Essay / Misc.

Augustine on History

Augustine’s City of God is a thick brick of a book, provoked by the troubled geopolitics of late imperial Rome, but ranging over all of human history and, before it’s over, providing the first classic attempt at a full-fledged Christian philosophy of history. The book’s cultural and political legacy is equally vast, as it has bequeathed to the Western world a political realism based squarely on recognizing the utter transcendence of God’s purposes.

At the end of a helpful essay on “Augustine’s Philosophy of History,” Rüdiger Bittner attempts a summary:

“So here is the overall Augustinian picture of history. It is a nested structure, like a Russian doll.

First, beyond all history, and indeed beyond time, is God, existing timelessly. What the word ‘beyond’ means in this sentence remains unexplained, given that it does not literally mean ‘prior to’ or ‘outside of.’ The idea is, at any rate, that God encompasses everything that is not God.

Second, there is the realm of temporal things, the realm of history, as this word has been used here. History has a beginning, creation, and so it has a certain age now, even if we do not know what it is; but it will go on indefinitely. There is a reason there is history, but we do not know that either.

Third, within history there is human history. Later than and surrounded by a history that merely unfolds in time the stable nature of things, human history introduces free will and thus novelty: no nature is realized in the workings of free will.

Fourth, within human history there is, surrounded by the uniform life in paradise and after judgment, the changing life of fallen humanity, which is unchanging, though, in its basic misery.

Fifth, there is within this age of human misery that unique event in which God who is beyond all history enters history. This is the turning point of the whole structure. Thanks to it, a path is opened for humans to leave their misery and to enter a new life that is as much in accordance with the eternal God as is possible for a temporal creature of this kind.

— Rüdiger Bittner, “Augustine’s Philosophy of History,” in Gareth B. Matthews, ed, The Augustinian Tradition (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1999), 345-360.

Bittner draws a conclusion from this: for all the eventfulness of the centuries of human history, there is very little of it that actually matters. Augustine doesn’t subdivide history into holy history and secular history, he just sees the holy part as the main events and the rest as insignificant. Anybody who wants to say that Augustine is being small-minded about this is of course welcome to do so.

But if we take him on his own terms, he has nested human history within such vastly larger structures that he is not unduly impressed by the fall of Rome. Sure, it was an “excellent empire” with a lot of Pax Romana to spare for anybody it wasn’t crushing. But empires come and go, and they’re all the city of man in various guises. It’s even proper for a citizen to be patrioitic about the city of man, but then “patriotic” is a word that gives the game away, isn’t it? “Patria,” to Augustine’s classically-trained ear, meant “homeland” as in “the Father’s house,” and Augustine knew better than to seek his home in Rome or its outlying provinces, just as he knew the way to his Father’s house, out beyond history.

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