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5. Augustine |
Rome might be gone, but here was a city destined for eternity

Augustine is drawn from Chapter Five, beginning on page 145, of Volume Four, Darkness Descends of the twelve-volume historical series The Christians: Their First Two Thousand Years. If you would like to order this book please visit

As the world seemed to crumble all around them, Christians asked: Can anything be permanent? Then Augustine showed them the City of God

Augustine - Rome might be gone, but here was a city destined for eternity

Augustine - Rome might be gone, but here was a city destined for eternity
Augustine on the use of God’s gifts
The good things that you love are all from God, but they are good and sweet only as long as they are used to do his will. They will rightly turn bitter if God is spurned and the things that come from him are wrongly loved.

As the shocking accounts of Rome’s fate at the hands of Alaric spread throughout the empire in the year 410, Christians asked themselves a new question. For nearly three hundred years they had suffered the awful power of Rome murderously intent on erasing their faith. Now, less than a century after Rome began offering support and comfort instead of torture, slavery and death, the very city they had converted was plundered by barbarians. Was Christianity somehow to blame?

The remaining pagans raised that very question. Wasn’t it clear, they asked, that this calamity was entirely the Christians’ fault? Hadn’t those unrepentant worshipers of Jesus blasphemed the very gods, denouncing and often destroying the images of the ancient deities who kept Rome powerful and secure for so long? Was it mere coincidence that Rome had been conquered, for the first time in eight hundred years, at the very moment in its history when its emperors were giving themselves over to the insane beliefs of the Christians?

And did not the Christians themselves admit that their faith was centered, not on Rome or its ancient gods, but on something no one could really see or touch? Did not Christians teach their children and their converts to reject the world? That surely meant rejecting Rome. Could there be any doubt, the pagans asked, that such teachings had led inevitably to the decay and destruction that surrounded them?

One pagan insistently asking such questions was a young nobleman named Volusianus. Although his mother and other women in his family had taken up Christianity, he resolutely resisted it. Articulate and thoughtful, Volusianus put his questions not scornfully, but politely; he was deeply curious about these beliefs that were spreading so rapidly and with such consequence.

One whom Volusianus questioned was a Christian layman, Flavius Marcellinus. Could anyone doubt, Volusianus asked him, that the rejection of the pagan gods had brought about the fall of Rome and other calamities? Unable to assemble an argument that would satisfy the insistent Volusianus, Marcellinus spelled out the pagan case in a letter he sent in 412 to Hippo, a seaport in North Africa, asking for the bishop’s help.

The bishop’s name was Augustine. He had corresponded previously with both men about Christianity, and now he wrote another letter to Marcellinus, answering these new charges briefly, but with great conviction. The fall of Rome did not begin when it embraced Christianity, said Augustine. It began well before the coming of Christ, when the Roman historian Sallust (86—34 b.c.) had observed that “the army of the Roman people began to be wanton and drunken; to set a high value on statues, paintings and embossed vases, and to take these by violence both from individuals and the state, to rob temples and pollute everything, sacred and profane. . . . The famous honor and safety of the [Roman] commonwealth began to decline.”

Whatever his pessimism as regards Rome’s fate, Augustine had nevertheless been deeply affected by the fall of the city. He hoped, writes historian Peter Brown (Augustine of Hippo: A Biography, London, 1967), that Marcellinus would circulate his letter in the literary circles frequented by pagan intellectuals. Marcellinus, however, wrote back and asked the bishop to provide something deeper and more far-reaching, because nothing less than a full and complete discourse, a “splendid solution,” would refute Christianity’s opponents.

“Fired with a zeal for God’s house, I determined to write against their blasphemies and errors,” Augustine later explained. The book he composed over the next fourteen years would become more than simply a Christian classic. It would act as a light to guide the faithful through the dark age now engulfing them. Fifth-century Christians in the thousands, trudging into slavery, sick and starving, loved ones forever vanished, homes burned, farms gone, villages, towns and whole cities in ruins, death and destruction everywhere around them, found themselves facing something akin to the end of the world. Where was God? It was to them that Augustine directed an unshakable answer.

