Role of the State in Augustine's City of God

Categories: Virtues

According to Augustine, the state has a purely relative and provisional value. Political structures aim to maintain earthly peace and security and civil authority is necessary due to the fallen nature of man. While the state can promote and maintain peace among the Fall, one cannot rely on the state, for it only addresses the conditions in which one lives. In other words, the state can help create an approximate just environment that makes it easier for Christians to live virtuously, but, ultimately, individuals are charged with exercising their free will to do what God wants them to do, i.

. live according to His Will. Living virtuously, and choosing to obey God’s Will, falls squarely on the shoulders of the individual. No one, including the state, can force another to have faith in God; faith must be intended.

Before one can examine the role of the state, as discussed in Augustine’s City of God, one must understand how virtue is defined relative to the individual.

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God created man in the condition that if “they continued in perfect obedience, they would be granted the immortality of the angels and an eternity of bliss” (Augustine 510).

But man is fallen, so in order to enter the Heavenly City, they must pay their dues on earth first by living virtuously, according to God. Virtue is simply choosing to obey the Will of God. All individuals possess free will, which is what one employs to make the right choices under God’s ministry. But an obstacle to strict fidelity is the fact that people are weak, fallen, and, inevitability, will sin.

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“A man does not sin unless he wills to sin” (Augustine 195). Therefore, people must have steadfast faith in God, and free will must be exercised towards its proper end: in accord with God’s Word.

So through faith, one can find virtue. Augustine views people as sojourners of earth, on an arduous endeavor to reach eternal salvation. Men are on a pilgrimage to the City of God, and, along the way, they are being tested. It is important to acknowledge God’s relationship with the individual. One can either conform one’s mind and heart to the doctrine of faith, or remain outside the church. The choice is left totally up to the person. So then what role does the state play in man’s personal relationship with God?

According to Augustine, it plays no part in man’s faith, but it does help believers and nonbelievers find an approximate sense of justice, which can help the individual ward off the influences of unrelenting evil in the world. Augustine believes that justice in the earthly city is desirable but unattainable in its fullness; however, an approximation of it can be achieved on earth. The imperfectly just state is considered to be well-ordered and well-constituted; a society in which an approximate justice is externally enforced by the powers at be.

This deviates from the Platonist or Ciceronian intellectual view that justice is, by definition, incorporated in the state. Augustine believes that justice may be absent from the state, such as in cases of tyrannies that are, by nature, unjust. However, as they are still legitimate political orders that are sanctioned by God, its citizens should be subservient to them. Augustine corroborates this with God's Word in Proverbs 8:15: “By me kings reign, and princes’ decree justice. If citizens fall under the yoke of wicked rulers, it is their just desserts. Active rebellion is a sin, as men are showing irreverence towards the authorities sanctioned by God. The only just rebellion is when the state demands are in opposition of what God expects. Even so, rebellion should only be passive resistance and not active revolt. By examining Augustine’s ideas on justice, one recognizes his pessimistic view of the earthly city. Perceiving true justice as absent, he likens kingdoms on earth to robber bands.

He points out the similarities: both kingdoms and gangs of brigands are composed of men, they are ruled by the authority of a leader, they are held together by a pact of association, both divide the loot in accordance to rules agreed to by members, and both maintain a kind of concord and order. There are a few differences: the kingdom is many times larger than a gang and, unlike gangs which move around, the kingdom has a fixed abode. This is very unlike the Aristotelian or Platonist view of the polis, which is much more positive.

Aristotle believes man is not only social by nature, but also political by nature. They believe that the polis is natural and exists to help man achieve the common good. In this sense, there is a perfect goal that man can strive for, i. e. achieving the common good. However, Augustine views the earthly city as a construct formed to constrain man, consequently providing tolerable living circumstances until the second coming arrives, when those chosen by God will be able to leave the imperfect City of Man for the perfect City of God. In the City of God, justice is inherent in the social order.

Human perfectibility and fulfillment are not practical goals in the earthly kingdom. If one adheres to this view, there is not much incentive to make improvements to the city or to strive to perfect it, because perfection cannot be attained. Augustine believed that “human institutions must go on much as they always had: wars must be fought, slaves bought and sold fallible judgments handed down, innocents subjected to judicial torture” ( ). There is much less incentive to improve the earthly state since it is a mere temporal, tragic necessity.

Augustine states that peace and harmony are the foremost desires of the human heart and that there is “no man who does not wish for peace” (Augustine 866). However, the “grip of destructive impulses and passions” (Dyson 49) in the human heart prevents the establishment of such order. Furthermore, God has made human life on earth punitive. Man is unable to achieve perfect peace, which can only be found in the City of God. According to Augustine, all earthly activities derive their value from their service to God. Human life, including the state, has no value save as a preparation for one day achieving eternal salvation.

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Augustine believed that government was a creation of God and, therefore, subservient to Him. “Without a slightest doubt, the kingdoms of men are established by divine providence” (Augustine 179). Augustine believes that the state exists as a consequence of sin. It is merely a temporal arrangement of governing people on earth. Unlike the Platonist and Aristotelian definition of the state, Augustine does not believe that it is a natural part of human life. Contrariwise, both Plato and Aristotle believed that the state was a natural forum for the development and expression of human character.

Augustine believes that it is a contrived, “supervention upon the created order; it has been called into being by the fact that man's naturally sociable and co-operative disposition has been denatured and made selfish by sin” (Dyson 50). The state is necessary in order to resolve a primary contradiction inherent in human affairs: man desires peace and justice but is unable to achieve it due to his lust for domination and, additionally, his inability to suppress this lust by means of his weak volition.

Augustine asserts that if left on their own without a state, humanity will fight each other and ultimately harm and destroy one another. To prevent this from happening, laws are needed to maintain peace. Although perfect justice is unattainable, an approximation can be achieved which is sufficient and makes the punitive life on earth tolerable. Augustine states that politics is not the means to human fulfillment, but rather, a necessary mechanism, far from ideal. Augustine believes that the state should exist as an apparatus for ameliorating the material damage arising from sin.

It should be an instrument of discipline, by which sinful men are punished and honorable men rewarded. Albeit the conception of the state is a direct outcome of original sin, Augustine believes that it is within God's plan for the world; God can use institutions to bring about a tolerable degree of peace and order. If the state is successful in maintaining this harmony, it is then easier for God’s followers to lead a more virtuous life. An individual can only live virtuously by having faith in God. But the state cannot coerce its constituency to live virtuously.

God “created man as one individual” (Augustine 502), “in virtue of reason and intelligence” (Augustine 503). God has given everyone the tools necessary to achieve happiness, but they are individualized. Virtue, or faith in God, always has to be intended. No one can make that choice on the behalf of another. Although the state may be able to prevent an epidemic of corruption, it can only regulate the conditions in which a person lives. Free will and choice are left up to the individual. Augustine believes that politics in the earthly kingdom is essential in maintaining tolerable and apt living standards.

Through the maintenance of peace, the state can remove temptations that may lead an individual off the path of God. Although absolute and divine justice is unattainable on earth, due to man’s sinfulness, the state secures an approximate just order, in order to control discord and preserve conditions suitable for an individual’s faith. The state is solely responsible for upholding peace. One must not rely upon the state, for it is imperfectly just. An individual is responsible for holding his devotion and faith in God.

Updated: Nov 01, 2022
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Role of the State in Augustine's City of God. (2020, Jun 02). Retrieved from

Role of the State in Augustine's City of God essay
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