The Political Aspects of St. Augustine's City of God - John Neville Figgis - ebook

The Political Aspects of St. Augustine's City of God ebook

John Neville Figgis



When one civilization has fallen and another is in its birth throes, people are apt to be seduced by the rushlights of a false leadership. The mind and mood of such a time of transition are intensely puzzling and those who would meet its needs must have insight and vision. The Epistle to the Hebrews was written after the fall of Jerusalem in the interest of a larger faith and in defense of the substantial authority of Christianity. When Rome was sacked by Alaric in 410 A. D., the shock of the catastrophe reacted against Christianity. Augustine wrote the De Civitate Dei to prove that the disaster was the inevitable Nemesis of the luxuries and corruptions of the citizenship and had little to do with Christianity, which had only a slight hold on public life. He also pointed out the contrast between the actual city to which the Romans were fanatically devoted, and the ideal city of his prophetic vision, contending that this ideal is eternal and unrealized but in process of realization. He was further convinced that Christianity was not merely a superior gnosis but a scheme of redemption, justified by its higher ethical standards and by the better conduct of its adherents. This apology has all the limitations of the time and the writer, but Augustine was a mystic and a statesman, and the im-ortance of this writing is in the fact that "in it for the first time an ideal consideration, a comprehensive survey of human history found its expression."

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The Political Aspects of St. Augustine's City of God






The Political Aspects of St. Augustine's City of God, J. N. Figgis

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'As Man amongst creatures and the Church amongst men and the Fathers in the Church, and S. Augustine amongst the Fathers, so amongst the many pretious volumes and in the rich storehouse of his workes, his bookes of the City of God have a speciall preheminence.'

So W. Crashawe began the dedication which he prefixed in 1620 to the second edition of J. Healey's translation of the text and of the Commentary thereon of J. L. Vives. Vives had dedicated his Commentary to Henry VIII, dating from Louvain on July 7, 1522.

This passage of Crashawe we might parallel from writers of almost every age; and from some of widely different outlook. Bishop Otto of Freising, the uncle and historian of Frederic Barbarossa, sings in unison with Niceron, the collector of literary anecdotes in the seventeenth century.

The greatness of the 'De Civitate Dei' is not in dispute. No student of the fifth century can afford to overlook it. No one can understand the Middle Ages without taking it into account. What is true of historians is true no less of ecclesiastical politicians and reformers--even down to a leader in the modern socialist movement like Sommerlad.[1] In his earlier days Count Hertling has written on the book, and he alluded to its principles in a recent speech. The book has been more widely read than any other of S. Augustine except the 'Confessions.' It has had commentators from Coquaeus down to Scholz. For these reasons it might seem hardly a fitting topic for 'Pringle-Stewart' lectures. One historian said to me on hearing of the Course: 'Is there anything new to say about that?' Yet another said, that the more he tried to comprehend the mind of the Middle Ages, the more was he convinced that it was necessary to understand S. Augustine.

That understanding is not easy. There are those who are for treating S. Augustine as the typical example of the medieval temperament with its heights and depths, its glories and splendours of imagination, its dialectical ingenuity and its irrational superstitions. Others see in S. Augustine essentially a man of the antique world. They do not deny to him real influence upon later times. Who can? But they are inclined to minimise this; at least in matters of social and political importance. The former is the view of Dorner, still more of Feuerlein.[2] It became a commonplace with scholars like Gierke and Ritschl, and in a less degree with Harnack. It is presented in an extreme form in a book, once well known, that came from America, the late Dr. A. V. G. Alien's ' Continuity of Christian Thought.' Hermann Reuter in his 'Augustinische Studien' began a reaction. That book is of incalculable value for those who wish to comprehend S. Augustine. This reaction reached its limit in a book published during the war, by Troeltsch, 'Die christliche Antike und die Mittelalter.' Signs of this view are to be found in Dr. Carlyle's valuable work on 'Political Theory in the West'--although it is more through what he does not say than what he does, that we gather the views of the writer. Professor Dunning in his 'History of Political Thought' is even more significant in his omissions.

