Augustine Project: Week Thirty-Eight

This post is part of an on-going series in which I and others systematically read through Augustine of Hippo’s City of God in 2014.

City of God 19.1–11.

19.1. Book 19 begins a new section in City of God. In this final section of City of God, books 19 through 22, Augustine will ponder “ends.” First he reflects on man’s Final Good. (He means man’s ultimate aim. Philosophers sometimes talk about telos.) Then he will talk about final judgment and the end state of these two cities.

At the beginning of Book 19, Augustine launches into a somewhat tedious summary of Varro’s even more tedious division of philosophies. Varro had tried to account for all possible systems of philosophical belief. Augustine works through this exercise so he can show his reader what the philosophers thought about the Final Good. Then he can contrast that with Christianity’s teaching regarding man’s Final Good.

19.2. Varro had determined that there were only 288 possible philosophical sects. Augustine discusses how Varro whittled that back down.

In this section we’re still on a search for the Supreme Good.

19.3. Varro and Augustine think about what makes a human? Is he soul or body or a combination of the two? They conclude that a person is a body and a soul. This is an important point because it demonstrates that a person’s good must benefit both these parts.

At the same time, goods aren’t good if they are not combined with virtue. Virtue is “wise conduct in life.” Augustine tells us that this attribute needs to be taught, because one does not naturally grow up to be virtuous. Without virtue, humans will twist goods to ill use.

Augustine brings up the Old Academics because they believed that humans were capable of philosophical certainty. The New Academics were skeptics who claimed that one couldn’t know anything with certainty. We need certainty about the Ultimate Good.

Antiochus of Ascalon, who was Cicero’s teacher in the first century BC, gets credited with reorienting philosophy toward certainty and attempting to combine the best elements of Stoicism and Platonism.

19.4. Augustine contrasts the ideas of the philosophers with the Christian idea that the Supreme Good is eternal life. This section makes its way full circle to themes in the beginning of the City of God. He talks about temporal goods being inferior to eternal goods and the inappropriateness of suicide.

Augustine argues that searching for the Supreme Good in this world is pointless because this fallen world contains too many evils. The body experiences pain and suffering. The mind can become insane through disease or demonic activity. Even the wise man is susceptible to the disaster that has befallen this world. Augustine believes that those who call this life good and happy are delusional.

Eternal life is the Supreme Good, but it isn’t something that can be achieved apart from faith. It isn’t even something that can be attained in the here and now; Christians hope in a future salvation. It’s this hope in the future that sets the Christian apart from the philosopher. The philosopher commits suicide when things go bad because he lacks hope that produces steadfastness.

Augustine admonishes his reader to live a godly life, but he clearly teaches that godliness is a struggle in the present age. The fallen world afflicts the Christian with evil, but the Christian’s own heart already contains all kinds of evil. Virtue empowered by faith combats these vices.

Some 20th-century theologians took Augustine’s theology and developed it into what they call “Already/Not Yet.” By faith Christians are saved in Christ, but Christians are not yet fully saved because they await perfection. We have a measure of the Supreme Good now that will be fulfilled on the Last Day, which we wait for expectantly.

19.5–7. Augustine agrees with the philosophers who suggest that the life of the wise man should be social. He discusses the three basic levels of society: the family, the city, and the world. All three of these levels of society include a certain amount of wretchedness in this fallen world.

One’s home should be a safe place, but disquietude has crept into family life. Also, strife and treachery within a family hurt more because of the closeness of the members.

The city doesn’t fair any better. Even when a city enjoys peace, the city experiences disturbance through criminal trials and civil lawsuits. Augustine finds the role of the magistrate problematic, particularly since magistrates must often resort to torture. Even if a magistrate can avoid being wicked in his job, he cannot avoid being wretched. The fallen context forces wretchedness on him. Socrates supposedly thought that an honest man could not survive in politics. One of these magistracies is precisely the job that Augustine aspired to before his conversion.

The linguistic division of the world prevents people from enjoying society if they speak different languages. Imposing Latin on subjugated people didn’t help Rome because they experienced civil wars in their vast territory.

Augustine often gets credited with being the father of Just War Theory. He never actually laid out any such theory, but later thinkers mined his writings for his thoughts on war. The sentences at the end of 19.7 helped formulate the justness of fighting against injustice. However, if one reads Augustine in context, one finds that he seems pessimistic about war’s ability to be just. Even if war is necessary, it is still wretched. An analogy between “just war” and the “just judge” who must use torture seems appropriate.

19.8. Even the friendship of good men cannot make you happy. Good friends will die, and you will be sad. This life is wretched.

19.9. Friendship with angels might seem a better option since angels don’t die. Augustine notes, however, that angels don’t tend to hang out with humans and that it’s too easy to confuse a demon for an angel.

19.10–11. Augustine thinks that the ultimate goal is peace. Humans can attain some small measure of peace in this life, but Augustine believes that ultimate peace comes when God has conformed Christians to their future, perfected state.

This passage reminds me of the beginning of his Confessions: “You have formed us for Yourself, and our hearts are restless until they find rest in You.”

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