Out of the Feverish City: Part Two
Christianity remains the sole bulwark and makeweight of Western civilization.
This is the second part of an address I gave earlier this summer at the New Polity Conference in Steubenville, Ohio and at the ISI Summer Honors Conference in Philadelphia. In the first part of the essay, I treat Plato’s “two cities” — the healthy, and the feverish — and examine especially his analysis of “the feverish city,” and his own way out of it through the contemplative vision of philosopher-kings. In this second, lengthier part, I turn to Augustine, who famously has his own account of “two cities.” While he agrees with the need for a philosopher-king who “sees” how to rule, Augustine also argues that the Platonic “way out of the feverish city” lacks the one thing necessary.
Fast forward from ancient Athens to ancient Rome — in places like Milan, Florence, Ravenna, and in Naples, as well as imperially far-flung, in North Africa, in Constantinople, Gaul and Roman Britain. Like Athens, the Roman world was suffused with religious rites, shrines, altars, and narratives about the movements of the gods in human affairs.
Yet Augustine grows up between two worlds, one pagan and one Christian — perfectly represented by his pagan father Patrick, and his Christian mother Monica. In his famous account of his conversion, he confesses his errors and sins, and says that they were like sacrifices offered to demons on the interior altar of his heart. This analogy is apt because Augustine is profoundly aware that what binds the soul and the city together is religion, sacrifice, worship, the interior gaze, who or what orients our action. Since he lives in a world where pagan shrines abound alongside the shrines of saints and martyrs, it is easier to see that these exterior altars of the city correspond to the interior altar of the human soul.
After the sack of Rome in 410, many elite Romans who had never accepted the Christianization of the empire from Constantine to Theodosius, had charged that Rome was falling precisely because Christ and His Church had usurped the place of the ancestral gods. Augustine writes his magisterial City of God precisely against these charges — as the original title reflects, De Civitate Dei Contra Paganos.
Augustine initially responds that during the sack of Rome, pagans and Christians alike found shelter not in pagan shrines but in the great basilicas of the apostles and martyrs of Jesus Christ. Far from being bad from Rome, Augustine immediately retorts that it is the Church alone which gave sanctuary to Romans in their time of need — the Church brings not only eternal but also temporal, material benefits for the people of Rome. Indeed, his argument echoes throughout history, namely that the Catholic Church remains the sole bulwark and makeweight of Western civilization.
Against the accusations of elites, Augustine argues that Rome’s fall is due to a corruption of the Roman soul that has been mediated by the gods of the city. Rome’s problem is at root a religious problem. Indeed, Plato’s own way out of the feverish city fails because while Plato may banish the bad religion of the poets, and while the philosopher-king may contemplate the true God, Platonism lacks the very means of uniting people to God.
So Augustine narrates Rome’s history from the vantage point of her “gaze” — always mindful of the Platonic resonance. What is it that Rome most admires, adores, and worships? And how does this shape the “public thing” (res publica) that is Rome? In this sense, he is asking an essential Socratic or Platonic question: what is the relationship between contemplation and action? If Rome seems in dire straits, if it’s actions are decadent, inclining towards self-destruction, it stands to reason that this has its root in how Romans see their highest good, and their Final End. It has its roots in what orients their interior altar.
It’s for this reason that Augustine repeatedly uses the Latin word ‘spectare’ — which is usually translated as spectacle. Anyone with a passing understanding of Augustine knows that he is highly critical of the Roman games and the stage plays of the theatre. These are “spectacles” — to which we might nod our heads and say to ourselves, “yeah, the grammies are really awful.” But the brutality of the games, and the debauchery of the theatre were very obviously suffused with religion (by the way, our spectacles are also suffused with religion even if we are not always attentive to this). Both the games and the theatre were not only circuses which entertained and thus formed the people, but they focused the Roman gaze on the very immorality of the city’s gods. Roman theatre held up the immorality of the gods as either humorous or tragic, but Augustine said that the Roman soul is deformed by these spectacles not because he is against games, or the theatre, but because he is against how these spectacles shape the soul and the city alike. In this sense, consistent with the Platonic insight about “men who are like their regimes,” but now “men who are like what they gaze upon,” or “men who are like their gods.” We become what we contemplate.