The city of Rome, he said, like all cities at all times, would one day pass away. Christians must expect this. At heart, they did not really belong to Rome or to its empire, or to any empire. Like Abraham, “they looked for a city which hath sure foundations, whose builder and maker is God” (Heb. 11:10). This provided the name for Augustine’s book: The City of God. Empires, societies, cultures, lifestyles, fads, and fashions would come and go, he said, but the City of God would stand immovable, the city on the hill that Jesus had described (Matt. 5:14). That city, and nowhere else, is every Christian’s true home.

Martin Luther’s great hymn, written in German during another era of cataclysmic change eleven hundred years later, put the same message into verse. The fourth stanza of Ein’ Feste Burg (a mighty fortress or fortified city) translates:

God’s Word, for all their craft and force,

One moment shall not linger,

But, spite of hell, shall have its course;

’Tis written by his finger.

And though they take our life,

Goods, honor, children, wife;

Yet is their profit small;

These things shall vanish all;

The City of God remaineth.1

“The tone and ethos of The City of God is the ethos of the church and of the true Christian to this day,” writes the Jesuit scholar Joseph Rickaby (St. Augustine’s City of God, New York, 1925). “In that sense The City of God is an immortal work.” To British historian Marthinus Versfeld (A Guide to the City of God, London, 1967), Augustine was “one of the great bridges between classical antiquity and the modern world,” who “brought together what was living in the intellectual and spiritual life of his time in a synthesis which did an incalculable amount to shape the minds and institutions of the subsequent centuries.”

Augustine was born in 354 in Tagaste, North Africa (now Souk-Ahras, Algeria)–far from the heart of the Roman Empire. He was the eldest of three children. Second came his brother Navigius; his sister Perpetua was the youngest. Their father, Patricius, was a pagan country squire whose landholdings were extremely modest; his mother, Monica, was a devoted Christian who attempted, with some initial success, to raise the bright and energetic Augustine in her faith. During a serious illness, the child asked to be baptized, but he recovered quickly, and the baptism was postponed, not to be accomplished until his profound conversion as an adult, years later.

His nimble wit and outgoing nature led Augustine’s parents to arrange for his education at Madaura, an old Numidian town that was a Roman colony. Despite his broad studies of grammar, rhetoric and classical literature (including what we would now call history and a bit of philosophy), he flatly refused to learn Greek, finding word-by-word memorization, the approved method of the time, tedious and boring. His failure to learn Greek “was a momentous casualty of the late Roman educational system,” historian Brown asserts, and the result was that Augustine became “the only Latin philosopher in antiquity to be virtually ignorant of Greek.”

Still, as Patricius and Monica had expected, Augustine was a success as a scholar. His proud father decided to send him off to Carthage for advanced study. Clearly gifted, he won a prize at school for an oration and seemed well on his way to becoming a lawyer, as his family and a supportive patron wished. Getting the additional money together for higher education, however, took his parents the better part of a year, and Augustine spent that empty interval back at home in Tagaste, unchallenged, increasingly wallowing in idleness and pleasure-seeking. He was a small-town boy, barely seventeen in 371 when the money issue was finally settled and he set out for Carthage, the great city on the Bay of Tunis. Its big-city fare–theaters, nightlife, women, intelligent conversation–utterly seduced him, adding to the erosion of his spirit that his wasted year had begun. Once settled at Carthage, he entered upon a career as a schoolmaster and professor.

“I came to Carthage,” he later wrote, “where a cauldron of unholy loves was seething and bubbling all around me. . . . I was looking for something to love, for I was in love with loving, and I hated security and a smooth way, free from snares.” Before long he had set up housekeeping with a young woman, and in 372, the unmarried couple had, unplanned, a son. They named the boy Adeodatus.

Augustine’s relationship with the woman, whose name never appears in any of his writings and remains unknown, lasted fifteen years. Though they never married, their union was legal and respectable under Roman law; she was his concubine, and such arrangements were recognized at that time, even by the church. Moreover, Augustine writes that far from being promiscuous, he was completely faithful to her during their years together, although he describes their relationship as “the compact of a lustful love.” His mother, Monica, had warned him of the difficulties he could get into with women, and later in life he writes that it would have been better for him if his parents had arranged an early marriage, to “blunt the thorns” of his sexual appetite.2

He was captivated by his reading of Cicero, Rome’s greatest orator; it sent him on the search for wisdom. “I was inflamed to love, to seek, to obtain, to hold, and to embrace, not this or that sect, but wisdom itself, wherever it might be.” But, he would write later, his early exposure to Christianity put a distance between him and his pagan studies. “The name of Christ was not in it. . . . And whatsoever was lacking that name, no matter how erudite, polished, and truthful, did not quite take complete hold of me.” He continued to attend vigils and other services of the church.

