to.

Thus for my current project the challenge for me as a reader — and I am just a reader, not a scholar or a theologian — is to try to read him in ways that don’t cram him into the Procrustean bed of my expectations and familiar categories.  

Cities 4: Secondary Epic

My previous post discussed the way Augustine sets up his City of God as antithetical to the Aeneid. Auden’s witty poem “Secondary Epic” may be seen as a kind of pendant to Augustine’s critique. It focuses not on the prophetic narration of Anchises in Book VI, but rather on a complementary moment, the description in Book VIII of the Shield of Aeneas. About this description Auden has some questions:    

How was your shield-making god to explain
Why his masterpiece, his grand panorama
Of scenes from the coming historical drama
Of an unborn nation, war after war,
All the birthdays needed to pre-ordain
The Octavius the world was waiting for,
Should so abruptly, mysteriously stop,
What cause could he show why he didn’t foresee
The future beyond 31 B.C.,
Why a curtain of darkness should finally drop
On Carians, Morini, Gelonians with quivers,
Converging Romeward in abject file,
Euphrates, Araxes and similar rivers
Learning to flow in a latinate style,
And Caesar be left where prophecy ends,
Inspecting troops and gifts for ever?
Wouldn’t Aeneas have asked: — ‘What next?
After this triumph, what portends?’ 

And then the poem concludes, returning to Anchises: 

No, Virgil, no:
Behind your verse so masterfully made
We hear the weeping of a Muse betrayed.
Your Anchises isn’t convincing at all:
It’s asking too much of us to be told
A shade so long-sighted, a father who knows
That Romulus will build a wall,
Augustus found an Age of Gold,
And is trying to teach a dutiful son
The love of what will be in the long run,
Would mention them both but not disclose
(Surely no prophet could afford to miss,
No man of destiny fail to enjoy
So clear a proof of Providence as this)
The names predestined for the Catholic boy
Whom Arian Odovacer will depose. 

The names of that “Catholic boy”? Romulus Augustulus. What poet could resist the irony

Auden borrows the title of his poem from A Preface to Paradise Lost, in which C. S. Lewis distinguishes primary epic — poems like the Iliad and Beowulf that show no obvious awareness that what they’re doing is, you know, epic — from secondary epic, which is always aware of its tradition its inheritance. Poems like the Aeneid and Paradise Lost are always gesturing towards their predecessors to make sure you know they are indeed epics. Secondary epics tend therefore to be at least somewhat polemical, in tension with their predecessors, because after all if those predecessors has said everything and said it perfectly there would be no need for later poems. Virgil has therefore set himself up to make an argument through his narrative, an argument about the destiny of Rome and the nature of heroism, and Auden joins Augustine in pointing out that the argument doesn’t work: No poet writing in the midst of history can plausibly convince us that a historical city is eternal and that heroic service to it can therefore have eternal consequences. The Pax Romana is not a telos, it’s merely an event among other events, subject to varying interpretations and to the power of change. “No, Virgil, no.” 

Cities 3: hypothesis

Here’s the hypothesis I’m working with now: The problem with every theology of culture is that “culture” isn’t a biblical concept — isn’t clearly rooted in salvation history. And that is why I’m turning to Augustine. The idea of the two cities is deeply rooted in the biblical story and may be generative of certain important ideas that we can’t get through the use of a term like “culture.”

I think this is especially true because, as David Knowles points out, Augustine really isn’t interested in political theology, or for that matter in ecclesiology. In Book XV he says, “I classify the human race into two branches [generis]: the one consists of those who live by human standards, the other of those who live according to God’s will. I also call these two classes the two cities, speaking allegorically [mystice]. By two cities I mean two societies of human beings [duas societates hominum].” Two societies — this is what we might call a sociological or an ethnographic inquiry, and that’s much of what we’re after, or anyway I’m after, in a theology of culture. But, as James Davison Hunter says, with an emphasis on the symbols by which a given society is constituted and sustained. This is also where — see my previous post — Augustine’s application of rhetorical strategies to salvation history is especially imaginative and potent. I find remarkable and stimulating the idea that God’s providential shaping of history is a rhetorical act. For one thing, it implies that cities are in a sense rhetorical acts, saturated with symbolic and even archetypal meaning. 

