Augustine 2020: The Supreme Good and the City
Updated: Sep 26, 2022
Book XIX of The City of God is the heart of Augustine’s political theology and the work’s argument. It is a wide-ranging, masterful, and beautiful reflection filled with discussions of hope, happiness, justice, peace, and a controversial argument on slavery. I highly recommend everyone read it in full. Here, we will only be able to focus on a few highlights. Hopefully, this discussion will whet your appetite to delve into this passage more deeply on your own.
In this section, Augustine describes the final end, goal, or telos the two cities are aiming for. In doing so, he distinguishes between two kinds of good and two kinds of evil: supreme good or the final good is “that through which [good] is perfected” and final or supreme evil is “that through which it produces its greatest harm” . We have talked in the past about the good of the earthly city. That is not what Augustine is talking about here. The question is, do we use those goods to seek out the supreme good, or do we lose it by seeking out temporal goods and falling towards supreme evil?
The supreme good is identified with “eternal life” while supreme evil is “eternal death.” We cannot find the supreme good within the earthly city. Instead, we seek it by faith . “The one who is righteous will live by faith” . We will not find the supreme good in the earthly city. Augustine says, “They wanted to be happy here and now and, through an astonishing vanity, they wanted to be made happy by their own actions” . We have seen in previous discussions that whenever we seek our own advantage, we turn from the source of life . That is what Augustine means by using the goods of this world for “supreme evil”. If we use the good things we have for our own advantage, to build ourselves up, and turn our attention away from the source of all goodness, we will lose even the good we have.
During our entire life in the earthly city in this present evil age, we will struggle with this choice. We will struggle with the deep temptation to seek our own advantage in the here and now or seek the ultimate good which comes from the Creator. Here, Augustine is quoting St. Paul: “For what the flesh desires is opposed to the Spirit, and what the Spirit desires is opposed to the flesh; for these are opposed to each other, to prevent you from doing what you want” . If life in the earthly city simply seeks self-advantage in the short term, we will never find eternal happiness here. “As long as there is in us this weakness, this plague, this weariness, how shall we dare to say that we are already made well? If we are not yet made well, how shall we dare to say that we are already happy in the attainment of final happiness?” . However, happiness, joy, life, and goodness are found in the city of God. “Human life…is happy through hope in a future world, and in the same way made well” . We will never find happiness in the earthly city, but we can find joy while in the earthly city through our hope in the city of God.
A key reason why we will never have true happiness in the earthly city is that the earthly city will always be plagued by injustice, war, and dissension because we and our neighbors continue to seek our self-interests. The earthly city will always be a source of misery as people continually turn from the supreme good to the supreme evil . That is not to say the earthly city cannot have peace. It certainly can have peace as a good, but that peace is rooted in coercion, in commanding, in law, and in a criminal justice system that does its best to penalize anything that disturbs that peace. “The peace of the city is an ordered concord concerning commanding and obeying among its citizens. The peace of the heavenly city is a fellowship perfectly ordered and harmonious, enjoying God and each other in God” . The peace of the heavenly city is rooted in the supreme good.
God gives us these lesser goods, peace, health, air, water, food, clothing, to care for us in our life in the earthly city. What distinguishes the citizens of the two cities is how we use them. Citizens of the earthly city use them for their own self-interest and will ultimately lose them because they have turned from the source of all goodness. Citizens of the heavenly city use them to help further their pursuits of the supreme good, their love for God and neighbor . Citizens of the earthly city use them for the here and now while citizens of the heavenly city use them with hope for the future . Because there is a certain goodness in the earthly city that helps Christians live in the here and now seeking the heavenly city, Christians have no problem obeying what laws uphold justice and peace in the city . “It directs the earthly peace to the heavenly peace, which is so truly peace that is must be held and said that the only peace, at least of rational creatures, is the most ordered and most harmonious society enjoying God and each other in God….While it journeys, the heavenly city possesses this peace in faith, and out of this faith it lives justly when it directs to the attainment of that peace whatever good actions it performs toward God, and also those performed toward the neighbor” .
A Christian takes advantage of these goods in two ways. He or she uses this peace to contemplate God and the freedom allowed to love his or her neighbor . For Christians in America, we use our rights to vote, protest, petition, the prosperity we have, and our work specifically to love our neighbors, not to simply satisfy our own desires, ensure our own success, and satisfy our own desires. Yet we do not just act. We use the comfort, freedom, and security we have to love God by seeking Him in prayer, Scripture, and the community of the Church. Christian political engagement requires continual self-reflection. What am I seeking with this vote, this petition, this protest, this law? Am I seeking my own happiness in the here and now or am I seeking to love God and my neighbor in hope of the coming, culminated city of God?
 Augustine, Augustine: Political Writings, trans. Michael W. Tkacz and Douglas Kries (Indianapolis, IN: Hackett Publishing Company, 1994), p. 141.
 Ibid. p. 143.
 Galatians 3:11 NRSV.
 Augustine, p. 143.
 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 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, and “Augustine 2020: Life in the Two Cities,” September 22, 2020, https://www.reimaginefaith.org/post/augustine-2020-life-in-the-two-cities.
 Galatians 5:17.
 Augustine, p. 145.
 Ibid. p. 146
 Ibid. p. 149.
 Ibid. p. 154.
 Ibid. p. 155.
 Ibid. p. 157.
 Ibid. p. 158.
 Ibid. p. 159.