Political thought and S. Augustine's influence thereon are to be the topic of these lectures. That involves the whole subject of Church and State. So we are carried some way into theology. The ' De Civitate Dei' is not a treatise on politics. It is a lime de circonstance concerned with apologetic. Most of S. Augustine's doctrine alike in theology and philosophy is embedded in it. We may regard it as an expansion of the 'Confessions.' The relation of true philosophy to scepticism, the idea of creation, the problem of time, the contribution of Platonism, more especially Neo-Platonism, the meaning of miracle and nature, the Incarnation as expressing the humility of God, the whole scheme of redemption, salvation by grace, long divagations into comparative mythology, all these might be made the subject of lectures on the 'De Civitate Dei,' and that without leaving the terrain occupied by the author. Another lecturer better equipped might give not six but twelve lectures concerning the philosophic and theological problems suggested by the 'De Civitate Dei,' and not even mention those points which I hope to discuss. If that had been what was expected, you would not have done me the high honour of choosing me to lecture on this work. To begin with, a great Augustinian scholar, Canon T. A. Lacey, in the first course of 'Pringle-Stewart' lectures discussed some of the more important of these matters, although without special reference to this book. You would not wish them discussed again by one who has neither Mr. Lacey's intimate knowledge of S. Augustine nor his alertness of critical judgment. So I shall limit myself to the political aspects of the book.

The points which it offers to the student of political thought are not few, nor are they unimportant. The book has been treated as a philosophy of history finer than that of Hegel; and again as the herald of all that is significant in the 'Scienza Nuova' of Vico. Can such views be sustained? Or is it the case that S. Augustine had no notion of a philosophy of history, that his views are self-contradictory, and that only a few passages throw more than a faint light on it. That question will form the topic of the second lecture. Did S. Augustine teach, that the State is the organisation of sin, or did he believe in its God given character, and desire its developments? Did he teach the political supremacy of the hierarchy, and, by implication, that of the Pope and the Inquisition? Or was it of the Church as the Communio sanctorum that he was thinking? Does his doctrine of individual election reduce to ruins all ecclesiastical theory? These topics will occupy the third and fourth lectures. What was S. Augustine's influence on mediæval life? Was there something almost like a 'reception' of Augustinianism, followed by a repudiation at the Renaissance? Or was it that only slightly he affected political ideals in the Middle Ages? Some see the whole controversy between Popes and Emperors implicit in the 'De Civitate Dei.' Others would trace it to causes quite different. What real change came about at the Reformation? Did S. Augustine's social doctrine (apart from the theology of grace) lose all influence? Or did men retain unimpaired the idea of the civitas Dei, as it had been developed? These questions will occupy the last two lectures.

To-day let me try to determine certain preliminary points. Let us get clear what is the nature and aim of the book. Much needs to be said which will seem trite to students. I would crave your pardon. These matters are needful for evidence of what will later be said. Besides, it is a less error to take too little for granted than too much.

Like nearly all of S. Augustine's writings, the 'De Civitate Dei' is controversial. It is a pamphlet of large scale. Like S. Paul and unlike S. Thomas, Augustine wrote only under the pressure of immediate necessity. All his writings have an apologetic character. Most of them are coloured by his intensely rich personality. Trained in rhetoric, Augustine is never abstract or impersonal. Sometimes we regret this and the longueurs to which his skill in dialectic leads him. Theories abound in S. Augustine's works, but the last thing he is is a theorist, pure and simple. Augustine became a theologian, as he had become a philosopher, driven by practical needs. Adversaries might even argue that all his emphasis on the external, on the given quality of grace, was due to his own experiences--just as Luther universalised his own inner life into the doctrine of justification by faith. We must see the place which these controversies, implied in the 'De Civitate,' occupied in S. Augustine's life. After his conversion, he spent the first years in assailing the doctrines of which he had been an adherent. We have the books 'Contra Academicos,' the 'Soliloquy' and other writings against the Manichæans. In these he is concerned with problems mainly speculative, the nature and origin of evil, the nature of belief, the possibility of certitude, the significance of error, which at least is evidence of the personality of the man in error, and so forth.

