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Composed in the aftermath of the Visigoth sack of Rome, Augustine's City of God seems to have everything you need for a summer blockbuster, all four horsemen at full gallop. Augustine recounts the “devastation, slaughter, looting, burning and affliction” of Rome's “recent calamity.” He gives careful attention to the damnable outrage of rape, seeing it as an expression of the lust for domination that is the ethos of the city of man and assuring Christian women they aren't defiled by another's sin. His subject promises buckets of blood, fire, and vapor of smoke; sword, famine, and pestilence galore.

Yet those looking for prurient detail of slaughter and mayhem will be disappointed. Augustine doesn't avert his gaze, but neither does he indulge the lust of his eyes, or offer spectacles to dazzle the lustful eyes of his readers. Nor, notably, does he lament Rome's end. In Augustine there's nothing like Jerome's famous cri de coeur in his commentary on Ezekiel: “when the bright light of all the world was put out, or, rather, when the Roman Empire was decapitated . . . the whole world perished in one city. Who would believe that Rome, built up by the conquest of the whole world, had collapsed, that the mother of all nations became their tomb?” Augustine is certain Rome's end isn't the end. 

Augustine isn't even surprised Rome has fallen. Instead of enumerating disasters, he exposes the causes, as if he saw it coming, in part to prove that it had nothing to do with the spread of Christianity. The atrocities Rome suffered weren't unique but accorded with the “customs of war.” As he probes Rome's history, he recalls many incidents when Rome was oppressor rather than oppressed, such as when the mighty opposites, Carthage and Rome, consumed smaller kingdoms, destroyed towns, sank ships, killed any baser natures who had the misfortune to get in their way. Romans no less than Goths were enslaved to their lust for glory. Good and bad men, besides, all suffer miseries in this life, though the effects differ dramatically: “In the same fire, gold glows but chaff smokes, and under the same flail straw is crushed and grain purified.” As James Wood put it to me, Augustine relativizes the eschatological significance of Rome's fall and so records the epochal events of his time with a certain serenity.

If Augustine relativizes the catastrophe of Rome, he likewise relativizes the earlier eucatastrophe of Christianity's triumph in Rome. Constantine plays a remarkably minor role in Augustine's narrative. He acknowledges simply that God gave the first Christian emperor “a full measure of earthly rewards,” including a lengthy reign, the glory of founding Constantinople as a daughter of Rome, sons who inherited his empire at his death, and then warns that not every Christian ruler can expect to enjoy the same success. Augustine devotes somewhat more space to the “good works” of Theodosius, but his treatment of the Christian empire is controlled by his conviction that God disposes imperial power “according to his plan for the government of the ages.” Unlike both anti-Constantinians and advocates of Christendom, Augustine doesn't think the rise of Christian empire made all the difference.

All this has led many to regard Augustine as a quintessentially anti-apocalyptic theologian. Even his understanding of the Apocalypse doesn't strike us as very apocalyptic. He's somewhat non-committal about the meaning of the millennium, but he's persuaded it won't be a future time of indulgent festivity and earthly power. This world will end with a final battle, a resurrection, a judgment, a glorious consummation of the city of God, but during the present period, “from the first coming of Christ to the end of the world, which will be Christ's second coming,” the two cities move steadily on, pursuing their loves, the earthly city seeking to dominate, the heavenly city offering itself in continuous sacrifice to God. Augustine's non-apocalyptic account of Rome is of a piece with his “spiritualization” of the Apocalypse. 

But there's another way to understand Augustine. As Harry Maier pointed out, the final books of City of God track, book-by-chapter, the closing visions of the book of Revelation, and the Apocalypse looms large throughout the treatise. Augustine can't write about the Edenic bliss of Adam, Cain's assault on Abel, the accounts of the patriarchs and of Israel, without alluding to the closing scenes of the Bible. As Maier puts it, Augustine's “is a narrative dominated by the future tense.” Plus, City of God is thoroughly apocalyptic in an etymological sense: apocalypsis means “un-hiding,” and apocalyptic literature is originally less concerned with special effects than with unmasking the occult reality operating behind historical events. When Augustine traces the virtues of Roman heroes to their lust for glory, when he ferrets out the consuetudines that led to Lucretia's suicide, when he reduces Roman unity to common hatred of Carthage, when he isolates the fear lurking behind the bravado of the earthly city, Augustine is operating in an apocalyptic vein. He's no mere chronicler, but a reader of signs, whether scriptural or historical, or, better, historical through scriptural. Maier again: The Apocalypse gives Augustine a “grammar for understanding God's language in events.”

It's as an apocalyptic theologian that Augustine provides his most important political lessons for our times. Like Augustine's late Roman world, ours is rife with apocalyptic agitations. We face a climate apocalypse, a political apocalypse (democracy will end in 2024, no matter who's elected), a technological apocalypse, a pandemic apocalypse, and, for the old-fashioned, a nuclear Armageddon, each of which and all together elicit dread of The Very End. In a sense, the dread is rational. If you think the Big Story of the world is liberalism or Enlightenment or the march of science or America, the erosion of those institutions and values is truly the end of all things.

To face these crises, some real, some imagined, with firm confidence, we need to cultivate an Augustinian apocalypticism. Augustine knows all earthly things end, sometimes catastrophically. He's able to combine this stark realism with unruffled hope because those endings are embedded in the over-arching reality of an eternal pilgrim city moving toward “an end without end.”

Peter J. Leithart is president of Theopolis Institute.

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Image by Ary Scheffer, licensed via Creative Commons. Image cropped.

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