Augustine and the city of God

Augustine's De civitate dei created a milestone in western history and the development of Christianity. What is it about? How does Augustine create his concept and what kind of external influences is he exposed to?

Term Paper, 2012

18 Pages, Grade: 1,3




Augustine’s life in the historical context

De Civitate Dei
Civitas dei
Foundation of the city of God and the city of Man
Humans/Saints and Angels
Humans on earth
City of God and Church
Civitas terrena
The intertwined cities
Concept of dualism

Stateism in Augustine’s thinking



The purpose of this essay is to show the development of the cognitive reasoning that motivated Augustine to create his work De civitate Dei. We will consider several interpretations of the City of God in order to provide a broad spectrum that helps developing an opinion about his work. In order to understand his thought process, it is important to also consider the historical and sociological background that Augustine lived in since it constitutes a rudimentary basis to understand him. Furthermore, we will analyze the heritage of the cities he creates. An innovative approach is also given in Augustine’s work since it constitutes the first record of a created progress. The city of God and its development are depicted as a continuous process and were very unique and innovative for Augustine’s time. It established a new era in history writings as well as in theological terms.

Furthermore, focus will be laid on human beings living together with angels in their cities, as well as the role of the church on Earth. The final focus will be directed towards the concept of dualism in Augustine and his sociological/historical environment. In order to mention the importance stateism creates in Augustine, an indication towards this matter will be made before aiming for a conclusion. We will now present a short abstract about the life of Augustine, focusing on the historical context that accompanied it.

Augustine’s life in the historical context

When Rome fell in 410, Aurelius Augustinus has already made a long journey - spiritually and territorially. Having been born in Thagaste in Numidia (today’s Algeria) in 354 AD as the son of a pagan, landowner and a Christian, Augustine was thrown into a period of time that brought significant changes, which embossed the Christian society and with it the western history immensely.

Even though the fall of Rome (410) is in neo-historical perspectives not considered to be a significant milestone in world history and politics, Augustine’s contributions towards medieval society and Christianity had an immense impact. The fall of Rome contributed towards his motivation to write De civitate dei, a work that highly influenced Christianity up until today.[1]

Having grown up in Thagaste, Augustine went to study in Cathargo (today’s Tunis), where he turned his back towards the Christian beliefs. At the age of 18, his first and only son Adeodate was born. The relationship between the mother of his son and himself lasted 15 years, unmarried. He separated from her after having converted to Christianity in Milan in 387.

Prior to his conversion, Augustine was a member of the Manichees, who were an influential pagan sect. His membership was not very uncommon since many intellectual rhetors participated in this particular ideological group[2]. Manichaeism’s basic point of view about the world was a dualistic one, “in that the two principles of Light and Dark are regarded as self- existent and eternal, but they ought to remain separate”[3]. Both were, according to Ferrari, in conflict with each other.[4]

Due to his influence within the Manicheen society, Augustine could easily move to Rome in 383, where he opened a school of rhetoric and quickly established a good reputation, which was also due to his Manicheen connections in Rome.

One year after his arrival in the ‘pagan city’[5], Rome, Augustine was appointed to Milan, where the highly influential bishop Ambrose appointed him as public orator. Ambrose, being a bishop of the Church, who probably attempted to convert Augustine, welcomed him open- hearted, however not only with true intentions[6]. Augustine then focused on the studies of Plato and the neo-Platonism and soon converted to Christianity. During this period he also separated from his long relationship to the mother of his son Adeodate. There is no proof of any conversations between the Manicheans and Augustine about his conversion, even though it was a strong betrayal towards the Manichaean religion.

388 after the death of his mother in 387, Augustine moved back to a Thagaste where he lived a philosophically ascetic life until his ordinance to the priesthood in Hippo 391. In 396, he became Bishop of Hippo[7] and held the office until his death in 430.

During this last period Augustine had to witness the slow destruction of the Roman Empire. Alaric, the Christian king of the Goths slowly destroyed the empire’s influence and after having attacked Rome three times, finally brought Rome to fall in 410.