Also: it’s somehow typical of Augustine that when he’s trying to think sociologically he looks first at the city that Cain founded and then at the City of God in Revelation 21, and hangs his whole inquiry on a line suspended between the two. What a peculiar and fascinating mind, and that’s why, I suppose, we keep returning to him. 

P.S. I wrote a bit about why I’m pursuing this project here over at my Buy Me a Coffee page

Cities 2: archetype and antithesis

The City of God, which, as we saw in a previous post, claims to be an account of the two cities, the City of God and the City of Man, is a work in twenty-two books. It begins to discuss the two cities at the end of Book XIV. Why does Augustine take so long to get to the point? 

Because his pagan interlocutors — who have argued that Rome declined when it abandoned its ancient gods for Christianity — misunderstand the entire subject, and therefore he has to get them properly oriented. To do this he must explain 

  • That the historical record shows that the ancient gods never actually protected Rome; 
  • That those gods were powerless to protect Rome, because they were weak and inferior demons; 
  • That even if they could aid us in our earthly life, which as it happens they can’t, they could do nothing to help us gain eternal life; 
  • That the wisest and best pagan philosophers understood all this; 
  • That, however, those philosophers, not having been granted God’s revelation, could see the falsity of popular religion without having a clear sense of what true religion is; 
  • That true religion was entrusted to the Jews, whose story and message culminated in Jesus Christ; 
  • That once this salvation history is properly understood one will understand that Rome isn’t All That, and insofar as it had successes those resulted from the blessings of the One True God, which are granted and withheld for reasons typically unknown to mere mortals; 
  • That all of history is in a sense salvation history, with the rise and fall of kingdoms contributing to God’s gracious desire to bring us all, through the mediation of His Son, into His everlasting City. 

Only when this (necessarily detailed!) ground-clearing work is done can Augustine take up the story of the Two Cities, because only within this framework can one understand the actual place of Rome, and of all other human social organizations, in the economy of salvation. 


In Miéville’s The City and the City, the Cleavage that created two cites where there had been one is shrouded in mystery. But our the Cleavage that creates the City of Man can be precisely identified, Augustine thinks. It happens not (as one might expect) with the Fall; it does not even happen when Cain murders his brother Abel. It stems, rather, from one of the consequences of that murder: 

Now Cain was the first son born to those two parents of mankind, and he belonged to the city of man; the later son, Abel, belonged to the City of God…. When those two cities started on their course through the succession of birth and death, the first to be born was a citizen of this world, and later appeared one who was a pilgrim and stranger in the world, belonging as he did to the City of God. He was predestined by grace, and chosen by grace, by grace a pilgrim below, and by grace a citizen above. […] 

Scripture tells us that Cain founded a city, whereas Abel, as a pilgrim, did not found one. For the City of the saints is up above, although it produces citizens here below, and in their persons the City is on pilgrimage until the time of its kingdom comes. At that time it will assemble all those citizens as they rise again in their bodies; and then they will be given the promised kingdom, where with their Prince, ‘the king of ages’, they will reign, world without end. [CD XV.1] 

The founding of the City of Man thus arises from a moment of familial violence, and this, Augustine says, is “what the Greeks call an archetype” [CD XV.5]: later world-historical events would be “reflections” of it, most notably the founding of Rome itself, which is intimately connected to Romulus’s murder of his brother Remus. The City of Man is something like the eternal return of the aboriginal fratricide. 

And thus the City of Man is therefore always and necessarily a product of what Augustine famously calls the libido dominandi, the lust for domination. And it is this lust, he repeatedly says, that drives and had always driven Rome. 

