On the Road with the Pilgrims of Augustine’s City of God Robert C.

Thornett July 11, 2005

Preface If motion has a tendency to catch the eye, I suppose it was the motion of Augustine’s pilgrims, making their way through a foreign land, which made them catch mine. The path these travelers would take and the nature of their interactions with those they would meet were not readily apparent to me on a first reading. Moreover, the fact that Augustine was able to recall the metaphor of pilgrimage with frequency from beginning to end of the 1200+ page City of God pointed to its durability over a long haul. I chose to follow the metaphor of pilgrimage in this paper, bringing it into focus in the hopes of distinguishing some aspects of the truth in it that makes it so durable. Introduction: A Sixth Sense
“I will call these two classes and two cities, speaking allegorically. By two cities I mean two societies of human beings, one of which is predestined to reign with God for all eternity, the other doomed to undergo eternal punishment with the Devil.”1 Augustine, City of God pilgrim2 1 : one who journeys in foreign lands : WAYFARER 2 : one who travels to a shrine or holy place as a devotee

The expressions “the lucky few” and “a few good men” have both perhaps applied to no group more aptly than to Augustine’s pilgrims of the City of God. These blessed souls are predestined to take a place eventually amongst the angels in the eternal City of God. In the meantime, they wander the earth “on pilgrimage in this mortal state.”3 In the journey homeward towards their Heavenly city, they intermingle with the unfortunate masses, the members of the City of Man, who are on no sort of pilgrimage. These poor souls live lives of futility, ever attempting the impossible, to establish a home
1 2

St. Augustine, City of God, Penguin Ed. 1972, Trans. Henry Bettenson, (London: Penguin Books) XV, 1 Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary, http://www.m-w.com/, 7/12/05 6:00 pm 3 Augustine, City of God, XVIII, 32


in this world. Whatever pseudo-homes they do build are destined for eventual destruction; nevertheless, they erect earthly kingdoms, through which the pilgrims of the City of God must wander. There are some noteworthy quirks in the basic scenario of this pilgrimage. First, no one’s citizenship is known, even to themselves, until the Last Judgment. Second, home is not the starting point but the end. Third, home is a place the travelers have never been, since man was created “abroad” from earthly dust; the journey cannot be described either as from home or back home. Finally, the destination, the Heavenly city, is “not of this world.”4 As a result, the trip requires another sense beyond the earthly senses, and Augustine asserts the wayfarers walk “by faith, not by sight.”5 Only the pilgrims of the City of God are endowed with this sixth sense, which Augustine calls “our own special possession.”6 The City of Man, lacking this special possession, is inevitably lost. Men in Motion Unlike the earthly senses, faith does not lead the pilgrim to any place or anything tangible. Rather, it leads him to a way of life, “a life of righteousness.”7 This way of life, in turn, results in Heavenly peace, “the perfectly ordered and completely harmonious fellowship in the enjoyment of God, and of each other in God.”8 This peace cannot be attained through isolation and inaction; the pilgrim must go out and get it, connecting with God and with other people. He has “the attainment of [Heavenly] peace in view in

4 5

ibid, XVIII, 32 ibid, XIX 14 6 ibid, XIX, 27 7 ibid, XIX, 17 8 ibid, XIX, 17


every good action [he] performs in relation to God, and in relation to a neighbor, since the life of a city is inevitably a social life.”9 The pilgrim’s life of righteousness, then, is less so withdrawn and passive i.e. monastic and more so social and active i.e. missionary. Augustine provides two rules for the social aspect of righteous actions: a) “do no harm to anyone” and b) “help anyone whenever possible.”10 The active aspects “consist in the forgiveness of sins rather than in the perfection of virtues.”11 Here, Augustine appears to mean virtue not in the sense of piety but in the sense of skill. Mastery of skills, so emphasized in modern education, is not the measure of all things; there is nothing necessarily wrong in it, and it may aid righteousness, but it is not righteousness in itself. By the active forgiveness of sins, Augustine refers not only to the pardon of wrongs done to one personally, but to the active healing of any damage caused by sin. (I will return to this topic further along.) The City of God on earth, then, as befits pilgrims, is a city in motion. Its “faith is put into action by love,”12 helping others and palliating sin where it can. Because their home is not of this world, the pilgrims remain on the road, not slowing down to attempt to establish a home here. Of course, because the travelers are mortal in this life, they must occasionally make a pit stop for a tune-up and refueling, or, as Augustine puts it, “the adjustment of the body parts in due proportion” and “an adequate supply of pleasures.”13 Even though they enjoy these temporal blessings, they do not tarry any longer than necessary over them so as to become “taken in…or distracted from [their] course towards


