City of God, Book 19: The Supreme Good.

Book 19, while one of my favorites so far, is long. Augustine begins this book by probing into the philosophical debates related to the Supreme Good and the Supreme Evil. “Our Final Good,” Augustine defines, “is that for which other things are to be desired, while it is itself to be desired for its own sake.” And, “The Final Evil is that for which other things are to be shunned, while it is itself to be shunned on its own account.” Augustine seeks to show that the Christian understanding of these things is superior to other accounts, and he seeks to prove this not only by power of revelation, but also, for the sake of unbelievers, by the power of reason too.

Among the philosophers, the Supreme Good or Supreme evil are found in one of three locations: the soul, the body, or a combination of soul and body. In addition, there are four things that men naturally seek: pleasure, repose, a combination of the two, or for the primary natural blessings (‘first things’ according to the Stoics). These have been combined in various ways by the different philosophical schools to guide people to the Supreme Good. After considering these, he summarizes Varo who contends there are three kinds of life:

“the first, without being slothful, is still a life of leisure passed in the consideration of truth or the quest for it; the second is busily engaged in the world’s affairs; the third is a balanced combination of the other two.”

Augustine suggests that there are many who have pursued happiness through each of these methods, and many who have lost their way. Since man is body and soul, happiness should be pursued in such a way that it incorporates both. Varro suggests that “the Supreme Good of man which brings him happiness, consists in the combination of good of both his elements, of soul, that is, and body. Accordingly, he holds that the primary blessings of nature are to be desired for their own sake, as also is virtue, as being the art of living, the most excellent among the goods of the soul.” Virtue is chief, because virtue makes a good use of itself and all other good things for man’s happiness, but without virtue, these good things are employed man only for ill.

The citizens of the City of God take a different view, for the Supreme Good is eternal life, while the Supreme Evil is eternal death. Augustine criticizes, “all these philosophers have wished, with amazing folly, to be happy here on earth and to achieve bliss by their own efforts…For who is competent, however torrential the flow of his eloquence, to unfold all the miseries of this life.” In this life, every pleasure is matched by a pain, every period of repose by tumult; and this is the lot, in this life, even of the wise. Even the possession of virtue means the wise man must be in constant warfare with his vices. For the Christian, the Highest Good is an existence “where the desires of the flesh do not oppose the spirit and where there is no vice for the spirit to oppose with its desires.” This cannot be achieved in the present life, but with God’s help, we can keep our evil desires, sinful desires, from overcoming us. It is folly to suggest that someone can achieve perfect bliss in this life. Augustine accuses the Stoics of “stupefying arrogance,” and “amazing idiocy” for suggesting that things like weakness, disease, lethargy, injustice, etc., are no evils at all, and yet say that a wise man should not endure such things, but take his own life. Augustine is more tolerant of the Old Academy (supported by Varro) because they, at least, acknowledge these things are evil. Yet, they foolishly suggest that a wise man, if these things befall him, can escape life, and that man can be happy. Augustine concludes, “It follows from this that the life weighed down by such great and grievous ills, or at the mercy of such chances, would never be called happy, if the men who so term it, and who, when overcome by the growing weight of ills, surrender to adversity in compassing their own death – if these people would bring themselves to surrender to the happy life, and would give up supposing that the ultimate, Supreme Good is something to be enjoyed by them in this condition of mortality.” The Christians hope is in the future life, without ills of body or soul. Yet these philosophers will not believe in it because they cannot see it.

Augustine does find common ground with the philosophers in their assertion that the the life of the wise man should be social. And yet, what profound and variegated ills abound in the human society at every level. Families are racked with jealousy and strife. Cities are rife with injustice and warfare. Even peace is a tenuous peace and “a doubtful good, since we do not know the hearts of those with whom we wish to maintain peace, and if we could know them today, we should not know what they might be like tomorrow.” The larger the scale of the society we consider, the more ills to be reckoned with.

Even in cities where peace reigns, the judgement of kings, judges, magistrates are far from perfect. “How pitiable, how lamentable do we find them!” writes Augustine, “For indeed those who pronounce judgment cannot see into the consciences of those on whom they pronounce it.” They seek truth by torturing innocent witnesses, and because a witness may lie to make the torture stop, the judge can never be certain of the truth, and so “the ignorance of the judge is often a calamity for the innocent.”

Beyond the city, the world is more fraught still with evils because of its size, the diversity of languages, etc. Imperial Rome has tried to unify with one language so that there might exist a bond of “peace and fellowship”; yet, Augustine asks the reader to consider the high cost paid for this – the wars, the bloodshed, the slaughter. And now, even in peace, the people live in fear of war, both foreign wars and civil wars. “Ah,” anticipates Augustine, “the wise man, they say, will wage just wars.” And Augustine does acknowledge this. Yes, the wise man will not engage in unnecessary wars, but in compelled into them by the injustices of the opposing side.

