Augustine 2020: Life in the Two Cities
Updated: Sep 26, 2022
The fourteenth book of The City of God is a wide-ranging and substantive piece of reflection, worth reading in full. Augustine turns from his discussion of angels and demons to humanity and answers how evil first entered into the human race, what distinguishes the citizens of the two cities, and includes some of Augustine’s famously controversial reflections on sex. For our purposes, we are going to focus on the differences of life in the two cities, how the evil we have been discussing entered humanity, and how citizens of the city of God are to live in the earthly city.
The fundamental difference between the two cities is that life in the earthly city is lived in the flesh while life in the city of God is lived according to the Spirit . Augustine draws on the words of St. Paul: “For what human being knows what is truly human except the human spirit that is within? So also no one comprehends what is truly God’s except the Spirit of God. Now we have received not the spirit of the world, but the Spirit that is from God, so that we may understand the gifts bestowed on us by God. And we speak of these things in words not taught by human wisdom but taught by the Spirit, interpreting spiritual things to those who are spiritual. Those who are unspiritual do not receive the gifts of God’s Spirit, for they are foolishness to them, and they are unable to understand them because they are spiritually discerned” .
We would misunderstand Paul and, consequently, Augustine if by “the flesh” we thought of the physical body. God created the physical body as part of his good creation . The problem is not the body itself, but turning from the Creator to a created object, namely our own wills and desires and giving it our ultimate allegiance. “It is not good…to live according to a created good by turning our backs on the goodness of the Creator” . Life in the earthly city is a life that is focused on itself rather than the goodness of God. Life in the city of God is, instead, lived directed towards God.
Augustine turns his attention to asking how the evil he has been considering has entered into humanity . First, he gives an important caveat. “Man could not alter the divine plan by his sin, as if God could be forced to change what he has established. God’s foreknowledge anticipated how evil man, whom he created good, would become, as well as what good God himself would still draw forth from him” . Augustine argues, just as he did about demons, that evil enters humanity when human beings turn from the source of goodness and, by turning from the source of their existence, develop a defect we call “evil” . “The first evil will, which preceded all evil human works, was less a single deed than a falling away from the work of God to its own works. Thus, works are evil because they are done according to the will itself rather than according to God” . Augustine, in thinking about the story of the fall in Genesis 3 argues that the first sin, when they “saw that the tree was good for food, and that it was a delight to the eyes, and that the tree was to be desired to make one wise” , was that of pride. The first evil desire was to assert oneself, to claim wisdom apart from God, and to take pleasure in a created thing rather than the Creator .
The earthly city gives expression to this fallenness, this investment in its self-interest, this pride, this greed. As Augustine has already said, it is the domain where humans live according to the flesh. So how are citizens of the city of God to live in this earthly city? Augustine gives us two key principles that are essential for living in this present age and includes our political engagement. First, as those who live with their lives towards God, who live in the Spirit, we hate the evil that tries to turn us from our Creator. Notice, we hate evil deeds, evil desires, evil actions. This hatred, and I cannot state this emphatically enough, is not for people. Each person is made in the image of God and we love each of them as such. “Because no one is evil by nature but only by defect, he who lives according to God ought to have perfect hatred for evil. Thus he will neither hate the man on account of the defect nor love the defect on account of the man, but hate the defect and love the man” . In political engagement we never, and I repeat, never, hate any political leader or neighbor who votes differently from us. Even when a leader supports policies that are unjust and diminish human flourishing , we hate the injustice, but never the person. Nor do we condone evil in political leaders or fellow voters we agree with. Simply because we have a certain amount of trust in a particular leader and agree with a number of their policies, we do not condone any policies they enact which are unjust or turn our eyes away from evil actions they commit.
In our hyper-partisan age, this point is essential. Our political discourse is rife with insults, demeaning comments, and simple hatred of those of another political persuasion. Such is the way of the earthly city, not the city of God. Any time that we contribute to this environment, spew hateful comments about a political leader, group, or voting block, any time we bat an eye when our own candidates utilize hateful rhetoric against the other side, we are failing to live as citizens of the city of God. After all, Jesus said, “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you” . Unfortunately, too few Christians obey this command when it comes to politics.
The second feature of citizens of the city of God while living within the earthly city is the virtue of humility. If pride is the first evil, the first defect, in the human will and the earthly city, then humility must be the first virtue in those whose lives are turned towards God . In political engagement, humility is admitting when we are wrong, listening to other sides carefully to learn, and submitting ourselves, even to those leaders we disagree with. Humility in our political life would go a long way towards decreasing the vitriolic partisanship which runs rampant in our society. It is the virtue we as Christians ought to cultivate in ourselves, having the same mind “that was in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave” on our behalf .
 Augustine, Augustine: Political Writings, trans. Michael W. Tkacz and Douglas Kries (Indianapolis, IN: Hackett Publishing Company, 1994), p. 95.
 1 Corinthians 2:11-14 NRSV
 Genesis 2:7.
 Augustine, p. 96.
 See Scott Carr, Jr. “Augustine 2020: What About Evil in the Earthly City?,” Reimagine Faith, September 1, 2020, https://www.reimaginefaith.org/post/augustine-2020-what-about-evil-in-the-earthly-city; “Augustine 2020: Evil and the Good Creation,” September 8, 2020, https://www.reimaginefaith.org/post/augustine-2020-evil-and-the-good-creation;“Augustine 2020: The Earthly City, Domain of Death,” Reimagine Faith, September 15, 2020, https://www.reimaginefaith.org/post/augustine-2020-the-earthly-city-domain-of-death.
 Augustine, p. 100.
 Ibid. pp. 83-86. See Scott Carr, Jr. “Augustine 2020: Evil and the Good Creation,” September 8, 2020, https://www.reimaginefaith.org/post/augustine-2020-evil-and-the-good-creation.
 Augustine, p. 101.
 Genesis 3:6.
 Augustine, p. 102.
 Ibid. p. 97.
 See Scott Carr, “Augustine 2020: The Earthly City, Domain of Death,” Reimagine Faith, September 15, 2020, https://www.reimaginefaith.org/post/augustine-2020-the-earthly-city-domain-of-death.
 Matthew 5:44.
 Augustine, p. 103.
 Philippians 2:5-7.