When the Visigoths sacked Rome in 410, the city that had taken the world captive had fallen into captivity. The event was a transformative moment in Western history. It marked the final eclipse of antiquity and the beginning of late antiquity. Rome’s sacking also shattered the emergent idea of imperium Christianum, the idea that Rome had a special role in the unfolding of providential history. The Sack of Rome also compelled the composition of one of the greatest masterpiece of Late Latin literature, De Civitate Dei by St. Augustine.
Augustine’s City of God is a masterful work for many reasons. But one of the most neglected undercurrents of Augustine’s work is his secularization of sacred history that emerges by the book’s conclusion. At the very onset of The Aeneid, Virgil begins the national mythopoetic epic concerning the rise of the Roman Empire by reinforcing the notion of sacred history. Virgil writes of the “altae moenia Romae” (the battlements of mighty Rome) that are destined to extend over the world thanks to Jupiter’s divine blessing. The statement of an empire without boundaries—a universal empire premised on power, strength, and lust—sanctioned by the gods no less, was a haunting image that was the target of Augustine and should equally be a concern for modern readers. Like Thucydides’ Athens or Alexander’s Hellenic Empire before, Rome was the center of the world destined to bring universal peace through dominance. By making the world Roman, and only by making the world Roman, pax would reign.
Virgil’s Sacralized Libido Dominandi
What is striking about Virgil’s national epic is that struggle and destiny have been intentionally linked together as necessary for progress. These themes are recurrent even in the most modern of philosophies. Aeneas, as he flees Troy, is unsure of his final destination despite the promises of Jupiter. Nevertheless, Aeneas courageously embarks into the new frontier—a conquering hero-to-be.
The struggle is as much the story as is the destination. Juno wreaks havoc upon Aeneas as he sets off for his eventual destination that will be Italy, and remains a constant force in opposition of Aeneas and the fleeing Trojans. With the help of Neptune, Aeneas, and the displaced Trojans make relatively safe passage to Carthage where new challenges and struggles await them. But Jupiter’s promise of universal empire and respite for the Trojans will be made manifest no matter the difficulties that befall them as they flee Troy for Italy. Despite hardship in Sicily after leaving Carthage, Aeneas and the migratory Trojans defeat the existing inhabitants of Latium. Aeneas personally kills the king of the Rutuli peoples, Turnus, after a gruesome battle that paves the way for the future of Rome.
In struggle and slaughter, Aeneas builds Rome and begins the foundation for the eventual Roman Empire. Important to the story is how Rome is built upon struggle and bloodshed, hardship, and overcoming, and is entirely predicated upon the intervention of the gods on behalf of Aeneas. No matter how fierce or powerful others are, all must submit before “mighty Rome” who has been given a special providence to rule over the world and bring forth the consummation of peace through domination.
When looking back upon The Aeneid, one cannot help but find remarkable similarities in the mythopoetic narrative crafted by America’s founding Pilgrims and Puritans. Granted the Puritans took the Biblical Exodus as their adopted story, but the pageant unfolded in much the same manner. An oppressed and struggling peoples fleeing persecution, braving the affronts of nature and the danger of hostile natives, overcame this struggle by sheer force of will with God’s blessing to bring about the establishment of that “city upon a hill” that would become a beacon of light, liberty, and hope for all humanity. As Thomas Paine aptly wrote, “The cause of America is in a great measure the cause of all mankind.” We see again in the founding of America what the Athenians, Greeks, and Romans were all guilty of: The belief that their destiny was the same destiny for all humanity. America, in Paine’s vision—indeed, the vision of America that undergirds much of American thought and politics—is a nation without boundaries busily and hastily engaged in the universal mission of humanity moving toward universalization and perpetual peace.
