The City of God

by Aurelius Augustinus

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Last Updated September 5, 2023.

What are kingdoms without justice? They're just gangs of bandits.

This quotation amply illustrates Augustine's generally negative attitude towards secular authorities. Given that men are sinful, fallen creatures, the secular state is a necessary evil, which exists to maintain good order and stability. Using the parable of the pirate brought before Alexander the Great to develop this point, Augustine maintains that the only thing separating a kingdom from a group of bandits is justice. A kingdom, like a band of cutthroats and thieves, is a confederacy, a pact which divides up wealth between those in charge. So if it is to distinguish itself from a gang of desperadoes, it must administer justice. If it does not do so, then it becomes nothing more than a gigantic robbery, just as empires are little more than acts of piracy writ large.

There are wolves within, and there are sheep without.

Augustine is making the point here that not every member of the visible church is a potential saint; they may be far from it. In keeping with his generally lowly view of fallen mankind, Augustine firmly believes that sin is everywhere, including within the Church itself. By the same token, there are those outside the Church who display marked signs of holiness. They are among the "sheep," as it were.

Throughout his works, Augustine makes an important distinction between the visible Church, the Church as it exists upon this earth, with all its sin and imperfection, and the invisible Church, a community of saints. The visible Church, like all institutions in the City of Man, is corrupt. And so it is unrealistic to expect that all its members will be candidates for sainthood.

The invisible Church, on the other hand, is a spiritual community which consists of all those who believe in Jesus Christ, irrespective of whether they're members of a given congregation. The invisible Church overlaps at certain points with the visible Church, but the two bodies are not coextensive. Indeed, they cannot be due to man's inherent fallenness, tainted as he is by the stain of original sin.

Thus, a good man, though a slave, is free; but a wicked man, though a king, is a slave. For he serves, not one man alone, but what is worse, as many masters as he has vices.

In keeping with orthodox Christian tradition, Augustine conceives of freedom in spiritual terms. In the City of Man, a man may be a slave, but if he believes in Christ, then he is spiritually free. Residues of Augustine's erstwhile Neo-Platonism are much in evidence here. He regards the soul as somehow more real than the body. So although the body may be in chains, the soul is still free to rise towards God in its assent to the divine logos.

Likewise, the all-powerful, but wicked man is not truly free because he is enslaved to his bodily desires. Thus no matter how much earthly power he accrues, he can never be spiritually free as his soul remains firmly under the control of his body, with all the needs that can never fully be satisfied.

The bodies of irrational animals are bent toward the ground, whereas man was made to walk erect with his eyes on heaven, as though to remind him to keep his thoughts on things above.

We may be incorrigibly sinful, according to Augustine, but we still have our dignity as God's creatures, God's rational creatures, to be more precise. By the time he came to write The City of God Augustine had long since abandoned his previous commitment to Manichaeism, which among...

(This entire section contains 700 words.)

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other things held that matter was intrinsically evil, the prime example of which was the human body.

Though fallen, though still needing to live in a deeply sinful world, man can still keep his eyes firmly fixed on the spiritual horizon, on the heavenly kingdom, the City of God itself. Man may have to live in the Earthly City, the City of Man, but he doesn't have to remain fixed to the ground like non-rational animals. Unique in God's creation he is a spiritual being, and can rise above his earthly surroundings by turning his soul towards the Christian God.