Augustine personalizes the effect that Roman spectacle had upon him. “When I was a young man I used to go to sacrilegious shows and entertainments. I watched the antics of madmen; I listened to singing boys; I thoroughly enjoyed the most degrading spectacles put on in the honor of gods and goddesses — in honor of the Heavenly Virgin, and of Brecynthia, mother of all.” (2.5) In other words, Augustine knows the Roman “gaze” from experience, and recalls the verbal and sexual obscenities performed in the theater and in the city. The goddess cults demand that men castrate themselves, sometimes with rocks, in order to serve at the altar of fertility. Priestesses perform sexually degrading rites that in a domestic context would be unacceptable, but which is acceptable because the gods demand it. He asks “who could fail to realize what kind of spirits they are who could enjoy such obscenities?” The gods of the theater and the city are not friends of our souls, and they are not friends of Rome. Only someone who refused to recognize that these spectacles were created by unclean spirits who, masquerading as gods, deceive men into thinking that the Roman soul was not being directed by a “depraved cult. This notion of spectacle, then, is critical for understanding Augustine’s argument.
Elite Romans were often not as attached to the gods as the people of Rome — even though they regarded the gods as essential to the glory of Rome. Some Roman elites held an attitude not dissimilar from Plato’s “noble lie,” the view that there were no actual gods, but that they served a kind of pedagogical social function, or they were useful for binding a diverse and far-flung empire together.
Augustine asks these tolerant Roman elites why they tolerate having “temples to demons where Galli are mutilated, eunuchs are consecrated, madmen gash themselves, and every other kind of cruelty or perversion”? (2.7)1 The gods, and the plays which were largely about them, had a hold on the public imagination. Romans are captivated by spectacles which spout lies, cruelties, and obscenities which are all intimately ordered to the gods. Their souls had become like their religion — so why does it not occur to Roman elites that the problem might not be Christianity, but with Rome’s own gods, who are nothing other than human inventions puffed up by demons? Augustine commends them to read Plato, who at least had the good sense to “banish poets from his city to prevent their misleading the citizens, with the divinity of the gods who demand stage plays in their honor.” (2.14). Such spectacles direct the Roman soul—and “the most depraved desires” of the human heart are given a “kind of divine authority.” (2.14) And so it follows that just as men may be like their regimes, so the city may become a reflection of the human soul.
He cites their own “best men” on this point to ensure that they know that the critique comes not just from without but from within. Augustine cites Sallust on the moral deterioration he witnessed after the Civil Wars between the plebs and the patres, noting that after that time “the degradation of traditional morality ceased to be a gradual decline and became a torrential downhill rush. The young were so corrupted by luxury and greed that it was justly observed that a generation had arisen which could neither keep its own property or allow others to keep theirs.” (2.18)
Augustine sets out his thesis very clearly before Roman readers when he writes: Rome had sunk into a morass of moral degradation before the coming of our Heavenly King. For all this happened not only before Christ had begun to teach in the flesh, but even before he had been born of a virgin. “ (2.18).
The Bishop will not allow the roman elites the luxury of blaming their decline on christianity. He forces them to face their history squarely, through their own revered authorities and histories. It is not only a defense of the City of God, it is an examination of the Roman conscience. Not only did their gods not protect the Roman people, they guaranteed their “torrential downhill rush” into immorality, leading Rome down the metaphysical scale into the pit of self-destruction. “There you see the Roman republic changing from the height of excellence [virtue] to the depths of depravity.” (2.19)
As he puts it, “the worshippers and lovers of those gods “ imitate their “criminal wickedness,” and are “unconcerned about the utter corruption of their country.” (2.20) Imitation thus remains central for thinking about the relation of the soul to the city: men who are like their regimes, and regimes who are like their gods.
