Reflections from the City of God: On Excellence in the Two Cities

Excudent alii spirantia mollius aera,                                                                              (credo equidem), vivos ducent de marmore voltus;                                            orabunt causas melius, caelique meatus                                                              describent radio et surgentia sidera dicent:

tu regere imperio populous, Romane, memento                                                           (hae tibi erunt artes) pacique imponere morem,                                                       parcere subiectis et debellare superbos.

When I was a kid, these lines were an ending of sorts. We read them in 11th Publius Vergilius Marograde Latin, at year’s end, and they represented the culmination of the first half of the Aeneid. True, several of us continued on to read Books 7-12 in our senior year, but the second half is something of a long walk down the hill (and I always had a soft spot for Turnus and couldn’t get too excited about his defeat). It’s this section of Book VI (lines 847-853)–in which the ghost of father Anchises discloses to Aeneas what the special arts and excellences of the Roman are to be–that was the peak moment. It was satisfying to us not only as an explanation for all of the trouble that the hero of the story seemed to be taking and enduring but also as an inspiring affirmation of political virtue and the excellence of civic governance writ large: to impose the habit of peace, to spare (or, one might say, to tolerate) the subjugated, and to tame the proud!

It is really quite unnecessary to study “politics” as a discrete subject in high school, or even in college, since the study of abstract political ideologies is often simply a truncated version of the study of the political tradition and heritage of a particular society. And if you want to learn about the “political theory” of an empire that continued to think itself deeply committed to its republican past, you can find it all in Vergil. Other people, he says, might make pretty arts and crafts, but this is what you want from your politics.

These lines came back to me as I read some of the Preface of Book I of the AugustineCity of God, in which Augustine notes the obstacles that he faces in laying out the aim of the work.

For I am aware what ability is requisite to persuade the proud how great is the virtue of humility, which raises us, not by a quite human arrogance, but by a divine grace, above all earthly dignities that totter on this shifting scene. For the King and Founder of this city of which we speak, has in Scripture uttered to His people a dictum of the divine law in these words: “God resisteth the proud but giveth grace unto the humble.” But this, which is God’s prerogative, the inflated ambition of a proud spirit also affects, and dearly loves that this be numbered among its attributes, to “Show pity to the humbled soul,/ And crush the sons of pride.” And therefore, as the plan of this work we have undertaken requires, and as the occasion offers, we must speak also of the earthly city, which, though it be mistress of the nations, is itself ruled by its lust of rule.

Book I is, in fact, loaded with Vergil; Vergil’s poetry itself illustrates the excellence of the City of Man. Later in Book I, it is almost as if Augustine is speaking to the hundreds upon hundreds of generations of young Latin students to come: “There is Vergil, who is read by boys, in order that this great poet, this most famous and approved of all poets, may impregnate their virgin minds, and may not readily be forgotten by them,” after which he proceeds to engage in some close textual reading and interlocution of Vergil. All of this, of course, is meant to counter the claims of those who argued that the Romans got what was coming to them by abandoning the Roman gods and embracing Christ. And as for “parcere subiectis,” Augustine argues that, in fact, the Romans did no such thing. To the contrary: “[A]mong so many and great cities which they have stormed, taken, and overthrown for the extension of their dominion, let us be told what temples they were accustomed to exempt, so that whoever took refuge in them was free.” I.6. In this book, then, Augustine punctures the Vergilian rhetoric of the Augustan age extremely effectively–“[a]ll the spoiling, then, which Rome was exposed to in the recent calamity–all the slaughter, plundering, burning, and misery–was the result of the [Roman] custom of war.” I.7. What was novel, and what showed itself in the comparatively gentle behavior of the barbarians, was truly to spare the subjugated who (whether godly or not, whether deserving–by man’s lights–or not) sought sanctuary in the Christian “temples.”

As the eminent Augustine scholar R.A. Markus puts in his magisterial volume, Saeculum: History and Society in the Theology of St. Augustine:

In Augustine’s mature view the radical vice of Greek philosophy as of Roman political ideology was the belief in the possibility…of perfection through the polis or the civitas. ‘God resists the proud, but to the humble He giveth grace’: the scriptural sentence quoted at the opening of the City of God was to Augustine’s mind the most fundamental comment on classical pretensions to human self-determination, as expressed in Vergil’s line, quoted in dramatic juxtaposition, on the historic mission of Rome….Here is Augustine’s final answer to the illusion of a teleiosis through rational and human means; and it is the more poignant for being a repudiation of a heritage which, as we have seen, had some power over his mind in his youth. (84)

And not only over Augustine’s mind!! The political program, and the power, of Rome is beguiling and attractive indeed. It holds enduring appeal to young people–as it did for me and my friends in high school. There are, I suppose, several reasons that one reads Vergil rather than Augustine in high school. But one of them, perhaps the most important, is that the excellence of the City of Man is so easy and approachable (as texts millennia old go), while the excellence of the City of God is so distant and so difficult. The excellence of humility is so much harder to appreciate and embrace than the excellence of dominion–especially, it seems to me, for the young. The excellence of the City of God holds little of the immediate and prepossessing appeal of the splendors of Rome.

But perhaps a little Augustine in the relatively early educational years, as a counterpoint to Vergil, might cast politics in a mellower light for the rising generations.

Leave a Reply

%d bloggers like this: