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Research Papers on Augustine's City of God

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Research papers on Augustine's City of God attempt to analyze selected passages from Augustine’s City of God.  There are, Augustine believed, two cities that, since Cain’s time, have coexisted on the earth, the city of man and the city of God. They are not cities in a geographic sense; neither has a specific location on earth.  But every man and woman on earth is a member of one or the other of these cities and one’s status as a member of one or another of the two cities is of vital importance.  For one of the most important differences between the two cities is eschatological; at the time of the “second death” the city of man will come to an end (…for it will no longer be a city when it has been committed to perpetual pains…”), but the city of God will endure eternally.

The City of God

What differentiates the members of the two cities?  Augustine answers this question in a fundamentally Platonic way, “The one [the city of man] consist of those who wish to live after the flesh, the other [the city of God] of those who wish to live after the spirit.” Here Augustine is endorsing the ontological hierarchy of the Platonists and Neoplatonists.  In that hierarchy the spirit is, by virtue of its closer proximity to the nature of God, more “real” than is matter.  It is the task of man to overcome the material and to seek after the spiritual.  It is noteworthy, however, that Augustine is careful not to carry the spirit-flesh dichotomy too far.  He states that it is evil to live after the flesh, but that “…the nature of flesh is not itself evil… He thereby avoids straying into heretical territory, Gnosticism, which held that all matter is inherently evil.

Augustine viewed man as fallen, as suffering from the consequences of Original Sin.  The nature of life on earth, which Augustine sees as being hellacious, attests to the divine condemnation of man after the first couple’s disobedience in the Garden of Eden.  The formation of the city of God out of those destined to be saved is only possible because of Grace, a Grace that descends on some, but not all, members of the human race, a grace that is, Augustine says, “undeserved”.

Human beings must choose the objects of their love, flesh or spirit, and the two alternatives are mutually exclusive. This choice is dictated by the quality of the individual’s will.  “The right will…is well directed love, and the wrong will is ill directed love.” Augustine speaks of the will as having “motions” .  The right-directed will moves upwards towards God and heaven, towards spirit.  The ill-directed will moves downward, towards Hell, towards flesh.  The ill-directed will is concerned not with God, but with Self. Augustine’s concept of Self is, of course, a function of his opinion of human nature, which, in turn, is a function of the fact of the Fall.  The love of God requires contempt of Self.  The denizens of the city of man are constantly attempting to aggrandize themselves while the citizens of the city of God seek to humble themselves and to praise God. 

Justice and City of God

Justice, both earthly and transcendental, is an important point of differentiation between the two cities.  “Justice,” says Augustine, “is that virtue which gives every one his due.” This involves paying due respect to God’s ontological hierarchy by engaging in the organization of “service”.  One must serve God, not one’s own fleshy desires.  When one serves God aright, one’s soul exercises dominion over the body.  Within the soul reason must exercise dominion over “…the passions and other vicious parts of the soul…”.  Two things are noteworthy about this conception of justice. 

  1. First, there is no egalitarianism in it.  Things are organized in a hierarchy in which the higher have dominion over the lower and the lower serve the higher.
  2. The vices must be dominated by reason; the individual must serve God. “Servitude,” says Augustine, “is useful…and to serve God is useful to all.” Secondly, the soul is a little landscape in and of itself. It is not homogeneous, but has definite parts and its own internal hierarchy.

Earthly justice is a consequence of the spiritual justice discussed in the above paragraph.  Here Augustine strays into politics.  The first eleven books of the City of God had dealt with the reason for Rome’s fall.  Markus has noted that “The state was, for Augustine, synonymous with the Roman Empire…”. The Empire is not synonymous with the city of man, but it is the archetype of what human beings manage to create in the way of political organizations and Augustine is highly critical of it. If a republic is defined as a weal of the people, “…then there never was a Roman republic, for the people’s weal was never attained among the Romans…”. For the “people” is defined as assemblage of persons who are bound together by a “…common acknowledgment of right and by a community of interests…”. But where there is not justice there can be no right; where there is no right there can be no assemblage of people bound together by common acknowledgment of it; and hence there can be no such thing as “a people”.

An alternative definition of “people”, as “…an assemblage of reasonable beings bound together by a common agreement as to the objects of their love…”, allows for the Roman republic to be a republic, but it does not lessen Augustine’s disdain for both the Roman republic and the Roman empire.  For the objects that the Romans loved were the wrong objects.  They loved not the one true God, but rather the set of supernatural, but debased, beings that constituted the Roman pantheon.  Thus, “…the city of the ungodly, which did not obey the command of God that it should offer no sacrifice save to him alone…is void of true justice.”

The city of God is eternal; the city of man transient, doomed to perish after the parousia.  The city of God, founded on justice, is a happy place because of the felicity that comes from having the proper object of one’s love (God), and the justice that flows from that.  The city of man is a terrible place, a kind of “war of all against all”.  It should be mentioned that to Platonists, of which Augustine must be considered one, transience is one of the attributes that make anything possessing it less real and holy than is the eternal and divine.

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