Alaric, the Christian, created a problem for the Christian society, as the pagan Romans blamed them for being the cause of the fall of the Roman Empire. The Edict of Milan of 313 was the onset of the ascendency of Christianity in the Roman Empire. Christianity promised to be innovative since it, “addressed itself to everybody regardless of language, ethnic background, or local tradition.” Simultaneously to this event the empire slowly started to weaken and roughly 63 years later the Visigoths crossed the borders of the empire for the first time. This incident and the following crumbling of Rome made the Pagans believe that their deities disliked the uprising of Christianity and in the argumentum e contrario claimed that Christianity is the reason for the misfortune that occurred to the empire and its people[8].

It was in 412 that Marcellinus addresses Augustine in requesting his guidance and support for Christian matters. The Christians had to abide a lot of critique from the Pagans and couldn’t find adequate responses towards the accusations:

Very many great calamities have befallen the commonwealth under the government of emperors observing, for the most part, the Christian religion. Wherefore, as your Grave descends along with me to acknowledge, it is important that all these difficulties be met by a full, thorough and luminous reply.[9]

There is substantial evidence Marcellinus’ request motivated Augustine to start creating “(...) one of the ‘great books’ of civilization”.[10] Augustine directly addressed Marcellinus in his preface to De civitate Dei and thanks him for having suggested creating this work: “The glorious city of God is my theme in this work, which you, my dearest son Marcellinus, suggested, and which is due to you by my promise”.[11]

Augustine spent his last years until his death in 430 in Hippo and pursued Episcopal duties which included the execution of court judgments. The fact that Augustine was in charge of civil law in his diocese, opens space for the assumption that Church and State in the 5th century were indeed not separate things.[12] Instead, since 313 when Constantine recognized Christianity, he pursued a policy of a unity of the Church and the State.

The majority of cases, however, which came to the bishop’s court were not strictly ecclesiastical, but civil: the audientia episcopalis ”[13].

De Civitate Dei

De civitate Dei was written in response to the Pagan allegations against Christianity after the fall of the Roman Empire in 410 AD. It took Augustine 13 years to complete his work consisting of 22 books. Its main purpose is defined in the work Retractations, written in 426:

In the meantime Rome had been overthrown by the invasion of the Goths under King Alaric and by the vehemence of a great defeat. The worshippers of the many and false gods, whom we commonly call pagans, attempted to attribute that overthrow to the Christian religion, and they began to blaspheme the true God with even more than their customary acrimony and bitterness. It was for that reason that I, kindled by zeal for the house of God, undertook to write the books on The City of God against their blasphemies and errors.[14]

He therefore wrote The City of God in response to these allegations that were brought up again because of the recent events, namely the fall of Rome. The accusations against Christianity were not completely new, for the Pagans used to blame the Christians for all the misery that had occurred to the Roman Empire since Christianity was declared the main religion in 313 with the Edict of Milan, and neither were the attempted rejections of these allegations. During this time however, the refutation undertaken by Augustine was supposed to be final, irrefutable. It was supposed to convince even the strongest Pagan believer.

The 22 books Augustine wrote can be divided into several topics. Whereas the first ten rather focus on a justification against the Pagan reprovals, the last twelve represent Augustine’s actual phase of creating his city of God and describing its temporary process. Again, even the first ten books can be further distinguished. The first five books can be considered as a confutation of the Pagan deities. They argue against the gods the Pagans worship as well as their overt polytheistic point of views. They “are an answer to those who held that the gods were to be worshipped for the advantages of the present life”.[15] Eckert (2003) also focuses on the “Goterglauben, der sich von der Gottern irdische Guter erhofft (1-5)“.[16] After having refuted the Pagan argumentation about their deities as well as having defended his own God, Augustine “wanted to offer much more than a mere defense as he stated himself in his Retractations (2, 68, 2): ‘In order that no one might raise the charge against me that I have merely refuted the opinions of other men but not stated my own, I devoted to this objective the second part of the work'”.[17]

Augustine’s attempt seems to go a bit further than ‘simply’ arguing against the Pagan worldview, but instead he wants to preserve a full set of - in his point of view - rational reasons for Christianity. In the second part of the first ten books he turns the Pagan argument around and states that Christianity was actually responsible for the blessings that have occurred to the Roman Empire[18].

