The city of God

The City of God: Book 5: Chapters 13-15

Chapter 13

And so it was that, after many monarchies had been famous in the East, God willed that there should be an empire in the West. It was to be later in time, but greater in size and importance. It was God’s way of checking the wickedness of many nations. He put this task in the hands of men whose glory it was to work for the welfare of their own nation in return for honor, praise, and glory. They were men ready to sacrifice private interest to the common good; in the name of their single weakness, love of glory, they conquered greed for gold and many other passions.

Because, of course, rightly considered, the love of glory is a sin, as even the poet Horace recognized:

The greed of glory? ’Tis a cancerous vice.
The antidote? You read my volume thrice.

So, too, in his Odes, Horace hoped to tame the lust for domination with lines like these: Conquer your greed and then a wider kingdom falls to your lot than if you warred as far as Libyan deserts, conquering all peoples Punic or Spanish.

This much is true. It is not given to all men to tame their shameful lusts by Christian faith, by the grace of the Holy Spirit and out of love of Everlasting Beauty, but they do the best they can out of love of human praise and glory. If they are not great saints, they are, at least, less sinful than the unrestrained. They may be less than saints but, at least, they are lovelier than the viler sinners. This was clear enough to Cicero when he wrote, in his work On the Commonwealth, the section on the education of the ruler of a city. He says that the future ruler should be nourished with glory, and he goes on to recall that the ancient Romans achieved astonishingly splendid results out of a motive of glory.

Thus the Romans did nothing to repress the sin of seeking glory. On the contrary, they thought it useful for the commonweal and, therefore, to be fostered and encouraged. Even in his philosophical works, Cicero does nothing to disguise this pernicious disease, but rather proclaims it openly. Even when he is treating of those studies which are to be pursued for what is truly good and not merely for the sake of the passing breath of human praise, he sets forth this statement as a general principle: ‘The arts are fed by honor and studies are stimulated by praise, while nothing is attempted where no men give approval.’

Chapter 14

What is certain is that it is better to resist this passion than to yield to it. For, the freer a man is from this vice, the more like he is to God. Even though the lust for glory is never wholly eradicated from the heart in this life and the temptation assails men of advanced virtue, it should at least be tempered by our love of justice, so that, should we find among the things which are unattempted, because ‘no man give approval,’ something that is good or right, human respect should be ashamed and should yield to the love of truth.

It is because this weakness is an enemy of Christian faith, in so far as the heart is more moved by greed for glory than by the fear or love of God, that our Lord asked: ‘How can you believe, who receive glory one from another: and the glory which is from God alone, you do not seek?’ In the same way, the Evangelist says of those who believed in Him but were ashamed to confess Him openly: ‘They loved the glory of men more than the glory of God.’

It was different with the Apostles. They were once preaching Christ’s Name in a place where it was not merely not given approval—to recall Cicero’s words about nothing being ‘attempted where no men give approval’—but was held in the highest detestation. Keeping in mind what they had been told by the Teacher and Healer of their minds and souls, ‘He that will deny me before men, I will also deny him before my Father who is in heaven,’ or ‘before the angels of God,’ they were not deterred, in spite of curses and insults, fierce persecution and cruel penalties, from preaching the salvation of the world in the face of the world’s scorn and hostility.

Their holy words and works and way of life, which somehow broke the opposition of the hardest hearts and filled them with the peace of righteousness, won for them an immense glory in the Church of Christ. They took no complacency in this, as though it were the purpose of their virtue, but, on the contrary, referred their glory to the glory of God, by whose grace they were able to do what they did. And, with the flame of grace in their own souls, they fired those for whom they worked with the flame of the love of the same God who made the Apostles what they were.

For, their Master had taught them not to pursue virtue for the sake of human glory: ‘Take heed that you do not your justice before men, to be seen by them: otherwise you shall not have a reward of your Father who is in heaven.’ On the other hand, He did not want them so to misunderstand these words as to fear to please men and so, by concealing their virtue, to help them less. Hence, He pointed out to them the motive they should have in making themselves known to the world. ‘So let your light shine before men,’ He told them, ‘that they may see your good works and glorify your Father who is in heaven.’ Not, notice, ‘that you may be seen by them,’ not, that is, with the intention that they may be converted to you—since you by yourselves are nothing—but ‘that they may glorify your Father who is in heaven,’ so that, by being converted to Him, they become as you are.

After the Apostles came the martyrs—men greater than Scaevola or the Curtii or Decii, not because of what they did to themselves, but because a vast multitude of them with true piety and, therefore, with true virtue endured what other men made them suffer. It was different with pagan heroes. They were citizens of the earthly city, of a kingdom not in heaven but on earth, and the only purpose of all their duties was the city’s temporal security. They knew nothing of everlasting life, but only of a succession of living and dying mortals. What other glory could they love but the fame by which, when they were dead, they might seem to live on the lips of those who praised them?

Chapter 15

For these pagan heroes, there was not to be the divine grace of everlasting life along with His holy angels in His heavenly City, for the only road to this Society of the Blessed is true piety, that is, that religious service or latreía (to use the Greek word) which is offered to the One true God. On the other hand, if God did not grant them at least the temporal glory of a splendid Empire, there would have been no reward for the praiseworthy efforts or virtues by which they strove to attain that glory. When our Lord said: ‘Amen I say to you they have received their reward,’ He had in mind those who do what seems to be good in order to be glorified by men.

After all, the pagans subordinated their private property to the common welfare, that is, to the republic and the public treasury. They resisted the temptation to avarice. They gave their counsel freely in the councils of the state. They indulged in neither public crime nor private passion. They thought they were on the right road when they strove, by all these means, for honors, rule, and glory. Honor has come to them from almost all peoples. The rule of their laws has been imposed on many peoples. And in our day, in literature and in history, glory has been given them by almost everyone. They have no right to complain of the justice of the true and supreme God. ‘They have received their reward.’

Augustine of Hippo, The City of God, Books I–VII, ed. Hermigild Dressler, The Fathers of the Church, (Washington, DC: The Catholic University of America Press, 1950), 8:272–277.

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