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Excerpt from
The Conservative Bookshelf
A Book by Chilton Williamson, Jr.

City of God

By Augustine
(Written 413-426 A.D.)

City of God, by Aurelius Augustinus-or Augustine of Hippo, or, more familiarly, St. Augustine-is one of the towering works of the human intellect: a book to be studied, not read. Together with his contemporaries, St. Ambrose and St. Jerome, among the fathers of the Christian Church, Augustine is also the foundation block of Western thought in the post-classical, Christian era. The importance of City of God has to do with its reconciliation of ancient paganism, pre-Christian Hebraicism, imperial Roman paganism, and early Christianity in making sense, for Christian minds, of Western history in all its confusing, paradoxical, and contradictory elements. This feat, Augustine's book accomplishes by explaining history as a reciprocating process of the divine and the profane, the supernatural and the natural, the elect and the unredeemed, operating through the medium of time across the ages. It is fair to say that the intellectual tradition of the Christian West, with all its fundamental and distinctive components come together at last, begins with the "publication" of City of God, whose twenty-two books were written over a period of thirteen years, between 413 and 426.

Augustine, Bishop of Hippo Regius (after Carthage the second largest town in North Africa) where he had settled four years after his baptism in Milan in 387 to live as a monk in his native land, had lesser ambitions and a narrower end in mind as he began his book. Three years earlier, in 410, Alaric and his army had sacked Rome; a disaster for which the city's senatorial families and others of the pagan upper class blamed the Christians, whom they accused of bringing down upon all Romans, impartially and without distinction, the wrath of the flouted gods of Rome, against whom even their own God of the Cross had been helpless or unwilling to save His own people. Numerous wealthy and powerful citizens fled across the Mediterranean to Africa, where they continued to inveigh against the impious Christians. "This," Augustine later explained, "fired me with zeal for the house of God and I began to write the City of God to confute their blasphemies and falsehood."

City of God, composed over a period of many years and amid frequent interruptions, is neither a well-formed book nor, for the most part, a stylistically distinguished one. Owing to the intellectual decadence of the times, Augustine's education was largely in rhetoric, of which he had been a professor in Milan; ignorant of Greek history, thought, and literature, he knew almost nothing of Plato, and nothing at all of Aristotle. As David Knowles has observed, "It is a measure of the capacity and power of Augustine's mind that one who had never been trained in philosophical method.could himself join the select company of the world's greatest thinkers and be a prime agency in weaving Greek thought into Christian theology." Augustine's intellectual triumph was made possible to a considerable extent by a familiarity with the Neoplatonists. Yet his book is shapeless, discursive, and self-distracted. Hardly a model of classic literary form, it fails to present its author as a systematic social or political thinker. City of God is among those works of genius that succeed against the odds, and against themselves.

Augustine's main preoccupation in this sprawling book of over a thousand pages is to present the human world as divided between two cities, the City of God and the City of Man, existing side by side throughout history but overlapping also and intermingling, institutionally as well as in terms of individual souls. The first is comprised of God's people (the Pilgrim Church on Earth), the second of those self-dedicated to the ways of man rather than to the ways of God. Each city progresses toward its own separate destiny awaiting it at the end of the world; until then, the two remain yoked together in a perplexing, sometimes tragic, and often frustrating symbiosis in which, however, men with the aid of Scripture and the Church may discern God's scheme for the salvation of man.

".God's City," Augustine explains, "lives in this world's city, as far as its human element is concerned; but it lives there as an alien sojourner." In his view, the City-or People-of God has always existed, at times in families or as a tribe. Thus, having refuted the enemies of God at the beginning of his book, he "write[s] about the origin, the development, and the destined ends of the two cities." Augustine traces humanity's twin lines of descent as we read of them in the Old Testament, starting with the offspring of Adam and Eve and proceeding on their separate ways: "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.. 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." Augustine next recounts the history of the earthly kingdom (the Egyptians, the Greeks, the Assyrians, the Romans) in parallel with the history of the Jews, from the birth of Abraham down to the coming of Christ, and to the Jewish prophets' foretelling the of Christ's birth. In conclusion to Book XVIII, immediately before his speculations on the last persecutions and the coming of the Antichrist, Augustine makes the famous assertion that, just as the Church contains the reprobate, or damned, in addition to the elect, so the earthly city and the Jewish people both number many godly persons, whom God in His wisdom has ordained to dwell apart, physically or institutionally, from the People of God. Plainly, Augustine fails to draw clear distinctions between God's People as a leaven within pagan society; God's People as the Church (the mystical Body of Christ); and God's People ordered as a nation-a failing, if such it is, that has been noted by innumerable of his readers.

