28 August 2022

Saint Augustine: Founding Philosopher of History

Dr Birzer looks at St Augustine as the founder of the philosophy of history, exemplified by his magnum opus, Civitate Dei, City of God.

From The Imaginative Conservative

By Bradley J. Birzer, PhD

Saint Augustine was the first Christian to offer a comprehensive Philosophy of History, which the Russian Orthodox writer Nicholas Berdyaev called nothing short of “ingenious.”[1] One of his greatest accomplishments was the sanctification of Plato’s understanding of the two realms: the perfect Celestial Kingdom and the corrupt copy. One finds this tension and conflict between this world and the next in all of Christopher Dawson’s ideas and works and in many of Russell Kirk’s. “Christian culture is always in conflict with the world,” Dawson wrote directly.[2] In more complicated form, Dawson wrote, the “conception of the sacred and the secular manifests itself at every stage of culture from the primitive to the most highly civilized and in every form of religion.”[3]

For Plato, the two realms never met, except on rare and mystical occasions. For St. Augustine and for Dawson, one also cannot readily separate the two cities, the City of God and the City of Man, in any Manichean sense. While the two cities do not meet spiritually, they intermingle physically.[4] “We must remember that behind the natural process of social conflict and tension which runs through history there is a deeper law of spiritual duality and polarization,” Dawson argued in no uncertain terms, “which is expressed in the teaching of the Gospel on the opposition of the World and the Kingdom of God and in St. Augustine’s doctrine of the two cities Babylon and Jerusalem whose conflict run through all history and gives it its ultimate significance.”[5]

Christians live in the City of Man, St. Augustine argued, but sojourn as pilgrims in this world, as citizens of the City of God. “The City of God is a real society with its roots in eternity and its development in time and history,” Dawson wrote.[6] Love separates the two cities; that is, a proper understanding as well as a prideful, false understanding of the nature and significance of love divides this world from the next. “Two cities have been formed by two loves: the early city by the love of self, even to the contempt of God; the heavenly by the love of God, even to the contempt of self,” St. Augustine argued. “The former, in a word, glories in itself, the latter in the Lord.”[7]

This profound dualism—between the City of God and the City of Man—lasts as long as time itself lasts. Each new generation must consequently accept its place in history and fight the good fight, serving as a leaven in the City of Man, calling out the saints. “There is no aspect of human life and no sphere of human action which is neutral or ‘secular’ in the absolute sense,” Dawson contended.[8] Instead, the Christian should recognize that all aspects of this world must be sanctified and Christianized.

For as St. Augustine argued in a Christian and stoic fashion, a wholesome and beneficent God intertwined Himself in history—not only through the deepest profundity of the Incarnate Word, but also through the actions of angels and men, chosen by God to do His Will and perform His Miracles. Eternity and time readily mixed after the Incarnation, the former informing history at its deepest levels. “For the Christian view of history is not merely a belief in the direction of history by divine providence,” Dawson explained. “It is a belief in the intervention by God in the life of mankind by direct action at certain definite points in time and place.”[9]

In this Augustinian vision of history, one must readily combine the Jewish, the Christian, and the Pagan. In the beginning, God spoke the universe into existence and made man in “Our Image.” To man, He bequeathed the duty of dominion and stewardship over the earth, the right to name things, and the gift of marriage. From the beginning, Authority existed, and man, in his free will, sinned. To obviate that sin, God sent His Only Begotten Son, the Incarnate Word, to redeem us on a Friday afternoon. The Stoic Jews of roughly 100BC prophesized:

For while all things were in quiet silence, and that night was in the midst of her swift course, Thine Almighty word leaped down from heaven out of thy royal throne, as a fierce man of war into the midst of a land of destruction, And brought thine unfeigned commandment as a sharp sword, and standing up filled all things with death; and it touched the heaven, but it stood upon the earth.[10]

But, even the great pagan Virgil seems to have predicted the coming of the Incarnate Word, justifying Dante’s willingness to have the Roman poet and mythmaker lead Dante through Hell and Purgatory.

The last great age the Sybil told has come; The new order of centuries is born; The Virgin now returns, and the reign of Saturn; The new generation now comes down from heaven. . . . Our crimes are going to be erased at last. This child will share in the life of the gods and he Will see and be seen in the company of heroes, And he will be the ruler of a world Made peaceful by the merits of his father.[11]

St. John the Beloved and the Revelator, using Greek and Stoic terminology and concepts, described the Incarnation with nothing less than stunning beauty in the first fourteen lines of his gospel. St. Paul, in one of his most Greek moments, offers a theology of history in chapter one of his letter to the Colossians.

Who is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of every creature: For in him were all things created in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones, or dominations, or principalities, or powers: all things were created by him and in him. And he is before all, and by him all things consist. And he is the head of the body, the church, who is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead; that in all things he may hold the primacy: Because in him, it hath well pleased the Father, that all fullness should dwell; And through him to reconcile all things unto himself, making peace through the blood of his cross, both as to the things that are on earth, and the things that are in heaven (Colossians 1: 15-20).