Still, when he tried to dig deeper into Christianity, he was put off by the crude Latin translations of the Christian Scriptures then available. He also found the Old Testament disturbing, with its emphasis on obedience to the Divine Law and with its stories that were, at face value anyway, of puzzling morality. “Are those patriarchs to be esteemed righteous who had many wives at one time, and who killed men and who sacrificed living creatures?” he asked.

This seemed a reasonable line of questioning when he heard it posed by a man who was a missionary for what appeared to be a new Christianity. It was called Manichaeanism, and there were a number of its missionaries in Carthage, engaging in public debates and delivering well-ordered discourses. “And so it was,” Augustine later wrote, “that I was subtly persuaded to agree with these foolish deceivers when they put their questions to me: ‘Whence comes evil?’ and, ‘Is God limited by a bodily shape, and has he hairs and nails?’” The Scriptures were largely in error, said the Manichaeans, who taught that the problem of the existence of evil could be understood by seeing life as a primal conflict of two principles, light (or spirituality) and darkness.

The Manichaeans were named after Mani, a charismatic third-century Persian who had been executed by his government after receiving what he described as a divine revelation. Good and evil were separate realms, Mani said. When the realm of evil was attracted to the realm of good, a conflict ensued. The good God sacrificed some of his realm, letting it be absorbed by the evil world, and from this mixture came the world of material things, with Satan its champion. Human beings, material in composition, but also possessing a spiritual nature, were pulled from both sides.

All man’s problems, according to the Manichaeans, resulted from the enlightened human spirit’s enforced cohabitation with evil matter. However, man did not sin on his own. He could suffer misfortune, but he need not feel guilty about things over which he had no control. As for Jesus, he was important because he represented the ideal spirit of wisdom and illumination. He was not God, but he brought enlightenment to those who failed to realize that their souls were divine, and he could sort out each person’s personal share of the light. In the end, the Manichaeans declared, this dualism of light and dark would resolve itself, with each purged of any trace of the other.

Augustine decided he had found in the Manichaeans what he had been looking for: a solid, defensible doctrine, neatly knitting together the observable facts of science and the soaring tenets of philosophy. With his friend Honoratus he joined them, embracing their beliefs with his usual enthusiasm and devoting nine years of his life to the sect.

Historian Brown attributes this Manichaean venture to Augustine’s deficiency in Greek, which left him “pathetically ill-equipped” to contend with the philosophical questions the Manichaeans posed. Augustine would later attempt his own explanation. “I was seeking after you,” he confessed to God, “but not according to the understanding of the mind, only by the guidance of my physical senses.”

While he thought he was moving toward truth, he was in fact retreating from it, he says, and he soon found himself believing and preaching the ridiculous–for instance, “that a fig tree wept when it was plucked, and that the sap of the mother tree was tears.” If some Manichaean saint ate the figs, his sighs would send forth particles of God that would have otherwise remained bound in the fig. “Wretch that I was, I believed that God showed more mercy to the fruits of the earth than to men, for whom these fruits were created.” In his zeal, he ignored such absurdities out of misplaced hope; he deeply wanted to have found the truth. He became a highly successful evangelist for the Manichaeans, winning numerous bright young men as converts, proselytizing many of his friends and the pupils to whom he was supposed to teach grammar.

Eventually, his Manichaeanism began to wear thin. Though the Manichaeans insisted they held the compelling, rational explanation for things, he found their leaders at Carthage unable to contend with his increasingly troublesome questions. Eagerly, he awaited the arrival of one Faustus of Mileve, a noted Manichaean bishop who was reputedly able to answer any and all questions about the sect’s beliefs. But Faustus failed him. The bishop’s reasoning and logic, Augustine quickly realized, were fundamentally flawed, and he offered none of the insights that had been promised by the Manichaeans. With that, Augustine rejected them.

