The city of God

The City of God: Book 5: Chapters 10-12

Chapter 10

It follows that we need not be afraid of that necessity which frightened the Stoics into distinguishing various kinds of causes. They sought to free certain causes from necessity while others were subject to it. Among the causes which they wanted free from necessity they reckoned our wills. Obviously, wills could not be free if subject to necessity.

Now, if by necessity we mean one that is in no way in our power, but which has its way even when our will is opposed to it, as is the case with the necessity to die, then, our choices of living well or ill obviously are not subject to this kind of necessity. The fact is that we do many things which we would most certainly not do if we did not choose to do them. The most obvious case is our willing itself. For, if we will, there is an act of willing; there is none if we do not want one. We would certainly not make a choice if we did not choose to make it. On the other hand, if we take necessity to mean that in virtue of which something must be so and so or must happen in such and such a way, I do not see that we should be afraid of such necessity taking away our freedom of will. We do not put the life of God and the foreknowledge of God under any necessity when we say that God must live an eternal life and must know all things. Neither do we lessen His power when we say He cannot die or be deceived. This is the kind of inability which, if removed, would make God less powerful than He is. God is rightly called omnipotent, even though He is unable to die and be deceived. We call Him omnipotent because He does whatever He wills to do and suffers nothing that He does not will to suffer. He would not, of course, be omnipotent, if He had to suffer anything against His will. It is precisely because He is omnipotent that for Him some things are impossible.

So with us, when we say we must choose freely when we choose at all, what we say is true; yet, we do not subject free choice to any necessity which destroys our liberty. Our choices, therefore, are our own, and they effect, whenever we choose to act, something that would not happen if we had not chosen. Even when a person suffers against his will from the will of others, there is a voluntary act—not, indeed, of the person who suffers. However, a human will prevails—although the power which permits this is God’s. (For, wherever there is a mere will without power to carry out what it chooses, it would be impeded by a stronger will. Even so, there would be no will in such a condition unless there were a will, and not merely the will of another but the will of the one choosing, even though he is unable to carry out his choice.) Therefore, whatever a man has to suffer against his will is not to be attributed to the choices of man or of angels or of any created spirit, but to His choice who gives to wills whatever power they have.

It does not follow, therefore, that there is no power in our will because God foreknew what was to be the choice in our will. For, He who had this foreknowledge had some foreknowledge. Furthermore, if He who foresaw what was to be in our will foresaw, not nothing, but something, it follows that there is a power in our will, even though He foresaw it.

The conclusion is that we are by no means under compulsion to abandon free choice in favor of divine foreknowledge, nor need we deny—God forbid!—that God knows the future, as a condition for holding free choice. We accept both. As Christians and philosophers, we profess both—foreknowledge, as a part of our faith; free choice, as a condition of responsible living. It is hard to live right if one’s faith in God is wrong.

Far be it from us, then, to deny, in the interest of our freedom, the foreknowledge of God by whose power we are—or are to be—free. It follows, too, that laws are not in vain, nor scoldings and encouragements, nor praise and blame. He foresaw that such things should be. Such things have as much value as He foresaw they would have. So, too, prayers are useful in obtaining these favors which He foresaw He would bestow on those who should pray for them. There was justice in instituting rewards and punishments for good and wicked deeds. For, no one sins because God foreknew that he would sin. In fact, the very reason why a man is undoubtedly responsible for his own sin, when he sins, is because He whose foreknowledge cannot be deceived foresaw, not the man’s fate or fortune or what not, but that the man himself would be responsible for his own sin. No man sins unless it is his choice to sin; and his choice not to sin, that, too, God foresaw.

Chapter 11

This supreme and true God—with His Word and Holy Spirit which are one with Him—this one omnipotent God is the creator and maker of every soul and of every body. All who find their joy in truth and not in mere shadows derive their happiness from Him. He made man a rational animal, composed of soul and body. He permitted man to sin—but not with impunity—and He pursued him with His mercy. He gave men—both good and bad—their being, as He gave being to the rocks. He let men share generative life in common with the trees, and the life of the senses with the beasts of the fields, but the life of intelligence only with the angels. God is the Author of all measure, form, and order; of all size, number and weight. He is the source of every nature, of whatever sort or condition; of the seed of every form and the form of every seed and the movement of both seeds and forms. He gave to all flesh its beginning, beauty, health, and power of reproduction; the arrangement of its members and the general well-being of a balanced whole. To His irrational creatures He gave memory, perception, and appetite, but to His rational creatures He added a mind with intelligence and will.

