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The Two (And Only Two) Cities | Fr. James V. Schall, S.J. | February 7, 2007
"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. 
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 
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
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
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."
 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
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."  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
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."
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.
 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.
 Josef Cardinal Ratzinger, "The Ascension: The Beginning of a New Nearness,"
Images of Hope (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2006), 59.
 The Collected Letters of C. S. Lewis, ibid., III, 92.
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James V. Schall, S.J., is Professor of Political Philosophy at Georgetown
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
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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