Meanwhile, his widowed mother, Monica, clung to the promise she received in a dream, that Augustine would abandon his wanton ways and return to her faith. She prayed without ceasing for his salvation. Her son writes:

Nearly nine years passed in which I wallowed in the mud of that deep pit and in the darkness of falsehood, striving often to rise, but being all the more heavily dashed down. But all that time this chaste, pious, and sober widow–such as you [God] love–was now more buoyed up with hope, though no less zealous in her weeping and mourning; and she did not cease to bewail my case before you, in all the hours of her supplication. Her prayers entered your presence, and yet you allowed me still to tumble and toss around in that darkness.

In turmoil, Augustine set out in 383, at the age of twenty-nine, for Rome, where he spent a year made miserable by illness. After regaining his health, he opened a school, but his students repeatedly cheated him out of their tuition fees, and he gave up self-employment, accepting the position of professor of rhetoric for the city of Milan. A visit to Milan’s bishop, Ambrose, greatly impressed him–the man was both intelligent and kindly, and Augustine was soon listening attentively whenever Ambrose preached. Conscious of his career and knowing that Milan’s power structure was largely Christian, Augustine decided to become a catechumen of the church there.

It took him three more years to sort wheat from chaff, truth from fantasy. He spent some time with the “academics,” who as a matter of principle withheld judgment on most matters; then with “neo-Platonists,” whose books rekindled his hope that he could eventually find the truth. He wanted to dedicate his life to that search, abandoning everything else–not only wealth and recognition, but pleasure. He longed for celibacy, but was still buffeted by the one frailty that, he realized, prevented him from making a full commitment to God.

That factor was lust, but his real weakness lay in his inability, his lack of willpower, to overcome it. While his most influential book is The City of God, his most read book is his Confessions, a spiritual autobiography constructed as a prayer to God, relating his youthful errors, his dogged search for truth, and his dramatic conversion. In it appears a much-noted sentence, the prayer of his youth: “Give me chastity and continence, but not yet.” As a “wretched young man,” he writes, he had indeed feared that God would hear his prayer “and cure me too soon of my disease of lust, which I wanted satisfied, not extinguished.”

Even so, notes Northwestern University journalist-historian Garry Wills in his biography Saint Augustine (New York, 1999), the “very common view of Augustine [as] the great sinner, an ex-debauchee obsessed with sex,” does not fit the facts. The point has been made by others, but it is well stated by Wills: “People feel . . . that Augustine was a libertine before his conversion, and was so obsessed with sex after his conversion that they place many unnamed sins to his account–though his actual sexual activity was not shocking by any standards but those of a saint.”

Wills regards even the title “Confessions” as a misleading translation. It might better be rendered as “Testimony,” he writes: “Augustine was not confessing like an Al Capone. . . . [Augustine’s] favorite part of the Jewish Scriptures, the Psalms, says that man articulates the universal testimony to God. ‘Confess’ and ‘testify’ are used interchangeably (in the autobiography) for the witness that his believers must give the Lord.”

However lustful Augustine had been, he seems in no sense to have been ready to shift the blame for his conduct, as did the Manichaeans, onto other people or to factors beyond his control. They had said he need feel no guilt. Christianity placed the guilt squarely upon himself. And, he reflected, it was this sense of guilt that had caused him to behold the magnificence of Christ, his Deliverer. It turned even his guilt into a triumph. “O felix culpa,” he cried, “quae talem et tantum meruit redemptorem” (“O happy guilt, that did require such and so great a Redeemer”).3

It was in Milan that his ultimate confrontation with God took place. Monica, hoping to help him straighten out his life, went to him and urged him to marry. Yielding to his mother’s insistence, he became betrothed to the young heiress of a wealthy and respectable family. He reluctantly sent his mistress back to Africa, where she took a vow never to know any other man, perhaps in the course of becoming a nun. “My mistress was torn from my side as an impediment to my marriage, and my heart which clung to her was torn and wounded till it bled,” he writes. Because his intended bride was very young, he would have to wait two years for her. He found that idea impossible and quickly abandoned it, taking another mistress.

As Monica continued to pray for his salvation, he returned to reading the Bible. This time, he found that he understood what had seemed murky or arbitrary before. Ambrose’s sermons helped, especially those that led Augustine to a solid understanding of immaterial, spiritual reality. Later, Ambrose’s successor, the elderly priest Simplicianus, also helped shape Augustine’s thinking.

