Augustine’s Readable City: Beyond the Politics of Empire

C.C. Pecknold,
University of Cambridge

I. Towards a Postliberal Political Theology

There is a strong desire for unity in democracy. Think of the American flag after September 11 th . At the heart of the glorious American experiment is the desire to unite multiple faiths in the one, true democratic faith.I read this push for unity in diversity as an eschatological desire, that is to say, a theological one.

In contemporary debates, there is on the one hand Jeffrey Stout teaching us the virtues of democracy and democratic faith. And on the other, Stanley Hauerwas, who no longer seems set on thinking that democracy is a bad idea, but clearly believes that the Church has no fundamental stake in sustaining the liberal social orders. I find myself convinced that both are right, and yet remain unsure of how to navigate between Emersonian, Augustinian and Barthian responses in this debate. [1] That leaves me in a patient posture—but also an urgent one. We will stay with these problems of democracy, but we need to begin thinking them through in more deeply theological ways. I share the long-term view that the problems are only going to become more acute.

What are those problems? Contemporary democracy seems unwilling to do at least two things: (1) It seems unwilling to draw deeply from the wells of tradition, veiling a modern antagonism towards the past. And (2) it seems unable, but not necessarily unwilling, to deal with multiple sources. It is casual about multiplicity, and for reasons related to its eschatological desire for unity, unable to deal adequately with religious reasons that constitute and are constituted by multiple communities of faith.

Sheldon Wolin and the ‘radical democrats’ have been pointing us in some fruitful directions, encouraging us to attend to the grassroots, to the actual and multiple sources of our political culture. They have encouraged us to look towards the ‘micropolitical’ — or the small ways in which political judgements are shaped. [2]

This response to problems with contemporary democracy seems right to me, but perhaps not radical enough. Any ethnographic attentiveness to the communities of scriptural faith which make up the vast majority of the population should display that the authoritative sources are sacred scriptures and the traditions generated by them. The micropolitical that interests the radical democrats may be best displayed through an analysis of how political judgements are formed through small, interpretive acts in tradition shaped communities.

The thesis is simple:reading skills are political skills, and the reading of scripture is the training ground for reading the political. That is to link scriptural hermeneutics and reading practices with the generation of political culture. In this, I am working towards a postliberal political theology which encourages faithful Christians to make public their deepest reasons, which is also to say to make their reasoning publicly accountable to those who reason differently. This is to look forward to a different form of civic life than we presently face.

One of the promises of the practice of ‘scriptural reasoning’ is that it may help model a different relation of unity and diversity in which traditions and the sources of traditions can fully face one another and converse in political friendships that seek political wisdom together. The rest of my paper looks at these issues indirectly. I provide some scriptural texts, and then I offer a reading of Augustine’s The City of God which displays how that work performs a creative interpretation and a political logic that will have significant implications.

Two of the key texts are worth considering in their ‘plain sense’ before advancing to Augustine’s reading.

In the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth, the earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep, while a wind from God swept over the face of the waters. Then God said, ‘Let there be light’; and there was light. And God saw that the light was good; and God separated the light from the darkness. God called the light Day, and the darkness he called Night. And there was evening and there was morning, a first day. Genesis 1:1-5

Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness. And being bound in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death—even death on a cross. Therefore God also highly exalted him and gave him the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bend, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father . Philippians 2.5-11

II. The Narrative Substructures of The City of God: Generative Political Tendencies

Unlike some readers, I do not read The City of God as a tale of two cities: the city of Man and the city of God. Careful readers will note, it is at least the tale of three cities: Rome, Jerusalem, and Babylon, and the narratival inter-relationships of these cities is complex. The City of God is a conversation between the multiple, authoritative sources of these cities. There are those scriptural texts from Genesis, the Psalms, Isaiah, the Gospels, and Paul’s letters. But there are also the Roman city’s own authoritative texts: mainly Cicero, Varro, Seneca, Porphyry, Plato, and the imperial scripture itself, Virgil’s Aeneid . Augustine pays attention to sources, and throughout the whole of The City of God , he hopes to teach us how to read the city, and put theological pressure on the political order through those texts which are generative of their political cultures.