Augustine rails against the way in which materialism and libertine hedonism in Rome are simply a human performance of the debauchery of the gods. Romans based their moral code only in “consent,” and as Aristotle understood, this consent-based morality fuses the Oligarchic and Democratic Man into one great tyranny built upon Lust. He summarizes Rome’s radical libertinism thusly: “get as rich as you can, and let people do whatever they desire as long as there is consent.” (2.20) But consent-based morality develops into a society turned in on itself, and tends to punish anyone who speaks for a higher, more transcendent standard.
As if speaking for many Christians in our late liberal empire today, Augustine laments that to stand opposed to this bad-religion because of the disorder it introduces into the soul and city alike invites only derision, cancellation, exile. He writes, “Anyone who disapproves of this kind of happiness should rank as a public enemy: anyone who attempts to change it or get rid of it should be hustled out of hearing by the freedom-loving majority: he should be kicked out, and removed from the land of the living.” (2.20)
So far, so devastating. Rome is enslaved by bad religion which has disoriented their interior altars by the deceptions of demons.
Augustine destroys the gods of the theatre, and the gods of the city. He leaves intact the philosophers who are lovers of wisdom. Roman philosopher-statesmen like Cicero are praised for directing Rome to that “complete justice” which is “the supreme essential for government.” (2.21) Cicero sees that a republic should be bound together by a common sense of what is right — which is to say a shared view of the common good — and bound by the common interests, loves, and ends. But Cicero laments that instead the republic has fallen far from this standard. Cicero says in Scipio’s voice: “What remains of that ancient morality which...supported the Roman state? We see that it has passed out of use into oblivion, so that far from being cultivated, it does not even enter our minds...We retain the name of a commonwealth, but we have lost the reality long ago; and this was not through any misfortunate, but through our own misdemeanors.”
There was the “fancy picture” of the glory of Rome, and then there was the degraded reality evident to all of Rome’s greatest men. By the end of book two of the City of God, Augustine returns to the importance of the gaze. He writes that Rome had not been formed by the fancy picture it had of itself, but rather it has been formed by Roman spectacle, by “acts presented before all men’s eyes for imitation, to put forward for them to gaze at.”
So what is all of the reflection on “spectacle” all about? Remember Plato’s philosopher-king. Can their purified “gaze” lead us out of the feverish city? Can their contemplation of the eternal form of the City not lead to a purification Rome? Now we come to the central question.
Augustine admires the Platonists, and especially the Neo-Platonists of the Roman world. Unlike Cicero or Varro, who collapse God into the soul of the world, the Platonists truly order their gaze the transcendent God — the Final End, Supreme Being above all being, the Wisdom of God.
Socrates had taught that the soul must be purified to enjoy the contemplative vision of the One cause of all. But the Platonists tolerate the gods, because they are still too impure to be united to their Cause. Even the philosopher-king cannot purify Rome because they cannot purify themselves of sim and ignorance.
Only Jesus Christ can purify the soul, and so unite us to the eternal city.
So it’s not enough to simply “banish the poets” and get the right kings The only way to crush false religion is privilege true religion, and to ensure that the ruler, or rulers, have the “right sort of worship.” The only way to safeguard the soul and the city from the torrential downhill rush into decay and immorality is to redirect the rulers’ interior and exterior gaze to Christ.
Augustine ends the second book of the City by contrasting the degrading gaze to the elevating Christian vision which raises people up to the most glorious city of God. There is the yoke of “polluted powers” from which Rome must be freed. “The Christian purge,” as Bettenson has it, could also be understood as Augustine’s aim in the whole work: to hold up the necessity of Christian purification for the whole Roman world. This is the view that succeeded the Platonic vision, and it reigned supreme in the West for more than a thousand years.
Today, we see that the gods of the theatre and the city have come back with a vengeance. So too have the gods of Oligarchy, Democracy, and Tyranny — circling souls around a new false faith, set on destroying God and the image of God. We inhabit a feverish city, and there seems to be no escaping it.