One of the key elements of Augustine’s narrative structure, indeed of his theology of history, is antithesis, because, he thinks, antithesis is how God as the author of history shapes and figures that history: 

The opposition of such contraries gives an added beauty to speech; and in the same way there is beauty in the composition of the world’s history arising from the antithesis of contraries — a kind of eloquence in events, instead of in words. This point is made very clearly in the book Ecclesiasticus [33.14], ‘Good confronts evil, life confronts death: so the sinner confronts the devout. And in this way you should observe all the works of the Most High; two by two; one confronting the other.’ [CD XI.18] 

“A kind of eloquence in events” (rerum eloquentia) — what a remarkable phrase.

Thus the City of God finds its antithesis in the City of Man, but also, right from the beginning Augustine makes it clear that his narrative finds its own antithesis in another narrative: the Aeneid. In the opening pages of the City of God he repeatedly quotes Vergil’s poem, and there’s one passage in particular that he zeroes in on. It comes from Book VI, when Aeneas is visiting the underworld and meets his father Anchises, who tells him the story of the great Roman future. That story culminates in this great and famous passage: 

Excudent alii spirantia mollius aera
(credo equidem), vivos ducent de marmore vultus,
orabunt causus melius, caelique meatus
describent radio, et surgentia sidera dicent:
to regere imperio populos, Romane, memento
(hae tibi erunt artes), pacisque imponere morem,
parcere subiectis, et debellare superbos.

Here’s David Ferry’s version: 

“There are those, I know it, who by their shaping art 
Will call forth, from the bronze that breathes, the living 
Features of the face; and those who by 
Their art of eloquence argue and prevail 
In courts of law; or those who by their art 
Describe with their pointing wands the radiant wheeling 
Of all the stars in all the nighttime sky, 
And can foretell the moment of their rising. 
And Romans, never forget that this will be 
Your appointed task: to use your arts to be 
The governor of the world, to bring to it peace, 
Serenely maintained with order and with justice, 
To spare the defeated and to bring an end 
To war by vanquishing the proud.” 

And, more compactly and (I think) more accurately, Allen Mandelbaum: 

“For other peoples will, I do not doubt, 
still cast their bronze to breathe with softer features, 
or draw out of the marble living lines, 
plead causes better, trace the ways of heaven 
with wands and tell the rising constellations; 
but yours will be the rulership of nations, 
remember, Roman, these will be your arts: 
to teach the ways of peace to those you conquer, 
to spare defeated peoples, tame the proud.” 

I’ve always liked Mandelbaum’s translation a lot. It’s a neglected one. 

The key point here, for Augustine, is that everything in Anchises’ prophecy is about Roman domination: Rome is to rule, to teach, to conquer, to tame. And it did — for a while. But now it is falling, as all human endeavors will, in time. The City of Man is no lasting city. And so Augustine from the beginning of his work sets himself up the antithesis of Vergil, offering a counter-plot, a counter-myth to that of the Aeneid. But it is only in Book XV that he begins that myth-against-myth in earnest. 

The City and the City

Should you happen to want to think about Augustine’s City of God (hereafter CD for Civitate Dei) in sociological terms – which is certainly not the only and perhaps not the best way of thinking about it – but should you want to consider it sociologically, then I would suggest that you first read China Miéville’s novel The City and the City.

Like Augustine’s masterwork, Miéville’s novel is concerned with two cities that have a complex, fraught, and not-always-comprehensible relation to one another. And like the City of God and City of Man, Besźel and Ul Qoma occupy the same physical space. Well, sort of. I’ll try to explain.

The protagonist of the novel is a police inspector named Tyador Borlú, who lives and works in a city called Besźel, which appears to be somewhere in the Balkans. (More on that in a later post.) We first get a sense that there’s something a little odd about this situation early in the book, when Borlú sees an old woman on the street:

With a hard start, I realised that she was not on GunterStrász at all, and that I should not have seen her. Immediately and flustered I looked away, and she did the same, with the same speed. I raised my head, towards an aircraft on its final descent. When after some seconds I looked back up, unnoticing the old woman stepping heavily away, I looked carefully instead of at her in her foreign street at the facades of the nearby and local GunterStrász, that depressed zone.