In this present world, not even the saints are exempt from the deceptions of demons, temptations, and anxiety. But, putting these things to good use, the long more fervently and seek more diligently “that state of serenity where peace is utterly complete and assured.” He continues, “This is indeed the ultimate bliss, the end of ultimate fulfillment that knows no destructive end. Here in this world we are called blessed, it is true, when we enjoy peace, however little may be the peace…And yet such blessedness as this life affords proves to be utter misery when compared with that final bliss.” Christian virtue makes good use of this peace, and when peace doesn’t exist, it makes good use even of the ills we all must endure.

Augustine claims that peace is the longing of all men. Even men who choose war want victory; hence, in essence, they want peace with glory. Even when men disturb the peace, it is not because they hate peace, “but they desire the present peace to be exchanged for one that suites their wishes.” Men desire peace, on their terms, among their people. And in wars of conquest, the warring parties desire to make the other “their people” and subject them to their brand of peace. Pride has perverted man’s imitation of God (as image bearers), hating fellowship with others under God; instead, seeking to “impose its own dominion on fellow men, in place of God’s rule. This means that it hates the just peace of God, and loves its own peace of injustice.” Importantly, he adds, “Any yet it cannot help loving peace of some kind or other. For no creature’s perversion is so contrary to nature as to destroy the very last vestiges of it nature.”

The peace, however, of the “Heavenly City is perfectly ordered and perfectly harmonious fellowship in the enjoyment of God.” Moreover, the peace of the universe is “the tranquility of order” such that, even the sinner is subject to this order. He rebels against it, but cannot escape it – his wretchedness is his just dessert in the order of God’s universe. Augustine maintains that “there exists, then, a nature in which there is no evil, in which indeed, no evil can exist; but there cannot exist a nature in which there is no good.” Evil is a perversion of the good and thus depends on the existence of good. Even the devil is subject to this order – “He did not continue in the tranquility of order; but that did not mean that he escaped from the power of the imposer of order.” The one who rightly uses the goods of temporal peace will be granted greater goods that lead to the peace of immortality and the life of enjoyment of God.

So, Augustine asserts, “We see, then, that all man’s use of temporal things is related to the enjoyment of earthly peace in the earthly city; whereas in the Heavenly City is is related to the enjoyment of eternal peace.” This seems to be a forerunner to the doctrine of the two kingdoms in Luther and others. Augustine recognizes that when bodily peace is lacking, the peace of “the irrational soul is also hindered.” And yet, man has a rational soul and so is able, with God’s help, to subordinate the lesser parts of his nature to this and deliberate and act accordingly. This requires faith, which is necessary while we are on pilgrimage here in this foreign land. On this pilgrimage, God has left us instructions consisting of two great commands – love the Lord your God and your neighbor as yourself. Thus we find three objects of love: God, self, and neighbor. And, in accord with these commands, there are two rules: do no harm and help others as much as possible, starting with one’s own household and spreading from there.

Augustine believes that God did not intend for man to rule over men, “hence, the first just men men were set up as shepherds of flocks, rather then as kings of men.” That is why, according to Augustine, we do not hear of any slaves until the time of Noah. Enslavement of any kind could not happen if it were not for sin’s intrusion. Slavery is seen as punishment on people for sin. But, Augustine is quick to add, even masters are slaves, and he believes “it is a happier lot to be a slave to a human being than to a lust.” Here, I may have to disagree with Augustine, for one does not preclude the other, and the miseries of slavery are legion. But we agree that in man’s original condition, he was not a slave to anyone or anything – not man, not sin.

Augustine considers it a duty not only to do no harm, but also to prevent others from doing harm “by restraining a man from sin or punishing his sin, so that either the man who is chastened may be corrected by his experience, or others may be deterred by his example.” This duty begins in the household, parents training their children in the right and punishing the wrong. The family is then the building block for a just, well ordered society. (Seems to have some important implications for current cultural malaise). A family of faith will live and pursue earthly peace , but a household of faith will be looking to “the blessings which are promises as eternal in the future, making use use of earthly and temporal things like a pilgrim in a foreign land, who does not let himself be taken in by hem or distracted from his course towards God, but rather treats them as supporters which help him more easily to bear the burdens of ‘the corruptible body which weighs heavy on the soul.'”

This is an important part of Augustine’s argument in Book 19, indeed the whole of the City of God. The Christian who belongs to the Heavenly City and lives as a captive in the earthly city strives for and hopes for and makes use of the temporal peace of the city. While we “have already received the promise of redemption, and the gift of the Spirit as a kind of pledge of it; and yet it does not hesitate to obey the laws of the earthly city by which these things which are designed for the support of this mortal life are regulated…since this mortal condition is shared by both cities, a harmony may be preserved between them in things that are relevant to this condition.” Here you see Augustine saying to the citizens of Rome, we are your allies in matters of earthly justice and peace. We are not your enemies, not seeking to subvert the state. We obey and work with you in things relevant to this mortal life. Again, there are the seeds of Luther’s two-kingdom theology in that Augustine is establishing spheres of authority – the City of God, the church, has authority in things that relate to eternity and spiritual life, while earthly rulers have authority, established under the order of God, in things related to this mortal life. In fact, “The Heavenly City could not have the laws of religion in common with the earthly city, and in defence of her religious laws she was bound to dissent from those who thought differently and to prove a burdensome nuisance to them.” Thus, the church had to endure torture and persecution. Here’s an important section I’ll quote at length:

