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The Two (And Only Two) Cities | Fr. James V. Schall, S.J. | February 7, 2007

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"All my philosophy of history hangs upon a sentence of your own: 'Deeds were done which were not wholly in vain.'" -- C. S. Lewis, Letter to J. R. R. Tolkien, December 24, 1962. [1]

"Another artist recognizes above himself a higher power and joyfully works as a humble apprentice under God's heaven ... However, it was not he who created this world, nor does he control it; there can be no doubts about its foundations. It is merely given to the artist to sense more keenly than others the harmony of the world, the beauty and ugliness of man's role in it--and to vividly communicate this to mankind. Even amid failure and at the lower depths of existence -- in poverty, in prison, and in illness--a sense of enduring harmony cannot abandon him." -- Alexander Solzhenitsyn, The Nobel Lecture, 1972 [2]


Anyone who is at all literate knows that the expression "two cities" has many profound, often confusing, overtones and meanings. The similar phrase, the "twin cities," of course, will mean two actual cities, like Minneapolis and St. Paul. The "two cities" are not like "twin" cities, in which both cities are somehow alike. Rather, the "two cities" are the opposite of each other, one being what the other is not, but might have been. The ultimate membership in either of these two cities excludes that of the other.

The "two cities" is a consecrated phrase that comes from St. Augustine's famous book The City of God. In this book, Augustine tells us that "two loves built two cities, the city of God and the city of man." These "two cities" are thus not the same city. Though he also knew about "the city of God" from two of the Psalms, Augustine himself was responding to the great project of Plato, in his Republic. There, Plato proposed the "building in speech" of the best city. The exact location of this city was the concern of both Plato and Augustine. Thought about these "two cities" often leads us to the most profound issues of our kind and of our time. The basic meaning of our earthly lives may well be defined as that of deciding in thought and action to which city we choose permanently to belong.

To maintain a deep respect for Plato is the essence of intelligence. Yet, neither Augustine nor most of us can be fully content with a "city" only in "speech," even when we grant that we, with Plato, must ourselves also build it there in the mind. Its building in "speech" or in "argument," nonetheless, is itself a necessary exercise of human intelligence in its earnest pursuit of reality and its causes. Ever since Plato and Augustine, men have incessantly searched for the "best" city. They easily assume that it should exist or be constructed, even if they cannot yet locate it among the existing cities hitherto known to man. This apparently frustrating experience may be why modern philosophy more and more insists in locating this city in the most ethereal place of all, that is, in the future. When this is formulated, actual politics become an urgent demand to produce it here and now. The future becomes the scourge and destruction of the normal and the possible.

Thus, men wonder: "What is this 'best' city?" "Where is it?" "Can it be at all?" "Is it indeed 'of God?'" "Can men build it by themselves?"

The very posing of the question of the "best city," as Leo Strauss rightly remarked, is the most important issue that political philosophy asks of philosophy and of itself. Indeed, it is the most direct question it also asks of revelation and, in turn, revelation asks of it. Most wise men, if only from experience, if not logic, finally conclude that if there is a "perfect" city, it is not in this world. There is considerable comfort in this. They thereby imply or admit that the actual cities or states of this world are not ever going to be "perfect". Yet, the question of the ultimate location of this "city" cannot be abandoned simply because of the imperfection of the actual cities that we know and live in.

The refusal to admit the fact that there will be no perfect city in this world is, in the age of globalization, the most recent and, in some ways, the most ominous temptation of all. This is the desire to make world government itself the "perfect city" in which all our worldly problems will be identified, requited, and resolved. More and more this identification of world rule and perfect city has become the locus of the struggle against a new kind of tyranny in the modern world. The world state, with its own definitions of law, of good and evil, is itself the "perfect city"--the only perfect state. Up to now we have had other less perfect places to which we might escape. This refuge may be coming to an end.

Among Christians, it has been generally settled doctrine that, while it might "begin" in this world in the souls of men, the "City of God" in Augustine's sense is not a worldly political kingdom and ought not to be confused with such. Christ, as He professed, did not come to set up a civil state. Caesar had his own "things." Christ took it for granted that states were already in existence. The New Testament, moreover, is not a political book. It presupposes that we already know something about actual states both from experience and from the philosophers.


The "City of God" is a technical expression. It refers to all those who, while in this world, choose God as their ultimate end. This end does not deny the worth of this world or its political life, but sees that its worth is related to something higher. The focus of the "City of God" looks from eternity back into time. It remembers that eternity is not the negation of time. Indeed to make such a decisive choice about what they love is why men exist in this world in the first place, why they are rather than are not.