To these controversies succeeded his great conflict with the Donatists. When he was converted, Augustine did not become a merely intellectual adherent of Christianity. He became a member of a visible, active and world-wide Church; and that in a day of storms. When Augustine came home to Africa, after his mother's death, he found the Church rent by schism, with the Catholics appearing as the weaker party, and the Donatists claiming almost a national position. Augustine was forced into the position of a champion of the Catholic Church. Consequently, more in regard to schism than to heresy, he developed the idea of the unity and universality of the Church. He thus marked a difference between himself and Greek theologians like Origen.

Then came the sack of Rome by Alaric. Only in our own time can the shock of that world-catastrophe be paralleled in its effect on the imagination and thoughts of men. The eternity of Rome had been a presupposition of the common consciousness. But now the world seemed in ruins--i.e. the world of imagination and mental comfort. Augustine saw that the taking of Rome had no 'great military significance.' In one sermon he bids his hearers be calm and recollect that Rome really means Romans--and that the Roman name was not extinguished. The calamity gave its last chance to dying paganism. Rome had been a stronghold of the ancient worship, and was still largely pagan in feeling. Obvious then was its line of counterattack. 'This horror would not have been, had we stood by the ancient ways. The mad policy of the Emperors in prohibiting sacrifices to the gods has produced its inevitable nemesis. The sack of Rome is the judgment of Jove.'

This was the position in which Augustine was placed, one somewhat resembling that of a modern Christian faced with the charge that Christianity is bankrupt because it did not prevent the war. To meet the charge Augustine wrote the 'De Civitate Dei.' He did not write it all at once. In the 'Retractations' he admits that he was interrupted by the Pelagian controversy. That too leaves its traces upon this encyclopedia of his mind. Much of the book is but an expansion of Augustine's doctrine of grace applied on the scale of world history. That is another reason why the book is so hard. Augustine had a discursive mind, and his training in rhetoric increased this tendency. He had no great powers of construction. The architectonics even of the 'Confessions' leave much to be desired--a fact which is less patent than it should be to many because they do not read the latter books. In his controversial writings he does not know when to stop; nor does he trouble much about relevance. We can never understand S. Augustine if we think of him as a system-maker. Systems may have come out of him, but before all else he is a personality. He is the meeting-place of two worlds. All that the training of that day in the West could give-- he knew little or no Greek--he had. His mind was a mould into which the culture of the world was poured. This he had either to assimilate to Christianity, or to eliminate from himself. Sometimes he is inclined to do the latter. Hence his inconsistencies; and in consequence many different people could justify themselves out of his writings. Augustine is not, as some think, a pure ascetic without interest in human life, careless of the goods of learning--but sometimes he seems to be that. He is a rich, hot-blooded, highly complex and introspective personality, passionately Christian, but exquisitely and delicately human, sensitive and courageous, looking with reverence on Rome, possessed, with Virgil and Cicero, of a Roman love of authority and law, and an African touch of earth, yet ever withal having the nostalgia of the infinite. Within Augustine there struggle two personalities, a mystic, who could forgo all forms, not only of outward but of inward mechanism, and fly straight--'the alone to the Alone' --with a champion of ecclesiastical order, resolute to secure the rights of the Church, and a statesman looking before and after.

One constant temptation besets the historian of thought in every sphere. He is apt to suppose that his subjects are more consistent than they are; to make logical wholes of scattered and often contradictory hints; and sometimes even to rule out, as unauthentic, writings which have no other evidence against them than that of being hard to reconcile with others of the same author. In no case could this be a worse error than in that of S. Augustine; in no part of S. Augustine could it be worse than in the 'De Civitate Dei.' One student has said: 'It is not a book, it is journalism; whenever S. Augustine had nothing else to do he sat down and wrote a bit of it.' That may be fancy. But it is a fanciful way of conveying a truth. Let us then take the work right through, and give an account of it, not troubling about its logical consistency or the relevance of parts to the main idea.

In the 'Retractations' Augustine gave his own analysis of it, though a very brief one. The first five books are a reply to those who say that the pagan gods are to be worshipped for the sake of earthly security and peace. The next five are a reply to the contention of the philosophic apologists that the worship of old Roman gods leads to the real good, eternal life. The pagans having been routed, Augustine turned to construction. This is divided into three parts. In Books XI-XIV we have the origin of the two cities, the Civitas Dei and the Civitas terrena;in the next four he traces their course in time, and in the last four their consummation in eternity.