He left no part of this creation without its appropriate peace, for in the last and least of all His living things the very entrails are wonderfully ordered—not to mention the beauty of birds’ wings, and the flowers of the fields and the leaves of trees. And above the beauty of sky and earth is that of angels and of man. How, then, can anyone believe that it was the will of God to exempt from the laws of His providence the rise and fall of political societies?

Chapter 12

We may now turn to consider the virtues of the Romans and to ask why the true God, in whose hands are all the kingdoms of the earth, deigned to help them in building up their empire. It was with this question in mind that I wrote both the preceding Books, dealing with the impotence of the gods whom the Romans felt it a duty to worship in such foolish ways, and likewise the earlier chapters of the present Book. I had to dispose of the question of fate. Otherwise, anyone forced to give up the idea that the worship of the pagan gods could help, in the rise and progress of the Roman Empire, might fall back on some kind of destiny rather than attribute it to the all-powerful will of the supreme God.

As far as one can learn from their recorded history, the earliest and most primitive Romans, like all other peoples with the single exception of the Hebrews, worshiped false gods and offered sacrifices, not to God, but to demons. Yet, we read, they were ‘avid for praise, liberal with money, pursuers of high glory and hard-won wealth.’ Glory was their most ardent love. They lived for honor, and for it they did not hesitate to die. This single measureless ambition crushed their lesser greeds. It was their glory to conquer and control others, and a dishonor for their fatherland not to be free. Their first ambition was to make it free; their next, to make it a master of the world.

Hence, refusing to endure kingly domination, ‘they appointed two rulers to govern for one year at a time’; and they called them consuls rather than kings or lords—meaning men who advised rather than reigned or dominated over them. And although, as a matter of fact, a king merely means a man who can rule and the word kingdom is derived from king, they looked on the pomp of royalty as a pride of domination rather than as a part of the discipline of a ruler or the benevolence of a counselor.

Hence, they drove out King Tarquinius and instituted consuls. The result was, to quote from Sallust’s flattering account of the Romans, that ‘with freedom won, the city grew at an incredible rate, because of their passionate greed for glory.’ Thus, passionate greed for praise and glory worked many wonders worthy, according to human standards, of praise and honor.

The same Sallust praises the great and outstanding men of his own age, Marcus Cato and Gaius Caesar. He observes that, for a long period, the republic had no outstanding hero, but that, in his own lifetime, these two were highly distinguished in their careers, though different in their characters. His eulogy of Caesar pictures a man dreaming of a great empire, an army, a new war in which his prowess could be proved. Thus, the hearts of men of great worth were filled with the longing that the goddess of war should rush poor peoples into strife and goad them into her bloody scourge—for no purpose but to have a stage for military valor. Such was the fruit of this passionate greed for praise and glory.

Thus, the achievements of the Romans had two sources: first, the love of liberty; second, the desire for domination, praise, and glory. Their great poet, Virgil, bears witness to this double passion in his lines:

Porsenna bade them take Tarquinius back
Or face the siege his serried host maintained.
But Romans rushed to arms; and freedom reigned.

So, in those days, it was considered virtue either to live in freedom or to die in war. The trouble was that, once they were free, such a passion for glory took hold of them that liberty without a lust for domination seemed too little for them. Greatness was now reckoned by what the poet puts into the mouth of Jove:

Nay, Juno’s rage,
That fills with fear the earth and sea and skies,
Will change to better counsel and to wise
Designs. She will cherish Rome in peace
And war and, as the ages pass, in Greece
And Crete and in the East and West, deploy
The domination of the race of Troy.

Obviously, what the poet puts into the mouth of Jove as a prophecy, Virgil himself had already known and seen as a fact of history. But, what I wanted to show, in citing these verses, was that the Romans ranked domination so close to liberty that it shared in the same high praise.
This explains how the same poet, Virgil, could prefer the Roman arts of reigning and ruling, of conquest and control, to the softer arts of other peoples. Thus, he wrote:

Let others breathe their bronzes into life
And make their marbles flush like human faces,
Astonish judges in the courts of law
And count the stars in all the skiey places …
O Rome, your art, remember, is to rule:
To teach the humbler, tame the prouder, races.

The ancient Romans were all the more skillful in the arts of war because they were so little addicted to indulgence and the enervation of mind and body that goes with the greed for making money and the consequent corruption of morals, the robbing of less-privileged citizens to pay the producers of immoral shows. However, in the time when Sallust wrote and Virgil sang, this corruption of morals was already everywhere apparent. Romans now sought for honors and fame, not by the older ways, but by the crooked paths of chicanery and guile. This explains why Sallust writes: ‘At first, ambition more than greed moved men’s hearts, and, vice as it was, ambition was more of a virtue than greed. Good and bad men are alike in seeking glory, honor, and political control; but, the former take the right road while the latter, knowing no better ways, use chicanery and guile.’