The "city of man," by contrast, includes only those (however many we are not told but Augustine himself thought quite a few) who, quite clearly understanding what they choose, freely reject God. They usually make this rejection explicit by refusing to follow His ordinances, both natural and revealed. They prefer their own self-given laws. Pride thus means precisely this capacity and willingness to make such a choice of self over God. This is why "two loves" build "two cities," not one. One city is the opposite, the rejection, of the other. Both exist eternally.

In this sense, however, both of these "cities," as they are described, are invisible. Christ was rather adamant in insisting that we do not know how God judges those who have died. That is, we do not know (except for the saints) which of the two cities any given men end up in. Christ only insists, in rather graphic terms, that we are judged, both by our faith and by our deeds. We are to affirm that "Jesus Christ is Lord" and to serve our neighbor. We do this latter by telling him the truth and doing what we can if he is in need. But all of this reason and revelation, including the prohibitions and warnings, is designed to enable us freely to see and enjoy the wonder of the things that are.

At any time in the on-going course of history, as Augustine told us, all people who eventually and finally, by their choice and God's grace, come to belong to the "City of God," are, nonetheless, to be found during their mortal lives in existing civil societies. Likewise, the individual members of the visible Church on earth, also living in civil states, very well could end up outside the "City of God." Dante, I recall, populated his Inferno with not a few clerics, some of high rank. Those who come to belong to either city are where they are because of their own choices. In this sense, Christianity is the freest of the religions and philosophies, the one that affirms the power of free will.

That there be these "two cities" was, however, part of the original consequences of the basic terms of a creation. Within creation was to be found a free creature endowed with reason but one who was finite, who is not God. Indeed, since these rational beings called men are not gods, there were evidently to be, down the ages, billions of them. Their "collective" meaning in history became itself a problem, especially if the collective meaning is seen as opposed to the divine purpose. At all times in history, no doubt, some thinkers maintain that, in fact, at the end of time, only a "city of God" will exist. No "city of man" will remain. In this optimistic view--if it is indeed optimistic--everyone will somehow be saved or redeemed by God's power or mercy no matter what they do or hold.

Such an apparently consoling view, when spelled out, implies a rather uninteresting and un-dramatic world in which little seems to be at stake. Nothing can be lost, so why worry? We will eventually be "saved" no matter what we do or think. We are not really very important. God knew all along that He would save us. We were given empty threats. Our worldly existence is a kind of game. If we lived in a world in which, to cite Tolkien's dictum, absolutely all of our deeds were "in vain" (a notion already found in Aristotle), little sense remains in existing at all. If, on the other hand, it is our deeds that exclusively, by our own powers, save us, then we are already gods. In this latter case, we must be content exclusively with what we can give ourselves. Not a few would call this latter condition "hell" itself.

More than one writer has noted that, in recent centuries, men have assimilated to themselves attributes that formerly were considered to be exclusively of the "city of God." In this world, we not only have a "right" to pursue "happiness," however defined, usually by us, but, more astonishingly, a right actually to be happy, as if it is something we can give ourselves.

Whole classes of people no longer appear on our streets because they have been selectively aborted. They are often eliminated on the grounds that they could not be "happy" either with their actual parents or with their less than perfect physical corpus. They do not make this decision to not exist for themselves. We make it for them.

We hear discussions of the "right" to a "perfect child," because otherwise we would unjustly bring into the world a less than perfect child who might look like our uncle or grandmother. We are working to sue those, even our parents, who let us be born deformed. Perfection has become the enemy of the normal. The normal no longer have control of the definition of who and what they are.


What am I driving at in these reflections? In his Nobel Lecture, Alexander Solzhenitsyn remarked that even in the worst cases, of which we have had not a few in these ages of progress, we can still have a "sense of enduring harmony," a harmony that includes the weakest and the most disordered. At least since Eden, we were never asked to live in or create a "perfect city." Indeed, the "Fall" itself took place in an atmosphere of abundance and fullness, when nothing was lacking. Redemption is always proposed to us in the place where we are, good or bad. Its original locus was the Cross, by every account a gruesome place.

What we were asked to do, at a minimum, was to "do no wrong." The basic principle of Socrates, that principle that once was at the heart of our culture, at the heart of what it is to be human, is that "it is never right to do wrong." What follows from this principle is that it is sometimes necessary to suffer evil rather than to do wrong. In this sense, the refusal to do evil is what by contrast defines the good and makes it be.

