Augustinian Maxims and Truths


April 26, 2012

Again on going through Augustine’s City of God with a class, I am struck by the pithiness of many of his statements. Nietzsche had over five thousand epigrams and maxims in his works. The City of God is something over 1200 pages. Sometimes every sentence seems like a paradox or maxim, when it is not simply a profound, straightforward statement of the truth, to wit: “As it is, however, human nature has refused to keep that peace with God in happiness and so in its unhappiness, it is at war with itself” (21, 15). Man’s inner war with himself is a result of his relation to God.

In the classical Roman world, Martial, though rather acid and racy, was the leading writer of epigrams—“Why don’t I send you my little books? Pontilianus, lest you send me yours.” Nietzsche adds: “One is punished most for his virtues.” “Many a peacock hides his peacock tail from all eyes—and calls it his pride.”

At the end of the fifth book of the City of God, Augustine asks: “Is there anything more loquacious than folly?” From this question, we are to conclude that quiet surrounds wisdom. Early in the following book, Augustine tells us: “Stupidity glories in never yielding to the force of truth.” The key word in that sentence is probably “glories” It is one thing to be stupid, but another thing to “glory” in it, not to realize one’s own absurdity. The peacock’s tail is beautiful; pride is not. “Ought the Romans, as prudent men, to have entrusted the defense of Rome to gods unable to defend themselves?” (I, 3). We suspect the peacock’ tail in this Augustinian query, if not also folly to trust such gods.

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My favorite sentence in the City of God is found in Book 19, c. 1: “No reason can be given for a man to philosophize other than that he be happy.”  Philosophizing is not like eating, or begetting, or building, or fighting, all of which are necessary if mankind is to survive and continue in this world. But philosophizing? Who needs it? And what has philosophizing to do with happiness? Is not happiness living according to the virtues?

But when we have acquired the virtues, what do we do? Virtue is not for its own sake. We become virtuous to know what is. We need to free our minds so that they can be used for the reason why they were created, simply to know, to know what is. But we can use our minds to justify ourselves, our chosen ways. We choose to see only what we want to see, not what is there. Vices cloud our minds whether we admit it or not.

“But even if no one had sinned, it could only have been by good and right judgment that he could have maintained in eternal blessedness the whole rational creation, as with perfect constancy it held fast to him as its Lord” (20, 1). It was possible that no one sinned. Adam and Eve, no less than anyone else, were not coerced or determined to do what they in fact chose to do. The goal of “eternal blessedness” has not changed, only the way to arrive at it, the way of Christ and the Cross. The whole rational creation needed something more than itself to become what it was intended to be. The Incarnation means that they received what they needed.

“But any space of time which starts from a beginning and is brought to an end, however vast its extent, must be reckoned when completed with that which has no beginning” (12, 13). The longest lives dwindle down.

“Now if there is for God a fixed order of all causes, it does not follow that nothing depends on our free choice. Our wills themselves are in the order of causes, which is, for God, fixed, and is contained in his foreknowledge, since human acts of will are the cause of human activities” (5, 9). We do act. God created us to be free. He only knows our acts if He knows them in the freedom in which they exist. When He knows us, He knows us as free; otherwise He would not have created us.

“Without the slightest doubt, the kingdoms of men are established by divine providence” (5, 1). Man is by nature a social animal. Our kingdoms, cities, and nations are the space we have to decide what we shall ultimately be. Kingdoms of men do not last. We are created for eternal life.

Finally, in the Preface to book 5, we read: “But God alone has power to bestow those blessings which can be received even by those who are not good and therefore are not happy.” We will not be happy if we are not good. God does not just bestow his gifts on those who are good, but also on those who are not good. Christ did not come to save the just but sinners. This is, perhaps, the most consoling sentence in the City of God.


  • Fr. James V. Schall

    The Rev. James V. Schall, SJ, (1928-2019) taught government at the University of San Francisco and Georgetown University until his retirement in 2012. Besides being a regular Crisis columnist since 1983, Fr. Schall wrote nearly 50 books and countless articles for magazines and newspapers.

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