City of God, The

City of God, The
   by Augustine of Hippo
   Still considered St. AUGUSTINE OF HIPPO’s magnum opus, De Civitate Dei, or The City of God, details the great theologian’s view that all human beings are citizens either of the City of God or the earthly city—one group predestined to eternal bliss in the heavenly city, the other doomed to spend eternity with the devil.
   What prompted Augustine to write this text was one of the most severe calamities of the classical world: In 410 the city of Rome was sacked by the armies of Alaric the Visigoth. Though the city was no longer the imperial capital, it still symbolized the power of the empire and the classical world, and its fall struck deep in the psyches of late classical Romans. Refugees from Rome fled to North Africa, where Augustine was bishop of the city of Hippo.Many of these Romans were patricians who had never converted to Christianity, and their contention was that Rome had fallen because it had abandoned the old gods in favor of the Christian one, and therefore the Christians were to blame for the disaster.
   Thus Augustine began the City of God to refute these claims. The book is divided into two major parts, as Augustine himself describes. The first 10 books deal with the pagan gods: In books 1 through 5, Augustine demonstrates that the pagan gods are powerless to distribute either rewards or punishments in this world. In books 6 through 10, he describes the gods’ further inability to provide for human beings’ happiness in the life to come.
   The second part of The City of God deals more specifically with the two cities. Having demolished the charges that by ceasing to worship pagan gods, the people of Rome had brought destruction upon themselves, Augustine begins to make his own case for what exactly Christians can expect. He says at one point that Christians are merely pilgrims in this physical world. Their true home is in the heavenly city. For there are two branches of human beings, characterized by two loves: caritas and cupiditas—that is, divine and earthly love. The first branch belongs to the City of God, the second to the earthly city. The first live by God’s law, the second according to the standards of the world. All of human history, in Augustine’s view, evinces a tension between these two cities. Thus the second part of Augustine’s text is divided into three parts of four books each: In the first, Augustine deals with the origin of the two cities; in the second, he discusses the course of their history; and in the third, he discusses their final destiny—for the City of God, eternal happiness with God, and for the earthly city, ultimate damnation.
   The work was important enough for Augustine to keep at work on it for some 14 years, during years when he was distracted by many other controversies, including his combating the Pelagian heresy, which held that human beings could save themselves through their free will to produce good works. In some ways The City of God answers the Pelagians as well, since it indicates that human beings are predestined for one or the other of the cities. The City of God is not, Augustine makes clear, an earthly place. Thus not all in the church will be saved, Augustine says, and there are some who, by individual acts of grace, belong to the City of God—he uses Job as an example.
   Though it took him a long time to finish, the controversy Augustine was dealing with needed an answer; therefore, he brought out The City of God in installments, as he finished individual books. Thus the first three books were published by 414, the fourth by the following year, the next five by 416, the next three by 420, and the final eight between 420 and 426. He then polished the whole work so that it was complete in 427. Augustine’s vision of the two cities, of the two kinds of love that motivated humankind, and of this world as a place of pilgrimage for the Christian wayfarer on his way to the heavenly Jerusalem were to have a profound influence on European thought and art for the next thousand years. The City of God is one of the first truly seminal texts for the European Middle Ages.
   ■ Augustine of Hippo. Augustine: The City of God. Translated by Henry Bettenson. Introduction by David Knowles. Harmondsworth, U.K.: Penguin, 1972.
   ■ Donnelly, Dorothy F., ed. “The City of God”: A Collection of Critical Essays. New York: Peter Lang, 1995.
   ■ O’Daly, Gerard. Augustine’s City of God: A Reader’s Guide. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1999.

Encyclopedia of medieval literature. 2013.

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