O’Donovan on City of God, Book 19

Augustine’s City of God Book 19 is the most challenging piece of ethics ever written.  O’Donovan’s interpretation of Book 19 is the most challenging piece of ethics I’ve ever read.

Paradise_from_De_Civitate_Dei_by_French_School

And while O’Donovan will suggest an insolvable tension between the two loves/cities, this doesn’t mean that one has to dominate the other.   Eschatology suggests they won’t.

From Bonds of Imperfection

A thing’s end is its perfection.  The summum bonum is that object for which other objects are sought, but which is sought only for itself.  “Moral philosophy must be social philosophy.”

Book 2 flashback:  traditional Roman teaching had no inherent tradition of moral teaching.  

res publica:  

true right (ius) implies obedience to the true God; for right-ness (iustitia) “is the virtue that assigns everyone his due, and there can be no rightness when the worship owed to the Creator is offered instead to unclean demons” (53).  

The whole of Book 19 can be summarized along three points:

  1. An eschatological claim:  the supreme good is perfect peace (19.11-12)
  2. A negative conclusion:  relative to the perfect peace, our life is most unhappy.
  3. A qualification of this negative conclusion:  we can have relative happiness if we make our life a means to the summum bonum.

Communis Usus

  • each city has its own end.
  • Augustine is not saying that the two cities get along together by having a common use of means towards different ends.  The connective phrase ita etiam connects chapter 16 with the first line of chapter 17:  the comparison is between the earthly city and the earthly household

Consensus of Wills

But what of the obvious fact that the Two Cities do seem to “get along” from time to time?  For one, we note that members of the heavenly city use the earthly as a means to an end; whereas the earthly city sees itself as an end.  There is no tertium quid between the two cities, no neutral space. The agreement can only be on a surface level of means, and only that.

Ius and Iustitia

Augustine notes that “ius” flows from the source of iustitia (19.21).  There can be no iustitia common to the two cities because the earthly city does not deal or participate in the forgiveness of sins (Ep. 140.72; Spirit and the Letter 32.56).  Iustitia, nonetheless, is not at the forefront of Augustine’s concerns.  

If a state does display some virtues but it relates to some object other than God, then it is disorder (19.14-16).  This insight allows Augustine to say that there is some relative order and good in a state, but gives him the space to critique the State. (Interestingly, Augustine has no vision for political programs; sorry, Reconstructionists).  

O’Donovan then outlines a pyramid of ascending orders of peace in the universe (rerum omnium).  I will number them but I can’t reproduce the pyramidal scheme here. The numbers aren’t of greater importance to lesser, or vice-versa.  Rather, beginning with (1) it is a continual movement outward.

(10) ?

(9)  peace of the heavenly city

(8) peace of the city

(7) peace of the household (19.14-16)

(6) pax hominum (Peace of Rome? or basic Peace between men)

(5) peace with God

(4) Body-soul union

(3) rational soul

(2) irrational passions

(1) Body

The relation between peace and order is one of definition.  The peace of any household is the tranquility of order.

Household (Domus)

It is an ordered harmony of giving and receiving commands.  Unlike the City, though, the commands are not given from a desire to dominate, but from compassionate acceptance of responsibility.

Augustine does not try to “transform” society.  It is impossible to read Book 19 or the whole City of God that way.  Rather, he “transvalues” society’s structures (O’Donovan 68).  

About J. B. Aitken

Interests include patristics, the role of the soul in the human person, analytic theology, Reformed Scholasticism, Medievalism, Substance Metaphysics
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