Her “foreign street,” we eventually learn, is in the city of Ul Qoma, which is the topological double, the “topolganger,” of Besźel. What does that mean? Much is never explained directly in the book, so any answer will necessarily involve interpretation, but …: If you were a resident of neither Besźel nor Ul Qoma and were dropped into their physical space, you would see one city. But the people who live there are trained almost from birth to notice the differences – in language, in food, in dress, even in basic bodily movement (“physical vernacular”) – and to somehow suppress their sensory awareness of the other city. Should that suppression fail, as it fails Borlú when he sees the old Ul Qoman woman, one must “unsee” – or “unhear” if you notice a foreign voice or the siren of a foreign ambulance, or even “unsmell” should the aromas of an alien bakery find their way to your nose. The separate identities of the two cities are sustained by an obsessively inculcated mutual incomprehension – or, more precisely, imperception.

As a citizen of Besźel or Ul Qoma navigates this topology, he or she is always aware that most areas are total – they are only in Besźel or only in Ul Qoma, and in such places the topolganger is alter – while others are crosshatched, that is, belonging somehow to both cities. (Navigating these can be difficult: one must take pains to avoid touching citizens of the other city, and must constantly unsee, unhear, unsmell. It’s stressful.) A few places are dissensi, disputed – each city claims them. Such disputes, and many others that inevitably arise, are adjudicated in the great administrative center called Copula Hall – the only building with the same name, and the same function, in both cities, and the only place where one can legally pass from one city to another:

If someone needed to go to a house physically next door to their own but in the neighbouring city, it was in a different road in an unfriendly power. That is what foreigners rarely understand. A Besź dweller cannot walk a few paces next door into an alter house without breach. But pass through Copula Hall and she or he might leave Besźel, and at the end of the hall come back to exactly (corporeally) where they had just been, but in another country, a tourist, a marvelling visitor, to a street that shared the latitude-longitude of their own address, a street they had never visited before, whose architecture they had always unseen, to the Ul Qoman house sitting next to and a whole city away from their own building, unvisible there now they had come through, all the way across the Breach, back home.

(Miéville gets his pronouns confused there. It happens even to professionals.) Some people believe – and this is important to the book but will not be stressed in this post – that there is a third city in the same place, one comprised of territories that Besźel thinks belong to Ul Qoma and Ul Qoma thinks belong to Besźel. This possibly imaginary city is called Orcinny, Miéville’s tip of the hat to Ursula K. Le Guin’s imaginary Central European country Orsinia.

To violate the categorical imperative, this Prime Directive of imperception, is to “breach,” and when you breach you become subject to the fierce power known as … Breach. When the boundaries are in any way violated, the “avatars” of Breach suddenly and mysteriously appear to deal with the violation, and in some cases the breacher is never seen again. Residents of both cities live in absolute terror of Breach, which they believe to be omniscient. After all, if Breach were not omniscient, how could you get in trouble just for seeing someone, or smelling a pastry baking? No ordinary mortal could know what’s going on in your head.

It’s only late in the book that we begin to question whether Breach really is that powerful. What if the people of the two cities are not policed in the way they fear, but instead are merely self-policing? We are told in the book that there was at some point in the distant past a Cleavage that separated the two cities, which suggests that until then the place was a single city; but no one seems to understand precisely when the Cleavage happened or why. Archeologists visit the two cities (primarily Ul Qoma) to study the artifacts of the Precursor culture, the culture that existed before the Cleavage, but those artifacts are confusing, featuring in the same strata what seem to be remains of widely varying civilizations. Rumors suggest that these artifacts manifest “questionable physics,” but we’re not told what that means, perhaps because no one knows. If for much of the book we are encouraged to think of the Cleavage and its resulting urban parallelism as a paranormal event, in the novel’s latter stages we begin to wonder whether there’s anything going on here other than group psychosis, the “madness of crowds” – maybe only plain old propaganda. None of these questions is answered.