Augustine, in his assault against the mythopoetic theologies of Rome, displays the first “transvaluation of values” in his critique of the Roman value system. In no place is this more apparent than in Augustine’s commentary on the rape of Lucretia in Book I. Lucretia, after being brutalized by an Etruscan king, Tarquin, decides to commit suicide. She has lost her chastity and innocence and finds no reason to persevere. For this, the Romans venerated her as a model of virtue and nobility. Augustine questions, “If she is adulterous, why is she praised? If chaste, why was she put to death?” Either Lucretia was guilty of adultery, as many claimed of her, or she remained chaste despite her rape in some deeper symbolic manner. So which was it, if either was correct?
Augustine remarked it was not fidelity to honor by which she took her life, but rather the feeling of guilt and shame which compelled her suicide as she had no exit from what had happened to her. Lucretia had done nothing wrong, but in her shame, she killed herself—with the Romans cheering her every step of the way. That violence and dominance were celebrated as a model of virtue and nobility clouded the Romans from seeing the tragedy of the event as well as the immense beauty and dignity of the human body that is to be respected and lifted up on high. The virtue and nobility of the Romans were no virtue and nobility at all.
By the time Augustine finished The City of God, he had thoroughly rebutted the core myths and legends of the Roman Empire. History was not the sacral domain of the gods as Virgil’s epic maintained, but the unfolding of cupiditas and caritas in the plane of the saeculum. Two cities, two loves, and a manifold of people mixed together in the saeculum were forced to coexist or dominate each other. But can the mixed city cooperate in all of its plurality? Peace, Augustine argued, is an intrinsic aim of all humans. Peace is even the end to which all war is aimed. There is no doubt he had Rome in his mind as he wrote, “peace is the desired end of war.” Peace itself, not conquest, is beautiful.
But domination, and only domination, can bring about peace, security, and happiness according to the ancient myths and legends. The ineffable struggle of the dialectic is materially manifested in this pursuit. The irony, of course, was Augustine understood the nature of dialectical conflict long before Hegel or Marx. It’s not so much that Augustine disagreed that the essence of the dialectic is one of conflict, but that he placated and assailed those who did not see the limits of domination, violence, and the temporality of peace, happiness, and meritocracy pursued by the earthly city. There is no “end of history” utopia over the horizon. Those who celebrate the conflictual dialectic as leading to any utopian end simply give license to themselves to dominate over those who may be deemed detrimental to the progress of history.
History and Saeculum
Augustine’s most important contribution in The City of God was not his doctrine of the mixed church, his critique and transvaluation of Roman values, or even his recognition that all human endeavors to build new towers of Babel in utopian dreaming would fail (though all are certainly important in their own ways), but his secularization of history and the development of his philosophy of the saeculum. Augustine’s philosophy of history, his historia humana, was not unfolding in some great progress narrative leading to perpetual peace or restoration of lost equality and liberty. He thoroughly disenchanted the deified saeculum of the ancient poets and mythologists. Robert Markus described the thrust of Christianity in the fifth century, beginning with Augustine, as a major force in the “secularization of Rome.” Augustine, then, reminded Christians that they now lived in an uneasy plane of ambiguity. In fact, we all live in that ambiguous plane.
For Augustine, the saeculum was the intermixing of the two cities, two loves, and the myriad of individuals in civil society that would remain mixed until the very end of time, this included the church which was filled with both sinners and saints. Peace should be, and is, the primary concern of persons. And this allows us to pursue our loves, and our attempts to find beauty, love, and happiness. But all too often, for Augustine, we fail to maintain the relative peace in the temporal order that is the saeculum.
Augustine maintained, as was the case with the sacralized view of history from Virgil, that humans often confuse peace with domination. By seeking to impose one’s will over another, peace will result from this viewpoint, but only after the oppositional will or view has been crushed. Thus, Aeneas needed to kill Turnus and displace the Rutuli peoples in order to produce the peace that would give rise to Rome. Augustine sharply rebuked this view. As he wrote in City of God, “For this reason he will be at peace, as far as lies in him, with all men, in that peace among men, that ordered harmony; and the basis of this order is the observance of two rules: first, to do no harm to anyone, and secondly, to help everyone whenever possible.” Cooperation and non-harm are the truest expressions of peace, not the subjugation of others.
