Authenticity   /   Fall 2021   /    Essays

Another City

Augustine is crucial to determining the continuity and dissimilarity between the Romans and ourselves.

Charles Mathewes

St. Augustine in His Study (Vision of St. Augustine) (detail), 1502, by Vittore Carpaccio (c.1460–1525/1526); Scuola di San Giorgio degli Schiavoni, Venice, Italy; incamerastock/Alamy Stock Photo.

Augustine is having a moment right now, and not only because President Joseph Biden mentioned him in his inaugural address as “a Saint of my church.” Recent scholarship is taking an interest in the man that stretches well beyond the usual disciplinary suspects of theology or ancient history. A range of political and social theorists think Augustine is crucial for understanding the deeper intellectual currents of modernity, whether as a source of its antiliberalism or an early patron of deeply principled liberalism. Not incidentally, this surge of interest is taking place amid a vast and wrenching reckoning with the complications of race and Eurocentrism in the humanities, and most recently classics in particular. If it has not yet come specifically for Augustine, it is only a matter of time before it does.

It is understandable that our age of reckonings has finally come for antiquity. After all, if there is an origin to our history of error, it must lie there, where, we have been told, we may find the beginnings of our “we.” Consider the “great Roman monosyllables—pax, ius, mos, lex, peace, justice, order, law.”11xJasper Griffin, Virgil (Oxford, England: Oxford University Press, 1986), 102. The English language shares these words with the Romans of two thousand years ago. Religion, revelation, faith, reason; virtue, conscience, nation, creation; sacrifice, vocation, prudence, providence; person, mercy, city: The vocabulary is infinite, almost. If you were to gather a basket of words to order a community, or record your path through life, these are the ones you would most likely choose; and all of them are Latin at their root.

What’s more, these are the very words used both to critique our social order today, as well as to defend it. We use them to excoriate our injustices, cruelties, oppressions, racism, patriarchy; to condemn our callous indifference to purported “other” cultures, presumed “rival” peoples; to denounce hostility to difference in general: So many of our castigatory categories are borrowed from the very same linguistic sources that elicit our righteous fury. Not just in politics, but in the basic vocabulary of our everyday lives, and not just in triumphalism, but in jeremiad, so many of our roads lead back to Rome.22xI agree with Melissa Lane’s observation in her lucid and canny The Birth of Politics: Eight Greek and Roman Political Ideas and Why They Matter (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2014) that these ideas are the “roots” (5) of our own. But Lane does not reckon with how radical the changes were that Christianity effected upon these categories. In this, at least, I agree with Benjamin Constant, Friedrich Nietzsche, Franz Overbeck, and Bernard Williams.

Yet it is just as fundamental a fact that these words have changed decisively—syntactically, semantically, culturally, politically—over the past two millennia. This semantic revolution is not attributable simply to the casual, relentless weathering of time; these changes in meaning and use are far more coherent and deliberate than can be accounted for by random semantic drift. They legibly register a thematic coherence. Some event—some real revolution—must have happened.

Christianity is the catalyst here. Had it not been for the unprecedented and improbable triumph of so benighted a sect from so marginal a people, Rome’s pulsating, malicious grandeur might have been delivered to us undiluted and undiverted, for good and ill. Or perhaps we would exist on different terms altogether, Germanic or Hunnic or Islamic or Mongol. But we do not, and the conversion of the Roman Empire to Christianity remains one of the great wonders of human history, a contingency so vast and radical that many, not only Christians, have understood it as miraculous. The profundity of this change is registered by the depth of its improbability: Is there another example of a hegemon submitting to the thought-world of one of its subject peoples? There are vanishingly few.33xFor one example, see Dmitri Gutas, Greek Thought, Arabic Culture: The Graeco-Arabic Translation Movement in Baghdad and Early ’Abbasid Society (New York, NY: Routledge, 1998).

Along with the scholarly question of cause, there is also the puzzle of consequence: What should we do with this essentially contested legacy, with the revolution in values that that conversion revealed and in turn accelerated? How can we understand who we have become in light of this transformation, and what should we make of this legacy now?

From the far shore of this transition, a certain ambivalence about this history as our inheritance is understandable. This past is not just distant from us, not just foreign, but irrefragably other. There is no seamless continuity between the Romans and ourselves. They lived in a far more cruel and brutal world than the one we tell ourselves, with some truth, we inhabit. (One cost of our moral egalitarianism is a certain hermeneutical estrangement from the collective human past.) We simultaneously admire the Romans’ splendors, and recognize and recoil from their savagery; we are awestruck by their genius, and shudder at their indifference. For all our regard for their own regard for liberty, we are bewildered at their comfort with slavery. There is no simple and straightforward path back to the ancients. Indeed, a crucial part of the modern condition is being in a conflicted relationship with the heritage you have been taught is yours.

This ambivalence has proven difficult for us to acknowledge, let alone address. Our current cultural tumult about our histories suggests that hardly anyone in our present-day debates has properly metabolized their relation to this past. For some, it is the untainted legacy they must at all costs defend; for others, it is the nightmare from which they are trying to awake. In a cool hour, thoughtful partisans will uneasily admit the insights that the other position professes. But cool hours are few and far between right now.

