The Roman commonwealth, ruled over by the gods, preserved by just men of integrity, has fallen apart. Augustine’s pagan opponents are blaming the rise of Christianity, but Augustine agrees with a few ancient pagan writers that the commonwealth was lost when the people’s morality disappeared. Augustine affirms a distinction that Cicero describes in his discussion of the republic: a commonwealth is owned by a common people with a common sense of justice, while Rome is a state full of people without much in common. The Roman people are much like Western culture today – a bunch of separated groups of people who each live with their own sense of good and for their own interests. Augustine gives a detailed account of how the Roman upper crust lives: make sure that my wealth sticks around and that I can do what I want as long as I don’t hurt you and your wealth. It sounds very much like an American version of freedom – let me do what I want and give me all the choices I want as long as I don’t hurt others. This is a negative liberty, where liberty is not restricted by much of anything.
Whether a city or nation qualifies as a commonwealth may not matter much if it functions well and accomplishes some purpose. But that’s exactly Augustine’s point, that there is no purpose. There is no moral center or common good or worthy gods or anything worth pursuing. The only purpose for the late Roman empire is to expand the empire. Sounds exactly like every political campaign in this country in this era: “Make America great again”, “Restore America”, etc. The only purpose is to make the nation great, but there is no helpful or intentional definition to what counts as greatness. Augustine reminds the Romans that moral greatness is the one greatness that means something, and the Romans don’t have it. Do we?