We who are Christians see clearly that this principle of suffering evil, of refusing to adore what is wrong when we are asked to do so, is the heart of our redemption. It is not that those who, in fact, "do" wrong cannot subsequently, if they will, be saved. The very premise of Christianity, why it exists in the form it does, is that, even if we do wrong, we can be saved. But we can only accomplish this "being saved" by acknowledging, in mind and speech, that wrong is wrong, especially the wrong we ourselves do. We do not define what is wrong as if we are the ones who created this world itself. Deus, non homo, est Logos. But we at times do evil, whatever we call it.

Forgiveness means, at bottom, to acknowledge that what we do is wrong, if it is wrong. Essentially that is all that is asked of us. We are always, in our every action, in our every day, in the condition of the Fall of Genesis. That is, we either accept the distinction of good and evil that God made in things, or we independently make our own works, our own distinctions. We choose to live by our own self-given laws. We can even become famous by so doing. But it will not save us. The struggle is already in our own souls and cannot be confronted anywhere else.

What is characteristic of our times is the systematic effort to locate evil outside of ourselves. We want to excuse ourselves, or to free ourselves to do what we want. We do this by attributing what is wrong to politics, society, economy, family, to anything but our own wills. We talk of "social sins" as if there were some "social" being who is out there sinning while we remain totally innocent and passive. To "cure" ourselves, then, we do not, in this approach, need to reform anything in ourselves. We need to "reform" what is outside of ourselves. If we do this re-arranging of things, then we will all be good automatically, both ourselves and our neighbors. But if this theory were true, we would not need to exist as individuals at all. There could be no drama of unique soul seeking what is. Much of the pressure for establishing the "best city" in this world comes from this background of a denial that the real location of the drama of history is in our own souls.


From the viewpoint of the "two cities," then, what does the world look like? To put it graphically, at every moment of every day of human history, two things go on. The first happening is invisible; the second is visible. The former is the on-going formation of the "City of God" in the ultimate sense of our standing in eternity as it relates to the consequences of our thoughts and deeds. In an essay on the Ascension, Josef Ratzinger wrote: "the actual true place of our existing is God himself and ... we must ever view man from this vantage point." [3] Looked on from this perspective, all else that goes on in the world is secondary. The world is the place, the scene of the ultimate drama that God put in the universe when He created finite rational creatures besides Himself. These are the human creatures whose central purpose was to love God as precisely their end and their joy. "This is eternal life: to know you, the one true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent" (John, 17, 3).

The second happening that goes on in this world, the visible, is the ordinary life of four score years and ten, if we are strong, that we have been given. Here is the visible life of the mortals we are. We are those who are born and who die, but, in the meantime, we create a world, a culture, in which we define ourselves either, as Solzhenitsyn said, autonomously or as "working joyfully as apprentices under God's presence."

In the classical image of the "two cities," it was usually clear that actual cities were "temporal" things, not designed to be our ultimate rest, however good and useful they were while we needed them. Civil societies came to be and passed away. Few cities or states, though made to transcend the limits of an individual human life-span, lasted in their original form more than a couple of hundred years. The fact is that many different arrangements of how to live legitimately can be and have been conceived. Some are better than others, no doubt.

Aquinas told us that the raw material that we would have always to deal with in actual states was, for the most part, "imperfect men." Imperfect men, it seemed obvious, could not do things that the perfect could do. On the other hand, if we tried to legislate perfection, no room would be left, paradoxically, for this same perfection that we might have. The world needs a space of freedom in which the noble and good can freely come forth through grace and the inspiration arising in the souls of men. This is why there are things, most important things, that are "beyond politics," to use a phrase of Christopher Dawson.

Hidden within many perfectionist theories, however, is a kind of pride, a temptation to want ourselves to be the ones receiving the credit for solving the problems of others. The Pope even said to the Swiss bishops that many of these grandiose plans to solve human problems arose out of Christian inspiration. But these proposed to solve things without Christ. This is why there was always a certain wisdom in thinking of charity not as "helping" others, but as helping others to help themselves. The focus is not on us. When we look at what we propose from this latter viewpoint, we cannot escape the question of whether what we propose really does help us to do what ought to be done.