Then one day in August 386, Augustine’s life changed suddenly and completely. His account in his Confessions of what happened that day would become one of the best-known conversion stories in history.

As he chatted with a visitor to his home, his guest–a Christian named Ponticianus–noticed a copy of one of St. Paul’s books on a table and smiled in delight. Startled, Augustine felt at that moment that God “turned me toward myself.” For the first time, he saw clearly “how crooked and sordid, blotched and ulcerous” his life had become.

He fled from the house into the garden, “angry at myself with a turbulent indignation because I had not entered thy will and covenant, O my God,” but his old sins tugged at him, whispering: “Are you going to part with us? . . . Will we never be with you any more?”

Then, from the neighboring house, he heard a child chanting “Pick it up, read it; pick it up, read it.” He opened St. Paul’s book, which he had brought with him into the garden, and read: “. . . put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no provision for the flesh, to fulfill its lusts.” (Romans 13:14)

Instantly, he writes, “there was infused in my heart something like the light of full certainty and all the gloom of doubt vanished away. . . . Then we went in to my mother, and told her what happened . . . and she leaped for joy triumphant.”

Augustine was only in his early thirties when he experienced his dramatic and joyful conversion, but his health was poor. The nature of his illness remains unknown, but he had developed a weakness in his chest and voice that, for the present, made teaching impossible. He resigned his professorship, and in the company of his mother, his son, and a handful of friends, he traveled to a country estate that had been lent to them by one Verecundus, at Cassiciacum, near Lake Como in the Alpine foothills.

He had no thought of relaxing, however. Instead, he plunged into writing, turning out numerous books and papers celebrating his new “philosophy” or faith. At the tranquil country villa, there were also literary readings, philosophical conferences, and daily discussions on such topics as truth, certainty, happiness, the problem of evil, the soul and God. He had, in Brown’s phrase, “regained a sense of purpose.”

On or about Easter Day in 387, Augustine finally received, from Ambrose at Milan, the baptism that had been postponed since his childhood. He spent that spring and summer in Milan, writing. He and his mother, who resolved their remaining differences as they grew closer spiritually during those months, were visiting Christians in Ostia, near Rome, when she contracted a fever. Nine days later she died. She was fifty-six.

“I closed her eyes,” wrote Augustine, “and a great sadness flowed through my heart. . . .” At first he could not weep, but once he began, he could not stop. Adeodatus (her grandson) burst into tears as well. Then all fell silent. “For we did not consider it fitting to celebrate that death with tearful wails and groaning. . . . She neither died unhappy nor did she altogether die. For of this we were assured by the witness of her good life.” Moreover, she had seen her son turn to God after years of prayer.

Try as he might, however, he could not stop weeping. “There came back to me,” he tells God in the Confessions, “memories of your handmaid: her devout life toward you, her holy tenderness and attentiveness toward us, which had suddenly been taken away from me–and it was a solace for me to weep in your sight, for her and for myself, about her and about myself.”4

Augustine returned home to Tagaste, sold all his goods, and gave the money to the poor. With a group of friends who became known as servi Dei or servants (slaves) of God, he entered upon a life of poverty, prayer and religious study on his family’s property. He had no intention of becoming a priest, and he reportedly beat a hasty exit from more than one city when a priest or bishop was needed, and the recruit was likely to be conscripted rather than to volunteer.

However, on a mission to the ancient seaport of Hippo (modern-day Annabah, in Algeria), where an acquaintance was in deep spiritual anguish, Augustine was, as he would later write, “grabbed” as he prayed in a local church. A friendly and cheering mob demanded that Valerius, the bishop of Hippo, admit Augustine to the priesthood. Valerius, who was aging and needed some help, was altogether agreeable. Augustine finally yielded after fervid protests, and in 391 he was ordained.

He established a monastery at Hippo on church property provided by Valerius, and for the next five years ministered as a priest. Valerius overlooked the African rule that only a bishop could preach, allowing Augustine to address his congregations, especially on the dangers of heresy–particularly the heresy of Manichaeanism. At one memorable gathering in a public bathhouse, he spent two days debating with Fortunatus, a well-regarded Manichaean priest who had been his friend. So effective was Augustine’s argument that the devastated Fortunatus left town.