It has been observed, fairly, that City of God is less a discrete book than it is a succession of commentaries on various aspects of a single loosely defined subject. Only the first few Books, for instance, directly address the author's stated purpose in writing his book, which was to confound the pagan Romans who asserted that the sack of Rome amounted to the revenge of the city's gods for having been denied and insulted by the Christian minority. (Rather, Augustine argues, those Romans "should give credit to this Christian era for the fact that these savage barbarians showed mercy beyond the custom of war-whether they so acted in general in honor of the name of Christ, or in places specially dedicated to Christ's name, buildings of such size and capacity as to give mercy a wider range.") The gods failed to save Ilium, as well as Rome, who owed her success not to the gods-who delight in, and even demand, obscenity both on stage and in their own religious ceremonies--but to her own virtue. These gods, if they exist at all, are rather demons, who can bless men neither with worldly happiness nor with eternal life.

Having dealt to his satisfaction with the denigrators of Christianity, Augustine proceeds to ridicule the "select" gods of Rome, and to praise by contrast the Platonists as being near-Christians. He defends the truth of Scripture, discussing the scriptural understanding of creation, time, and of angels, and also the nature of evil, which he calls nonexistent of itself, and causeless. ("Evil is contrary to nature; in fact it can only do harm to nature; and it would not be a fault to withdraw from God were it not that it is more natural to adhere to him. It is that fact which makes the withdrawal a fault. That is why the choice of evil is an impressive proof that the nature is good.") He confronts apparent scriptural "problems" such as man's creation, the existence of human monsters, unnatural longevity, and so forth, and suggests explanations for these mysteries. After this, he fixes the histories of the People of God and their earthly nemesis in relation to one another. Finally, in the last four Books, Augustine deals with the nature of mankind's supreme good (which he identifies as peace), with the Last Judgment, the nature of eternal punishment, the Creation and Resurrection, and the Vision of God. Also, he returns to the subject of Scipio Aemilianus's understanding of the nature of the Republic, which he has discussed earlier in the text. (Scipio, for having destroyed Carthage and Numantia, was one of the great heroes of the second century B.C.) And here he appears to make a profound contribution to the modern (though not postmodern) understanding of the state, and of society itself.

G.K. Chesterton said that the problem with the modern world is not that it is wrong, but that it is crazed. Craze is a function of modernism's addiction to, and worship of, chaos: the satanic perversion of the divine order established by God. Augustine, in City of God, shows himself to have been keenly aware that the interests of the City of God are directly advanced by the encouragement of worldly peace and order in the City of Man. (That is why St. Paul instructs us to pray for our rulers.) And peace and order in the City of Man are furthered by the reocgnition of distinctions among individual men and among the peoples of the earth. If these distinctions are not observed, the social order of the earthly city tends to break toward chaos; and chaos operates to the detriment of the heavenly one, whose tribulations on earth are only deepened by social (and political) turmoil and confusion.

Augustine seems to have recognized the difficulties socially complicated societies face in maintaining order and holding chaos at bay, thus securing the ultimate salvation of the City of God. A degree of social complexity is, of course, not just inevitable but a part of God's plan for humanity as long as the present world shall last. On the other hand, complexity needs to be minimized wherever possible, to ensure the social order, intellectual coherence, and religious orthodoxy the Christian faith requires to accomplish its task of saving the greatest number of souls, while preparing the world as a final offering to be laid at the feet of Christ at the Second Coming.

"While the Heavenly City," Augustine writes, "is on a 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 differences in laws, customs, and institutions, by which earthly peace is achieved and preserved-not that she annuls or abolishes any of these, rather she maintains them (for whatever divergences there are among the diverse nations, those institutions have one aim-earthly peace), provided that no hindrance is presented thereby to the religion which teaches that the one and true God is to be worshipped."

At first glance, this passage might easily be construed as advocating the creation of what a contemporary journalist has advertised as the First Universal Nation, comprising "a society of nations, speaking all languages." A closer reading shows that the "citizens" are called "out" in a spiritual way, rather than in a physical sense: not from within the boundaries of their earthly nations to create a supernation in some other part of the world (such as America), but from the confinements of their spiritual ignorance and sin, to bear witness to the God Who is Truth in their own lands.

And so today's shibboleth-multiculturalism--for St. Augustine would not be the outrageous contradiction in terms as we know it, but the genuine thing: what used to be called the international community, its international components leavened to a greater or lesser extent by centers or outposts of the heavenly one.


Considerations on France, by Joseph le Maistre >>

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