Peace is the utmost concern in Augustine’s philosophy. Augustine understood, though peace is often imperfect and relative, that it is nevertheless a good to be cherished for what can occur during any period of relative peace and stability. In writing to the Roman general Boniface when the Vandals were invading Spain and North Africa, Augustine even stated: “Therefore, even in waging war, cherish the spirit of a peacemaker, that, by conquering those whom you attack, you may lead them back to the advantages of peace.” This is often taken out of context, and it is used to criticize Augustine as a hypocrite concerning war, domination, and peace.
The Vandals had invaded North Africa and had come to threaten the fragility of peace and order. In response, Augustine was advising Boniface of his secular duties as tribune and general to defend the order entrusted to him by Rome; Augustine was not advocating war to bring about peace. Though Rome was no saintly or divinely instituted nation (and no such nation exists), it nevertheless provided benefits for pagan and Christian alike—that modicum of peace and order that allowed for those benefits was worth defending against those who threatened it.
The point of Augustine, here, is not to defend Virgil’s Roman Empire without boundaries or sacralized libido dominandi. Augustine recognized the importance and goodness of the relative peace and justice that the Roman political order provided to the citizens of Roman North Africa. That political order, though temporal, can help secure peace and justice rather than a diminution thereof is critical in his thought. Peace and order, no matter how imperfect, allow us to pursue beauty and love, and hopefully to find some solace in God. Augustine himself understood this and wrote: “Thus even the Heavenly City in her pilgrimage here on earth makes use of the earthly peace and defends and seeks compromise between human wills.”
The harshest critique of “Manifest Destiny” came from the pen of the very saint whom American Puritans admired the most. This is made all the more ironic that the Puritans who admired Augustine—Jonathan Edwards most prominently—rejected Augustine’s philosophy of history and returned us to the sacred histories of Homer, Hesiod, and Virgil. Thomas Hobbes equally took hold of this new sacralization of time to sacralize the emergence of the State in history, which has subsequently led to the sacralization of politics as the proper instrument of our salvation. As Hobbes himself states, “This is the generation of the great Leviathan, or rather, to speak more reverently of that mortal god, to which we owe under the immortal God, our peace and defense.” Such ideas horrified Augustine in the fifth century, and should equally be a concern for us today: empires without boundaries, sacred states to which we owe our lives and well-being, and the promise of perpetual peace through conquest and war.
It would be wrong, however, to consider Augustine a dour pessimist. That he most certainly was not. One of the most beautiful prayers in Christian history captured the very themes Augustine occupied himself, beauty and love, “Late have I loved you, O Beauty ever ancient, O Beauty ever new, late have I loved you!”
Augustine’s critique of libido dominandi is ultimately rooted in his humanism that stems from the doctrine of imago Dei. Because humans are made in the image of God, they are given a certain dignity and value that Augustine’s Greek and Latin interlocutors never possessed. Augustine affirms the goodness of all creation, including humanity. Human nature is not by nature sinful (as that would mean we have been created sinful), though humanity has been corrupted by sin. The temple of beauty in the world is not made of marble and arches forged in conquest; it is made of the human body itself, just as St. Paul explained to the Corinthians. Augustine would even go on to remark, “God dwells in some souls who do not know Him yet.”
The introspection of oneself to discover oneself simultaneously leads to the discovery of God, according to Augustine. As a good Plotinian-Platonist, Augustine would importantly modify Plotinus’s conception of henosis—not as a flight from the material to the immaterial realm of the Forms, but as a rational category that could come to be known by reason within the world itself. In De Veritate Religione, Augustine concluded that beauty is a sublime form of happiness and delight. Happiness and delight derive from beauty itself, not the other way around. It is not beautiful because happiness and delight derive from it, but beauty itself is intimately tied to happiness and delight as a whole. As one discovers beauty, one finds happiness, delight, and love, and, more importantly, God. The beauty of the world, created by God, could be known and experienced—to some degree—with happiness flowing from that beauty.