The pressure that Augustine applies in these first ten books is primarily a monotheistic pressure from the inside of the Roman narrative. But it is not quite right to say that he speaks to Rome only on her own terms that would be to somehow veil his own reasons, which Augustine never does. He believes that the God of Israel is the founder of the true Rome. What enables him to find an intimate relationship between the empirical city of Rome, and the biblical category of Jerusalem? Like other ancient thinkers, Augustine holds together the City, the Soul, and the Cosmos, and just as the Soul can find its true identity by searching more deeply within its life for God’s logic, so too can the City find its true identity by a deeper examination of its life through the sources of its life. Augustine performs for the Roman city what he performs for himself in the Confessions : a kind of askesis, or a process of disciplined learning that is redemptively directed towards the deepest political resources.

This narrative of Roman identity shifts towards another narrative that works both within and beyond Rome’s local history through the practices of the church in that city. And here we see Augustine move from the City to the Cosmos, for it is clear that Augustine moves in this second half to a narrative which provides critical tools for reading the political signs of the Roman city through a heightened pitch of attention to the scriptural universe. There is a real conversation at work between the first and second half of The City of God . Though Rome is not included in the two, within this cosmic, or scriptural universe, there are indeed two cities: they are, in fact, the biblical categories of Jerusalem and Babylon, which I read as socio-political tendencies. Some, such as J.N. Figgis, have suggested that Augustine gets the two cities idea from the Book of Revelation, but in fact, he sees it through the whole of the scriptural narrative. [3] He reads the scriptures as a narrative about two primordial polities commingled throughout time, and generative of Rome itself.The key word here remains “commingled”: if these two political tendencies are commingled in every city, and they are difficult to discern, what will be required to cultivate citizens capable of the good and just society?

Careful readers of The City of God should not find any of this surprising. But my reading of the two cities as generative political tendencies within the scriptural universe may be offering something helpful: the point is not to obsess about dyads, or to fixate exclusively on some sense of cities or communities in conflict. The point is to learn how to read the signs of the political good in every city, that is, to become skilled readers of the political in order that we might be led to the kingdom of charity, to be led in our political decisions through the orders of love, through the sources which have generated our forms of life and wisdom. [4]

What this means is that a political education is required to put corrective or redemptive pressure on the babylonian tendencies of all our political lives, through performing those redemptive Jerusalem tendencies which so often allude us, even in the empirical Jerusalem, even in the empirical church. But what sort of political education, what sort of askesis is needed?

III. Genesis and the Scriptural Logic that Generates The City of God

There is something right about the suggestion that Augustine gets his idea of the two cities from the Book of Revelation. The something right is the eschatologically-inflected attention to the narrative. But it must be said that Augustine struggles to read Genesis more than he reads any other text of Scripture. Though he was reasoning eschatologically, he was listening for the generative logic of creation.

Books 11 through 14 of The City of God display what Augustine takes to be the engine upon which all political life depends, the creation of angelic and human beings imbued with the gift of freedom, and delegated with power. The Devil is the primordial instantiation of this freedom and power misused. On Augustine’s account, God made the Devil, but did not make him wicked. That he did all by himself, Augustine says, by misusing his freedom and power, turning in upon himself solipcistically, and swelling with “the pride of independence”. For Augustine, this pride-rendered angelic fall precedes the human fall. Indeed, when Augustine turns his attention to the Garden of Eden, his interpretation here is charged with the suggestion that Adam and Eve could have turned things around for creation.He just about suggests that Adam and Eve had a brief chance to redeem the whole of creation, and undo the Devil’s declaration of independence simply by cleaving to God, using their freedom to participate in God’s glory through a politics of humility. But alas, Augustine suggests that such a reversal awaits the new Adam: our political cure.

