The city of God

The City of God: Book 5: Chapters 19-21

Chapter 19

There is certainly a difference between the passion for human glory and the passion for domination. Although it is easy to slip from immoderate greed of human glory into a burning passion for domination, those who seek true glory—though merely in the mouths of men—nevertheless are careful not to offend men of sound judgment. For, in moral matters, much that is good is rightly praised even by many who do not practice what they praise, and it is by these praiseworthy virtues that glory, rule, and domination are sometimes sought. Sallust had this in mind when he spoke of the virtuous man seeking by ‘the right road.’

On the other hand, a man who is out to dominate and rule, without regard for a good name and without any fear of displeasing men of sound judgment, will usually try to get what he wants even at the price of open and flagrant crimes. Thus, a man who is greedy for glory will seek for it by the right road, or, if he uses ‘wiles and guile,’ will pretend to be good even though he is not. Therefore, for a man who is truly good, it is a great virtue to despise glory with a contempt that is known to God, but hidden from the judgment of men. For, anything he could do to make his contempt of glory appear before the eyes of men might be taken as a bid for more praise and so of more glory; then, there would be nothing he could do to prove the suspicions unfounded. But, a man who cares nothing for the judgments of those who praise him cares nothing for the rash judgments of those who suspect him—although, if he is a good man, he will not be indifferent to their salvation.

Anyone whose virtues are from the Spirit of God will be so in love with righteousness as to love his very enemies, and he will so love those who hate him or slander him that he will want to correct them and have them for his friends, if not on earth, at least in Heaven. When people praise him, he will think little of the praise, but he will not think little of their love for him; and, out of fear of deceiving those who love him, he will not mislead those who praise him. So, he will do the best he can to have the praise referred to Him who is the Source of all in man that can be rightly praised.

But, to despise glory out of greed for domination is to be worse than a wild beast either in cruelty or in lust. Some Romans were guilty of this. They kept their lust for power even when they lost their love of honor. History proves that there have been many such people. The first to reach the topmost pinnacle of this vice was the Emperor Nero. He was so lost in lust, that his conscience balked at nothing that a man could do. He was so cruel, that only those who knew him could believe he had any tenderness in him.

Nevertheless, even to such men power to dominate is given only by the providence of the supreme God and only when He judges that human license calls for such lords. The wisdom of God, speaking in the words of Revelation, makes this clear: ‘Through me kings reign and through me tyrants dominate the earth.’ And, lest the line of Virgil, ‘my pledge of peace to hold the tyrant’s hand,’ should lead us to take ‘tyrant’ in the old meaning of ‘heroes’ rather than in that of very bad and wicked kings, it is openly said in another text of Scripture that God ‘maketh a man that is a hypocrite to reign for the sins of the people.’

So far, I have been trying to show to the best of my ability why the one true and just God aided the Romans, who were good men, at least according to the standard of the earthly city, to achieve the glory of a very great empire. But, the text just cited suggests that there may be another and more hidden cause, in those differences in human merits which are better known to God than to us. We have to remember that those who are not citizens of the Eternal City (the City of God, as it is called in our revealed writings) are better citizens of the city on earth when they have even virtue motivated by glory rather than no virtue at all—although, of course, all who have the true faith are agreed that, without true religion or the right worship of the true God, no one can have true virtue, and that no virtue motivated by human glory can be true.

Now, nothing could be better for the world than that, by the mercy of God, those should be in power who join to true faith and a good life the art of political government. Such men attribute all their virtues, however many they may have on earth, to the grace of God, who bestows them on those who desire them and, believing in Him, pray for them. And such men understand how far they fall short of the perfection of holiness such as exists in the society of the holy angels, toward which they are striving. However much, then, we praise and glorify that virtue which is without true faith and is motivated by human glory, it is not to be compared even with the tiny beginnings of the holiness of the saints for which we must look only to the grace and mercy of the true God.

