113 - Heaven and Earth: Augustine’s City of God

Posted on 27 January 2013

In his City of God Augustine traces the histories and philosophical underpinnings of two “cities,” one devoted to worldly glory, the other to heavenly bliss.

Further Reading

• Augustine, The City of God Against the Pagans, trans. R.W. Dyson (Cambridge: 1998).

• R. Dodaro, Christ and the Just Society in the Thought of Augustine (Cambridge: 2004).

• R.W. Dyson, St Augustine of Hippo: the Christian Transformation of Political Thought (London: 2005).

• B. Harding, Augustine and Roman Virtue (London: 2008).

• G. O’Daly, Augustine’s City of God: a Reader’s Guide (Oxford: 1999).

• J. Von Heyking, Augustine and Politics as Longing in the World (Columbia: 2001).

• J. Wetzel, Augustine and the Limits of Virtue (Cambridge: 1992).

• J. Wetzel (ed.), Augustine’s City of God: a Critical Guide (Cambridge: 2012).


Marissa 14 February 2013


Could you (or some other erudite person who is following this excellent series) please discourse to me on the distinction of 'happiness', 'blessedness' and 'apathy', as regards the Stoics?

I was so pleased to hear in this episode that Augustine was the person to *finally* call out the Stoics on their assertion that a person can be "happy" while being tortured. This seems to me an absurdity to rank alongside Zeno's "can't get there from here" assertions. (Excellent as a challenge to lazy assumptions, but absurd if taken as truth.)

But I noticed that, in this episode, you said the Stoics claimed a person could be "blessed" while being tortured. That's not the same as "happy", and I'm also not sure what Stoics would mean by it. I know they believed in a benign god, but I didn't think they rated his/its approval as the highest good. In fact, I thought they were claiming that one could be "apathetic" under torture, which is different again (and not believeable either, altho' much more likely than "happy").

So now I'm confused. Did I misunderstand what the Stoics were claiming, or was Augustine mis-representing them for rhetorical purposes?


Hi Marissa,

Well, I was thinking of "blessed" as a translation of "eudaimon" which can also be translated as "happy." So their view, to summarize, is as follows: only virtue is required for happiness. This means that so long as one retains virtue, happiness is invulnerable (that's the whole point of the view, in a sense), even if one is being tortured. However they think it is rational to prefer or disprefer things, even if they are not needed for happiness. For instance it is reasonable to prefer not being tortured (and a sage would have this preference), even though avoiding torture is not necessary to be happy. An analogy might be, perhaps, the difference between winning a sporting contest and playing with style: if you score more goals than the other team you win, you don't have to actually play well. But nonetheless one might prefer to play well, even if it isn't necessary.

Apatheia means "not being affected." People sometimes assimilate this to the idea of having no emotions, though as Byers pointed out in my interview with her, it depends what one means by "emotion". They did recognize emotional states that a sage might have, such as "joy" in being virtuous. But it's pretty common to be more sloppy (as I was in this episode I think) and talk about emotions as being irrational states caused by false beliefs, e.g. the belief that it really matters whether or not I am tortured, so that it would be reasonable to give up being virtuous to avoid torture.

Does that clarify things?


Let me put it this way: what is meant by "eudaimon" and/or "happiness"?

This all started (back with Socrates/Plato) with the question: what is the best way to live one's life. Yes? Now, in terms of that question, the Stoics position makes good sense. The best way to live one's life is to be honourable, which can lead to all sorts of unpleasant consequences, like being tortured for a principled stand. But a wise person would prefer being tortured to giving up on their principles. That all makes sense. But I wouldn't say the tortured person was *happy*. At a serious stretch, I could say they were rejoicing in their rectitude.

So do the Stoics use "happy" to mean "conscious rectitude"? or, more generally, to mean "living the best way"? (If so, I can see why they'd want to nix most emotions, bc the emotions wouldn't agree with the principles, in many situations.)
And is this what is generally meant, in philosophical discussion, by "happiness" - "living the best way"?

Right, that's gets to the core question doesn't it! I think I mentioned in the first episode on Aristotle's ethics that "eudaimonia" means something closer to "blessedness". (Note it contains the word "daimon" which is also the word for e.g. Socrates' divine spirit advisor.) It is a more objective notion than our "happiness," in the sense that one could be content and even self-satisfied, as a tyrant might be, without being eudaimon. A good test for eudaimonia is probably something like this: are you leading a life that a person of sound judgment would consider admirable? If so then you are "flourishing," as is often said in the literature on Aristotle. This is basically just a more fleshed-out way of agreeing with your proposal, "living the best way."

To make the Stoic position a bit more plausible then, we could imagine the person of sound judgment thinking: well, that person lived the best life they could given the circumstances they were given, and so I admire their life. I would prefer to live a life that was equally admirable but didn't include torture (illness, etc.) but such a life would not be any more admirable.

Does that help?