An Ambivalent Legacy

Enter Augustine. He is the crucial figure standing between us and the Romans, the prism through whom their light is refracted for us. To choose just one figure is to oversimplify, of course. But more than any other thinker, Augustine is crucial to determining the continuity and dissimilarity between the Romans and ourselves. He was the last major antique writer who knew what it was to be both not a Christian and a Christian—one of the last, and arguably the greatest, of the “native speakers” of both those rival idioms—and he thought about that difference in all he wrote. He embodied this transition from one idiom to the other, and it was his deepest theme, his “figure in the carpet.” He was the first great thinker to struggle self-consciously with ambivalence about his transitional time. His reflections on the experience of his own transition deeply informed his efforts to shape the Christian transition for his own community, and later generations as well. He thought that, after Eden, this half-in, half-out status was the inevitable fate of all mankind, and we differed only in how deeply aware we were of it. If we do not understand what Augustine was trying to do, and what he accomplished, we will fail to understand our past. And to fail to understand our past is to ensure that we will continue to misunderstand our present.

The work that best crystallizes the transformation and Augustine’s struggle with(in) it is his de civitate DeiThe City of God. In it, he offers an unmatched view of antiquity, the largest continuous and intact work from that world that we have. As such, it is an important “archaeological site” for excavating other, now lost texts, and for understanding the conceptual self-understanding of the late antique world. It is also a kind of “pagan-Christian lexicon,” with many words explained and exemplified, and its pages contain many other voices and works otherwise lost to us.

The City of God is also crucial, though complicatedly so, for understanding the inheritance of Latin Christianity, not just historically but for today, both for Christians and for those who are, in one way or another, post-Christian. If we are to understand contemporary Western Christianity, whether as members of the Christian churches or as those who wish to engage them, a serious acquaintance with The City remains urgent.

Similarly, to understand the “post-Christian” world we inhabit today, The City of God is equally essential. It has exerted an unparalleled influence upon Western thought, which can be read as a history of readings of Augustine. Consider where he stands in the history of philosophy: Born in 354 CE, he lived roughly 800 years after Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle, and roughly 800 years before Aquinas, and there are roughly 800 years between Aquinas and today. Augustine marks the transition between ancient and medieval philosophy. In many ways, modern thought “got beyond” the medieval by returning to the latter’s origins in Augustine. The “humanism” purportedly rediscovered in the Renaissance, the Protestantism and Catholicism discovered in the Reformation and Counter-Reformation, and the secular liberalism that began with the Enlightenment: All these defined themselves in terms of Augustine. The Renaissance, Reformation, and Counter-Reformation did so by drawing powerfully from themes in Augustine’s writing and thought; modernity, by setting itself self-consciously against themes in his thought. A precursor to Descartes’s cogito has a walk-on role in the City, and the voluntarism that undergirds so much of nominalist philosophical anthropology and ontology claimed sponsorship by Augustine’s theorizing about the will, across all of his works. Indeed, even our purportedly most “secularized” understandings of the world today themselves descend from the very theological idea of the saeculum that Augustine pioneered. Hence, even to understand our own contemporary and resolutely secularized “social imaginary,” a deep appreciation of those assumptions, arguments, and influence of The City is invaluable. If we want to “provincialize Europe,” and make it just one participant in our global conversations, not the unquestionable judge of everyone else, then engaging Augustine is a very good place to begin.44xDipesh Chakrabarty, Provincializing Europe: Postcolonial Thought and Historical Difference (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2000).

Along with these ways in which The City of God delivers “our classical heritage,” to us, it also transmits a particular way of receiving and inheriting it as well, one that still has much to teach us today. As one grows more aware of the pertinence of Augustine’s project to our world, his message to us becomes both pressing and perplexing. After all, his situation was not so different from our own: The City depicts, and tries to inhabit, a culturally turbulent age when people with very different philosophies and religious connections had to find some way to live, if not together, at least cheek by jowl with one another. In the book, Augustine thinks hard about living faithfully and unapologetically, but also collegially, in a bewilderingly pluralistic society. Furthermore, The City invokes and engages a complicated, enormously rich, and inescapably ambivalent cultural legacy, one whose organic relation to a previous social order perpetually tempts those who admire that legacy toward a reactionary and sterile nostalgia. In its resolutely anti-nostalgic attitude, the work helps us reckon more carefully with our own relationship to that past. One can even argue that it is the first “Modernist” text, that is, the first text in which a proximate and immediate past is available but problematic for the present day, and can be apprehended only after radical and critical reinterpretation.

But while its influence is unquestioned, we can reasonably wonder whether the lessons we take from The City of God are the ones it meant to teach. The Middle Ages drew on Augustine’s writings, to be sure, but for very different purposes and within a very different social order and social imaginary than his own; hence, his worldview was largely obscured, and his thinking misunderstood. Only in the past hundred years have we come to understand something of the context in which Augustine wrote, and in the process come to understand something more of him.


Augustine’s work has clearly been influential. But there is no simple or straightforward continuity between what he was trying to say and what later centuries took from him. For a long time, Augustine was understood, by advocates and critics alike, as a defender of “Christendom,” of the legacy of the past as a whole, uncomplicated and homogenized. But since World War II, the remarkable recovery of the historical Augustine, and the historical era in which he lived, has been one of the more interesting developments in historiography. Drawing on earlier scholarship, scholars such as Henri-Irénée Marrou and Peter Brown resituated Augustine in a historical context far vaster and more stimulating than earlier, more scholastic accounts had allowed, whether in Christian Patristics or classical scholarship. The radically revisionist historiography of “Late Antiquity” in general, and the more recent textual and historical work from the “New Canon” approach to Augustine’s works, have complicated our understanding of the continuities and disjunctions between the ancient world and the early medieval one. This scholarship has unknotted Augustine from the medieval thinkers who came after him and claimed him, extracting him from what Peter Brown has called “the relay race of the formation of western Christian civilization,” wherein Augustine “picked up the baton brought to him by Plotinus, all the way from Plato and the ancient sages of Greece,” then passed it “on triumphantly to Boethius, and thence to Thomas Aquinas.55xPeter Brown, “Introducing Robert Marcus,” Augustinian Studies 32 (2001), 183. In reading this line of Brown’s, I thought of E.R. Curtius, European Literature and the Latin Middle Ages, trans. Willard Trask (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1953), who speaks of “the aqueduct of the Western tradition” (248). Instead of that Great Books account, we now have a much more complicated and human picture of Augustine, a particular man in a particular place at a particular time.

