Josiah Swanson

April 11, 2019

Augustine on Justice in City of God

A Short Paper for Westmont's Interdisciplinary Studies
class on Augustine and the Christian Tradition

        In his “huge work,” Saint Augustine shows how a Sovereign God’s plan has been enacted in a world of two cities. He discusses how one city will triumph over the other when God’s “justice returns to judgement” at the end of time (5). Alas, the human race awaits this final judgement. Augustine describes how justice might be understood until this “final victory is won and peace is established” (5). Given that only one city will eternally triumph and that the two must coexist for now, several questions can and should be raised about the nature of justice in this context.

        Early on in City of God, Augustine argues that historian Sallust was wrong about Rome having become a corrupt commonwealth (1091, 72). Indeed, by Scipio or Cicero’s definition, Rome had ceased to exist as a commonwealth at all. According to this standpoint, “justice” and “common sense of right” are mandatory for a commonwealth’s existence (72, 73). Rome had never quite tasted of that life. Augustine claims that “true justice is found only in [those people] whose founder and ruler is Christ” (75). He explains that, unlike Rome’s gods, the Sovereign God is “concerned to prevent...destruction...through moral corruption” (75).

        Despite its alienated state of being, the City of God is a somewhat happy city (857). Augustine contrasts those who look forward to “the blessings which are promised as eternal” with the Stoics who attempt to justify destroying their lives in the face of terror and “others” who imagine that they might find “Ultimate Good in this life” apart from eternal hope (877, 855).

        In Book XIX, Augustine declares that all people seek peace (866). On account of this statement, he charges that “the father of a household should take his rules from the law of the city,” because the father and the city have the same goal in mind: peace (876). Augustine goes as far as to say that while the City of God awaits final judgement on the last day, it lives in “a harmony” with the City of Man by treating “earthly and temporal things” as support and working to find points of relevancy with its mortal neighbor (877). It “seeks the compromise between human wills in respect of the provisions relevant to the moral nature of man” (878).

        Returning to an earlier idea, Augustine shows that Scipio’s commonwealth is actually impossible for any mortal people-group, as the prerequisites are too lofty (890). Augustine believes Scipio’s definition proposes that justice is found where “God...rules an obedient city,” “the soul rules the body,” and “reason rules the vices” (890).

        Throughout Book XXII, Saint Augustine discusses en profondeur the judgement to come and the perfection awaiting those who are on pilgrimage in the City of God (1025). He also lists many “blessings” given to the pilgrims as they pass through their mortal lives, some of which are shared by the City of Man (1075). All is coming to a close and Sovereign God’s final judgement is being stored up as the citizens of opposing cities profoundly coexist.

        Given that Scipio’s picture of a just commonwealth is unfeasible, what alternative juridical frameworks can a pilgrim make use of as he strives for justice alongside his mortal neighbor?

        Firstly, this pilgrim ought to be in “expectation of the world to come” (857). Quoting the apostle Paul, Augustine claims that “it is in hope that we are saved” (857). Indeed, “the saints lose nothing by being deprived of temporal goods” because of their hope in a coming world (17). Even in the face of injustice, the pilgrim can “fix [his] eyes...on the living God,” knowing that what is seen is not all that there is (19). Yes, “death is not to be regarded as a disaster” (20).

        Our pilgrim ought also to understand that “the nature [of mankind] is good” and “evil is contrary to nature” (448). This optimistic understanding gives the pilgrim the ability to cope with terrible societies such as the “criminal gangs” who enforce no justice whatsoever (139). Because “God turns evil choices to good use,” the pilgrim extends hope to his neighbors (449).

        Despite the benefit of these options, they aren’t wholistic; we need more for the pilgrim who seeks harmony with his mortal neighbor. Is there any hope for the divided world that awaits a final judgement?

        Upon close inspection, the pilgrim will be able to see that in all the various affairs of humankind “there is no man who does not wish for peace” (866). Aha! We find common ground for the two cities! And, it is because of this common ground that our pilgrim can “obey the laws of the earthly city” and even administer them to “his household” (876, 877).

        The pilgrim may wonder whether there are further points of societal relevancy to help with our problem of justice. Augustine would answer in the affirmative. Looking to replace Scipio’s framework, Saint Augustine argues for a new understanding of commonwealth. He proposes the following definition: a people who are “united by a common agreement on the objects of their love” (890). This civilization can unify itself on shared loves, regardless of their ordering; it “seeks the compromise between human wills” (878). Furthermore, “a harmony” may be preserved between [the two cities] in things that are relevant (877). This harmony would be a mystery to Cicero’s authorial-façade, but it is a reality for those who have ears to hear it as it glides on cosmopolitan wind.

        Now, we see that Sallust may have had it right, at least by some stretch of the imagination. One might say that Rome had become a corrupt commonwealth when her people disagreed with the ordering of their loves. And, what an example for all great cities after her!

        Our pilgrim may now “go obediently to Babylon, serving God,” knowing that justice exists in each individual life when “God rules and man obeys” (892, 893). Here’s to our pilgrim and a life of harmony that seeks peace with God and men, from now until justice returns to judgment at the end of time!

April 6, 2019

I see the morning light on those harbor boats,
Those rugged sails taking in the warmth,
Telling me of the glorious riches of the coming day.