Let us go through the work in further detail. In Book I, Augustine states that his object in writing is to rebut the charge that Christianity has ruined Rome. He shows that temporal felicity had not been the unvarying condition for the city of Rome. Besides, the same gods had failed to protect Troy, or else Æneas would never have reached Italy. Even at the time of writing, Christianity, he claims, is having its effect, in getting better treatment for the vanquished. Pagans-- the very men who attack the Church--go running to the churches to take sanctuary. There they are safe. Augustine does not claim that a complete acceptance ofChristianity would guarantee the life of a nation.

The laments over a toppling order, he will not meet by saying that a Christian commonwealth now or at any future date will be stable. What marks this book is the final repudiation of the old views, as much Jewish as pagan, that temporal felicity follows the service of the true God--alike for the individual and the nation.

The wicked, either man or nation, may flourish like a green bay tree, says S. Augustine, and often will. That will not advantage the wicked in the end, which is outside this life. But it will teach the good man humility and a due dependence on the eternal values. The world may be saved. But it will be saved on other-worldly lines. Hermann Reuter is right in saying that the whole world turns on the contrast between worldly and other-worldly motives.[3]

Augustine replies to the charge against the Christians by a doctrine concerning the nature of religion which makes the topic of temporal felicity irrelevant. This method was a revolution. Like most of S. Augustine's thought--and some of Christian teaching--it was neither entirely novel nor exclusively Christian. It rests on the philosophic conception of God as the summum bonum. 'What is the chief end of man? To glorify God and to enjoy Him for ever.' This may be a summary of the Christian ideal, but it includes within it the Neo-Platonist also and many others. Augustine was aware of this, and in the second part he will meet and refute the argument that eternal goods are to be won by the worship of the pagan deities. Meanwhile he is occupied with those who complain of the evil wrought by Christianity. Against them he points out the luxury and corruption of Rome, all the ills predicted by Scipio if Carthage should be destroyed and Jeshurun wax fat with that lust of sovereignty which among all other sins of the world was most appropriate unto the Romans. He depicts the tragedies produced by the lust of power describes the hideous sexualities current in the theatre and in certain worships not yet discarded, despite all the Gothic peril. He concludes by sketching his plan to point out (1) the evils that befel Rome in early days; (2) the uselessness, so proved, of the old gods even for temporal ends; (3) their even greater uselessness for eternal bliss.

The second book is mainly concerned with the profound moral gulf between paganism and Christianity. Therein Augustine makes lavish use of the 'De Republica' of Cicero. He describes in detail the decay of Roman manners during the last days of the Republic, glancing at the moral and political passions which preceded and provoked the Imperial regime. This book is designed to establish the now familiar thesis of the moral and political corruption produced by paganism, and concludes with an exhortation to the Romans to renounce it.

Book III describes the miseries that ushered in and accompanied the triumphs of Rome. With these are contrasted the golden times of peace under King Numa and the wickedness of the attack on Alba Longa. Emphasis is thus laid on the miseries inherent in the pagan state as an expression of pagan ethics and religion.

In Book IV Augustine lays down that justice is to be set before power, and that alike by by nations and individuals. We come to the maxim on which so much more must be said: Remota justitia, quid regna nisi magna latrocinia. The Roman Empire he seems on the whole to have viewed as a just reward earned partly as the due of Roman virtue and partly in compensation for unjust attacks; but he is not always consistent. He speaks of the lust of power of Ninus and the Assyrian Empire. Here we come in Chapters 3 and 15 to strongly anti-imperialist passages. Thence Augustine proceeds (C. 11) to consider the more refined forms of paganism-- those which take the individual deities as names for the attributes of the one supreme God who was often interpreted pantheistically. He decides that Jove was at least no final organiser of victory for his children, and in that noteworthy passage (IV, 15) he argues in favour of a society of small States, 'little in quantity and peaceful in neighbourly agreement,' as against the aggregations of empire. Once more he makes easy game of the puerilities of polytheism, and denounces its obscene festivals. Thence he passes to the more serious doctrine of Varro, for whom Augustine entertained the greatest respect. Acute and learned, with a prodigious memory, Varro is Augustine's main authority for mythology-- just as later on Vico, who knew Varro mainly through the 'De Civitate Dei,' is driven at every turn to appeal to him. Varro was a Theist or Pantheist of a kind, and like Augustine worshipped a Providence, the bestower of kingdoms, who grants his boons to bad no less than good, like a parent giving toys. The book concludes with the assertion that God is the giver of all kingdoms and the determiner of their end, and with illustrations drawn from the Jewish State.