The lessons this has enabled us to learn are manifold, but one in particular is important for our purposes here: Augustine did not write The City of God for an essentially “religious” audience, composed of priests and monks; he wrote it for a lay one, embedded in “the world” and uncertain as to Christianity’s implications for its functioning. The questions driving that work support that contention: How do you induce people to enter a new way of life? How does redemption occur? Is it a replacement of what has gone before, or a conversion and transfiguration? Augustine’s answers are powerful. He was no Manichaean dualist; this is the world that God will redeem, and not discard. But neither was he a Pelagian or Donatist: There is nothing easy or straightforward about this redemption. The condition of being converted is a strange one, which we must learn to inhabit; it requires humility and forbearance and continuous and scrupulous self-scrutiny, deeply skeptical self-regard. Most of all it requires an enduring patience with ourselves, with the world, and with God. It is the purpose of The City to help its readers cultivate that patience in themselves, as they live into the community of Christians in the new city.

Augustine’s project offers an account of civil and existential order quite different from that promulgated by pagan Rome. Quite simply, it offers another city. To talk about another city implies awareness of one that is already sufficiently understood. And this is so for him. The Kingdom Coming is not radically alien to our current existence, but it remains estranging, reflecting our world as in a funhouse mirror, exaggerating some features and diminishing others. The Kingdom is not an escape from Creation but a consummation of it, one that reveals a glory that is, to our eyes, currently hidden within it. So for instance, Augustine says, in the redeemed Creation,

we shall then see the worldly bodies of the new heaven and the new earth in such a way that, wherever we look, we shall see God with brilliant clarity, everywhere present and governing all things including bodily things—seeing him both through the bodies we shall be wearing and the bodies we shall be looking at.… Wherever we turn the spiritual eyes of our bodies we shall discern, by means of our bodies, the incorporeal God directing the whole universe.66xAugustine, City of God, ed. and trans. R.W. Dyson, Cambridge Texts in the History of Political Thought (Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 1998), 22.29.

Augustine plays with this theme of continuity-in-difference in The City of God all the time. Is this the world we inhabit? we repeatedly ask ourselves, and just when we begin to form a firm judgment that it is not, we round a corner in the text and stop stock-still with a shock of recognition: Yes, he’s got us dead to rights there, we say, or I never thought of it like that before, or I’ve wondered about this myself. Furthermore, this vision not only differs from the one it urges us to jettison, but significantly differs from the vision we have often heard about. In fact, Augustine’s City is another “another city,” one we have all but forgotten, or perhaps never understood. It is this dialectic of familiarity and estrangement, of alienness and intimacy, of distance and proximity, that this phrase is meant to convey.

So it is this developing understanding that helps us appreciate The City of God more richly than before. But it is not only of exegetical significance. This deepening appreciation of Augustine’s project can be of great value for helping us understand how to live in our new “postsecular” understanding. The postsecular scholarship can also help us better appreciate, and perhaps better employ, the tools already developed to understand Augustine’s project. Augustine’s work in The City can now be seen as relevant in a new way in a postsecularist age, both for what I call “analysts” and “advocates.”

After Secularism

In every age, humans learn only what their experience of the world renders them capable of learning. So it is, as well, with our own: To understand the value of Augustine, it helps to understand our world in light of our larger ongoing reflections, particularly in recent years, on the nature of the common world we inhabit, a world that we might describe as “secular.”

Consider how we see our world today. Most would agree that we stand at the end of Christendom. This is so in two senses, one well known, the other not so well known. The well-known sense is clear: Christendom is over. If we understand that term to designate a large-scale effort to shape and sustain civilization on explicitly Christian terms (and it was always at most an effort, never an achievement), states, citizens, and even most Christian churches have effectively surrendered that ambition. The status of religious convictions, confessions, and practices—their legitimacy in public, and the claim they make to organize our lives for us—is much more contested, far more fragile and recognizably contingent, than it has ever been before, and there are no signs that that trend is being reversed. Our world has been “secularized.”

But there is a second, less known sense to this claim. If Christendom has in one way ended, in another way it has been accomplished. Don’t look now, but we are living in the midst of a huge “moral revolution” that has occurred over the past several centuries. Slavery is now internationally illegal; equality is a watchword; we feel obliged, however faintly, to care about people far away; we feel morally outraged at our own history. This moral revolution is one deeply oriented and driven by Christianity. Materially, of course, this revolution has happened in no small part because of the vast increase of power and connection among humanity’s disparate peoples across the globe. But those material powers have been oriented, motivated, shaped, and sharpened by the thinking of those who enact them, and that thinking has been basically shaped by Christian concepts, convictions, and ways of inhabiting the world. We live in a world that has become radically Christian in shape and deep structure, even as it has lost the surface appearance of being Christian.