It was during this period that Augustine’s son, Adeodatus, died. Augustine was deeply grieved at the passing of this intelligent young man, who could escape with ease from the rhetorical traps that ensnared others who debated with Augustine.

In 396, the aging bishop Valerius persuaded his superiors at Carthage to consecrate Augustine to serve alongside him as bishop of Hippo and to succeed Valerius upon his death. (The senior bishop of Numidia, Megalius of Calama, had previously refused to consecrate Augustine a bishop, accusing him of being a secret Manichaean and of sending a love potion to a married woman.) Valerius soon died, and Augustine, forty-two years old, would remain bishop of Hippo for thirty-four years. He now founded a second monastery, this time in the residence he shared with his clergy, all of whom took an oath of religious poverty. That house became a seedbed for bishops, with as many as ten of its residents promoted to the episcopacy during Augustine’s time.

Meanwhile, Augustine conducted a sustained assault on current heresies. His public debate with Felix, one of the “elect” of the Manichaeans, left Felix so demolished that he renounced the sect and embraced Christianity.

In another struggle, Augustine pitted himself against the Donatists, who said that those who lapsed from the faith could never be fully readmitted, and that bishops and priests who yielded under persecution could never again administer the sacraments. (The Donatist controversy helped Augustine work out the idea that sacraments and their power do not depend upon the purity of a priest, but come from Christ, who acts in and through the priest. The church, he taught, inevitably contains both weeds and wheat; a weed such as a priest who is in a state of sin will be sorted out only at the Judgment.)

Augustine wrote and saw enacted tough governmental sanctions against the Donatists, then confronted their bishops in a conference at Carthage in 411, which proved to be a turning point in the Donatist movement. They were further overwhelmed in the Vandal attacks in northern Africa, and never regained their former strength.5

However, his next challenge proved far more formidable, remaining unresolved at his death. It began after the sack of Rome in 410, when a British monk named Pelagius, fleeing the barbarians, arrived in North Africa and began making his religious views known. Christians in the ensuing centuries would repeatedly condemn Pelagianism, beginning almost immediately with regional councils at Carthage in 412, 416 and 418. The Third Ecumenical Council of Ephesus in 431 also condemned the sect. (See sidebar, page 160.)

In 412, the letter from the Christian layman Flavius Marcellinus arrived with its plea for a defense against the pagan charge that Christianity had brought on the fall of the empire. Augustine’s response was The City of God. He “kindled the light of things eternal in human hearts no longer supported by temporal institutions which had seemed eternal but which were crashing on all sides,” writes historian Versfeld. “If we want to find the whole man in the widest scope of his interests and powers, we shall find him in The City of God. Here we find Augustine as theologian, as philosopher, as moralist, as political thinker, as interpreter of history, as literary and dramatic censor, as critic of his times, and as apologist.”

Etienne Gilson, historian of medieval philosophy, observes in his foreword to an English edition of The City of God (New York, 1950) that the book is not addressed merely to the people of the collapsing Roman Empire. Augustine offers all people in all ages the radical claim “that the whole world, from its beginning until its final term, has as its unique end the constitution of a holy society.” In preparation for this, everything has been made, even the universe itself. “Perhaps never in the history of human speculation,” says Gilson, “has the notion of society undergone a change comparable in depth, or provoked such an enlarged perspective in view of the change.”

The City of God consists of twenty-two books, the first three of which appeared in 413, just three years after Rome’s capture by the Goths. By the time the work was finished in 426, Augustine had only four years left to live.

Five books deal with those who worshiped the gods for felicity on earth, five with those who worshiped them for eternal felicity; the other twelve elaborate on what biographer Brown calls Augustine’s “great theme” of the Eternal City. Four deal with the origin of the two cities, one of God and the other of “the world,” four with their “unfolding course” in the past, and the remaining four with their ultimate destinies.

Augustine sees Rome as just one in a succession of earthly cities. Babylon, Nineveh, Jerusalem all had their days of glory, then fell. “The earthly city,” he writes, “though it be mistress of the nations, is itself ruled by its lust for rule. . . . It works good in the world, and rejoices in it with such joy as such things can afford. . . . But this city is often divided against itself by litigations, wars, quarrels, and such victories which are either life-destroying or short-lived.”