And yet, the constant refrain of the first chapter of Genesis is that everything is good. There’s nothing wrong. So how does he find a Fall in the angelic community preceding the Fall in the human one? This is an interpretive puzzle as there seems to be no narrative of a Fall until Genesis chapter 3, and then it is the human Fall. What is going on here? It is important to pay attention to Augustine’s powers of biblical reasoning here because they generate micropolitical judgments that have extraordinary consequences. Augustine asks the difficult questions of the text: where did this serpent suddenly come from in chapter 3? If things are created, and seen to be created as good, why is there this serpent in a Garden tempting Adam and Eve to misuse their freedom and power and declare their independence? There seems to be a problem with the text: we are not being given the whole story. Augustine does not try to explain his way around this problem, but rather he seeks a deeper engagement with the first chapter, where he believes the text yields signs of the necessary back-story. He pushes especially hard on those texts which testify to origins, especially the first day. He keeps asking the question that the text itself seems to ask: if creation is good, what made the first evil will bad? (12.6) The only answer, he thinks, is that it must be some tendency away from the good. The only ground for defection from God seems to be in the formless void, the nihilo out of which God creates. As others have noted, this is to refuse to explain evil, to refuse it a causative nature. This leads Augustine to his powerful theological claim, not just for creatio ex nihilo, but for his idea that the first evil will is a privation of the good, a turning away from the source of goodness, and thus a way of cutting creation off from its deepest wells of life. Augustine reads this as a political tendency towards privacy, solipsism and pride. From this reasoning, it becomes easier to see Augustine’s back-story for why the serpent appears in the Garden. The Serpent is an instantiation of this political tendency towards superbia , the prideful swelling of self-love choked off from the source of its created goodness.

Two political tendencies, Augustine reasons, derive from that very first day, from the very first verses of the first chapter of Genesis: from the division of Light and Dark. Hardly the literal sense: ‘Then God said, “Let there be light”; and there was light.And God saw that the light was good; and God separated the light from the darkness.” (Gen 1.3-4) Augustine reads these verses as the creation of the heavens, or the creation of the angelic orders, and so reads Light and Dark socio-politically. But why so far from the plain sense? Augustine has deep reasons for this. He believes that good semiotic performance is ruled by the incarnation of the Word made flesh. So any dyadic logic in the plain sense will be problematic, and will stimulate him to display his deeper incarnational logic (otherwise unspoken) for the sake of a politics of redemption in which Jerusalem redeems Babylon in the drama of Roman history.

The babylonian tendency remains privation of the good — but it is a realistic recognition that it is a political tendency in human action which needs to be corrected, repaired, redeemed through an incarnational hermeneutic. But the point about their being commingled from the very origins is to suggest how difficult it is to identify and properly distinguish these tendencies in the actual histories of socio-political life, even if we know their destinies. Some political education is required to learn how to read the city, some education which will shape readers to perform the redemptive logic of the Incarnation in the world; indeed, to perform the politics of Jesus.

IV. Philippians and the political askesis of humility

Augustine writes from the outset that he has embarked on a great and arduous work in writing on ‘the glorious city of God.’ There is, of course, no more loaded term in the Roman political lexicon than the word ‘glorious.’ But as he knows, God’s glory works differently from Roman glory: namely, it works through humility. Always the rhetorician impressed by the humility of the scriptures, Augustine writes in his preface:

‘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 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 [from James 4.6 and Proverbs 3.34]: “God resisteth the proud, but giveth grace unto the humble.”‘ (Preface).

He immediately follows the scriptural citation with one from the Imperial scriptures, from Virgil’s Aeneid : ‘Show pity to the humbled soul, and crush the sons of pride.’ And throughout the work, this inter-textual pattern continues: not as a rivalry between texts, but as a conversation between political cultures that have access to deep sources. [5] The hope is that the conversation itself will be a kind of askesis that disciplines the city’s ‘lust of rule,’ and though often neglected, the church’s lust of rule too (I read Hauerwas as performing this discipline in the church). Augustine wants to teach a culture which seems prone to babylonian political tendencies, ‘a way of life’ that gives Rome access to another authoritative source for its life that can enrich and deepen a truer vision for Rome. Augustine seeks for Rome the appropriate reference for ‘glory,’ as he puts it, ‘referring that glory itself to the glory of God.'(5.14) But this leads Augustine back to the pattern of God’s glory he knows in the Christ of St Paul’s Letter to the Philippians, where he finds the LORD who comes in the form of a servant to mediate political wisdom on a Roman cross. Glory finds its true reference only through the humility of Jesus Christ.