Reflect on the presumptive universalism of our moral ideals, the concept of the individual, or the tension between our public and private lives. What does it mean to find ultimate value present in the immanent? To believe that the contingencies of our flesh can host the infinite value of the spirit? These are questions that are intelligible to us crucially because for almost two thousand years Western intellectual thought was tempered under the pressure of Christian doctrines such as the Incarnation, God’s universal sovereignty and care, and the idea that the human was made in the image of God. Our conception of what is morally acceptable and unacceptable, our attitude toward our national identities and our cosmic location, even the way we are individuals: All of these are deeply shaped by the Western world’s Christian legacy. Even in our very worldliness, we are “worldly” in a Christian way; even the most “secular” among us would be largely unintelligible to a traditional Roman, while a member of Augustine’s congregation at Hippo might find much moral common ground with any atheist today. (Recent proponents of a revitalized “paganism” have no idea what they’re talking about, and the professors of law or literature who advocate it have neither the historical education nor the theological intelligence to defend such views, not least because the very category “pagan” is itself largely a Christian construction.77xSee Anthony Kronman, Confessions of a Born-Again Pagan (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2016); Martin Hagglund, This Life: Secular Faith and Spiritual Freedom (New York, NY: Pantheon, 2019); an older but similar book is Steven Greenblatt, The Swerve: How the World Became Modern (New York, NY: Norton, 2011), which remarkably won both the National Book Award and the Pulitzer Prize while being excoriated by scholars. For a sense of how historically mistaken such accounts are, see Alan Cameron, The Last Pagans of Rome (New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 2013), and Kathleen Davis, Periodization and Sovereignty: How Ideas of Feudalism and Secularization Govern the Politics of Time (Philadelphia, PA: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2008). For a far more serious and thoughtful alternative, see Bernard Williams, Shame and Necessity (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1993).) Many thinkers have attempted to understand our modern world without accepting the self-congratulatory terms we often use to talk about it. They argue that the so-called secular practices, categories, and judgments that shape our world today are in fact historically Christian practices, categories, and judgments with the surface Christian language removed, but with deep Christian structures and dynamics, often unknowingly retained.

I do not make these claims out of any kind of smug Christian triumphalism. In fact, the greatest explorers of these hypotheses have been non-Christian thinkers like Friedrich Nietzsche and Max Weber, and they have also engaged thinkers from Benjamin Constant and Alexis de Tocqueville in the early nineteenth century to contemporary scholars such as Saba Mahmood, Talal Asad, and Winnifred Sullivan. These thinkers question the legitimacy of our received category of “the secular” as an uncontroversial lens through which to understand our world, or a standpoint from which to interpret the past.88xScholars of the critique of secularism represent a wide range of disciplines: anthropologists of Islam such as Talal Asad and Saba Mahmood, as well as representatives of the “Anthropology of Christianity” movement of Joel Robbins, Matthew Engelke, and Méadhbh McIvor; sociologists such as José Casanova, Philip S. Gorski, and Danièle Hervieu-Léger; “postsecular” literary critics such as Pericles Lewis and Amy Hungerford; medievalists such as Sarah Beckwith and Steven Justice; historians such as Ethan H. Shagan, David A. Hollinger, Tisa Wenger, Jonathan Sheehan, Laurie F. Maffly-Kipp, and Molly Worthen; political scientists and international relations theorists around the journal Politics and Religion. For differently oriented introductions in religious studies, see Brent Nongbri, Before Religion: A History of a Modern Concept (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2013); William T. Cavanaugh, The Myth of Religious Violence (Oxford, England: Oxford University Press, 2009); and Peter Harrison, The Territories of Science and Religion (Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 2015). They have rewritten the story of modern secularism, rejecting what Charles Taylor has called the “subtraction story” the Enlightenment told, in which secularism is achieved simply by removing (“subtracting”) the religious “superstructure,” scraping away priestcraft and superstition, revealing a hard, cold, empirical “secular” base beneath.99xCharles Taylor, A Secular Age (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2007). So understood, secularism’s purported polarized opposition to a prior Christendom has been, importantly, ironically deconstructed; it turns out to be much more path-dependent on its theological forebears than many secularists have recognized.

Together, the deeper appreciation of Augustine’s historical context—outside the “Christendom” frame—and the new understanding of our condition—beyond a brittle secularism—enable us to see Augustine’s thinking in a new light, and perceive new insights therein for our world today.

To understand how we got here, it will help to know something briefly of how Augustine was read in the past century. Almost a hundred years ago, Henri-Xavier Arquillière’s account of “political Augustinianism” established that Augustine was not a kind of theocrat, both as a matter of exegetical adequacy and theological plausibility.1010xHenri-Xavier Arquillière, L’Augustinisme politique. Essai sur la formation des théories politiques du Moyen Âge (Paris, France: J. Vrin, 1972). First published 1934. For a helpful summary of the reception of Arquillière’s thesis, see Michael J.S. Bruno, Political Augustinianism: Modern Interpretations of Augustine’s Political Thought (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress, 2014). Arquillière’s account opened a door that R.A. Markus walked through in his 1970 book Saeculum. This work provided a crucial clue to a richer understanding of Augustine. Markus’s account highlighted Augustine’s ironic understanding of history, an understanding often lacking among his flat-footed “political Augustinian” theocratic readers. Markus also explored Augustine’s sense of the complexity and ambiguity of encounters between Christians and non-Christians. For him, Augustine was trying to think through Christian life in an age, the saeculum, when that life would always be fragile and vulnerable to corruption, both within and without the churches.1111xR.A. Markus, Saeculum: History and Society in the Theology of St. Augustine (New York, NY: Cambridge University Press, 1988).

