Augustine spends most of chapters 17-18 comparing the great deeds of the Romans, who sought glory and honor in and for the city of Rome, with the deeds Christians might be called to perform, who seek a greater glory in a greater City. There is a lot that is very interesting in these chapters – thinking with Augustine about the comparative greatness of the two cities, the deeds required of citizens of each, and the comparative values of the cities. Anything that a great citizen might do for an earthly city that is passing away, a citizen of the City of God should also be willing to do or suffer. Not for the sake of glory, but because the rewards of that City are so great.
I found the opening lines of chapter 17 worth meditating on, even though they are only tangentially related to the rest of these two chapters: “As far as this mortal life is concerned, which is spent and finished in a few days, what difference does it make under what rule a man lives who is soon to die, provided only that those who rule him do not compel him to do what is impious and wicked?” So, Augustine asks this question, and I believe he means it sincerely, but he asks as an elite having lived a fairly carefree life of relative luxury. Even so, isn’t his perspective right? We are all living under the rule of some unjust regime. We may experience relatively more or less happiness, given the culture, government, wealth, education, etc., but in the end, we all live for a short period of time and then die. Is there any reason to give ourselves for national defense or revolution? The old regime and the new are both basically unjust. With a new government in place, some lives will suffer and others will benefit. But in the end, all will die. I think Augustine’s question needs some caveats – we should work for the best for others and for justice for as many as possible, and I don’t think he wrote this whole book just to say that there’s nothing to be done about the state of things – but the basics are right. The Preacher in Ecclesiastes is right. Death comes to us all and the regime we suffer under is basically the same as any possible replacement. William Wallace suffered for a very light cause.