Marissa 18 February 2013

In reply to by Peter Adamson

I just re-listened to your interview with Sarah Byers, in light of the above. She talks about Augustine seeing that continence makes other people "happy" but not assenting to the proposal that it would make him "happy". So I now deconstruct that as: Augustine comes to the conclusion that 1) continence is admirable, and 2) being continent will detract from his pleasure in life. He prefers pleasure, while also noting that, if God gave him different priorities, he could be admirable instead.

In fact, then, he's using "happy" (in Latin) to mean two different things.
Is that so?

Sorry to bang on about this, but I'm trying to get a feel for whether I'm making any sense of this - or, perhaps, not.


Well, bear in mind though that what we were just talking about (the view where happiness = admirableness) is not necessarily Augustine's view; we were talking about the Stoics, though it also applies to Aristotle. The extent to which Augustine accepts their account of happiness is obviously tricky, that is part of what Byers and I were talking about. Still I think Augustine would broadly agree that merely being satisfied with one's situation is not enough and maybe not even relevant to "happiness" -- e.g. the honor loving Romans who got honor were not happy though they might have been quite satisfied with that outcome. It might be better to think about the close relation between "choiceworthy" and "admirable." So: an irrational person, like Augustine pre-conversion, would have the actually incoherent position that when other people are continent that is admirable, yet it is not choiceworthy for himself (he doesn't want it for himself). Then he manages to align his judgments about what is choiceworthy/admirable for other people with what is choiceworthy for himself.

Philip James 2 March 2013

In reply to by Peter Adamson

Thanks this discussion helps me too to clarify things. I guess in the Stoic and other ancient greek thinkers minds its related to ataxarea - the goal of philosophy being to 'not be disturbed' as well as to live an admirable life. Do you think this changes for Augustine with his Christian perspective (seems obvious yes but..)? And what about Plotinus and Porphry? It seems like the goal is shifting a little towards interest in mystical union with the One, particularly when we get into theurgy?

Yes, that's a nice point, that at least sometimes Hellenistic schools have a rather "negative" view of happiness in the sense that all you need is lack of disturbance (especially the Epicureans). Of course the Stoics do think that happiness lies in virtue, which sounds like a much more positive/active conception -- but even they often cash this out in terms of knowing what to be upset by and what not. I think the real change when we get to Augustine, or even before him in the Church Fathers, is the insistence that true happiness simply can't be had in this life. That's a big step to take obviously, and not necessarily one the Neoplatonists would need to agree with -- in a sense they could, because they too would say that happiness is unavailable through things in this sensible _world_. But they think we can escape from this world right now through philosophy, without needing to die first. Still this idea does have some currency in pagan Platonism -- remember the slogan mentioned in the Phaedo already, that philosophy is practicing for death.


Not to risk derailing the conversation further, but as long as the topic of clarifying the stoic position is being talked about, I was wondering if you could clarify another thing as well.  Stoicism seems to be a 'hot trend' in terms of life philosophy, especially in the internet age.  I was wondering if you could clarify on if you think modern internet age stoicism is different from the older Greco-Roman stoicism, and if so, in what way? 

Well, I don't know lots about the internet movement but my superficial impression is that it is a kind of "pick and choose" Stoicism, like I haven't seen anyone claiming to believe that the world has a fiery god pervading it or getting excited about Stoic logic. So that means that it is closer to the Roman Stoics who similarly don't talk much about physics and logic, but even they would officially have been committed to the connection between these two areas and ethics. In this sense it is a bit like the way Aristotle is taken up now: selectively cherry picking bits of his Ethics for inspiration and leaving the rest behind. Which is fine of course! I am all for anything that makes the historical figures seem relevant, but it is of course different from the historian of philosophy's approach.

Marrion Malone 9 October 2015

True happiness is in the city of God according to Augustine. I agree that while we are here on earth we continue to search for happiness. The true meaning of happiness.

Benjamin 21 June 2018

Hey Peter,

I'm not sure how closely you monitor comments, but I'm interested in using this episode in my course. I'd like to be able to provide a transcript for hearing impaired students. Is that something you provide?

Daniel Hulseapple 21 January 2019

Hi Peter,

Regarding your claim in this episode that Augustine does think it matters that people suffer, are enslaved, and go hungry, how exactly does this square with his idea that human suffering ultimately derives from the evil we inherited from Adam? It seems to me that, if this is so, then human beings deserve all manner of suffering they endure. To that end, if all human beings deserve such suffering because of our own inborn evil, and the only way to avoid suffering is through Grace that cannot be earned by human action, why does Augustine think we should even try to be good? I'm immensely fascinated by Augustine, and can appreciate the depth and intricacies of his arguments, but I'm having serious trouble grappling with this one.