Many have written about the Great Awokening, as something which both taps into America’s Puritan and Evangelical traditions — but which represents something like a new civic religion to replace the old, more consciously Christian civil religion. We see the new solemnities everywhere we look. The positivist Auguste Comte was foolish to introduce a rationally mapped out calendar for France — he should have rolled out the new holidays one by one by getting corporations to celebrate them.
Cancel culture is but a mechanism for establishing new solemnities, and redirecting the soul’s gaze. In order to exchange one civic religion for another, one must exhile, or cancel all the old images of the person, of marriage, of sexual difference, of family. You need to break the bonds of old loves in order to forge new ones in the civic soul.
Today we regularly see images that would have been unthinkable even a decade ago. We now regularly see images of men dressed as women who ascribe disordered desires even to children who they treat as sexual objects during their Drag Queen Story Hours at the local library — ever increasing levels of disorder “normalized” as spectacles for public consumption. These are the new priests and priestesses like those of Galli, and they are forming souls to be like that self-destructive city which pulls down the ramparts.
The feverish city purports to celebrate “equality and human dignity of all people,” but the claim is incoherent. The equality of human beings can only be affirmed if we have some objective standard in which we are all the same — in which we are all hold something in common. Yet, the city of pride, which celebrates itself this month, doesn’t have a theology fit for the recognition of equal dignity. That would require an anthropology that understood that each of us were “equal” by virtue of our common cause, and that our dignity was elevatable according to the end and purpose for which we have been made. What the city of pride celebrates, however, is an anthropology of transgressive difference which cannot celebrate God as prior to us, as the uncaused cause of a nature we all share in common, but rather celebrates only individual desire as an originating cause of sex, gender, identity. This is not only capricious and rootless, but “the community” it forms is vicious and tyrannical. It’s for this reason that St. Augustine calls pride the libido dominandi — the lust for domination — and he describes this as a spiritual disposition which is fundamentally disordering. While he sometimes refers to this as a “city of man,” what he really means is a disordering principle rather than a city, more of an anti-politics than a politics proper, because it is actually deprives people of their own proper good, and blinds them to the ends which would elevate them in the way of goodness and happiness.
What would Augustine tell us? I think he would remind us of the limits of the limits of Plato’s philosopher-king. He would remind us that it’s not enough to have a ruler (or rulers) who may contemplate the one true God, yet who has does not offer “the right kind of worship.” The philosopher-king has the spectare but lacks true latreia, being himself incapable of offering the sacrifice which could truly make us adhere (adhaerare) or cling to God, “that final Good which makes possible our true felicity” (10.6). Augustine would remind us that the only universally acceptable sacrifice, the only “way out” of the feverish city comes by way of a Mediator who suffers for our humanity in his humanity, and so becomes the true sacrifice which would adhere us to God.
Augustine doesn’t deny the need for a philosopher-king, but such a ruler is not per se “the way out.” Rather Augustine points to the sacred rites of the Catholic Church to supply supplying the “right sort of worship” that must be offered to ppace souls and cities on the Way to happiness:
“This is the sacrifice of Christians, who are ‘many, making up one body in Christ’. This is the sacrifice which the Church continually celebrates in the sacrament of the altar, a sacrament well-known to the faithful where it is shown to the Church that she herself is offered in the offering which she presents to God.” (10.6)
And it is in this light that we should view his very high view of Constantine and Theodosius. In the fifth book he had already asked the essential question that Romans asked: what will make Rome happy? We must ask ourselves this same question. But Augustine’s answer, like Plato’s, does indeed turn to the just ruler.
In the nineteenth chapter, Augustine answers the question directly: “As for those who are endowed with true piety and who lead a good life, if they are skilled in the art of government, then there is no happier situation for mankind than that they, by God’s mercy, should wield power.” (5.19) Though it is God alone who gives power to Julian the Apostate and Constantine alike, it is inarguably happier for a people to be ruled in ways which “see” by the light of the one true God than those who rule only in the shadows of false religion. It is for this reason that Augustine finally turns to his speculum, or “mirror” for “the Christian emperors.”