Chapter 20

Those philosophers who regard virtue as the ultimate human good try to make those others feel ashamed of themselves who think highly enough of the virtues, but who subordinate them to physical pleasure, making pleasure an end in itself and virtues merely a means to this end. They do this by picturing Pleasure enthroned like a high-born queen, surrounded by ministering virtues who watch her every nod, ready to do whatever she bids them. Thus, she bids Prudence to examine carefully in what way Pleasure may be both supreme and safe. She commands Justice to render whatever services she can in the interest of friendships which are necessary for bodily comfort, and to avoid doing wrong, lest Pleasure might be jeopardized by the breaking of laws. She bids Fortitude keep her mistress, Pleasure, very much in mind, so that, when the body suffers some affliction, short of death, the memory of former pleasures may mitigate the pangs of present pain. She orders Temperance to take just so much of food or of other pleasant things that health may not be endangered by any excess, or Pleasure (which, for the Epicureans, is mainly a matter of bodily health) be seriously checked.

Thus, the virtues with all the glory of their dignity are made to minister to Pleasure, like the servants of an imperious but ill-famed mistress. The Stoics are right when they say that no picture could be more ugly and ignominious and difficult for good people to look at than this. But, I do not see how the picture becomes much more beautiful if we imagine the virtues ministering to human glory. For, if Glory is not exactly a lovely lady, she has a certain vanity and inanity about her. Certainly, it ill becomes the gravity and solidity of the virtues to be her servants; so that, apart from pleasing men and serving their vain glory, Prudence should make no provision, Justice should share nothing, Fortitude tolerate nothing, Temperance moderate nothing. Ugly as this picture is, it fits those self-complacent and seeming philosophers who, in the guise of despising glory, pay no heed to what others think. Their virtue, if they have any, is just as much a slave to glory, though in a different way. For what is the self-complacent man but a slave to his own self-praise.

It is different with the man who believes in, hopes in, loves, and truly worships God. He gives more attention to the defects in which he takes no pleasure than to whatever virtues he may have and which are not so much pleasing to him as to the truth. And whatever he finds that is pleasing he attributes solely to the mercy of Him whom he fears to displease, thanking God meanwhile for the defects which have been corrected and praying for the correction of the others.

Chapter 21

The conclusion from all this is that the power to give a people a kingdom or empire belongs only to the same true God who gives the Kingdom of Heaven with its happiness only to those who believe in Him, while He gives the earthly city to both believers and unbelievers alike, according to His Will which can never be unjust. This much of what I have said so far God wanted to be clear to us. However, it would be too much for me and beyond my powers to discuss men’s hidden merits and to measure in an open balance those which have been rewarded by the establishment of kingdoms.

This much I know. The one true God, who never permits the human race to be without the working of His wisdom and His power, granted to the Roman people an empire, when He willed it and as large as He willed it. It was the same God who gave kingdoms to the Assyrians and even to the Persians—by whom, according to their Scriptures, only two gods are worshiped, one good and one evil. So, too, to the Hebrew people, of whom I have already said enough concerning their exclusive worship of none but the one true God and also concerning the period of their rule.

This is the God who gave corn to the Persians without regard to their worshiping the goddess of corn, Segetia. He gave other gifts of lands to peoples who gave no worship to all those gods whom the Romans assigned, sometimes singly and sometimes in groups, to the care of each particular thing. He gave the Romans their empire without regard to the worship of all those gods that seemed to them the condition of their conquests.

It was this God, too, who gave power to men, to Marius and Caesar, to Augustus and Nero, to the Vespasians, father and son, who were such kindly emperors, and also to Domitian who was so cruel; and, not to mention all the others, to Constantine the Christian and to Julian the Apostate—the man whose marvelous gifts were poisoned by his lust for power. Julian fell a victim to a silly and sacrilegious occultism. He put his trust in vain oracles and, relying on them for victory, he once burned the ships transporting his supplies. On another occasion, he let rash ardor get the better of him. He paid the price of recklessness by his death in enemy country, and his army was left in such straits that its only hope to escape was—in contradiction of the prophecy of the god, Terminus, which I mentioned above—by changing the frontiers of the Roman Empire. The fact was that the god Terminus, who defied Jupiter, yielded to necessity.

All such things the one true God rules and governs according to His will. And, though His reasons may be hidden, they have never been unjust.

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

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