I think the second part of your question is more challenging than the first. He can think that it is a bad thing that we suffer, while also thinking that it is due to sin that we suffer and that we all sin; in general, if you saw someone suffering from the consequences of their own actions then you might think it is terrible to see them suffer, while also understanding that it is their own fault. But also of course person A can sin and cause person B to suffer: even though person B is also a sinner, the suffering B undergoes is not really her fault.

The second part, as I say, is trickier: why try to be good if it is up to God whether or not we are saved? There has been much debate about how to interpret Augustine's view over the years, as you can hear about if you check out the later episodes that cover things like semi-Pelagianism (episode 276). One idea could be that God helps those who help themselves, roughly: it is up to Him to give you grace, but if you don't try to be good He definitely won't help you out - the controversy is whether God in some sense guarantees the help if we make a sincere effort, which would be the semi-Pelagian view. Opponents of this argued that God might still withhold grace even from those who sincerely wish to be good, and that maybe we just don't and cannot know what He will do for each believer in that situation - this is typical of some Protestant positions e.g. in Calvinism.

In general the goal for most thinkers is to hold on to morally significant free will without suggesting that grace is unnecessary, or that grace is anything other than a gratuitously and freely offered gift (as opposed to God's part of a bargain He has to uphold on pain of being unjust). But you're right that the circle is not easy to square!

Daniel Hulseapple 23 January 2019

In reply to by Peter Adamson

Thanks for your thoughtful response!

Regarding my first point (and please correct me if I'm misunderstanding!), I believe I remember it being mentioned in this episode, that for Augustine, all human suffering is either divine justice for some sin previously committed, or no real suffering at all. But would Augustine really be willing to say that such atrocities as rape, genocide, slavery, abuse, etc., can fall into either of these categories? In other words, is all human suffering at worst, negligible, or at best, actually just? If so, then it certainly seems as though Augustine doesn't particularly care that people suffer. Sure he can say, as you suggest, that it is bad that people suffer. But that doesn't seem to amount to much if he understands such suffering as essentially negligible or just a form of divine justice. This is especially true if he genuinely believes that no suffering is so severe as to warrant direct action against it. I understand how that conclusion follows from his arguments, but I'm having a hard time understanding how it is that we can say Augustine truly cares about people's suffering.

Regarding the second point, from my own reading of passages from the "City of God," I imagine Augustine would be more inclined toward the latter view. But is there anything in his corpus that would suggest he might sympathize with the semi-Pelagian view?

I can see where you are coming from, insofar as Augustine identifies sin, not suffering as such, as the core evil that is at stake in his theory of redemption. But I think he would say the following: sin is in itself bad, but it also causes suffering, which is a further bad thing. Suffering is in other words an unwelcome consequence of the primary evil of sinfulness. Thus Augustine can deplore suffering without thinking e.g. that the reason Christ was sent was specifically to prevent suffering (as opposed to being sent to cleanse humankind of sin). He is not a consequentialist who thinks that only suffering makes things bad. If you ask him why sin is bad, he would not say that it is bad because it leads to suffering - or at least not only that - it is mostly bad because it offends against God who is the pure good. For example he'll say that pride is the primary root of sin because it involves placing oneself or other created things above God in one's list of priorities.

I am also inclined towards rejecting the semi-Pelagian reading of Augustine but of course all these groups had their own way of getting him to agree with their view: the semi-Pelagians would I guess just emphasize the passages in Augustine (and Scripture) that talk about God's infinite generosity and so on, and infer that His mercy and justice would preclude His refusing grace to someone who makes a genuine effort to be good.

That makes a bit more sense. It seems as though if one were to ask Augustine why it is wrong to kill, rape, enslave, etc., he would respond that such things are offensive to God, and therefore sinful. In that respect, he does condemn those who do wrong.

But what would he say to (or of)someone on the receiving end of such things? Would he really say that their suffering is negligible? Just, even? This response doesn't strike me as particularly compassionate, but if I'm understanding things correctly, it's the view Augustine holds. This is primarily what I find so confusing about his thought. How can someone whose autiobiography paints him as intimately familiar with loss, tragedy, and suffering, seem to disregard that of others?

I think he would say that the suffering of innocents (say, a slave or torture victim) is the inevitable consequence of freely chosen sins by others: ultimately by Adam, more recently by the perpetrator. I don't think he is necessarily committed to the idea that the victim "deserves" it, though the victim will of course also be a sinner (because we all are). In fact the unfairness may be part of what makes it bad. However it has been noted that Augustine is far more interested in the internal paradoxes and dynamics of sin than in the kind of thing you are talking about, for instance he was bothered by slavery but only a little, which I think is where we started in this discussion. Still there is nothing in his theory as such that prevents him from being horrified and upset by the consequences of a sin for other people who didn't commit the sin in question.

Okay I think I understand now-- his ethics is more abstract than practical, though the practical is not wholly absent. Therefore to expect him to have specific judgments on specific moral acts is perhaps to approach him from a perspective he never intended his writings to have. Is this a fair assessment?

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