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Augustine of Hippo

Background
 

Early in the 5th century CE the western Roman Empire was slowly but inexorably disintegrating. One of the persons who witnessed this decline was Augustine (354-430 CE). He was bishop of Hippo — a town in north Africa. He recognized that all human organizations — Cities of Men — eventually fail and collapse (look at all the “failed states” in the Hebrew bible). He said that the only “state” that is permanent is the City of God. So he and other church fathers set themselves the task of understanding the nature of the City of God; and, in so doing, they developed a theology that matched the circumstances of their time.

 

This situation provides a background to three of his books — books that seem to be particularly relevant to the position we find ourselves in now. They are De Mendacio (On Lying), Confessions and The City of God.

The City of God

Augustine understood that all human organizations — ‘Cities of Men’ or ‘Cities of Sinners’ — eventually fail and disappear. He maintained that the only permanent city was the City of God. He and the other church fathers set themselves the task of understanding the constitution of that city — in other words, they developed a theology appropriate for their times.

 

The City of God is lengthy, is full of digressions and it covers many topics. The first part of the book consists of a defense of Christianity and its role in the decline of the western Empire. During his lifetime the City of Rome had been sacked and looted. Pagans blamed this defeat, and the general overall decline of the Roman Empire, on the Christian religion. Augustine aimed to show that this argument was incorrect. Indeed, he maintained that the Christian faith helped maintain traditional values such as frugality and purity.

 

Augustine saw humans (and angels) as having two loves. The first love is a love of God, the second is a love of the body, of ourselves. That has not changed. Hence, we can accept his core argument that, in order to save human society, we need to build a human society that aims to be divine. Good Christians are, by definition, good citizens.

When facing the predicaments to do with an Age of Limits we constantly face the question as to whether we should work top-down or bottom-up, i.e., should we change our personal lifestyle, or should we try to change the structure and goals of society as a whole. In the City of God Augustine has a slightly different response. He suggests that we should work both on our actions and on our spiritual lives. We should also aim to change society by making it more spiritual.

 

Based on this foundation, he and the other church fathers created the medieval church which had its own authority, and was distinct from civilian organizations. In other words, there was some separation of church and state. This may be a path forward for our society now.

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