Tuesday, March 2, 2010

Josh's Reflection on the "City of G-d" by St. Augustine

Augustine writes of “two cities” in the “City of God.” Discuss the two cities, what motivates and underlies them, to what ends they are oriented, and the relationship between the two. Can a person truly be simultaneously a citizen of both cities, or does Augustine force one to choose between them?


The two cities are motivated by love; however the love that allows one to ascend to the City of G-d is the antithesis of what motivates a human being in the earthly city as:

The two cities, therefore, were created by two loves: the earthly city

by love of oneself, even to the point of contempt for G-d; the heavenly

  city by the love of G-d, even to the point of contempt of oneself

(Political Writings, Pg. 108)

 The City of G-d is the love of everything, a selfless, unconditional love. Conditions cannot be made in order to create this love as conditional love involves not accepting all the features that make the person, and since we are all made in the image of G-d, we are denying G-d by not tolerating all the imperfections of the person. To love G-d is to love everything in the world, and by loving everything one understands the beauty of everything even “to the point of contempt of oneself”. That is the state where one hates their own persona for being imperfect in comparison to the ‘true’ beauty or perfection that is contained in the world.

The earthly city pales in comparison with the City of G-d as it is feeds upon the carnal desires of the individual. To only have “love of oneself” is to disregard the beauty of other people because one only sees the importance of themselves and everything else, in comparison, seems vapid. Furthermore, “contempt of G-d” in the earthly city is placing a higher precedence for one owns life. This disregards the value of everything in the world because G-d did not only create the individual, but everything in the world equally. If one only sees the brilliance of oneself and does not accept the beauty of the world then that person will see himself as faultless in the world, “it is dominated by pride, exalted in themselves in their own wisdom” (Political Writings, Pg.109).

To reach the City of G-d one must become a G-d, and as we are created in his image, we all have the potential to become G-ds, “a human being who lives according to G-d and not according to man should be a lover of good and, consequently, a hater of evil” (Political Writings, Pg. 97). However, reaching the City of G-d involves doing what is considered ‘good’ in the world, which Augustine never clearly states, but he recognizes it involves being a humble person as “humility is especially recommended in the City of G-d as it journeys in this world” (Political Writings, 101).

Without being a humble person, one only practices self-love because being humble is to understand that one cannot possibly be the best. One cannot possibly know the abilities of another or all the human beings that exist on our mortal plane, therefore, being humble involve understanding how there are different truths, making it impossible to be right. It is as Plato describes in his allegory of the caves in regard to pride. The people bonded in the cave were given prizes for guessing the shadows correctly; however, the forms were still shadows, not the reality or truth. Therefore, the people in the caves were proud based on their perception of reality, a reality that, when emancipated from the caves, was in fact a shadow of the truth. 

Physical beauty motivates the earthly city; however, even though it is created by G-d, beauty does not last forever as it is only a corporeal feeling that feeds one’s temptations and desires. “The beauty of the body, then, was indeed made by G-d, but it is a temporal, carnal, and lower good” (Political Writings, pg. 114).  The desire and sole appreciation of beauty will never cause one to live in the City of G-d because beauty is ephemeral, whereas, the spiritual beauty one finds in the City of G-d is something that is everlasting and permanent, not susceptible to the changes of time. Moreover, if one only appreciates someone’s physical beauty, then that is practicing self-love as it feeds ones temporal desires. Without being able to see that everyone is beautiful, in spirit and soul, one does not believe everyone to be equal, and in the city of G-d, everyone is equal independent of the differences in their body.

Aristotle states that “every beginning is directed to some end of its kind” (Political Writings, 156). This illustrates how our life, and human life, is directed towards either a state of destruction, as Aristotle states that the destruction of the earthly city is inevitable, or a state of complete equality and understanding through the ascension to the City of G-d. “Its princes and the nations that it subjugates is dominated by the lust to dominate; in the second, all mutually serve on another in charity” (Political Writings, pg.109).  In the City of G-d, everyone lives to help each other because of their selfless love. No one lives for themselves or is in a state of “love of oneself” as they want every to help the City for the benefit of public good. This symbolizes that everyone in the city of G-d is equal because a desire to dominate comes from pride, and only in the earthly city does pride exist.

