Not surprisingly, the view of Augustine on society dovetailed with his world view and his anthropology. Before the fourth century, the Christian view (like the Jewish view before it) was that every human being dwelt on this earth as a brief traveller, awaiting individual death or the Second Coming for the eternal plan of God to come to fruition.
In the fourth century, Roman emperors became Christian, and the Christian Faith moved from being a religion not tolerated to being the established one. As Roman civil authority decayed, Christians changed from being a repressed minority to becoming a dominant elite. Even though this took well over a century to be accomplished, this paradigm shift brought Christians to a dominant position in society. They had wealth, acceptance and influence. The church began to exercise some influence previously held by the state.
By the time Augustine lived, the Christian religion had become legally protected, while paganism and opposing beliefs were legally repressed. How did these major changes - this paradigm shift - affect the view of society held by Christians? In the course of this establishment of the Christian religion as the official and compulsory religion of the declining Roman Empire, Christians had come to identify without reserve - and often without much thought - with the culture, values, social structure and political institutions of the Roman Empire.
Christians presumed that God had planned that the pagan Roman Empire begin in pre-Christian times, and then become a vehicle for the spread of the Christian religion. Augustine lived at this turning point, at which Christians after four centuries had an opportunity to lead their society actively for the first time. How could this fit in with the teachings of Christ? This was to be one of the most radical transformations in the social conditions of the existence of the Church over its whole history, and intellectually the Church was not well prepared to deal with such a change.
Until the end of the fourth century, Christian scholars had accepted that the Roman Empire was the way chosen by God for the spread of the Christian religion, and that the Empire was a model of it in its secular setting. (For example, the word "diocese" was previously a Roman army term for a military district.) Augustine became the first Christian scholar known to question and challenge this accepted view, but he matured to that position only late in his life.
What changed his attitude was his awareness of sin and its negative effects on society. For example, Augustine said that God did not intend that there would be slavery, but that slavery came into society only as a result of human sinfulness, most especially that of warfare. Late in life Augustine thus came to conclude that no particular society is planned by God as a model for human order and individual righteousness.
The role of society, rather less positively, was to contain the disorder caused by human misdeeds, to control conflict, and to create the space so that some kind of moral living would remain possible in the world. Because of original sin, this tension and disorder was the outcome of the disruption of the original harmony God had established on earth.
Shadows of this tension between the earthly City of Man and the heavenly City of God shine through strongly here. They are described in detail in what probably is the most influential book that Augustine wrote (and his work that was his favourite), City of God. Once and for all, the City of God demolished any notion that either the rise or the fall of Rome and its empire was automatically involved with whatever plan rested in the mind of God for the spread of the Christian religion.
In the thought of Augustine, a Christian in his or her everyday living cannot thus feel fully at home in any society, as no society is God-ordained for the purpose of eternal salvation. Christian hope relies on no particular form of society, or any one particular political program. For Augustine, the Gospel was a permanently unsettling force that was bound to prevent the Christian from achieving total identification with any existing social order.
The heavenly Jerusalem, the City of God cannot exist on this earth. He saw a difference in terms of the way that the values of a Christian are structured: they are structured in an eschatological ("other world") perspective. His conception of a societas as a community identified and held together by its loyalties and love has become an integral part of the general tradition of Christian social teaching and the Christian vision of "Christendom."
The previous section of this page dealt with how Augustine “saw” society. In contrast, this page focuses on how the Roman society of his era possibly regarded or “saw” Augustine, who as well as a Catholic bishop was a public figure and a prolific Christian author.
By the time of Augustine in the middle of the fourth century, there was generally a coexistence between Christianity and contemporary Roman society. Older people could possibly remember martyrs of an earlier generation, some people in a cultural – but not necessarily religious - way still accepted the Roman emperor as a god, and there were still pagan statues in public places; even so, Christianity was now accepted as respectable and a reality in society.
Christianity was patronised by emperors, and was seen as an avenue to social advancement, such that in the year 403, Deogratias, a deacon at Carthage, successfully asked Augustine for advice about how best he might discern the purity of motives of persons seeking Christian baptism. (Augustine generously wrote from him De catechizandis rudibus ("On Cathechizing Beginners in Faith" or "The First Catechetical Instruction").
In the sense of highly visible or volatile demonstrations in public, there was little opposition between Christianity and “pagan” culture. Christians had no qualms about sending their children to the public schools. Within the educated elite and men of letters, there were increasing numbers of Christians. All was not totally tension-free however. In Augustine’s time there was a feeling of threat amongst some of the Roman senatorial class, which saw itself as the guardian of the traditional Roman values they saw imbued in the prestige of the centuries-old pagan culture.
This came to a head, for example, with the sack of Rome in 410, which these pagans attributed to the dilution of the earlier Roman ethos by the less warlike principles of Christianity (an assertion made easier to propagate because the invaders were Christians, even if heretical Arian Christians). Augustine wrote his lengthy City Of God in response to such a claim. In such a climate and for the rest of his long life (which was double the average lifespan of his day) Augustine could not conceal his being ill at ease with the culture he loved but which he saw as “pagan” at its roots.
He did not conceal or attempt to deny his early fascination with the writings of the classical authors, Cicero and Vergil, but was careful later in life to distance himself from them while still remaining heavily indebted to them for his philosophical framework. As he indicated in his De doctrina christiana (“On Christian Instruction”), he had no hesitation to “invade” their works for anything that aided the Christian cause. AN2333