Is there a meaning to history? Augustine’s theological response

St. Augustine was the first Christian to offer a comprehensive Philosophy of History (…) One of his greatest accomplishments was the sanctification of Plato’s understanding of the two realms: the perfect Celestial Kingdom and the corrupt copy. (…) For Plato, the two realms never met, except on rare and mystical occasions. For St. Augustine … 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 …. 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.”

Christians live in the City of Man, St. Augustine argued, but sojourn as pilgrims in this world, as citizens of the City of God. (…) 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.”

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.

(…) [Christopher] Dawson, not surprisingly, credited St. Augustine as “the founder of the philosophy of history.” 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. 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. The Incarnation allows the Church, the representative of the City of God on earth, as Newman put it, “to gather His Saints.” Christian loyalty, then, can be to no nation, but to the Universal, Catholic Church.

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.” 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.” 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.” 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.”

Bradley J. Birzer, “St. Augustine: Founding Philosopher of History.”

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