“Augustine’s Glorious City of God as Principle of the Political”

Trainor, Brian. “Augustine’s Glorious City of God as Principle of the Political.” Heythrop Journal, Vol. 51 (2010), pp. 543-53.  


“In this article I take the view that Augustine presents a perceptive account of the conditions of political legitimacy, one of such depth and complexity that it deserves to be regarded as a classic of Christian political thought. I hold that his political doctrine is broadly systematic and self-consistent; its elementary principle is well expressed by Rowan Williams when he says that in Augustine’s masterpiece he ‘seeks to show that the spiritual is the authentically political’1 and that ‘the commonwealth is, ideally, a pastoral reality, its ruler a director of souls’.2 This elementary principle leads Augustine to distinguish (i) between the City of God ‘in itself’ and in the form of the church (the ‘empirical’ City of God) and, more importantly for our purposes, (ii) between the earthly city as receptive to the true God (and to the City of God ‘in itself’) and the earthly city as opposed to the true God and his City. Augustine, I maintain, holds that an earthly city that turns its face resolutely against God is ipso facto unjust and illegitimate, doing no more than holding together a precarious ‘earthly peace’, and that only an earthly city oriented to the true God can be genuinely described as just and legitimate. It might seem, then, that he has little to contribute to our understanding of the dynamics of a secular pluralist democracy; in a brief concluding section, however, I suggest that Augustine is able to make an important contribution to our attempts to theorise modern, liberal and increasingly ‘post-secular’ societies.”

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