Gilson’s Foreword to the City of God

In In his foreword to the Image Books edition of St. Augustine’s City of God, Etienne Gilson reminds us that any society not based on love of God and love of neighbor is doomed to fail.

Cities at Odds

I OWN AN OLD, rather grubby copy of the Image Books (Doubleday) edition of St. Augustine’s City of God, edited and abridged by Vernon J. Bourke ( a newer version is shown here). I don’t mind owning grubby-looking books, when I know there is treasure contained within those battered covers. What attracted me to this edition, I think, was Étienne Gilson’s Foreword. Gilson, a French historian of philosophy who specialized in the philosophy of the Middle Ages and whose work I came to admire during my dissertation research, seemed to me a trustworthy authority who would understand the timelessness of Augustine’s work. (At the time, I was interested in the influence of Augustine’s work on the medieval imagination.)

The cover of a newer printing of this venerable abridgment.

When I bought my battered copy of City of God, I’d hoped Gilson would help me get oriented as I tried to familiarize myself with Augustine’s massive masterwork, and I was not disappointed. What follows is my summary of the abbreviated version of Gilson’s introductory essay that appears in the Image edition of the City of God, followed by my own comments.
Gilson emphasizes that our modern aspiration to build a perfect, universal society had its origins in Augustine’s description of the City of God and in the way this City cooperates with, and shares benefits with, the City of Man. However, the modern world neglects a fact that the ancient world would have found impossible to deny: that every society is held together (i.e., merits the name of “society”) only insofar as it is united by two things: religion and blood kinship. He goes on to say that Augustine, in writing The City of God, demonstrates that the City of God, or the Heavenly Society, also is defined by these two factors: religion, in that it consists only of those who have held God as their highest good, and kinship, in that it comprises those who recognize not only the physical brotherhood of Men (all descended from the same original parents) but, more importantly, the spiritual brotherhood of Man (adopted sons of God the Father, through His divine Son, Jesus Christ).
In Gilson’s account, Augustine demonstrates that Rome, long before his own day, had ceased to merit the name civitas (“society” or “City”) in the sense Augustine uses the term. That is, it is no longer bound together by a concern for the common good, or a shared understanding of the nature of that good. Going farther, Augustine demonstrates that the earthly city (not merely the city of Rome, which is its concrete exemplar) has been at odds with the heavenly society since the first generation of mankind, when Cain, who was motivated by pride and self-interest, killed his brother Abel, who worthily worshipped God. Thus, Augustine illustrates the difference between these two societies, which is the difference between their two primary loves (God or self). By defining things in this way, Gilson shows that, on Augustine’s terms, no earthly city can, with perfect justice, claim the name of “society,” because its primary motivation will always be self-interest (in early Rome, this meant honor or public recognition, later wealth, power, and pleasure) rather than Charity.

Thus, suggests Gilson, any later generation which is inspired by The City of God to create a just, unified, and peaceful society needs to recognize that such a society must be founded on a love of God and neighbor and depend on the grace of God for its peace and unity, and that the any efforts in this world will always, necessarily, fall short of the perfection that can be known only in the life of the world to come. This is why modern efforts to create worldwide social unity are doomed to fail, because, as Gilson puts it, “they have studied everything except the Christian faith in order to find a common bond.” He insists, “If we really want one world, we must have one Church, and the only Church that is one is the Catholic Church.”

The Church Must Be One

ASIDE FROM AGREEING with Gilson’s general thesis—that we wouldn’t have the modern idea that we can create a universal and just society, had it not been for Augustine’s City of God—I will simply suggest that his last point is one worth considering. Although I don’t think we are anywhere near creating a just society on earth, according to the secular or the Christian model—in fact, we seem to be going in quite the opposite direction!—it seems that in the present day, when the secular world seems more and more antagonistic toward the Christian faith than at any time since Augustine’s own day, it is more important than ever that separated Christian bodies unite with—or at least collaborate with—the Catholic Church to make common cause toward building a just society that is consonant with, rather than striving against, Christian principles. (In fact. we see more and more that other religions are willing to make common cause with Christianity against the assaults of secularism.)

Now, when Augustine used the term “Catholic,” he meant not only “that Church visibly united with the See of Peter (the pope),” but also “that Christian body which is free from heresy (or doctrinal error)”—i.e., not the Donatists, Pelagians, Arians, etc. From the Catholic perspective, these two uses of the term are identical: the Catholic Church proclaims the Christian faith in its fullness and without error through its infallible teaching authority (Magisterium). Any individual or corporate Christian body that denies any portion of the Catholic Church’s teaching of the faith is at a spiritual disadvantage, because they do not know (or acknowledge) the faith in its fullness. According to this understanding, Protestants differ from Catholics not simply as one religious denomination differs from another (“different strokes for different folks”), but they necessarily suffer from the ill effects of doctrinal error, to the extent that they differ or dissent from the Catholic faith. It is an act of charity to try to heal the breach of separation, so that “separated brethren” may be restored to the full life of the Christian (i.e., Catholic) Church.