Markus thought this understanding of the saeculum might be an antecedent of liberal understandings of “secularism.” But more recent scholarship, informed by the work of Talal Asad, Saba Mahmood, and other “postsecular” thinkers, argues that Markus’s proposal misconstrues Augustine’s saeculum. Modern understandings of “secularism” imagine it fundamentally as a space, the space of the world, with religious issues relegated to some “elsewhere.” But Augustine construed the saeculum as fundamentally an era, a condition we all endure; he never thought there was a zone of “the world” that was in some way qualitatively distinct in its relation to God or in which religious convictions did not apply. The saeculum was a condition that marked all dimensions of the created realm, and if some regions of that realm (such as the actually existing Christian churches) were marked by that condition in different ways than others, those differences were due not to some areas being naturally more “secular” than others, but to how those different areas participated—more or less, better or worse—in the divine economy.

This new understanding of Augustine’s thinking offers new insights for our world: While “postsecular” scholarship critically analyzes the logic of contemporary understandings of “the secular,” it does not attend to the category’s deep history. At most, such inquiries go back to John Locke, or perhaps Martin Luther, but rarely further. But it is Augustine who is the crucial figure in the invention of the category of “the secular,” and The City of God the crucial text. Throughout the work, Augustine queries the relationship between psychology, sociocultural habituation, and social and civic practices: What is the nature of individuals’ appropriate engagement in such practices, especially in pluralistic contexts, and what are the characteristic dangers and potential deformations that such cooperation can entail? When, for instance, does cooperation become co-optation, even collaboration?

Augustine is fundamentally concerned about the relationship among social and civic order, individual psychology, and theological fidelity, and these concerns make him ask questions about the latent meanings of practices, the relation of cultural forms to the forming of individual character, and the shape of the relationship between self-conscious and even professed individual intentions and the dispositional consequences that participation in social practices may entail. His analyses of the semi-“social constructivist” vision of civic religious traditions set forth five centuries earlier by the Roman scholar Marcus Terentius Varro (in The City of God books 6 and 7), and of the Platonists’ loosely “universalist” and “inclusivist” interpretations of religious diversity in antiquity (in books 8 through 10), are exemplary instances of this sort of inquiry. But the seriousness with which he pursued these questions was not picked up by his immediate successors. In all these ways, Augustine’s was the last generation before the twentieth century to grapple with life in a truly religiously pluralistic society. As an astute analyst and anatomist of existence in such a condition, he has lessons for us all.

For advocates, confessional theologians and otherwise, Augustine has lessons as well. The past generation has seen sharpening disagreements among those interested in promoting particular positions in normative debates about religion and politics. How should political life be organized in pluralistic settings, and how ought individual citizens and communities, with distinctive and existentially decisive particularistic commitments, participate in those polities? Historically, these debates have silently assumed a picture of “religion” and “public life” as essentially extrinsic to each other, in some version or other of Taylor’s “subtraction story.”

But the postsecular critique has rendered that assumption contestable, and Augustine would agree. His sober assessment of civic life is well known. It runs from his critique of worldly kingdoms as latrocinia—“larcenies,” robber bands—in book 4, to the very disquieting presentation of the Christian emperor Theodosius as at best merely “happy in hope” in book 5, to the discussion, in the climactic “worldly” book 19, of the judge whose interrogation (indeed, torture) of a witness causes that witness to die, and Augustine’s careful anatomization of the right kind of deliberative process that a pious and wise civic servant will undergo when faced with such possibilities. But earlier scholars often assumed that Augustine’s “political-realist” critique could be detached from his theological sensibilities, that the latter might be “subtracted” from the former. This is a mistake. It is precisely the cosmic vision funded by his theological convictions that allows him to see the inevitable childishness of political fury; it is due to his apprehension of the crystalline clarity of divine love and mercy that he recognizes the inescapable obscurity and contradictions of human motivations; it is through his glimpses of our truest fulfillment that he apprehends the poverty of most of what passes for happiness among us. Politics is always already theological for him, and he thinks this is true about any politics humans might propose.

What then? How can we recognize the import of values yet also the parochialism and partiality of our individual positions? Here again, Augustine’s work has much to teach us. Far from being the “founder of Christendom,” he was in fact the last great theologian before Christendom, and constantly attempted to register and reckon with the undeniable subjectivity of Christianity, yet also with its inescapable entanglement with cultural and institutional realities, its incarnated reality, as it were.

This matters in two ways. On the one hand, a fair amount of his thinking is haunted by the question of how Christians should live in a largely superficially Christian society, a context that presents its own characteristic dangers. His work also has clues about how to be authentically Christian in an age when Christian categories have become second nature and can be absorbed secondhand. His vision of what is asked by faith still retains some of North Africa’s hardness, and some of its vehemence. “The Emperor has been converted, but the devil has not,” he once said in a sermon,1212xIn the original: “Si christiani facti sunt imperatores, numquid diabolus christianus factus est”; The Works of Saint Augustine: A Translation for the Twenty-first Century, vol. III/18, “Expositions of the Psalms 73–98,” ed. John E. Rotelle OSA, trans. Maria Boulding OSB (Hyde Park, NY: New City Press, 2002). hinting at worries about a disjunction, perhaps inevitable, between appearance and reality, that have haunted Latin Christianity, particularly through its more Augustinian descendants (such as Luther, Pascal, and Kierkegaard), ever since.