At the outset of his massive work – simultaneously historical, sociological, ethnographic, and theological – Augustine writes,

I have taken upon myself the task of defending the glorious City of God against those who prefer their own gods to the Founder of that City. I treat of it both as it exists in this world of time, a stranger among the ungodly, living by faith, and as it stands in the security of its everlasting seat. This security it now awaits in steadfast patience, until ‘justice returns to judgement’; but it is to attain it hereafter in virtue of its ascendancy over its enemies, when the final victory is won and peace established. (CD I.1)

Already, here at the outset, we have a situation potentially more complicated than that of Miéville’s novel. For while we see the beginnings here of a contrast to the City of Man – the city built and sustained by the “ungodly,” those who reject the God who has founded His own city – we also see the eternal City ontologically doubled: at once (a) on a seemingly uncertain pilgrimage and (b) already and eternally victorious. And there is another complication: the City of God is not quite coterminous with the Church. For one thing, the former contains angels and the latter doesn’t. (CD XI.9: “The holy angels … form the greater part of that City, and the more blessed part, in that they have never been on pilgrimage in a strange land.”) Moreover, Augustine occasionally acknowledges that there may be some who do not belong to the Church who nevertheless belong to the City of God. So whatever else we say about the City of God, it’s bigger than the Church. And anyway, as David Knowles points out in his magisterial introduction to the edition I’m reading, Augustine in this work is not interested in the Church.

But Christians today are certainly more likely to think of the Church than of the City of God. At most what we tend to see is the Church as a kind of outpost, as it were, of the City of God; often it seems to be surrounded by its enemies. This is not wholly wrong but not wholly correct either. Near the beginning of The Screwtape Letters the demon Screwtape says to the junior demon Wormwood,

One of our great allies at present is the Church itself. Do not misunderstand me. I do not mean the Church as we see her spread out through all time and space and rooted in eternity, terrible as an army with banners. That, I confess, is a spectacle which makes our boldest tempters uneasy. But fortunately it is quite invisible to these humans. All your patient sees is the half-finished, sham Gothic erection on the new building estate.

“Invisible”? — or perhaps, as Miéville suggests, unvisible, deliberately or half-deliberately unseen? One way to think about that sham-Gothic building is as belonging fully to the City of God – it is, as it were, total, and in relation to it the City of Man is alter. To see it that way would be to perceive “a serious house on serious earth” indeed. In the doubled city of Miéville’s novel, strangers who breach, who wander from one city to another heedlessly, are treated with compassion; they don’t know, they can’t be expected to know. Still more is this true when a citizen of the City of Man – Philip Larkin, say, whom I have just quoted – wanders into a church, because if Besźel and Ul Qoma are constituted by separation, and most of their citizens seem to wish only to make that separation more perfect, both of Augustine’s cities proselytize: though some of the individual proselytizers are more charitable and generous than others, each wants, ultimately, the end of the other.

In Miéville’s imagined world, separation is questioned only by unificationists (unifs, for short), who want to undo the Cleavage and make the city again one; here, almost everyone seems to know that that’s not possible. Ultimately, we all seem to believe, one of the cities will be triumphant and the other will end. (CD XV.4: “The earthly city will not be everlasting; for when it is condemned to the final punishment it will no longer be a city.” Voltaire: “Écrasez l’infâme!”) Unification achieved only through elimination or absorption. As a result, every inch of earthly territory is dissensi: such disputes are usually mute and implicit, but they become explicit whenever a state legislature mandates the posting of the Ten Commandments in public-school classrooms, or when courts demand that Christian bakers or florists or web designers make obeisance to the newest imperatives of the City of Man.

And even when there are no open disputes, the citizens of both cities must regularly confront rival beliefs, rival values, rival ideals. In a few places one particular city may be nearly total, but the internet and the TV bring news from the other city. Such news most unsee, with a shrug or with a muttered imprecation, but tension always threatens; and almost all of us are aware that crosshatching is not rare but nearly ubiquitous. We may then treasure those moments, those places, where the other city can be felt to be wholly alter.