The better way to reach honor, glory, and dominion is by virtue, not by conniving and lying. A good citizen seeks rewards as a bad one does, but the good citizen takes the right way. This way is his virtue, and by this he seeks the goal of glory, honor and dominion. That this was the way of the ancient Romans we may see from the two temples which they built very close together, the temples of Virtue and Honor—the gifts of God being mistaken for gods. From this, it is easy enough to see that they reckoned honor as the goal of virtue and that even good men thought of honor as their reward. As for the wicked who had no virtue, they sought for honor by the evil means of guile and fraud.

Cato is rightly praised more than Caesar, for, as Sallust says of him: ‘The less he sought for glory the more it followed him.’ However, the only kind of glory they were greedy for was merely the reputation of a good name among men; whereas, virtue rests not on others’ judgments but on the witness of one’s own conscience, and, therefore, is better than a good name. Hence, the Apostle says: ‘For our glory is this, the testimony of our conscience’; and in another place: ‘But let everyone prove his own work, and so he shall have glory in himself only, and not in another.’ Therefore, virtue should not pursue the glory, honor, and dominion which they sought, even though their good men sought to reach these ends by good means, but these things should follow virtue. There is no true virtue save that which pursues the end which is man’s true good. It follows, therefore, that Cato should not have sought the honors he sought, but his city should have given them to him because of his virtue and without his asking for them.

Granted, then, that there were two men of outstanding virtue in Sallust’s time, Caesar and Cato, the virtue of Cato seems far nearer to true virtue than Caesar’s. It is well, therefore, to go to Cato for an opinion on the state of the city as it was in his day and as it had been in the past. ‘Do not think,’ he says, ‘that our fathers made our city great by arms. Had this been the case, we would have a far finer city than we have, for we have more citizens and more allies, more arms and horse than they. They had other means to make them great, which we lack: industry at home and justice in their rule abroad, a spirit of freedom in political discussion unstained by wickedness or lust. In place of these virtues, we have lust and greed, public need and private opulence; we praise wealth, but practice sloth; we treat the good and bad alike; we rob virtue to reward ambition. No wonder—with each one consulting his own interest, thinking only of lust at home and of fortune or favors in public life—that the republic is helpless to defend itself.’

In reading words like these of Cato (or, rather, of Sallust), it is easy to imagine that, in the good old days, all or most of the Romans were like those who are here praised. It was not so. How else could there be any truth in what I cited from Sallust in my second Book. He speaks of oppression of the weak by the strong, and the consequent breaking away of the people from their leaders, and other domestic troubles, from the very beginning. He says that equitable and moderate laws prevailed only so long after the expulsion of the Kings as fear of Tarquinius lasted, and until the fierce war with the Etruscans, which had begun because of him, came to an end.

As soon as the crisis was over, the Senators began to lord it over the people, to treat them as harshly as kings had done, to drive them from the common lands, and to monopolize the government to the exclusion of everyone else. Dissensions continued between the leaders in power and the recalcitrant people until the Second Punic War. Only then did fear return to temper the trouble by a more serious preoccupation and reduce the angry spirits to a semblance of civic concord.

However, the administration continued to be directed by a small group of relatively good men, through whose foresight the evils of the times were tempered and made sufficiently tolerable for the general welfare to continue to increase. This is Sallust’s explanation. After collecting all he could, from reading and tradition, concerning the achievements of the Roman people in peace and war, on sea and land, he made a point of seeking to explain such continued success. He realized that, again and again, with a handful of men, the Romans had faced vast armies of their enemies and with a few troops waged wars with well-provided kings. His conclusion, after mature reflection, so he tells us, is that only the exceptional ability of a few citizens brought it about that a people so few and poor could defeat others so numerous and rich. ‘But,’ Sallust goes on to say, ‘once the city had fallen a victim to luxury and laziness, the Republic by its very size ministered to the vices of the rulers and magistrates.’ Thus, what Cato really praises is the virtue of the few who sought for glory, honor, and dominion in the right way. It was virtue that explained the Roman industry, which, according to Cato, filled the public coffers while the private citizens remained poor. When, in turn, corruption of morals set in, vice had the opposite effect: it made for public need and private opulence.

Augustine of Hippo, The City of God, Books I–VII

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