Long before St. Peter was martyred there, Rome was called “the eternal city.” Rome was founded by refugees who had fled fallen Troy, and with the neighboring Etruscans, the legendary twins Remus and Romulus founded a city which would rule the world for millennia in one way or another. Against the Roman idea of an eternal City, Augustine spoke of the city of God, the true eternal City.
While Rome had become Christian, it’s sack in 410 caused many elites to long for a restoration of the old order, convinced that Rome’s decline owed something to a betrayal of the gods, and the official turn towards Christianity. Augustine argued that God had blessed Rome most when it observed laws of nature more than the gods, and that even Rome’s best philosophers could see that the gods were fictions, and that there was only one cause of all existence, which we can call God.
Like Aristotle, Augustine observes that the human person is a social animal, and that this primary good of human nature causes every man to enter into fellowship with his neighbor to keep peace. (City of God, 19.12). This law, observable in human nature, is also tied to our conscience, our innate awareness of a distinction between good and evil acts, which is a good in us that “not even the iniquity of sin can destroy.”
What is also observable, however, after the mysterious loss of an original justice, is the tendency to move towards or away from the highest good. This can be seen in the household, in cities, in associations, in kingdoms, nations and empires. Sin pulls down our social and political nature, whereas God’s grace has come down in order to elevate us. Famously, Augustine calls these two tendencies “cities” (civitates). And what he tells Romans, over some 22 books and 1,100 pages, is that it is only by ordering her laws and her life to the city which is perfectly and justly united to the highest good that Rome will be truly “eternal.”
Whether every Roman elite longing to throw off Christianity was convinced by his argument or not, Augustine transformed the western political dynamic. He showed us how Catholic wisdom stands above, as revealed truth, to enlighten and illumine the direction of every actual human city. When Pope St. John Paul II spoke of the Church as “expert in humanity,” he spoke to this same truth that the Catholic vision is hydraulic. It raises the human person, the human family, the human city, even nations, up towards to City of God.
As some of our own elites long for a return to some invention of gods we make for ourselves, but who do us harm, it is this elevating wisdom from the City of God that the world needs again.
C.C. Pecknold is Associate Professor of Theology and Fellow at the Institute for Human Ecology at The Catholic University of America.