The Origin of the Two Cities

St. Augustine’s City of God remains, to this day, an enormously important book — one whose impact may be felt in every age.

Anonymous (“Master of Saint Augustine”), “Scenes From the Life of Saint Augustine,” ca. 1490
Anonymous (“Master of Saint Augustine”), “Scenes From the Life of Saint Augustine,” ca. 1490 (photo: Public Domain)

 It was in the year 410 that Rome fell to the barbarians. Alaric’s army poured through the gates of the city, spending three days pillaging the place, then leaving with lots of loot and a great many shattered lives. Soon the shock waves would reach to the very ends of the empire, plunging the civilized world into grief and horror. Rome having stood at the very summit of human history for so long, the perfect example of worldly power and influence, it seemed quite unthinkable that so vast and far-reaching a catastrophe could happen. Were Rome to vanish, people thought, all the lights would go out, leaving the world in darkness. 

Meanwhile, St. Augustine, safely ensconced — for the time being, that is — across the Mediterranean Sea in North Africa, felt the same tremors as did every citizen of Rome. Unlike most, however, he proposed to do something about it. What the Bishop of Hippo did was to sit down and write a bestseller. 

Begun in 413, The City of God would take 13 years to complete, achieving monumental status in the civilization of the Christian West, which he had a sure and decisive hand in shaping. Augustine would not live to see that world, of course, the victorious Vandals having reached the walls of Hippo as he lay dying in 430.

But the book survived, destined to become a guide for Catholic kings and statesmen centuries after his passing. And a defense, too, both rousing and comprehensive, of the Christian faith against its enemies, particularly those pagan Romans who blamed Christianity for the collapse of their beloved empire. Had the Christians not forsaken the household gods, they argued, Rome would still be standing, flourishing even. But because of all that annoying other-worldliness they pursued, distracting them from the workaday demands of good citizenship, the gods grew angry and thus inflicted horrific punishments upon the people and their empire. 

All this Augustine would in due course refute, insisting that if Rome fell it was entirely the fault of Rome herself, that the seed of her destruction was borne from within. Indeed, the poison had seeped into the Roman soul long before Christianity arrived on the scene. Nevertheless, in their bitterness and hatred, the enemies of the faith never tired of pushing that particular canard. 

This was the one piece of dynamite that, upon repeated detonations, finally drove Augustine

into print. And in his Retractations, written around the same time, he identifies his principal motive in writing, which was nothing less than the need to defend God.

“When Rome was devastated as a result of the invasion of the Goths under the leadership of Alaric,” he explained, “the worshippers of the many false gods … began, in their attempt to blame this devastation on the Christian religion, to blaspheme the true God with more bitterness and sharpness than usual. Wherefore, fired with a zeal for God’s house, I determined to write my book, The City of God, against their blasphemies and errors.” 

Straightaway it became, and remains, to this day, an enormously important book, one whose impact may be felt in every age. This is because it remains forever timely in its understanding of the enduring conflict between good and evil, between those who seek the City of God and those who succumb to the Earthly City, whose seductions lead to the death of the soul.

Everything depends on the direction men take in the choices they make. If love exacts an obvious gravitational pull, then where it goes the soul too must follow. Will it be the love of self to the exclusion of God (cupiditas)? Or the love of God to the exclusion of self (caritas)? And what will happen when a whole people shape themselves along one or the other gravitational line? What will that society look like? That is, when the sum of all human loves is given corporate and public expression? What does Augustine have to say about this in his book?

The beginning of an answer may be found in a single sentence taken from Book XIX, Chapter 26, in which he describes the nature of society. It is, he says, “a collection of reasonable men united by the things for which they have a shared love.” In other words, let me know the things you love, and I shall tell you who you are. Not just in your private capacity, but in the order of the public life. And if it is not justice that you love, if that is not the good to which you anneal themselves, then your society forfeits its claim to be a true city. And ceases for that reason even to exist. 

In a word, it is justice, the virtue of giving others their due — most especially when it is the Supreme Other — that becomes the first and defining condition in determining the nature of a people. Otherwise the gathering of men, however reasonable they may be in theory, remains aimless and arbitrary. And so Rome, by losing its sense of justice, had not merely fallen into corruption, it had ceased to exist. Not to be a true society, then, is to be no society at all. In the circumstance, there can be but one city deserving of the name and that is because in its practice of true justice it adheres to the laws of God. And not just any God, but the God and Father of Our Lord Jesus Christ, the Incarnate Son, who came among us in order to restore the lost unity of the human race.

Yes, there really had been, once upon a time, an ideal unity among men. Begun with God’s creation of Adam, then taking from him the perfect helpmate, Eve, we see in that union an entire human race coming into existence. Thus we have all become brothers and sisters of Adam, prior even to God’s conferral of a supernatural kinship in Christ. Nature awaiting, as it were, its necessary completion in grace.

But it all came to grief, owing to the wrong choice made by one of the two brothers, Cain and Abel, offspring of our first parents, which then gave rise to two very different societies of men. From this beginning, then, fraught with such drama and potential for disaster, the whole history of the world unfolds.

“On the one side,” says Augustine in Book XV, Chapter 1, “are those who live according to man; on the other, those who live according to God … two cities or two human societies, the destiny of the one being an eternal kingdom under God, while the doom of the other is eternal punishment along with the Devil.”

The stakes are very high. In fact, no higher than which can we, or even the angels, possibly imagine. And, as always, and certainly as Augustine assiduously shows throughout all 22 books, man’s destiny, like God and the Devil, is to be found in the details.