At the end of The City and the City, the future of Besźel and Ul Qoma remains in question. But here, in this world, few doubt the ultimate outcome. Each city believes it will be, in the end, victorious. But what to do in the meantime? This is one of Augustine’s key questions, though it takes him several hundred pages to get to it, and even then his approach is often indirect. More about all that in another post.

James O’Donnell

Detachment and objectivity are not to be found in the Confessions. Analysis of divine affairs is not only not kept apart from self-analysis, but the two streams are run together in what often appears to first readers to be an uncontrolled and illogical melange. This book’s fascination for modern readers stems in large part from its vivid portrayal of a man in the presence of his God, of God and the self intimately related but still separated by sin, and of a struggle for mastery within the self longing for final peace. It is an extraordinary book, no matter how studied.

The rest of Augustine’s life was spent writing books of a more conventional sort. He would analyze in painstaking detail the inner workings of the Trinity, the whole course of salvation history, and the delicate commerce between God and man in the workings of grace and the will, all in an objective, detached, and impersonal style. What is different about them is that they were written by a man who had already written the Confessions, made his peace with God insofar as that was possible, and drawn from that peace (the forerunner of heavenly rest) the confidence he needed to stand at the altar and preach or to sit in his study dictating works of polemic and instruction for the world to read….

The Confessions are not to be read merely as a look back at Augustine’s spiritual development; rather the text itself is an essential stage in that development, and a work aware both of what had already passed into history and of what lay ahead. No other work of Christian literature does what Augustine accomplishes in this volume; only Dante’s Commedia even rivals it.

Augustine and Pelagius

No doubt the spiritual and moral standards for the Christian life had relaxed quite a bit since the days of persecution, when even the hint of Christian faith could cost a person his or her life; no doubt some restored tension, some call for a renewal of holiness, was surely needed. But Pelagianism, like many zealous movements of moral and spiritual reform, writes a recipe for profound anxiety. Its original word of encouragement (You can do it!) immediately yields to the self-doubting question: “But am I doing it?” It makes a rigorous asceticism the only true Christian life — as [Peter] Brown points out, “Pelagius wanted every Christian to be a monk” — and condemns even the most determined ascetic to constant self-scrutiny, a kind of self-scrutiny that can never yield a clear acquittal. You might have missed something; and in any case you could sin in the next five minutes and watch your whole house of cards crash down.

By contrast, Augustine’s emphasis on the universal depravity of human nature — seen by so many then and now as an insult to human dignity — is curiously liberating. I once heard a preacher encourage his listeners to begin a prayer with the following words: “Lord, I am the failure that you always knew I would be.” It is the true Augustinian note. Pelagianism is a creed for heroes; but Augustine’s emphasis on original sin, and the consequent absolute dependence of every one of us on the grace of God, gives hope to the waverer, the backslider, the slacker, the putz, the schlemiel. We’re all in the same boat as Mister Holier-than-Thou over there, saved only by the grace that comes to us in Holy Baptism. Peter Brown once more: “Paradoxically, therefore, it is Augustine, with his harsh emphasis on baptism as the only way to salvation, who appears as the advocate of moral tolerance: for within the exclusive fold of the Catholic church he could find room for a whole spectrum of human failings.”

— from my Original Sin: A Cultural History; quote prompted by this essay by Elizabeth Bruenig.

Our period is not so unlike the age of Augustine: the planned society, caesarism of thugs or bureaucracies, paideia, scientia, religious persecution, are all with us. Nor is there even lacking the possibility of a new Constantinism; letters have already begun to appear in the press, recommending religious instruction in schools as a cure for juvenile delinquency; Mr. Cochrane’s terrifying description of the “Christian” empire under Theodosius should discourage such hopes of using Christianity as a spiritual benzedrine for the earthly city.

— Auden’s review of Charles Norris Cochrane’s Christianity and Classical Culture, first printed in The New Republic in 1944.