In the earthly city, domination of a fellow human being is acceptable, allowing for a human being to treat the other person unequally. Furthermore, to dominate a fellow human being means that one sees himself as better than the fellow individual, and because he sees himself as a better individual, the “princes and nations” justifies their domination as being for the good of mankind. However, if everyone viewed each other as equals, as in the City of G-d, then the world would not require domination by anyone as no person or state would feel superior to their fellow man.

Augustine recognizes that there must be finality in relation to good and evil in the world as an ascension to the City of G-d requires an understanding of the world in which evil ceases to exist.

The final good not that through which good is destroyed, and so ceases to exist,

  but that through which it is perfected, and so exists fully; and we call the “final

  evil” not that through which evil ceases to be, but that through which it produces

  its greatest harm (Political Writings, Pg. 141)

The “final good”, the ascension to the City of G-d, is where the understanding of good is incontrovertible. Once we understand the “final good”, we as human beings will become emancipated from the chains of doubt and fear that transpire because of the carnal temptations offered by evil that obscure one’s belief in “good”. Moreover, if one’s actions are based upon an unconditional good, then, it is also unconditional love as one only desires to do the action of “good” for the sake of “serving on another in charity”. The “final evil”, or a complete degradation towards the earthly city, involves the world ceasing to exist as it will be “condemned to final punishment, it will cease to be a city” (Political Writings, Pg. 112).

             The two cities are intertwined, and in this life time, in our mortal plain, we can never truly reach the heavenly city; however if we live by ‘faith’ in its existence and a desire to try and achieve its morals then it will bring us peace until death.

         The heavenly city, however, or rather the part of it which journeys in this

  mortal life and lives by faith, necessarily uses this peace, too, until the

very mortality which makes such a peace necessary might pass away

(Political Writings, Pg. 156)

The City of G-d is not in place in our world; it is a state of mind where we accept the ethical principles that are taught by G-d. Understanding that we as human beings were created by G-d in his image, and, therefore, when we live our life in the mortal plain, we must adhere to the ‘higher’ principles of being humble and have a desire to do “good”. Living by these principles will allow the heavenly city to become alive in the mind and soul of an individual.  Rising to the City of G-d is only possible in our minds and soul on our earthly plain.

            The two cities are affiliated with each other because of G-d’s gift to humans, free choice. We, as human beings, have the ability to be good or allow evil to exist within our bodies and mind. “He did not take this power of free choice from them, but judged it to be better and more efficacious to bring good out of evil than to refuse to allow evils to exist" (Political Writings, Pg. 184). G-d could have created the world void of evil, but the real test that human beings have to go through is to remove our soul of carnal desires, evil, that the earthly city offers. Instead, we must take our freedom of choice to choose between good and evil. We must see the City of G-d within our world and try to bring it forth from the evils that human beings are susceptible to desire.

            The two cities amalgamate in our world to create human life, the struggle between what one considers good and the temptations that are offered by evil. Moreover, the realization of our “free choice” will emancipate us from the fears and insecurities that is apparent in our world because it is a test of our real character. Whether we are meant to be evil and live temporarily, until its or our destruction, in the earthly city or fight our carnal desires to mentally live in the City of G-d. However, living only to please ones lascivious desires is potentially a lonely life because it will cause people not to desire being around you as your concern will only be about “self-love” and increasing one’s pride, unconcerned about the extraneous world.

            While few will ever truly achieve a City of G-d state of mind, everyone has to live in the earthly city.   Therefore, a person can simultaneously be citizens of both cities as the earthly city is the world that surrounds us, and living, spiritually, in the City of G-d is to be void of carnal desires and thoughts.  On earth, we can still practice the basic teachings, that Augustine states, of G-d: humility, selfless love, and a desire to better one’s community. We aspire to the City of G-d while living on the earthly plain. 

Joshua S. Leslie


Anonymous said...

nice post. thanks.

Keith D. Leslie said...

you're welcome! i enjoy reading my sons' papers at university. it feels good to learn more about the world around us. best, kdl