Book 18 begins with a look back. Over the first ten books, Augustine contended with the enemies of the City of God. In books 11 to 17, he looked at the origins of the City of God and the City of Man, though in 16 and 17 he focused on the City of God. Here in 18 he promises to look more closely at the City of Man. And he starts with a general statement on what he calls the two greatest kingdoms of the City of Man – the Assyrians (including what we would call the Babylonians) and the Romans. These two kingdoms, he says, have impacted the most people and touched the most territory for a sustained amount of time. (He does make some comments about the Athenian Empire, which he says is known more because of the quality of its writers than the strength of its empire). Augustine points toward the capital cities of these two kingdoms – Babylon and Rome. Of course this makes sense for Augustine because these two cities stand as the historical cities that most represent the City of Man, in Scripture and in Augustine’s work.
In our day, Rome and Babylon are memories of legend, no longer particularly great cities. But America is a great empire, and so I plan to trace America as the kingdom that most personifies the City of Man throughout book 18. We’ll see how this goes, but that’s the plan. So far, this is what I’ve seen in Augustine’s description of the City of Man as it relates to America:
First, the City of Man is characterized by love of self. This is certainly true of America. Self is the great motivator. Individual freedom is the great value. Rather than submitting ourselves to God or any great power, America trains us to watch out for ourselves and to value and seek our desires and good. We celebrate ourselves in ways that virtually no culture in human history has done. For this reason, we are a therapeutic people, needing constant affirmation and dealing with endless anxieties. In one sense, the best hope for most people is to overcome those anxieties by becoming Nietzsche’s Overman – the great man without anxieties, virtues, or moral constraints who simply seeks power. Trump is one kind of manifestation of this hope for humanity – not bound by truth, finances, tradition, he can just keep on “winning”.
Second, the City of Man is divided. Hard not to see how that applies to America today, especially in this election season. Division is currently the way of things in our culture. I don’t know how it could be otherwise when our values revolve around the freedom and rights of the individual self. If God is not our highest common good then humanity is not capable of being united; more than that, though, America has no sense of a common good. Not only do we reject the only true common good, we have given up on any common good. In what possible way might we be united? Our best hope for unity now is common enemy. Without anyone attacking our borders, we have focused on two types of common enemy: first, we find enemies across the sea (Russia, Iran, ISIS, etc); second, we find factional enemies to unite us to others like ourselves (Democrats v. Republicans, etc). The first leads us to perpetual war, the second leads us to constant bickering and the demonizing of our opponents.
These are threads to keep an eye on. I’m looking forward to this.