Augustine of Hippo
St. Augustine (354-430 CE) was one of the church fathers, the group of men who developed the theology that provided the intellectual and organizational foundation for the Roman Catholic church and for medieval Christianity. The structure that they created lasted for 900 years until it was eventually challenged by people such as Martin Luther and other leaders of the Protestant Reformation. Augustine himself is often considered to be the most important Christian theologian after Paul of Tarsus. His work still provides the basis of church thought, tradition and practice.
He served as Bishop of the City of Hippo in north Africa. The map shows the location of the town of Hippo. It is now Annaba, Algeria. (Augustine died in the year 430 during the successful siege of Hippo by the Vandals.)
Augustine was a profligate writer — in this post we will look very briefly at just three of the books that we wrote: City of God, De Mendacio (On Lying) and Confessions. The message in each of these books is pertinent to our times because Augustine was living in a time of political and economic decline. His writings try to explain the significance of what is going on and how we can respond.
The City of God
During Augustine’s lifetime the Roman Empire, particularly in the west, was gradually disintegrating and losing its central authority. This decline was vividly demonstrated by the sack of the City of Rome in the year 410 CE. This event was traumatic — it is comparable to the 9/11 attacks that took place in the year 2001. Another of the church fathers, St. Jerome, said of the event, "the city which had taken the whole world was itself taken."
Many Roman citizens blamed the catastrophe on Christians and on the abandonment of Roman values, including worship of the pagan gods. In the City of God, Augustine not only challenged this point of view, he maintained that Rome’s fall resulted from internal moral decay and from failure to follow the teachings of the Christian faith. Indeed, he maintained that the Christian faith helped maintain traditional values such as frugality and purity at a time when the traditional Romans were no longer doing so..
Augustine's understood that all human organizations eventually decline and fail. For example, the Hebrew Bible (Old Testament) is full of failed states such as Babylon, Assyria and Ancient Egypt. This is not just a biblical phenomenon, of course. Many states that Augustine could never have known about, such as the Maya in central America and Angor Wat in present-day Cambodia, are all gone. In modern times the French, Spanish and British Empires have disappeared, although none of these countries has actually collapsed.
Most failed states have left little in the way of written records, particularly about the period of their decline, so we are forced to conjecture as to what happened. It appears as if climate change was a factor in many cases — particularly drought conditions leading to the failure of staple crops. Another factor that seems to be prevalent is deforestation. Both of these factors — drought and deforestation — are major contributors to climate change in our times.
The Babylonian Gardens: Then and Now
If all human organizations are subject to decline and decay then what, Augustine asked, is permanent? His response was that it is only the City of God, as described in the scriptures, that is permanent. Therefore, rather than worrying about preventing the collapse of temporal institutions we should focus on understanding the nature — the constitution — of the City of God, the New Jerusalem of the book of Revelation.
Augustine and the theologians who followed him not only wanted to understand the nature of the City of God, they also wanted to know how we can make the City of Man, the imperfect world in which we live now, more like the celestial city. He said that a perfect city can only be built by those who are possessed with the holy spirit.
Rome has collapsed and your hearts are outraged by this. Rome was built by men like yourself. Since when did you believe that men had the power to build things that are eternal? Your souls, filled with the light of the Holy Spirit, will not perish.
Augustine’s insights apply to our own time. Our own “City of Man” — the political, economic and social organizations that we have developed — are not working as well as they once did and are in decline. Climate change is merely one symptom of deeper dilemmas. Many, many books have been written explaining why the Roman Empire declined, and doubtless whole libraries of books will be written in the coming centuries to explain the decline of our industrial society. But the lesson that the church fathers provide is that we should not worry too much about our failing institutions. We should instead develop a vision of a better, heavenly world for which we can strive.
We cannot use Augustine’s masterpiece directly to help us guide our society because our world is so different from his. In particular, we are living with the consequences of 300 years of industrialization based on our irreversible consumption of fossil fuels, not a situation to which he could relate. Nevertheless, the idea of a City of God is still relevant. We need an ideal to aim for. It is not enough just to criticize the world in which we live, we also need to have a vision as to what we want the world to look like. Augustine and the early church fathers developed what became known as scholastic theology; we need to create an an eco-theology.
Another of Augustine’s works that is pertinent to our times is the booklet De Mendacio — On Lying. In it he says,
. . . every lie is a sin, albeit there is a great difference depending on the intention and the topic of the lie.
“Every lie is a sin”. Augustine insisted that we tell the truth at all times. He did not even recognize the validity of what we call white lies (although he did accept that some lies were more sinful than others). But to tell a lie was always wrong. For him truthfulness was a basis of his Christian faith. (He did, however, accept the actions of the Hebrew midwives who saved the infants from being killed as told in Exodus 1.)
It seems as if Augustine is being unduly harsh and strict. In his blog post Empire of Lies Ugo Bardi suggests a reason for Augustine’s strictness (Bardi 2016). The people of the Roman Empire were living in an atmosphere of extensive official propaganda during a time of decline. They knew that they were being lied to so they became cynical.
By the time of Augustine, the Roman Empire had become an Empire of lies. It still pretended to uphold the rule of law, to protect the people from the Barbarian invaders, to maintain the social order. But all that had become a bad joke for the citizens of an empire by then reduced to nothing more than a giant military machine dedicated to oppressing the poor in order to maintain the privilege of the few. The Empire itself had become a lie: that it existed because of the favor of the Gods who rewarded the Romans because of their moral virtues. Nobody could believe in that anymore: it was the breakdown of the very fabric of society; the loss of what the ancient called the auctoritas, the trust that citizens had toward their leaders and the institutions of their state.
If telling the truth was a problem in Augustine’s time was a problem the issue is far more severe in our world. We are inundated with factoids, truthiness, fake news and “misinformation”. It is this insight and teaching of Augustine that provides the basis for the idea of ‘Understand the Tell the Truth’ that forms a foundation of this site.
A question that threads through many of the discussions to do with climate change and other related issues is whether we should work “top-down” or “bottom-up”. If an individual or group of people wants to rectify the course that we are on, do they work on improving their own lives or do they try and change the structures that govern us and direct our lives?
People in the first group adhere to the advice (and life style) of Mahatma Gandhi when he said,
Be the change you want to see in the world.
These people focus on self-sufficiency activities such as growing their own food. They are also critical of environmental activists who fly around the world in order to attend meetings in pricey hotels. They believe that such activities are hypocritical. People in this group stress the importance of personal integrity, regardless of their religious belief, as we saw in the comments made by Chris Martenson to do with integrity.
Those in the “top-down” group respond by saying that individual actions are not going to change the trajectory we are on. If we are to drastically reduce CO2 emissions, for example, then a fundamental restructuring of our industrial and social systems is called for.
In the City of God Augustine responds by avoiding this direct binary choice. Instead, he says, we should work on our spiritual lives. Doing so will not only improve our own lives, it will also make society as a whole more spiritual and more responsive to the crises that we face.
We start this process by telling the truth about ourselves. . This is the first step in addressing the lies told by society at large. This is why he wrote Confessions. It is not an autobiography in the modern sense of providing a description of his life. He was not trying to create a best-selling tabloid for 5th century supermarkets. In the book he describes his own faults, weaknesses and failings. In so doing he shows that telling the truth starts with telling the truth about oneself.
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. This means moving away from love of self and moving toward love of God and building a heavenly city here on earth. Good Christians are, by definition, good citizens.