Philippians 2.5-11 provides him with an eschatological mapping of how God’s political wisdom is mediated in the world through Christ’s cross where humiliation meets exaltation. In turning to this text, Augustine displays that his fundamental political wisdom consists in a redemptive ‘politics of praise.’ [6] In this sense, Augustine aims to bring ‘the mind of Christ’ into a profound relation to the Roman mind; not to absorb Roman political culture, or even replace it, but to give it access to a political education which can better resource its people — or at a minimum, to display how the redemptive ‘mind of Christ’ provides Rome’s Christian citizens with an ecclesial politics which will enrich, broaden and deepen the life of the people in that city.

At the end of Book 11, he comes full circle to the scriptural text that opens The City of God , namely the one from Proverbs 3.34 about pride and humility: ‘God resisteth the proud, but giveth grace unto the humble.’ It is the text he opens with, and the text he places at the structural center of his entire work. So who are the humble? At a minimum, those who make themselves open to the judgment of the other. But ultimately, the humble are those who make themselves open to the judgment of God.The humble are those who perform the redemptive semiotics of the incarnate Word.

V. Democratic Vistas

For Augustine, Rome was an eschatological idea bound up with the new Jerusalem. I’d like to say the same for what Sheldon Wolin has called ‘fugitive democracy,’ rare, episodic democracy.It is ‘fugitive’ because it is eschatological: there is a truer democracy than the liberal one we now know. Augustine’s whole project in The City of God is about developing a political askesis of humility which will renew and transform Rome. Above all, he thought the rhetorical humility of scripture would have the most transformative effect because it mediated the humility of Jesus to the world. [7] He believed that Rome’s Christian citizens brought into its political culture the resources for a political education which could have this fructifying effect. In retrospect we can say this pre-liberal attempt to make divine revelation central to reason-exchange in political culture worked to produce Christendom, but in prospect, we will need to imagine a different future for liberal democracies. What if liberal democracies learned to live not only with a politics of multiple communities, but a politics of multiple traditions committed to enriching, broadening and deepening political discussion through their own authoritative sources and reasoning? If, as it seems willing to do, liberal democracy can discipline its desire for an independent source towards the actual and multiple sources of political culture, from the grassroots up, it may just begin to see not only how the religions of biblical faith sustain political culture, but how they offer the curriculum, the education, the askesis which can not only discipline democratic pride, but also give grace to democratic humility.


[1] I am currently writing a book on Augustine, Barth and Political Theory with these urgent concerns in mind, and in response to Jeffrey Stout’s Democracy and Tradition (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2004).

[2] See Sheldon Wolin, Politics and Vision: Continuity and Innovation in Western Political Thought , Expanded Edition (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2004); and Aryeh Botwinick and William Connolly (Eds.) Democracy and Vision: Sheldon Wolin and the Vicissitudes of the Political (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2001).

[3] See J.N. Figgis, The Political Aspects of S. Augustine’s ‘City of God’ (London: Longmans, Green & Co., 1921).

[4] Cf. Augustine’s correspondence with Marcellinus, eg Letter 136/138 which supports this reading in E.M. Atkins and R.J. Dodaro (Eds) Augustine:Political Writings (Cambridge:Cambridge University Press, 2001).

[5] See Sabine MacCormack, The Shadows of Poetry: Virgil in the Mind of Augustine (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1998).

[6] I am indebted to Randi Rashkover for this felicitous phrase. See her book Revelation and Theopolitics:Karl Barth, Franz Rosenzweig and the Poliitics of Praise (New York & London: T&T Clark/Continuum, 2005). The ‘politics of praise’ matches well Augustine’s own sense that God’s just society must be performed in the worshipping community.

[7] As Hauerwas suggests, ‘humility’ was Reinhold Niebuhr’s great virtue, and makes me aware that employing it here might work against the narrative or postliberal political theology I am working towards.Rather than avoid humility simply because it was Niebuhr’s virtue, I want to press on it more, through the Carmen Christi , through the politics of praise which recognises the humility and obedience of Jesus Christ, an obedience which leads to death, and to his resurrected body. This is a humility which changes the causative scope for what is politically possible through an openness to judgment.

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