“While the Heavenly City , therefore, is on pilgrimage in this world, she calls out citizens from all nations and so collects a society of aliens, speaking all languages. She takes no account of any difference in customs, laws, and institutions, by which earthly peace is achieved and preserved – not that she annuls or abolishes any of those, rather, she maintains them and follows them, provided that no hindrance is presented thereby to the religion which teaches that the one supreme and true God is to be worshiped. Thus even the Heavenly City in her pilgrimage here on earth makes use of the earthly peace and defends and seeks the compromise between human wills in respect of the provisions relevant to the mortal nature of man, so far as may be permitted without detriment to true religion and piety.”

This hope, while based in faith, is a certainty. This is in contrast to the New Academy which views everything as uncertain. This is madness, Augustine contends. For Augustine, reason can produce “certain knowledge” even though it is rooted in the ‘corruptible body’. We can also trust the evidence of our senses for the most part. And the Christian believes also in Holy Scripture. Beyond this, “we cannot justly be reproached if we have doubts about some matters where neither sense nor reason give clear perception, were we have received no illumination from the canonical Scriptures and where we have not been given information by witnesses whom it would be irrational to distrust.” So, some skepticism is warranted, but not radical.

When it comes to matters of dress or manner of life, these things are deemed irrelevant in the Heavenly City. Citizens can make their living, dress, etc., according to the customs of their land or their desires provided that they “do not conflict with the divine instructions.” They are adiaphora. In this life, the hope of eternity makes the citizens of the City of God happy “even now, though rather by future hope than in present reality.” Without this hope all that is possible is a false happiness, which is in reality utter misery.

At this point, Augustine discusses at length whether Rome was ever really a commonwealth. Cicero’s definition is that a commonwealth is “the weal of the people”, and based on this, Augustine concludes that Rome never was a commonwealth because the the ‘weal of the people’ cannot be maintained without justice. Where there is no justice there can be no “association of people united by a common sense of right.” Without justice there can be no true commonwealth and Rome was built on the injustice of subjecting men to be servants of other men. Now, Augustine asserts, if a man does not serve God, justice cannot command his body or soul, “and if there is no justice in such a man, there can be no sort of doubt that there is no justice in a gathering which consists of such men.”

He anticipates the good Romans asking, “who is this God we should serve and what proof do you have that he is the one true God?” And he suggests that it shows “extreme blindness” to ask such a question “at this time of day.” Prophets dating back to Abraham foretold of the events fulfilled in Christ. The Spirit testifies, prophecies have been fulfilled in the Church. And, he thinks it worth mentioning that “He is the God who Porphyry, the most learned of philosophers, although the fiercest enemy of the Christians, acknowledges to be a great go, even on the evidence of the oracles of those whom he supposes to be gods.” Several pages are devoted to Porphyry and his reasoning. Augustine comes back to justice and declares “It follows that justice is found where God, the one supreme God, rules an obedient City according to his grace…just as the individual righteous man lives on the basis of faith, which is active in love, so the association, or people, of righteous men lives on the same basis of faith, active in love…Therefore there is no commonwealth, for where there is no ‘people’, there is no ‘weal of the people.'”

Augustine explores the possibility of defining ‘people’ differently and ‘commonwealth’ differently. He proposes defining a people by a common love, and suggests the better, more noble the love, the better the people. By this definition, “the Roman people is a people and its estate is indubitably a commonwealth.” History demonstrates that this commonwealth must not have a good, noble love at its core for it is plagued with bloodshed, violence, and even civil war. “Because God does not rule there the general characteristic of that city is that is devoid of true justice.” Without God’s rule in the individual and society, even virtues turn to vices. Without God, men are wretched. Yet even wretched men pursue peace, and the Christian should not shun this, but make use of it. By making use of it, we will, in the end, come to a more perfect peace. I love these sentences, “But peace here and now, whether the peace shared by all men or our own special possession, is such that it affords a solace for our wretchedness rather than the joy of blessedness. Our righteousness itself, too, though genuine, in virtue of the genuine Ultimate Good to which it is referred, is nevertheless only such as to consist in the forgiveness of sins rather than in the perfection of virtues.” The evidence of this is that the prayer of the City of God is “Forgive us our debts,” a prayer that is effective for those who have the kind of faith that shows itself in works.

In this life justice means subjecting all our thoughts and actions to God’s rule, warring against our vices. In the perfect peace for which we strive, “our nature will be healed by immortality and incorruption and will have no perverted elements, and nothing at all, in ourselves or any other, will be in conflict with any one of us…our delight and facility in obeying will be matched by our felicity in living in reigning.”