The mature philosophy and theology of Augustine is a remarkable and paradoxical appraisal of secundum carnem. In his conflict with the Manicheans, the radical dualists who came to view the imperfect material reflection of the Forms as the evil to be transcended by escaping the flesh for the immaterial world of the Forms, Augustine reminds us of the goodness and beauty of the material world itself. In the Manichean insistence on the fallenness and evils of the flesh and material world, they failed to see the beauty and transfiguration of the world made manifest in Christ’s incarnation and resurrection.
Augustine was primarily concerned with the proper ordering of love which yields an experience of beauty in most of his works. Things and signs for Augustine are interrelated. The ultimate thing to be loved is God, but things can both be things and signs to some degree. Creation is both a thing and sign, a thing created by God, but also a sign of God’s beauty and love. This is what the Manicheans misunderstood; therefore, they misdirected their love to flee the world to that of pure spirit—a variation of Gnosticism to be sure. Creation, properly understood by Augustine, is a sign that points to the beauty and love of God that brings us joy and happiness. To love and find beauty in creation is possible, as long as we see creation as a reflective henosis of God’s beauty and love. In Augustine there is a certain high-minded carnality that is wrapped entirely around the notions of imago Dei and creatio ex amore Dei that is made all more powerful through the incarnation. Not only has God created the world in love and humans in His image, but God Himself has entered the material world to bring forth a new transfiguration.
The saeculum, while not destined for a grand consummation of empire, perpetual peace, or restoration of lost liberty and equality, is an age by which one can experience the full flourishing of beauty, love, and happiness. The effects of the incarnation are still manifested in the present age no matter how bleak it appears. Indeed, this is the end to which humanity is moving toward. Happiness is the highest telos for all humans. Augustine’s theology and philosophy rest upon a eudemonistic ethos made possible by God.
Beauty, love, happiness, and peace exist before our eyes if only we have the grace to see them. To fight, struggle, and dominate to wishfully arrive at beauty, love, happiness, and peace is the systematic problem of our world from Augustine’s perspective. Rather than build toward beauty, love, happiness, and peace, our libido dominandi—in service to consummate an empire without end—uproots and destroys that which is beautiful, rather than makes manifest to us that which already exists in beauty and abounds in grace.
Augustine, Thucydides, and Alexander
On the eve of war between Athens and Sparta, the Athenian delegation defended her empire against her accusers. Athens, a city of “daring, progress, the arts” as Leo Strauss described it, had come to inherit its empire not by conquest or design but in defense of Greece during the Persian Wars. The Athenians rendered themselves blameless for the empire they controlled and the exhibition of power they employed to maintain it. All was justified as being proper because of Athens’s actions on behalf of Greece decades ago. The Athenians even boldly proclaimed, “Our subjects, on the other hand, are used to being treated as equals.” Athens has done nothing wrong, and seemingly could not do anything wrong from the Athenian point of view.
As the Athenian actors in Sparta reminded everyone, “we contributed to this result in three important ways: we produced most of the ships, we provided the most intelligent of the generals, and we displayed the most unflinching courage. Out of 400 ships, nearly two-thirds were ours… the battle being fought in the straits…was what saved us.” It is important to note how Thucydides outlined the defense of the Athenian Empire from their perspective: Athens provided the ships, generals, and courage; it was the battle in the straits (the Battle of Salamis) that was responsible for the salvation of Greece, not Thermopylae or Plataea.
The Athenians continued, “We did not gain this empire by force. It came to us at a time when you were unwilling to fight on to the end against the Persians” the Athenians proclaim in the middle of the Spartan Assembly. The Athenians even claim that the Greeks “begged [Athens] to lead them.” In sum, Athens’s empire was just. And her designs of a universal empire that stretched from Aeolia, down across Attica, to Sicily and Carthage were equally just and desirable. Thucydides’s Athens, like Virgil’s Rome, was an empire without end.
