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Saturday, May 17, 2014

ST. AUGUSTINE: City of God (Classifying the World)

Most of us remember back in school when teachers would say something like, “Now listen up, boys and girls.” Why did they do that? Why did they break down the class according to boys and girls? Why not, “Now listen up, all you tall ones and short ones” or “all you skinny ones and chubby ones?” No, the classroom world was broken down by boys and girls. In a previous reading John Stuart Mill broke the world down according to pleasure and pain. The more pleasure we have, the happier we are; more pain, less happiness. Julius Caesar had a different breakdown of the world in Shaw’s play about Caesar and Cleopatra. It doesn’t matter whether you’re born a man or a woman. Pain or pleasure is really beside the point. It doesn’t matter whether you’re personally happy or unhappy. It doesn’t even make much difference if you’re a Roman or an Egyptian. What really divides the world is this: you’re either a Great One or you’re one of the common crowd. One of the main themes in Shaw’s play is Julius Caesar’s attempt to turn Cleopatra from a common princess into a Great Queen.
St. Augustine also divides the world but he uses an entirely different principle. He says, “It has come to pass, that though there are very many and great nations all over the earth, whose rites and customs, speech, arms, and dress, are distinguished by marked differences, yet there are no more than two kinds of human society, which we may justly call two cities, according to the language of our Scriptures.” Only two? Does Augustine mean there’s Rome (the superpower of his day) and then there’s everyone else? No. He goes on to explain that “The one (city) consists of those who wish to live after the flesh, the other of those who wish to live after the spirit.” This seems simple enough at first glance. But it doesn’t take long to show us that it’s not as simple as it sounds. For example, how do we distinguish the ones who “live after the flesh” from the ones who “live after the spirit?” It’s not hard to tell the boys from the girls in class. And it doesn’t take long for us to see that Julius Caesar is a Great Man, different from other men. But classifying people by “flesh” and by “spirit” is a different story. That seems impossible.
It’s not impossible, says Augustine, “First, we must see what it is to live after the flesh, and what to live after the spirit.” Then he spends a long time explaining in patient detail what it’s like to live after the flesh and how that’s different from living after the spirit. The simplest explanation seems to be this one: “When, therefore, man lives according to man, not according to God, he is like the devil… When, then, a man lives according to the truth, he lives not according to himself, but according to God; for He was God who said, "I am the truth."” There are only two “cities” in Augustine’s world. Not one city being civilized Rome and the rest being the uncivilized world. But rather, one he calls the City of Man and the other is the City of God. These two cities co-exist, side by side, throughout the whole world. They co-exist but they’re always at war.
Why? As Augustine puts it, the City of Man lives according to man, not according to God. In his worldview this results from trying to build society on a false foundation. Men have been trying, over and over, generation after generation, to turn away from God and do things their own way. It won’t work; never has, never will, says Augustine. Why not? Any City of Man we can create on this earth will soon pass away and be gone, only to be replaced by another City of Man. The City of God will last, and has lasted, ever since the first man, Adam, walked the earth. Philosophers may disagree but Augustine says, “they only seek contention rather than truth.” The truth, as Augustine sees it, is that “We ought to consider this holy city (the City of God) only in connection with what God foresaw and ordained, and not according to our own ideas…”


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