Deferrari/Keeler (1929), however, apparently tend to focus on a different aspect when describing the intention of the second five books, for they regard them as being “directed against those who worshipped them [the gods] for the life to come”.[19] The focus here rather lays on the beliefs of the Pagans in future, post mortem beliefs. Eckert (2003) supports this argument.

He contrasts the second five books to the first five and sees here a “Gotterglauben, (...)der stattdessen eine jenseitige Seligkeit erwartet (Buch 6-10)”[20].

Comparing these interpretations with the author’s intention stated in the Retractationes, it can be said that the former might present a correlation with Augustine’s dualistic division between the City of God and the City of Man. In these two cities which Augustine creates in the main part of his work (books 11-22) the division is made between two loves: uti and frui whereas frui represents the love of something for its own sake and uti stands “for the love of the sake of something else”[21]. The actual criticism of Augustine, therefore, might rather be directed against the polytheistic attitudes that is presented by the Pagans and not essentially against the actual values that both groups share or not share. This assumption is, however, just based on the above mentioned quotes and sources. A further analysis of this question would require an analysis of the Pagan cults and their historical background in order to create a sociological response to the problem that has occurred. In order to hypothesize that the dualistic perspective of Augustine is not an individual, unique concept but rather has developed out of the fact that he was a child of his time where the general perspective perhaps was very dualistic. This will, however, not be considered any further in this work.

The second part of De civitate Dei - and the one that is of more importance for this essay - deals with the establishment and justification of the civitas dei. This part consists of the last 12 books and can again be divided into categories. The Books XI-XIX gives account about the progress of the two cities. They describe the origin of both cities and their development as well as their implementation into the earthly world. The books XX-XXII then discuss the end of both cities and their destinations.

Before we are going to elaborate the exact role of both cities and their origin, we first have to define in which sense Augustine understood the term civitas: “(...) civitas, quae nihil est aliud quam hominum multitude aliquot societatis vinculo conligata”. Therefore the translation ‘city’ does not completely fit within Augustine’s actual intention. According to Oort, civitas can be used synonymously with societas. Augustine’s civitas is not an established, literal, existent city with its city walls but rather a society that shares a communal bond or belief. According to this interpretation it can be said that Augustine is actually referring to a society as a group of people sharing the same belief when he is talking about civitas.


[1] Cf. (Mommsen 1951)

[2] Cf. (Ferrari 1972)

[3] Cf. (Burkitt 1922)

[4] As this work does not focus on the religion of the Manichees, there will be no further explanation of this religion. For further readings, see: (Frend 1953)

[5] "This city had become the guardian of innumerable pagan cults, as Augustine explains: 'Who can number the deities to whom the guardianship of Rome was entrusted?'", (Ferrari 1972)

[6] (Ferrari 1972) p. 201

[7] (Ferrari 1972) p. 205

[8] (Ferrari 1972) p. 198

[9] (Ferrari 1972) p. 206

[10] (Finan 1987) p. 295

[11] De civ. Die, breviculi

[12] Cf. (Wills 1999) p. 100

[13] (Beaver 1934)p.196

[14] Retractations (2,68,1)

[15] (Deferrari and Keeler 1929) p. 117

[16] (Eckert 2003): ..."belief into deities that brought material advantages of present life" present a free translation of this cite.

[17] (Mommsen 1951) p. 353

[18] (Fortin 1979) p. 330

[19] (Deferrari and Keeler 1929) p. 117

[20] (Eckert 2003):'...a belief in deities that instead expects a beatitude in the hereafter'.

[21] (Oort 1991) p. 99

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Augustine and the city of God
Augustine's De civitate dei created a milestone in western history and the development of Christianity. What is it about? How does Augustine create his concept and what kind of external influences is he exposed to?
Nelson Mandela Metropolitan University
Political Philosophy
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ISBN (Book)
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augustine, christianity, what
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Thomas Hühne (Author), 2012, Augustine and the city of God, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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