On the other hand, Augustine was deeply familiar with the question of how to undertake Christian existence in a world not explicitly designed for Christians’ convenience, and he proposed a way of living in that condition beyond disappointment and resentment. So his thought may now be intelligible in a fresh way. And our renewed appreciation of it helps us to see our own world in a new light as well.

The new understandings of Augustine’s context and thinking, aided by the “postsecular” scholarship of the past couple of decades, suggest that Augustine offers us not a blueprint for a Christendom but a guide to life in a radically complicated religio-cultural-political landscape. In his arguments and in his language, Augustine offers a conversionist account of the cosmos, which depicts creation in this age as sacramentally oriented toward God. He offers the rudiments of a redeemed speech and healed way of life to an audience still on the way, still on the mend, still mired in inanities and insanities.

From Melancholia to Mourning

They used to pour millet on graves
       or poppy seeds

To feed the dead who would come
       disguised as birds.

I put this book here for you,
       who once lived

So that you should visit us no more.

      —Czesław Miłosz, “Dedication”1313xCzesław Miłosz, New and Collected Poems, 1931–2001 (New York, NY: Ecco, 2001), 5.

For many of us, whether we know it or not, Augustine is the central religious figure in our world, for good or ill. Probably for both: We draw from him, argue with him, commend him, condemn him, and blame him for much. He is said to hate the world, to be afraid of embodiment, of women, of sex; he is a totalitarian, a proto-Torquemada, inventor of the Inquisition; he advocates fixity over fluidity, moralism over sanity, abstraction over reality; he is a sycophant, a pessimist, a nihilist, a thug; a censor, an emotional tyrant, a polemicist who twisted his opponents’ views, distorted his enemies’ arguments, belittled where he should have respected, silenced where he should have listened, prosecuted where he should have tolerated, hated where he should have loved. He was a terrible historian, crude dialectician, doltish exegete, grim predestinarian, blind ontotheologian. He wrote bad Latin!

Probably that last would have stung him the most. He wouldn’t have been hurt by the others, having survived so many bruising rhetorical fights in late antiquity’s dialectical arenas. But the range of attacks, their collective incompatibility, might well have bewildered him.14Some popular, or at least common, criticisms of Augustine can be found in, for instance, Elaine Pagels, Adam, Eve, and the Serpent (New York, NY: Penguin, 1988); John Lewis Gaddis, On Grand Strategy (New York, NY: Penguin, 2018); and David Miller, Justice for Earthlings: Essays in Political Philosophy (New York, NY: Cambridge University Press, 2012). It should bewilder us.

Augustine suspected that something like this might happen. He wanted us to see him as complicated, but he wouldn’t be surprised that we don’t. In a sermon rediscovered only in the late 1970s—its long obscurity suggesting that the text was not popular in the hagiographical centuries following his death—he went quite far down the road to disavowing his fame:

We who engage in public debates and write books…make progress as we write, we are learning every day, engaged in research as we dictate, knocking at the door as we speak.… [So] don’t even think of regarding as canonical scripture any debate, or written account of a debate by anyone.… If I have said something reasonable, let him follow, not me, but reason itself; if I’ve proved it by the clearest divine testimonies, let him follow, not me, but the divine scripture.… I get angrier with that fan of mine who takes my book as being canonical, than with the man who finds fault in my book with things that are not in fact at fault.1515xAugustine, The Works of Saint Augustine, Sermons III/1: Newly Discovered Sermons, ed. John E. Rotelle, trans. Edmund Hill (Hyde Park, NY: New City Press, 1997), 176–77.

Augustine does not want us thinking he is some sort of superhuman genius. He knows he is human, and the differences between him and us are not differences of species. He is merciless about this: Everything he says can be, in principle, understood by us, at least as far as he can understand it himself.

But Augustine has been a victim of his own success. He seems to us both distant authority and immediate friend. Because he overshadows all other historical figures, we identify him with the causality of history; we forget Augustine and imagine “Augustine,” the marble Father. So comprehensive is his influence on our world that we identify him with the past simpliciter; we hear the background noise to Augustine’s unique voice, and assume it all comes from him. No postapostolic thinker has been invoked more successfully, or more variously, to authorize the Western Church’s teachings. For good and ill, he is in the West the “Second Founder of the Faith.”

Yet he is also fleshly, and all too human, and our anger at him is intimately related to our imagination of him as our neighbor, our proximus; the illusion of vivid availability his language continues to provide provokes us to drop our hermeneutical guard. Peter Brown puts it well: “Augustine has an uncanny capacity always to seem close to us. This has meant, among other things, that he is always around for us to blame for anything which we do not like in our own times.”1616xPeter Brown, “Review of Emotion and Peace of Mind: From Stoic Agitation to Christian Temptation, by Richard Sorabji,” in Philosophical Books 43, no. 3 (2002): 203. As Brown has long insisted, we must recognize both the proximity and the distance between Augustine and ourselves. Sometimes he shocks us with his immediacy: Then he seems our neighbor. Elsewhere he seems very distant from us, a voice from another planet. Both of these impressions are legitimate. But both simply confirm Augustine as fundamentally other than us: sometimes for us, sometimes against us, and always, ideally, inescapably alongside us. Admitting this will help us achieve a genuine understanding of him, as relevantly like us: a man who struggled for clarity, changed his mind, and had to think using tools from a fairly limited range of intellectual options whose parameters he did not set. Naturally, he is by no means identical to us; for example, he had a vital and vibrant belief in active demonic spirits, which few of us would share. But then again, he is intellectually in some kind of relation with our thought-world, and you do his thought, and yourself, a grievous disservice if you cannot register the grip of this way of imagining and inhabiting the world.