In this description, St. Paul has answered the questions of the first Greek philosophers at Miletus. What is the beginning of all things? What is the Urstoff, the primary matter, the first principle, to which all things are tied? How can a shattered universe become one again? The answer, for any Christian, is Jesus Christ.

Dawson, not surprisingly, credited St. Augustine as “the founder of the philosophy of history.”[12] Unlike the Greeks, who held a more cosmological perspective on life, St. Augustine, following Virgil, St. John, and St. Paul, believed that history itself had a spiritual meaning. That God chose an obscure nomadic tribe to be his “Chosen Nation” proved his point, the great North African thought. The Christian recognizes that the Jews “had been made the vehicle of an absolute divine purpose, [and] was to him the very centre of his faith,” Dawson wrote. [13] As opposed to the mythologies of the Greeks and the East, the Christian believes in the purpose to history. Indeed, Christ came not at any point, but in the “fullness of time,” when three distinct cultures intersected with one another, again proving that history was vital to God’s plan. Christ, coming in the “fullness of time,” was born into a Hellenistic Jewish culture, controlled militarily and politically by the Roman Empire, and divided, theologically, among several Jewish schools of thought. [14] The Incarnation allows the Church, the representative of the City of God on earth, as Newman put it, “to gather His Saints.” [15] Christian loyalty, then, can be to no nation, but to the Universal, Catholic Church. [16]

This, of course, presents a great dilemma for any Christian. While we are already citizens of Heaven, we must live in the earthly City of Man. “The earthly city,” St. Augustine reminds us, “which does not live by faith, seeks an earthly peace, and the end it proposes, in the well-ordered concord of civic obedience and rule, is the combination of men’s wills to attain the things which are helpful to this life.”[17] Therefore, the City of Man moves in never-ending Polybian cycles of birth, middle age, and death. In the earthly city, “the princes and the nations it subdues are ruled by the love of ruling.”[18] Further, a Christian can never fully trust a government, which is, St. Augustine argued, nothing more than a gang of thieves and robbers that has bested all other gangs of thieves and robbers. When justice dissolves—and justice is a gift from God, not from the world—“what are kingdoms but great robberies? For what are robberies themselves, but little kingdoms? The band itself is made up of men; it is ruled by the authority of a prince, it is knit together by the pact of the confederacy; the booty is divided by the law agreed upon.”[19] One sees this clearly in St. Augustine’s view of the Roman empire. “Rome is to him always, ‘the second Babylon,’” Dawson explained, “the supreme example of human pride and ambition, and he seems to take a bitter pleasure in recounting the crimes and misfortunes of her history”[20]

This essay was first published here in April 2012.

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1. Nicholas Berdyaev, The Meaning of History (1936; Cleveland, Ohio, 1969), 69.

2. Dawson to Mulloy, November 11, 1957, in Box 1, Folder 16, in CDAW/ND.

3. Dawson, “Notes on Secularism,” dated December 18, 1953, in Box 1, Folder 15, CDAW/ND.

4. Dawson, Dynamics of World History, ed. John J. Mulloy (Wilmington, Del.: ISI Books, 2002), 315.

5. Dawson, “The Social Fact in the Problem of Christian Unity,” Colosseum 4 (1938): 14; and Dawson, “Is the Church too Western to Satisfy the Aspirations of the Modern World?,” in World Crisis and the Catholic: Studies Published on the Occasion of the Second World Congress for the Lay Apostolate, Rome (New York: Sheed and Ward, 1958), 168.

6. Dawson to Mulloy and Commonweal, March 5, 1955, in Box 1, Folder 16, CDAW/ND.

7. St. Augustine, The City of God, Book 14, Section 28.

8. Dawson, “The Problem of Christ and Culture,” Dublin Review 226 (1952): 64.

9. Dawson, “The Christian View of History,” in Dynamics of World History, 247.

10. Book of Wisdom (18: 14-16).

11. Virgil, Eclogue IV, The Eclogues of Virgil, trans. by David Ferry (New York: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 1999), 29.

12. Dawson, Dynamics of World History, 311.

13. Dawson, Dynamics of World History, 313.

14. Dawson, Dynamics of World History, 313.

15. Newman quoted in Dawson, Dynamics of World History, 314.

16. Newman quoted in Dawson, Dynamics of World History, 315.

17. St. Augustine, City of God, Book 19, Section 17.

18. St. Augustine, City of God, Book 14, Section 28.

19. St. Augustine, City of God, Book 4, Chapter 4.

20. Dawson, Enquiries, 237.

The featured image is “Saints Augustine and Monica” (1846) by Ary Scheffer, and is in the public domain, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

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