ibid, XIX, 17 ibid, XIX, 14 11 ibid, XIX, 27 12 ibid, XIX, 14 13 ibid, XIX, 14


God.”14 The wayfarers’ loyalties and affections for the Heavenly city do not permit them to forget their homeward journey, and they are always ready to move on. A Vicious Cycle As mentioned earlier, Augustine maintains that the members of the City of Man are not endowed with faith, the special gift and sixth sense of the City of God. Consequently, these unlucky souls are left only with the earthly senses they do have, which, unfortunately, do not guide them very far. The earthly citizens are taken in by the allure to these earthly senses of lower, temporal goods. Absent faith, they have nothing to remind them that such lower goods were not created to be a destination in and of themselves, but only to be helpful supports in a journey towards the higher good, Heavenly peace. Thus, the members of the City of Man would seem to slow down, lingering too long over temporal goods, indulging in them to excess and hence increasing “the burdens of ‘the corruptible body which weighs heavy on the soul.’”15 As the burdens get heavier, they would slow the faithless even further; nonetheless, without faith to call them to a higher journey, they continue pruriently to seek the lower goods. The establishment of earthly kingdoms, as Augustine posits them, parallels both these tendencies, in that such kingdoms are a) stationary i.e. slowed to the point of immobility and b) have only the securing of temporal goods as their aim. Augustine speaks to the legitimacy of kingdoms of such dubious foundations:
“To help us form our judgment, let us refuse to be fooled by empty bombast, to let the edge of our critical faculties be blunted by high-sounding words like ‘peoples’, ‘realms’, ‘provinces’… Remove justice, and what are kingdoms but gangs of criminals on a large scale? What are criminal gangs but petty kingdoms? A gang is a group of men under the command of a leader, bound by a compact of association, in which the plunder is divided according to an agreed convention.
14 15

ibid, XIX, 17, from the Bible, Wisdom 9: 15 ibid, XIX, 17


If this villainy wins so many recruits from the ranks of the demoralized (my emphasis) that it acquires territory, establishes a base (my emphasis), captures cities and subdues peoples, it then openly arrogates to itself the title of kingdom, which is conferred on it in the eyes of the world, not by the renouncing of aggression but by the attainment of impunity.”16

As such kingdoms subdue more and more peoples, the obstacles to motion in the City of Man would seem only to increase, until the original aim of the citizens, the securing of lower goods, is threatened. The result would be territorial wars. Augustine describes such wars fought between those who value only lower goods:
“If the higher goods are neglected…and those other goods are so desired as to be considered the only goods, or are loved more than the goods which are believed to be higher, the inevitable consequence is fresh misery, and an increase of the wretchedness already there.”17

The City of Man, then, is trapped in a vicious cycle, pinned down by its own prurience and made more wretched by ill-intentioned conflicts. Proceeding With Caution It is in the City of Man, however, that the pilgrims of the City of God must live. It appears that, from Augustine’s vantage point, the earthly kingdoms have a monopoly on the lower goods which the travelers need as supports; the City of God on earth is thus forced to lead “what we may call a life of captivity in this earthly city”18 in order to make use of these lower goods. It is noteworthy that the citizens of the City of God do not enter the City of Man by free choice. Whether they would leave if given the chance is not certain, but clearly they are not on a voluntary mission to save it; in fact, they have no escape from it as long as they are on earth. Inside the earthly city, the wayfarers’ inherently social, active nature necessarily forces them into frequent contact with sin, exposing their earthly senses, “the inlets of
16 17