Recognition of his “historical locatedness” would be a healthy advance. For we are caught in a melancholic relationship with Augustine, and we need to move to one of mourning. We ought to avoid an essentially juridical attitude toward him, caught up in a repetition compulsion of condemnation and adulation, and achieve a deeper, more mature relationship with his works, whether we agree with them or not.

This is the problem of human understanding in general, and it highlights our lack of a lucid understanding of the relationship between the registers of familiarity and strangeness. We often think that these are polar opposites on a singular continuum. But the quality of distance and difference registered when one says that something is “unfamiliar” is rooted, I think, in ignorance, in not-knowing, while strangeness presumes some recognition of proximity, of presence, where the distance separating one from another that is so registered is not reducible to an idiom of acquaintance, lacking information versus apprehending alienation.

“Apprehending” is an apt word here, for this is indeed an apprehension: Strangeness typically presents itself, if not as an immediate threat, at least as a tacit, looming, menace. Just as those with whom we are most intimate—spouses, family, friends—repeatedly shatter the frames within which we seek to fix them, so the irreducible subjectivity of every human, living and dead and yet to be born, will always bring us up short with the always surprising, not infrequently threatening, occasionally exhilarating reminder that other people exist in the world. To get to this insight, again and again, and to have it always ambush us, again and again, is one of the fundamental features of human life lived as intellectually alive, which is to say one of the fundamental features of human life as lived at all.

This may be part of the human condition in general, but it is especially pertinent to the project of historical understanding itself, as a distinctive feature of our being “moderns” in general. By definition, modernity begins from the premise that a fundamental newness qualifies our situation, and whatever else it may mean, this newness signifies some complicated, yet-unresolved quandary vis-à-vis some inescapable past, a past from which we emerged but to which we cannot return. This is the basic epistemological and aesthetic problem of modernism: the rupture of history and our problematic estrangement from some inescapable imagined past.

The vertigo of modernity lies in the challenging freedom this rupture promises us, a freedom that is exercised most in our realization of a relative autonomy from that earlier era, combined with our obligation to define ourselves in relation to that earlier era, by rupture, recovery, or some other response. And our insistence on the newness of our world is intimately related to our recoil from what we see as the badness and falsity of the old. Over time, modernity has made a practice of seeing the historical world as corrupt; as W.H. Auden says, we see history as made “by the criminal in us.” Such sentiments express the ambivalence of modernity’s self-knowledge, forged in a historicism made hotter and brighter by a fear that history is a nightmare from which we will never awake. This is not just an aesthetic or ethical option, but an imperative: The irony of the development of historiography is that a technique meant to put us in closer contact with the past has ended up estranging us from it. Our condition thus is always marked by ambivalence, ambiguity, and irony: the classic tropes of a modernist aesthetics, sociologically as well as aesthetically.1717xFor a literary survey of modernism (and “Modernism”), see Peter Childs, Modernism (New York, NY: Routledge, 2000). For a philosophical analysis, see Robert Pippin, Modernism as a Philosophical Problem (Malden, MA: Blackwell, 1991).

This relation to history is most powerfully and poignantly framed as a dialectic of civilization and barbarism. As Walter Benjamin put it, “there is no document of culture which is not also a document of barbarism.”1818xEs ist niemals ein Dokument der Kultur, ohne zugleich ein solches der Barbarei zu sein,” Walter Benjamin, “Theses on the Philosophy of History,” VII, p. 200 in Benjamin, Illuminations: Essays and Reflections (New York, NY: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1968). We today, Benjamin’s readers, are his avid students in this. But what does this entail? When we have recognized the simultaneous barbarity of our civility, we can go on to ask, After such knowledge, what forgiveness?

“Civilization” is an interesting term here. Today Augustine’s De civitate Dei falls prey to our contemporary suspicion of all ancient texts; it is even critiqued as an imperialist text itself, and not without evidence. In many ways, we have gone from seeing it as supremely civilized to seeing it as fundamentally barbaric. But what is remarkable is the degree to which it also participates in this “modernist” concern with a past from which it cannot be entirely free. In a vital way, Augustine’s book is precisely about civilization, about who is civilized, if anyone is, what “civilization” really is, and whether his world is indeed as civilized as it presents itself as being. On the whole, he thinks it is not: “Is it wise or prudent to wish to glory in the breadth and magnitude of an empire when you cannot show that the men whose empire it is are happy?… The joy of such men may be compared to the fragile splendor of glass: they are horribly afraid lest it be suddenly shattered.”1919xAugustine, The City of God, 4.3.

Has empire been worth it? Can we be said to be civilized? These are questions Augustine puts before us. There is deep sympathy between Augustine’s perspective in The City of God and the viewpoint of someone like Joseph Conrad’s character Marlow, who says, in Heart of Darkness, “The conquest of the earth, which mostly means the taking it away from those who have a different complexion or slightly flatter noses than ourselves, is not a pretty thing when you look into it too much.”2020xJoseph Conrad, Heart of Darkness, ed. D.C.R.A. Goonetilleke (Orchard Park, NY: Broadview Literary Texts, 1999), 19. First published 1899. Civilization and empire are topics of profound ambiguity in Augustine’s writing, as much as for any modern writer. Any other modern writer, I’m tempted to say.