Such has always been the way of the world, Augustine concludes. However, “the things which the earthly city desires cannot justly be said to be evil. Its goal is good, for the city is in itself better than all other human good.” It desires peace, but the wars it must wage to attain it deprive it of the satisfactions which peace can bring.

“There are no more than two kinds of human society,” Augustine writes. “The one consists of those who wish to live after the flesh, the other of those who wish to live after the spirit.”

Thus, each person is pulled in two directions within his heart: upwards to light and life, downwards to darkness and death. Most people have one foot in both cities most of the time. The two cities have existed side by side throughout history, some humans struggling more to turn their faces toward the peace of God’s eternal city, while others turn toward the ultimately fatal attractions of the earthly city.

Those who strive for the City of God find that it extends beyond the very limits of the earth or world; it includes the world and explains even the very existence of the world. “Everything, that is, except God himself is for the City and has no meaning apart from the City.”

In describing the two cities, Augustine lays out an astonishingly diverse and non-racist view of humanity. In one remarkable passage, he raises the question of whether “certain monstrous races of men, spoken of in secular history, have sprung from Noah’s sons” and are therefore part of mankind. Are these capable of dwelling in the City of God? His answer is yes. Mankind includes all rational beings, even such as those of whom “it is reported that some have one eye in the middle of the forehead; some, feet turned backwards from the heel; some, a double sex, the right breast like a man, the left like a woman. . . .” If there are such beings, he says, they are included, because God first created one man, and all others are his descendants.

Although one city is characterized by the love of God, the other by self-love, Augustine does not propose that all those within the City of God are Christians, or that there are no Christians in the City of Man. Instead, there will be bad Christians among the citizens of the City of Man, and within the City of God there will be good men who lived before Christ or who never heard of him. What’s more, while he clearly views the City of God as superior, Augustine says its citizens should not force their beliefs or habits upon citizens of the City of Man.

“This was no transitory pamphlet for a simple audience,” says Brown. “It was a book which men of leisure, learned men, must be prepared to read again and again to appreciate.” In response to the pagan claims, Augustine compared the pressures of life after the sack of Rome to the working of an olive press, a process by which the whole of humanity was being disciplined–the punishment was for universal sin, not specifically that of the Romans. Addressing his arguments to pagan intellectuals, he said the Roman virtues they prized had been held only by an elite, and had no intrinsic virtue but reflected merely “an overweening love of praise.”

Augustine’s lifetime output as a writer was immense. Many place his great On the Trinity on a level with The City of God and the Confessions in significance. Besides these and his treatises against the Manichaeans, the Donatists, and the Pelagians, there were many other dissertations on Christian doctrine, along with commentaries on the Scriptures and countless letters.

He dictated, often into the early morning hours, to teams of stenographers. His stream of sermons (an estimated eight thousand), was taken down in shorthand, then reproduced by copyists. In his Retractations, a catalogue of his own work, he says that he wrote ninety-three books, though others say the number is higher. Some four hundred of his sermons still survive, along with three hundred letters.

As he worked on Retractations, dictating and putting his works in order, he was stricken with illness. After three months of increasing weakness and fever, he died on August 28, 430, at the age of seventy-six. He had spent his final days alone in his cell, at his own request, reading and rereading copies of penitential Psalms that he had posted on his walls.

The city of Hippo, attacked by Vandals, endured an eighteen-month siege before being evacuated a year after Augustine’s death. But the library of his works was preserved, and their influence on Christianity has continued, as they have been republished and studied century after century.

Before the fifth century ended, vast tracts of Europe would be reduced to ruin in succeeding waves of barbarian invasion. Then in the seventh, all of North Africa and much of the Middle East would fall to the armies of Islam and eventually cease to be Christian. In short, blow after blow was about to descend upon the faithful. But all of these reversals affected only the city of man. The Christian’s ultimate confidence lay in another city, a city with sure foundations, whose builder and maker was God.

This is the end of the Augustine category article drawn from Chapter Five, beginning on page 145, of Volume Four, Darkness Descends. To continue reading more about Augustine from The Christians, Their First Two Thousand Years we suggest experiencing the rest of the book, complete with hundreds of magnificent illustrations, by ordering it at