Book V enters into the problem of freedom and necessity. Despite his strong predestinarian doctrine Augustine was no believer in a blind fate--any more than was Calvin. Empire he holds, has been given to the Romans as the reward of certain terrestrial virtues. Great qualities of courage and self-sacrifice belong or did belong to Roman patriots. No pagan could be more eloquent than he is on their grandeur. He will even set them as an example for the citizens of the heavenly city. 'The argonauts of the ideal' are bidden to emulate the zeal and sacrifice which Romans had shown for a cause so far inferior. The well-known passage from the sixth Æneid, excudent alii spirantia mollius aera, is used to illustrate Roman imperialism (V, 12). Augustine argues that ambition may be a vice, but that it acts in restraint of worse vices, cowardice and indolence. Even here the Christian martyr is superior. He despised earthly honours and endured worse torments. The Romans had not the true end of doing God's will. Hence they could have no eternal hope. Their relative goodness would have gone unrewarded, and God's justice therefore would for ever be assailable, had not an earthly sovereignty been their meed. That species of power is other in kind than the eternal joy of the children of God. Yet once more must Augustine assert that it is the true God who gave Rome her Empire and who presides over the origin and issue of all wars. There he anticipates the argument of Dante. Rhadagaisus, the Gothic king, whom they all know, forms a shining example of this divine supervision in his sudden and incalculable downfall.

Following this passage is the famous Fürsten-spiegel, the picture of a godly prince (V, 24). Somewhat to our surprise, Augustine chooses as an instance Constantine the Great. Maybe he knew less ill of him than we do. At least this choice shows how entirely Roman was Augustine. Theodosius the Great is then made the topic of a panegyric, for he grudged not to assist the labouring Church by all the wholesome laws which he promulgated against heretics.

Augustine's first part concludes with Book V. He is now to be occupied in showing that paganism is wrong even as a method of approach to the True God.

Vulgar paganism is now demolished. We pass in Book VI to the philosophic creeds. An interesting appreciation of Varro precedes an account of his book on 'Human and Divine Antiquities' which indeed we know largely through the use Augustine makes of it. Varro divides religion into three stages, somewhat after the manner of Comte. There is (a) the mythical, followed by (b) the natural and (c) the civic. He prefers the second. Augustine tries to show the connexion between the two, and denies that paganism can be detached from its darker side. It is vain to worship pagan deities in the hope of eternal bliss. Book VII carries the matter a little further, and argues the inconsistency of Varro.

Book VIII treats of the Platonic doctrine of God. This in the main Augustine accepts; but he treats as futile the attempt to accommodate it with the worship of the pagan pantheon. Apuleius, the African representative of paganism, is discussed. We have vigorous words in abuse of magic. The heathen practice of apotheosis is contrasted with the honours given to the Christian martyr. This, he says, is high reverence, but in no sense do we treat the martyrs as gods. Book IX is concerned with a further condemnation of the doctrine of mediating spirits and demons. Thence Augustine passes to the doctrine of the One Mediator, and argues the possibility of the Incarnation. The Book shows that the debate between the Christian apologist and his assailants is at bottom a conflict between two forms of mediation.

Book X contains a further analysis of Plotinus, whose doctrine Augustine parallels with the Logos doctrine of S. John i. He contrasts the one sacrifice, once offered, with the offerings to idols; and the Christian with the pagan miracles. In Chapter 25 he argues that all good men in every age are saved, but saved through faith in Christ, e.g. the saints of the Old Testament. Then we have more argument for the Incarnation. Augustine sees the fundamental difficulty in Incarnation, a self-limitation of God which is all but intolerable. It is this doctrine of the humility of God at which imagination boggles. 'These proud fellows scorn to have God for their Master, because the Word became Flesh and dwelt among us.'

The last words of Book X sum up the first part of the whole: