Nashville Great Books Discussion Group

A reader's group devoted to the discussion of meaningful books.

Saturday, June 19, 2010

ST. AUGUSTINE: The City of God

In the Great Books tradition we run across a great variety of people from a wide variety of backgrounds. We meet a poor Russian coffin maker/fiddle player (Rothschild’s Fiddle); an English captain on a steamboat in the middle of Africa (Heart of Darkness); an Egyptian Queen and Roman politicians (Antony and Cleopatra, Caesar and Cleopatra); Greek and Trojan heroes (The Iliad); Italian nobility (The Prince); French courtiers and sycophants (The Misanthrope); Christian martyrs (Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire); and American citizens (The Federalist). There doesn’t seem to be a lot in common with most of these people. In spite of these appearances Augustine assures us that there are no more than two kinds of human society, which we may justly call two cities, according to the language of our Scriptures. The one consists of those who wish to live after the flesh, the other of those who wish to live after the spirit. Is this true? At bottom are there really only two kinds of people in the world? If so, does that mean that those who “live after the flesh” are bad and those who “live after the spirit” are good? We might think so. Augustine doesn’t. Why? Because if anyone says that the flesh is the cause of all vices and ill conduct, inasmuch as the soul lives wickedly only because it is moved by the flesh, it is certain he has not carefully considered the whole nature of man. Man isn’t merely a body and he isn’t merely a soul. He’s both. They’re fused into one complete being. Neither is complete and would cease to exist without the other. So Augustine wants us to be very careful to understand what he means by the terms “living after the flesh” and “living after the spirit.” He goes on to say that in enunciating this proposition of ours, then, that because some live according to the flesh and others according to the spirit, there have arisen two diverse and conflicting cities, we might equally well have said, “because some live according to man, others according to God.” So what Augustine is really saying is that there’s a big difference between people who live according to man and those who live according to God: this is the great difference which distinguishes the two cities of which we speak, the one being the society of the godly men, the other of the ungodly, each associated with the angels that adhere to their party, and the one guided and fashioned by love of self, the other by love of God.

The main difference is the motivation (or “love”) which drives our lives. Augustine sums up this idea when he says Two cities have been formed by two loves: the earthly by the love of self…the heavenly by the love of God. The things that motivate people seem to drive them into two distinct parties. Those who believe that man is the measure of all things follow one standard. Those who try to live according to the laws of God follow another standard. Does it really matter which standard we follow? Can those who live according to man be just as good, or better, than those who live according to God? This is a difficult and complicated question. It depends on how we define the term “good.” Augustine doesn’t waver. He believes the man who lives according to God, and not according to man, ought to be a lover of good, and therefore a hater of evil. This doesn’t mean the City of God will be perfect in this life. We all inherited sin from our original parents Adam and Eve. In a modern manner of speaking sin is in our DNA. But even though we won’t be perfected in this earthly life Augustine believes we should try. We won’t be perfect but at present it is enough if we live without crime… Our “affections” will invariably lead us into various lusts for pleasure, money, and the thousand other temptations in the City of Man. But …we must live a good life in order to attain to a blessed life; a good life has all these affections right, a bad life has them wrong. The goal is to live a blessed life and according to Augustine a blessed life is possessed only by the man who loves it. Any of us can leave behind the City of Man and enter into the City of God. Augustine shows us the way.


Post a Comment

<< Home