This anti-imperialist aspect of The City of God does not go unnoticed, exactly; it just gets overwhelmed, in most people’s appreciation, by the many other currents of pro-hegemonic discourse, and pro-authoritarian thinking, that course through the book. But those who spend more time with Augustine typically arrive at more ambivalent analyses. For instance, William Connolly, in two editions of his book The Augustinian Imperative, moved from depicting Augustine (in 1993) as a terrible figure of oppression, dualism, and self-unknowing to proposing (in 2002) to retitle his book “The Augustinian Temptation,” in reference to a temptation Augustine sometimes indulged in but which he also occasionally diagnosed and, at least theoretically, condemned. Such reconsiderations are not just the province of enthusiasts who weaponize Augustine for their own purposes; genuine scholars of Augustine have done this as well. Henri-Irénée Marrou’s “Retractatio” provides perhaps the best-known incident of such a re-reading in the twentieth century, although Peter Brown’s two wonderful “Afterword” essays in the 2000 edition of his biography Augustine of Hippo suggest how far he too could go in that direction. More distantly, we can see the Reformation as another such re-reading of Augustine, in contrast to the more rigid “political Augustinianism” of the Middle Ages’ Christendom. And we can see postmodernity as a recovery of Augustine’s anthropology through Martin Heidegger and Ludwig Wittgenstein, who themselves undertook a re-reading of Descartes’s appropriation of Augustine in the seventeenth century.

One can even say that the practice (or if you want to be cynical, the maneuver) began with Augustine himself. He was always, after all, a rhetor, a rhetorician, deeply aware of his audiences and the complexities of reception. In his Retractationes, he went over his entire corpus, explaining what he was trying to do and why he was trying to do it. In fact, the problem of “understanding Augustine,” and discussing misunderstandings of his work, was one Augustine wrestled with his whole life. The Confessions is about this just as much as is his Retractationes; indeed, the former can be seen as an earlier version of the latter.

The City of God displays the power of these many readings, and Augustine’s self-consciousness about them must be taken into account. It has so far turned out to be the case, much more often than not, that Augustine as a reader is there before us in the text, trying to warn us off, or setting booby traps that we boobies stumble into again and again. When you read a text, the text reads you as well, and the capacity of the City to expose its readers’ limitations has served, time and again, as a remarkable metric for an age’s self-understanding, and as a spur to others to try to do better.

Of course, critiques of imperialism such as Conrad’s, including those from the perspective of the colonized, are not unique to our recent past. Nor is Augustine the only ancient exemplar. Tacitus and Thucydides, at the least, express similar concerns; but those thinkers differ from Augustine, and from us, in their ultimately blasé belief that such is the inescapable condition of creatures like us, that there is nothing essentially awry about these dynamics; that history, as it were, is the libido dominandi—the “lust to dominate” that is also the “lust that dominates”—all the way down. They differ, that is, in lacking what we might call a historical mindset: They offer a cyclical or natural picture, not an account that registers the contingencies of our problems. By contrast, Augustine shares with us moderns the conviction that such a naturalization of the facts of our sheer brutality is deeply wrong, amounting to a tacit resignation before them. Augustine’s account is not only one of the most profound works of anti-imperialist literature in the Western tradition; it may also be the first to bear our sense of the metaphysical wrongness of empire in itself.

More generally, I have suggested that Augustine is the first major thinker to see and grapple with the complicated legacy of the past as the problem of a complicated “modernity.” In a way, he is the first modernist, not a precursor to the modernists, but one of them. And this is my central formal claim: that in rhetoric, argument, structure, and strategy, Augustine is continuously struggling to figure out how to understand the continuity between Rome and Jerusalem, between a powerful but morally misaligned past and a vital but culturally bereft present. This has sometimes been raised as a matter of periodization (after all, the word modernus seems first to have been used by Cassiodorus in the sixth century CE), although it is a deeper issue than that. In fact, style reinforces matter for Augustine: In The City of God, as in much of his thought, his antiapocalypticism enables a modernist aesthetics involving irony, ambivalence, complexity, and impurity, all framed by a redemptive imagination, yet given wide play on their own terms.2121xBruce Holsinger, The Premodern Condition: Medievalism and the Making of Theory (Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 2005); Andrew Cole and D. Vance Smith, eds., The Legitimacy of the Middle Ages: On the Unwritten History of Theory (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2010). On the aesthetics of late antiquity as protomodern, I have found the works of Marco Formisano thought-provoking: “Towards an Aesthetic Paradigm of Late Antiquity,” Antiquité Tardive 15 (2007): 277–84, and “Fragments, Allegory and Anachronicity: Walter Benjamin and Claudian,” in Reading Late Antiquity: The Library of the Other Antiquity, ed. Sigrid Schotthenius Cullhed and Mats Malm (Heidelberg, Germany: Universitätsverlag Winter, 2018), 33–50. It is much more than this, of course, but it is at least this; it at least contains within itself this modernist moment.

I say this not as an attempt to make Augustine a twenty-first century thinker but to ask us to reconsider whether themes that we assume emerged only in the past century are not actually visible much earlier in the historical record. Furthermore, it may be the case that current controversies roiling the cultural discourse about tainted legacies and the “problematic” nature of the past are, more exactly, central to this modern condition, in ways that Augustine’s work plays a not insubstantial part in creating. To investigate Augustine, as I have only begun to show here, is, among other things, to investigate the nature of claims to, and the meaning of, “modernity” itself.