I don’t say this polemically—that is, I’m not trying to present an argument to support the Catholic view, but simply trying to articulate it. Gilson wrote as a Catholic when he said that “If we really want one world, we must have one Church, and the only Church that is one is the Catholic Church.” Gilson does not say so, but I think he would agree that this desire for a unified society (“one world, one Church”) can best be achieved if separated Christian bodies are re-united with the Catholic Church. The Body of Christ must be whole in order to be healthy, and it must be healthy in order to be able not only to defend itself against the encroachment of secularism but to work toward building a just society, for the good of all (Christians, secularists, and others).

Sixty years after Gilson wrote his essay, the gulf between the Christian and the secular mindsets has become only more pronounced, much deeper and wider than it was just a few decades ago, to the point that no one denies the profound differences between the two. One evidence of this is the increasing stridency of self-proclaimed atheists. In the mid-20th century, public atheists could still cheerfully make common cause with religious believers, because they could recognize that the two shared many ideas about the common good; this seems no longer to be true. Public atheists today (notably Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens) argue that religious believers are not only wrong (mistaken) but downright evil, and must be eradicated. (I believe it was Dawkins who recently suggested that inculcating religious faith in one’s children should be considered child abuse.)

At any rate, there seems to be plenty of evidence that, today more than ever, Christianity in particular and religion more generally is under the guns of the secularists. (Remember that in Augustine’s own day, those who wanted to blame Christianity for the world’s problems did so on religious, not atheistic, grounds.) I think this explains why both Pope John Paul II and Pope Benedict XVI have labored so ceaselessly not simply to be “ecumenical” in the pallid sense often used by those who profess to embrace the “spirit of Vatican II” (“let’s all make nice and pretend that all religions are equally good and true”), but in the more vital sense of trying to bring separated bodies of Christians back into the embrace of Mother Church, so that they may not only have the benefit of the sacraments of the Church and the authoritative teaching of the Roman Magisterium, but also so that the Body of Christ may be truly unified and at full strength—both lungs, all the arms and legs, fingers and toes cooperating fully with their Head, which is Christ, and his vicar on earth, the Roman pontiff. Only if the Body is whole and healthy can it most effectively build up society on earth, so that it more closely resembles the City of God, of which all Christians are citizens by virtue of their baptism, and to which all men are called.

Catholic, Protestant, and Orthodox together: An emblem of the Church as one

We have seen in recent years a remarkable amount of progress toward this re-unification: not only the restitution of some of the ancient churches to the Roman Communion under Pope John Paul II but also great progress more recently with traditional-minded Anglicans (Anglicanorum Coetibus) and in ironing out remaining obstacles between Rome and the Eastern Orthodox. It should be noted that Rome has taken some pains to show that the legitimate spiritual patrimonies of these other Christian traditions should be preserved and allowed to flourish in their own right, rather than trying to homogenize everyone to become cookie-cutter “Roman” Catholics; the present and former Holy Fathers have shown that this legitimate diversity, when secured by a common faith, enriches the Church, rather than weakening it.

In addition to corporate reunions, there have also been a number of public statements issued by representatives of the Catholic Church and of various Protestant bodies, affirming our common faith on many points, not only with respect to doctrine but also how that doctrine bears on Christians vis à vis the problems of modern society. If this trend of solidarity continues, there may be some real hope of the Christian Church in the future being able, as She has in the past, to make lasting and beneficial contributions to the common good of the City of Man.

2 replies on “Gilson’s Foreword to the City of God”

Dear Lisa
I am pleased you have chosen to focus on this subject. With many others, Lewis' Narnia series has been instrumental in my thinking from a young age and since, as an adult, with the scifi series.

I loved Michael’s book, appreciating so much his generous and bold scholarship in pursuing it. I recognised a true revelatory aspect within the concept and feel this is perhaps the kairos time for that revelation to be released. It was wonderful to read, although initially, I too had concerns about pagan gods being mixed into the foundations of the Narniad, although I understood what Michael was saying about how much Lewis loved the medieval literature and drew on it intellectually.

I can’t fully say these concerns are allayed as yet but I do believe Lewis was not only intellectually brilliant but a seer for his generation. I think he saw far beyond his own day both backwards into history and forwards into the future. I also suspect he saw beyond where we see normally and was able to imagine and include what he saw in his fiction. (His description of Perelandra and his reference to ‘living jewels’ in The Silver Chair are for me, examples of this.)

Focusing back to PN, I remember wondering, while I read Michael's brilliant digging into the Narniad foundations whether, like most fiction authors, Lewis had built these foundations from the beginning and loving medieval perspectives as he did, was perhaps seeking to bring a redemptive perspective to what are clearly pagan stories?

Just a thought.
P.S. Have you read Prophetic Imagination by Walter Brueggeman?

Jane, thanks for your comment. I'll be writing more about the medieval use of allegory, which for Christians in those times was as natural as breathing, although it strikes most of us modern folk as rather strange. The average medieval Christian saw the world as being full (quite literally) of signs of God's presence and activity, so really almost anything could be used to signify that presence and activity — even pagan gods.

I have not read the Brueggeman work you mention — would you recommend it? Why or why not?

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