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City of God II 16 November 2006

Posted by ABD in ABD, Culture, Philosophy, Politics, Spirituality.

In my first post on this subject, I cited the hadith: “Islam started strange, and it shall return as it started, so give glad tidings to the strangers.” Here, I’m going to try to build on this Prophetic insight by relying on a couple of unlikely sources. But bear with me, and I hope that the point will begin to emerge.

The first passage I want to share is from Plato’s Republic, in which two young men ask Socrates for an argument in defense of the just life. They are not convinced that honesty is the best policy, and from their own experience it appears that nice guys finish last. Socrates answers them indirectly, pulling them into a discussion of what the perfect city would look like. The connection of this city to individual conduct—and therefore to the original question—only becomes clear near the end of this discussion. We are meant to be the citizens of that ideal city, even if it doesn’t actually exist.

Glaucon: I understand. You mean that he’ll be willing to take part in the politics of the city we were founding and describing, the one that exists in theory, for I don’t think it exists anywhere on earth.

Socrates: But perhaps, I said, there is a model of it laid up in the heavens, for anyone who wants to look at it and to make himself its citizen on the strength of what he sees. It makes no difference whether it is or ever will be somewhere, for he would take part in the practical affairs of that city and no other.

Socrates’ young friends have been looking for justice in the wrong place. They’ve set the standards of their conduct by the society that they live in. The problem with this approach is that in an unjust, imperfect environment, sometimes honesty isn’t the best policy. Sometimes nice guys do finish last. Sometimes crime does pay. By imagining a perfectly just city, on the other hand, Socrates compels them to seek a different and higher standard of justice. If they do, they will act in accordance to it and not in accordance to the examples they see around themselves. Even while living in an actual, imperfect community, they will live as the citizens of a nonexistent but perfect community.

The second passage I’m using to develop this line of argument is from St. Augustine’s City of God:

[T]hough there are very many and great nations all over the earth, whose rites and customs, speech, arms, and dress, are distinguished by marked differences, yet there are no more than two kinds of human society, which we may justly call two cities, according to the language of our Scriptures. The one consists of those who wish to live after the flesh, the other of those who wish to live after the spirit; and when they severally achieve what they wish, they live in peace, each after their kind.

The city of God that Augustine is talking about is not a real city. It is rather the universal community of Christian believers, wherever they might be on Earth. They live with men but they answer to God. On this view, the fundamental distinction that applies across political communities is between the ‘City of Man’ and the ‘City of God’. Strictly speaking, this is not a political division but a spiritual one: between those who only know man-made laws, and only follow their own whims and desires, and those who respond to God’s call, live by God’s word and follow God’s law. Mapping Augustine onto Plato, we might say that the ideal republic is a community of spirit, the City of God.

And from this we can glean a vital lesson for our time: a community of faith transcends political boundaries. If our true allegiance is to an ideal city and not a real city, then maybe it doesn’t ultimately matter which particular city or country we actually live in. The choice, it would seem, is not between two cities, two political parties, two countries or two types of government. It is between actual, living political communities that are inevitably imperfect and the idea of a community that transcends political boundaries.

In Arabic, we call that community an ummah.

Continued in subsequent posts: City of God III and IV.



1. Nick - 18 November 2006

Fascinating reflections here. Please continue. By the way, how do you shorten the post at the beginning with a link to the full post? I’m on blogspot and that does not seem to be an option. Thanks.

2. ABD - 19 November 2006

there’s a workaround for blogspot (if you’re familiar with del.icio.us). i remember researching this when i was on blogspot, and there were two or three creative options even a year ago. i expect there are even better workarounds available now. i suggest searching on blogspot. but email me on info@othermatters.org if that doesn’t work, and i can walk you through what i did.

3. Nick - 19 November 2006

P.S. Not sure if you’re interested, but I too fancy myself a blogger on occasion. Not of the same caliber, but nevertheless, check it out: http://viaggioromano.blogspot.com.

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