Augustine was Christianity’s first great political thinker. His seminal work, The City of God (full title: De Civitate Dei contra Paganos = The City of God against the Pagans), as Greg Forster writes, is ”the first real masterpiece of Christian political thought. Its analysis of the nature of politics has been one of the most prominent influences in Christian thinking, particularly in the West, in every era from its publication down to the present day. It is probably the most important work of Christian political thought ever produced.”
In the book, Augustine contrasts the city of God (civitas Dei) with the city of the world (civitas terrena). The “city” metaphors refer to people groups or societies comprised of like-minded individuals. The two peoples are fundamentally distinguished by their two kinds of loves: “the earthly city was created by self-love reaching the point of contempt for God, the Heavenly City by the love of God carried as far as contempt of self” (14.28). The fallen, earthly community is led by the flesh; the redeemed, other-worldly people by the Spirit. The earthly city seeks its good only in the created world, while the heavenly city seeks its highest good in God. The earthly city has a singular citizenship, while the heavenly city has a dual citizenship.
The City of God must be read against the backdrop of the sacking of Rome, where critics argued that Rome fell after it embraced Christianity and lost the protection of the gods. Augustine argued that the pagan critics were defining goodness on the basis of the satisfaction of their own desires, rather than the true definition which sees that the ultimate good is found in God alone. Augustine shows that everything in history happens for good purposes, if goodness is rightly understood. He pointed to the pagan desire to return to the city of Rome, and argued that their desire was right but their destination was wrong. True happiness could only come in the heavenly Jerusalem, the City of God.
One of the reasons that Augustine’s work remains unread today is because of its length and digressions. In lieu of an abridged version, Michael Haykin of Southern Seminary offers a selective reading guide to the book, which I’ve included below for those who want to take up one of the great classics of the Christian tradition.
A Reading Plan for The City of God
When I have lectured on Augustine’s seminal work, The City of God, I have often mentioned a reading plan I have for the work. Here it is below. The number prior to the full stop refers to the book (there are twenty-two books in The City of God), and the numbers after the full stop refer to the chapters within the respective books.
1.1-36: why Augustine wrote The City of God
4.1-4: the nature of kingdoms without justice
11.1-4: the origin of the two cities, the city of God and the city of man
12.4-9: the origin of evil
13.1-24: man’s fall and sinfulness
14.1-28: the two cities
15.1-2: the two cities at the beginning of time
20.1-30: the end of the two cities
21.1-2: the eternality of the punishment of the wicked
22.8-9: an excursus on miracles
22.29-30: the beatific vision