Having explained that the Romans’ glory seeking made them willing to sacrifice themselves for the sake of the city, Augustine gets to his point: God gave Rome such power because the Romans themselves were better people than those of other possible empires. They were “good men according to the lights of the earthly city.” Which, can alternatively be read as faint (or no) praise and as a great compliment, coming from Augustine. On one hand, Augustine wants to say that the Romans were driven by a desire for human glory (a false and finally destructive motive), they worshipped demons (false worship), their methods were cruel and sometimes barbarous (false virtues), and they were doomed to die and the empire would eventually fall apart (a false end, or telos); on the other, he genuinely commends them for their sacrifices and seems to suggest at times that they reflect or participate in true, biblical virtues. He compares some Romans to biblical heroes (mildly unfavorably, where the biblical hero is the type and the Roman hero is a faint, but important particular example).
This reflects something like a helpful way that we might view the American empire of the 21st century. I confess that I don’t know the extent to which we ought to view American heroes favorably, but I like the outline of Augustine’s critique of Rome here: it was better than many empires but had no ultimate place. America is a nation with many important contributions to make to the earthly city, and it has been full of good men and women, “according to the lights of the earthly city.” Americans value sacrifice and ideologies that they believe will benefit others. Americans want to offer good things to oppressed peoples and to be a place where nationalities and ideas can come together and grow. Americans want to uphold the values of life, liberty, and happiness. By themselves, these are good gifts from a good Creator. But, as Augustine points out, we cannot elevate gifts from God to the status of ends to be sought. In the end, only God is a proper end worthy of our service and worship. Sacrifice is great and valuable as a means to a proper end, but a false end – even an end as great as liberty – taints American sacrifices. May God use them to His purpose and His glory.
And so, I am wondering at this point: how great are the “lights of the earthly city”? Are they bright enough for me to even see the goodness of the men of Rome? Or are they so overwhelmed by the glory of God that these meager flickers do not even register to my soul as lights?