ibid, IV, 3-4 ibid, XV, 4 18 ibid, XIX, 17


sin,”19 to temptation. The pilgrims will not withdraw into passivity and hiding; yet, they must take “the most prudent precautions”20 as they move, for everywhere the traps of temptation lay set:
Oh, the hourly dangers that we poor sinners here below walk in! Every sense is a snare, every member a snare, every creature a snare, every mercy a snare, and every duty a snare to us. We can scarce open our eyes but we are in danger; if we behold those above us, we are in danger of envy; if those below us, we are in danger of contempt; if we see sumptuous buildings, pleasant habitations, honor and riches, we are in danger to be drawn away with covetous desires; if the rags and beggary of others, we are in danger of self-applauding thoughts and unmercifulness. If we see beauty it is a bait to lust; if deformity, to loathing and disdain.21

As they are mortal, the travelers are far from immune to these vices. Through forgiveness, however, they “are restored to health.”22 By this, Augustine does not seem to mean that the act of forgiving is directly self-healing. Rather, by forgiving and moving on, instead of multiplying one transgression by another, the travelers avoid fomenting existing discord to a point at which “no one will be able to see God.”23 The aim, then, is damage control; it is certainly not the reformation of society. The best one can hope for is to maintain a sufficiently salutary atmosphere to prevent those capable of seeing God, the pilgrims, from being pulled down by the undertow of conflict. Righteous actions, then, in the form of forgiveness, support those who can already see God by keeping them upright and their line of sight clear, but they cannot bring the City of Man out of the darkness into which it has fallen. Conversion from without is out of the question; only God, “with his inward grace”24 which “helps in wonderful and secret ways,”25 can bring about a “changed mind…that brings a greater tranquility, here and

19 20

ibid, XIX, 17 ibid, XX, 8 21 ibid, VII, 12 22 ibid, XV, 6 23 ibid, XV, 6 24 ibid, XV, 6 25 ibid, XV, 6


now.”26 Without “the Holy Spirit…at work internally, …no preaching of the truth is of any help to man.”27 This could mean that the pilgrims, despite their outgoing, healing nature, are not missionaries; or, it may mean that the duty of missionaries should not be to convert, as is it often conceived, but only to stem the flow of conflict due to sin where possible. This aspect of Augustine’s thought is disconcerting, not because God must be at work internally in order to bring about salvation, but because God chooses to work in some and not in others. Of course, Augustine prevents this from being grounds for discrimination by adding that no one but God knows who is blessed and who is not. But it is still difficult to accept, perhaps more spiritually than rationally, that, if sin is illness, as Augustine often refers to it, the City of Man is beyond recovery, a lost cause. Augustine offers a gloomy metaphorical view of this state of affairs:
The Church on earth is a mere hospital; which way ever we go we hear complaining; and into what corner soever we cast our eyes we behold objects of pity and grief; some groaning under a dark understanding, some under a senseless heart, some languishing under unfruitful weakness, and some bleeding for miscarriages and wilfulness, and some in such a lethargy that they are past complaining; some crying out of their pining poverty; some groaning under pains and infirmities; and some bewailing a whole catalogue of calamities, especially in days of common sufferings when nothing appears to our sight but ruin; families ruined; congregations ruined; sumptuous structures ruined; cities ruined; country ruined; court ruined; kingdom ruined; who weeps not, when all these bleed?28

Healing, then, not revolution, is necessary, for the earthly city is more worthy of pity than of anger. The travelers must therefore be “vessels of mercy” rather than “vessels of wrath.” 29 For Augustine, decay, not affluence, is the norm, making the goal of a perfect society unthinkable. A partial remedy is enough for pilgrims to hope for, and is possible

26 27

ibid, XV, 6 ibid, XV, 6 28 ibid, VII, 15 29 ibid, XV, 6


only through “patient endurance,”30 proceeding with caution so as not to permit the ubiquitous cries of anguish in this world to cause them to forget their homeward journey.


ibid, XIX, 17


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