De Civitate Dei

Aurelius Augustinus
A.D. 426

This book on "the City of God" should find a ready readership despite its heft—1,500 pages. This is a book "for the ages," but never more relevant than now.

It is a wonder that bestselling author (Confessiones) Bishop Augustine found time to work on this monument, the latest of his nearly 1,000 titles. And he accomplished all this while conscientiously attending to pastoral duties in the busy African port city of Hippo, a place crowded with refugees since Rome was sacked in 410!

That trauma in Rome hit Augustine so hard that he's been working on his response for over 13 years. The result is both impassioned and literate. The author, well-schooled in rhetoric, cites the major Roman authors along with Christian Scriptures as he displays both the zeal of the convert and the evidence of long hours in the study.

These may be "post-pagan" times, but pagan authors got a second wind after inhaling the smoke of burning Rome. Christian residents of the Eternal City are blamed for its decline and fall. Augustine ably defends the faith amid these attacks.

Augustine's device is to divide reality into two realms, the temporal (or earthly) city and the heavenly. Expect many misreadings. This is not an outline for how to separate or unite "church" and "state," nor does it call for Christians to set up a distinct domain—call it "Christendom." (If things go wrong with such a setup, expect dark ages ahead.)

So what is this tome about? It is about love for the best things in the temporal city mixed with expressions of sorrow and sometimes fury over what goes wrong in it. Augustine is, after all, an expert on human sins, having experimented with more than a few in his youth.

A consistent theme in the book shows up in the author's analysis of polytheism in Roman paganism. Under different names throughout history, "many gods" have challenged the heart of the true God more than have any patterns of mere skepticism.

Though casual readers may find it pessimistic (it's definitely not utopian), this is a book of realistic hope. The grand theme is glory, the glory of the Eternal City that has foundations. People need this testimony of hope that speaks of rising after decline and fall in Rome or anywhere, anytime.

Reviewed by Martin A. Marty, professor emeritus of the University of Chicago.

In Print

In Book V, the author contrasts Rome's lost glory with God's true blessings:

The martyrs followed in the steps of the apostles. They did not inflict suffering on themselves, but they endured what was inflicted on them; and in so doing they surpassed the Scaevolas, the Curtii, and the Decii [Roman heroes who risked their lives for the empire] by their true virtue, springing from true devotion, and by their countless multitude.

Those Roman heroes belonged to an earthly city, and the aim set before them, in all their acts of duty for her, was the safety of their country, and a kingdom not in heaven, but on earth; not in life eternal, but in the process where the dying pass away and are succeeded by those who will die in their turn. What else was there for them to love save glory? For, through glory, they desired to have a kind of life after death on the lips of those who praised them.

To such men as these God was not going to give eternal life with his angels in his own Heavenly City, the City to which true religion leads, which renders the supreme worship (the Greek word for it is latreia) only to the one true God. If God had not granted to them the earthly glory of an empire which surpassed all others, they would have received no reward for the good qualities, the virtues, that is, by means of which they labored to attain that great glory. When such men do anything good, their sole motive is the hope of receiving glory from their fellow-men; and the Lord refers to them when he says, "I tell you in truth, they have received their reward in full." They took no account of their own material interests compared with the common good, that is the commonwealth and the public purse; they resisted the temptations of avarice; they acted for their country's well-being with disinterested concern; they were guilty of no offense against the law; they succumbed to no sensual indulgence. By such immaculate conduct they labored toward honors, power and glory, by what they took to be the true way. And they were honored in almost all nations; they imposed their laws on many peoples; and today they enjoy renown in the history and literature of nearly all races. They have no reason to complain of the justice of God, the supreme and true. "They have received their reward in full."

Very different is the reward of the saints. Here below they endure obloquy for the City of God, which is hateful to the lovers of this world. That City is eternal; no one is born there, because no one dies. There is the true felicity, which is no goddess, but the gift of God. From there we have received the pledge of our faith, in that we sigh for her beauty while on our pilgrimage. In that City the sun does not rise "on the good and on the evil"; the "sun of righteousness" spreads its light only on the good; there the public treasury needs no great efforts for its enrichment at the cost of private property; for there the common stock is the treasury of truth.

But more than this; the Roman Empire was not extended and did not attain to glory in men's eyes simply for this, that men of this stamp should be accorded this kind of reward. It had this further purpose, that the citizens of that Eternal City, in the days of their pilgrimage, should fix their eyes steadily and soberly on those examples and observe what love they should have toward the City on high, in view of life eternal, if the earthly city had received such devotion from her citizens, in their hope of glory in the sight of men.