We think of producing "better," or "best" states in order that others, who cannot, in our view, fend for themselves, will be automatically better by our efforts. The poor and the weak become instruments of our perfection, indeed of our ideology about how to achieve it. We do not lead them through virtue or grace, through discipline and truth, to be themselves more perfect, even to be somewhat better. We do not lead them to be better "gradually," as Aquinas it, through the exercise of their own wills, the locus of all ultimate drama.

In a letter to Mary Van Deusen, from Magdalen College, Oxford, on July 2, 1954, C. S. Lewis remarked, to this point, "where benevolent planning, armed with political or economic power, can become wicked is when it tramples on people's rights for the sake of their good." [4] What was Lewis' concern? Someone else takes it upon himself to make us good in such a way that we do not have to do anything ourselves to accomplish it. This approach, at first sight, is a noble concern. Who would not want to be "good?" Yet, really no one would want to be good, or even could be good, without his own understanding and choice being involved in the accomplishment. In this sense, the "best" actual city is not one in which we are perfect, but one in which we are allowed to be good, in which we are allowed "to do good and avoid evil."


Let me sum up what I have said. The real drama that goes on in the world while we are ourselves alive in it is invisible. But to be "invisible" does not mean it does not exist or is meaningless. Quite the opposite. It means that those who serve us best are those who tell us the truth about ourselves, about our transcendent destiny, about reality, and about what is right and wrong. This work does not go on in only the "best" or good regimes. It goes on everywhere, in whatever time or place, in the worst as well as in the best of human conditions. All else is ordained to this drama, which is, itself, ordered to the praise of God. Ultimately the world exists in order that we, who have the capacity to do son, might praise God and be in that place, that city, where this praise is the business of that city, the "City of God."

But this invisible drama occurs in actual places, in actual situations--in this town, in this locality, with these few people we are given to know. We are not wrong to think that some eras and situations are more kindly to live in than others. But we are not sure that, on this account alone, they are nearer to God or achieve their end more frequently.

The words of Tolkien are precise. "Deeds are done which are not wholly in vain." They are designed to remind us that much does not depend on us. If we exist to do precisely nothing, we would not exist at all. Yet, as Solzhenitsyn said, we do not "create" this world, nor do we "control it." Though we need not exist, we do exist. This is our glory and why we do not exist "wholly in vain."

We can have a "sense of the enduring harmony" of things, even midst the worst of things. We understand that behind all things, which the good artist also senses, what goes on is the formation of the City of God. We each are invited to enter through the narrow gates of this "city." We enter not on our own terms, but in terms of what is, in terms of the conditions in which we are, in fact, offered "eternal life."

Ultimately only two cities exist. The kingdoms and cities of this world pass away, though we remember them as the locus of our acting and our choosing. We do not profess to be gods, nor more than we are. Yet, we are redeemed by suffering, by affirming that it is "never right to do wrong." We live by the consequences of our choices and our understanding of them.

The "city of man" means that we can live forever in the exclusive choice of ourselves over what is. The worst city seeks to make us good without our participation. The best city is given to all who choose it, realizing that it is not of their making Both the "city" and the choosing are graces, but, when received, are genuinely ours in the "City of God."


[1] C. S. Lewis, "Letter to J. R. R. Tolkien," Oxford, December 24, 1962, The Collected Letters of C. S. Lewis, edited by Walter Hooper (San Francisco: Harper, 2007), III, 1396. Citation is from Lord of the Ring, Book I, Ch. 2.

[2] Alexander Solzhenitsyn, "The Nobel Lecture," The Solzhenitsyn Reader: New and Essential Writings 1947-2005, edited by Edward E. Erickson, Jr. and Daniel J. Mahoney (Wilmington, DE.: ISI Books, 2006), 513.

[3] Josef Cardinal Ratzinger, "The Ascension: The Beginning of a New Nearness," Images of Hope (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2006), 59.

[4] The Collected Letters of C. S. Lewis, ibid., III, 92.

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Fr. James V. Schall, S.J., is Professor of Political Philosophy at Georgetown University.

He is the author of numerous books on social issues, spirituality, culture, and literature including Another Sort of Learning, Idylls and Rambles, On the Unseriousness of Human Affairs: Teaching, Writing, Playing, Believing, Lecturing, Philosophizing, Singing, Dancing, and A Student's Guide to Liberal Learning. His most recent books are The Life of the Mind (ISI, 2006) and The Sum Total of Human Happiness (St. Augustine's Press, 2007).

Read more of his essays on his website.

Visit the Insight Scoop Blog and read the latest posts and comments by IgnatiusInsight.com staff and readers about current events, controversies, and news in the Church!


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