Slouching Toward Selfishness

Augustine on American Culture

Reading through Augustine’s powerful case against Roman paganism in City of God, I came across a passage that seemed eerily prescient of our culture:

Let nothing be commanded and nothing shameful be prohibited…Let provinces be subject to kings not as directors of conduct but as lords over their fate and providers of their pleasures…Let the din of dancing resound on all sides, and let the theaters boil over with cries of indecent delight and with every kind of cruel and shameful pleasure carried to the highest pitch. If anyone disapproves of this kind of happiness, let him be branded a public enemy. If anyone tries to change or do away with it, let the uninhibited mob stop his mouth, toss him out, kill him off. Let those be considered the true gods who see to it that the people get this sort of happiness and who preserve it for them once they have it…Just let them make sure that such happiness has nothing to fear from any enemy, any plague, or any kind of calamity at all” (II.20, emphasis added).

Two Cities, Two Loves

Augustine’s ability to describe two cultures separated by two millennia proves his larger thesis: that all of history resolves into two cities. Driven by love of the self (cupiditas), the City of Man enshrines whatever gods will justify its lust for domination and pursuit of pleasure. Because the City of God is motivated by a love of God and neighbor (caritas), it worships the One True God and seeks to align its desires with God’s will.

Augustine assumes that the role of kings and governors is to deal with the people’s actions—to punish bad conduct and approve good conduct (Rom 13:3-4). Civil authorities rule in a way that makes it possible for their citizens to attain virtue and live good lives.

But eventually this role degenerates in a predictable way: governors begin acting as “lords over [the people’s] fate”, and the people start looking to their governors as “providers of their pleasures.” Instead of serving others by pursuing virtue through discipline, the people serve themselves through a disciplined pursuit of pleasure. Personal pleasure becomes the highest good, and the self becomes the highest god.

As in Rome, so in America. Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose. The more things change, the more they stay the same.

Slouching Toward Selfishness

In such a hedonistic culture (whether Rome or modern America), every “indecent delight and…every kind of cruel and shameful pleasure” is acceptable. The only heresy is to question whether such pursuits actually improve humanity. And the penalty for this heresy is censorship (“stop his mouth”), exile from the public forum (“toss him out”), and ultimately death (“kill him off”).

All cultures punish blasphemy of their gods—by exclusion, by exile, or by execution. In a culture that worships the self, the blasphemers are those who argue that human happiness comes only through the death of the self. In every hedonistic culture, faithful Christians are going to blaspheme the gods of their culture–so they must be prepared to face the consequences of such blasphemy.

Since Augustine’s two cities are moving in radically different directions, the citizens of the City of God will at times have to endure “the worst and most depraved republic” (II.19). But such endurance and suffering is what Christ has called them to. And by their endurance, they will “win for themselves a place of glory in the most holy and majestic senate of the angels, so to speak, in the heavenly republic whose law is the will of God” (II.19).