For all their commitment to the arts, Athens lost sight of beauty and love in her visions of splendid glory and universal empire. The resulting Peloponnesian War weakened Greece, eventually paving the way for Greece’s conquest by the Macedonians. To which Alexander would move eastward and accomplish, more successfully (albeit very briefly), what Athens had only dreamt of achieving.
For all the laurels adorned onto Alexander, his mention by Plutarch in Tranquility of the Mind is telling of Alexander’s apoplectic nature. As Plutarch writes, “Alexander wept when he heard Anaxarchus discourse about an infinite number of worlds, and when his friends inquired what ailed him, ‘Is it not worthy of tears,’ he said, ‘that, when the number of worlds is infinite, we have not yet become lords of a single one?’ But Crates, though he had but a wallet and a threadbare cloak, passed his whole life jesting and laughing as though at a festival.” Alexander wept not at the beauty of the possibility of infinite worlds, or the beauty contained in the world itself, but in his inability to have conquered but one such world. Like the Athenians and Romans, Alexander’s dream of imperial glory through conquest prevented him from seeing and experiencing the beauty before him. Meanwhile, porous and cynical Crates found more joy and happiness than Alexander and his generals.
Augustine’s Eternal Legacy
Giambattista Vico, the last and only Augustinian of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, wrote of the role of language as revealing the inner thoughts of a people and culture in The New Science. That Alexander is remembered as “Great,” and that all sorts of conquering madmen, Nebuchadnezzar, Justinian, Napoleon, and many others are heralded as pioneers, visionaries, and “great men” despite the pools of blood and conquest they left behind, is ever so telling that we still desire the worlds of Homer, Thucydides, and Virgil.
Augustine’s shadow remains over the pretension of Babel-building and its domineering vision of “greatness.” That humans have been endeavoring to build universal empires without end despite their continuous failures, and that those “visionary” leaders are remembered fondly as heroes, should be troubling—if not otherwise disconcerting—that only the smashed skulls of long deceased Homo erectus worry us while the contemporary carnage and domination of the present are eulogized as visions of greatness, progress, and glory. Hermann Weyl’s quote becomes all the more prescient and ironic, “We have tried to storm Heaven, and we have only succeeded in piling up the tower of Babel.” The crushed skulls of Homo erectus could just as easily be substituted for Turnus of over 3,000 years ago, evidence of nothing else besides our libido dominandi that we have supposedly been moving away from according to the prophets at the Altar of Progress.
Augustine serves as a thorn in the side of state imperialism and the human desires for domination and power, not to tear down the dreams of progress or utopia—although he reminds us that such endeavors are folly ones—but to return our sights to the beauty, love, and happiness that stand right before us. Those who dream of Babel-building shall die unhappy and disappointed with the failure to produce a utopia. How tragic it is to die like Lucretia, boxed in with no exit. What is even more tragic is that society cheers us to the grave with our misguided desires and unhappy dissatisfaction with our lives.
Today, no less than it was in 410 when the Visigoths stormed into Rome, our world is feeling the free falling weight of heaven crashing down on our designs and projections. When the narratives of latitudinal progress and the triumphant march of history came tumbling down in the fifth century, Augustine served to remind the people that there was more glory and beauty already at hand than in the cities that sought victory, domination, and maintain the illusion of merit. Now, just as our progressive narratives are also cracking, Augustine still reminds us of the most serene beauty and love to be had at every turn of life.
Far from a bleak pessimist, Augustine passed on to us, and all posterity, prescient words of wisdom: that even in the most disconcerting and dark of times, beauty, compassion, truth, love, and happiness abound. “Late have I loved you, O Beauty ever ancient, O Beauty ever new, late have I loved you.” Augustine remains a saint for us and all eternity. He is every bit as important and wise today as he was in the fifth century if only we have the ears to listen and the eyes to see.
This was originally published with the same title in The Imaginative Conservative on August 27, 2017.