“When we describe certain Christian emperors as ‘happy’, it is not because they enjoyed long reigns, or because they died a peaceful death, leaving the throne to their sons; nor is it because they subdued their country’s enemies, or had the power to forestall insurrections by enemies in their own land and to suppress such insurrections if they arose. All these, and other similar rewards or consolations in this life of trouble were granted to some of the worshippers of demons, as their due; and yet those pagan rulers have no connection with the Kingdom of God, to which those Christian rulers belong.”
Augustine avers that the Christian ruler does not look to any of these material goods, mere “temporal benefits” as the “highest good” for polities, but rather:
“We Christians call rulers happy, if they rule with justice; if amid the voices of exalted praise and the reverent salutations of excessive humility, they are not inflated with pride, but remember that they are but men; if they put their power at the service of God’s majesty, to extend his worship far and wide; if they fear God, love him and worship him; if, more than their earthly kingdom, they love that realm where they do not fear to share the kingship; if they are slow to punish, but ready to pardon; if they take vengeance on wrong because of the necessity to direct and protect the state, and do not satisfy their personal animosity; if they grant pardon not to allow impunity to wrong-doing but in the hope of amendment of the wrong-doer; if, when they are obliged to take severe decisions, as must often happen, they compensate this with the gentleness of their mercy and the generosity of their benefits; if they restrain their self-indulgent appetites all the more because they are more free to gratify, and prefer to have command over their lower desires than over any number of subject peoples; and if they do all this not for a burning desire for empty glory, but for the love of eternal blessedness; and if they do not fail to offer to their true God, as a sacrifice for their sins, the oblation of humility, compassion, and prayer. It is Christian emperors of this kind whom we call happy; happy in hope, during this present life, and to be happy in reality hereafter, when what we wait for will have come to pass.” (5.24)
This is Augustine’s speculum regum, or as it will later be called a speculum principum. Yet Augustine, ever the realist, does not place this standard far out of reach, but rather identifies two emperors in particular who “saw” by the light of this mirror. Who does he single out? He names two Christian emperors, and particularly praises the religious aspect of their rule, while mindful of their sins.
The first emperor he names is, of course, Emperor Constantine. “God, in his goodness . . . heaped worldly gifts such as no one would have dared to hope for, upon Constantine, who made no supplication to demons, but worshipped only the true God.” Augustine praises God for granting to Constantine “the honor of founding a city,” namely Constantinople, “which contained not a single temple or image of any demon.” (5.25) If this is Augustine passing over Constantine’s Christianization of the empire in silence then I can hardly recognize what it means for Augustine to still speak to us today.
The second ruler who unites the “speculative” to the political is Emperor Theodosius, about whom he has much more to say not only because Augustine has a living memory of the man but because he witnessed the way Theodosius used his political power “to help the Church against the ungodly by just and compassionate legislation,” just as the speculum regum recommends. Theodosius greatly expanded Constantine’s Christianization of the empire, and helped the Catholic Church by removing support for Arian heretics. “He ordered the demolition of pagan images, knowing that even this world’s prizes are not in the gift of the demons, but in the power of the true God.” (5.26) Most know that Bishop Ambrose, had condemned Theodosius to penance for his crimes against the people of Thessalonica, but what Augustine notes is not that Theodosius failed to rule justly at all times – he has no illusions about that – but instead praises Theodosius for his repentance! He writes that “nothing could be more wonderful than the religious humility he showed [before God certainly, but also Bishop Ambrose] after the grievous crime.” Augustine heaps the highest praise on Theodosius for being “more glad to be a member of that Church than to be a ruler of the world.” (5.26)
This is precisely what we need to make America happy: Christians who know their eternal city, and how to elevate, and yes, how to rule, the ones they live in now. You don’t need a majority for this, but you do need a new elite who dare to rule in a way that leads us out of the feverish city — people like Constantine and Theodosius — men who can tear down the images which disorder us, and who bind themselves to the great Christian reservoir of grace recognize that will make happy the soul and city alike.
The Galli were priests of the Great Mother (Cybele) who had castrated themselves and oversaw animal sacrifices every March 24th.