The Necessity of Sacred Lecture Halls 

Augustine on the Origin of Civic Virtue

As a Classical Christian Educator, one of the regular discussions I find myself engaging in has to do with the necessity of forming students with civic virtues — those personal qualities associated with the preservation of a harmonious political order. Great thinkers of bygone eras like Augustine and the American Founders have all spoken to the reality that a society requires virtuous members in order for that society to flourish. Yet, we are faced with a question: What is the source of civic virtue? Each day in my American Humanities course, I have my students recite a catechism that quotes part of the following from George Washington:

Our first president wisely understood that religion and morality are “indispensable supports” to political prosperity. Indeed, I would argue that there is a dire need to reclaim this role of the Christian religion as a foundation of meaningful, civic virtue.

The most renowned theologian-philosopher of the fourth century, Augustine of Hippo was a North African bishop. His works are known today as some of the most important in Western philosophical, theological, and political thought. His magnum Opus, The City of God, is considered one of the greatest theological works ever written. In it, Augustine not only addresses questions concerning systematic theology, but also the role of the Christian while living as exile pilgrims in this earthly existence, which directly connects to questions regarding politics.

While many have addressed Augustine’s concept of virtue, there is a wealth of opportunity in exploring Augustine’s approach to civic virtue, specifically. Augustine’s general conception of virtue is one of rightly-ordered loves. The following questions arise: What sort of rightly-ordered loves should citizens and magistrates possess, for the sake of their community? What virtues allow for the flourishing of civil society? What about members of the eternal City of God allows them to be beneficial for temporal cities of men? I shall posit that Augustine’s works, specifically The City of God and his political writings have much moderns can glean from in seeking to answer these questions. When considering Augustine’s thought regarding civic virtue, as demonstrated in Book 2 of The City of God as well as his Letter 91 to Nectarius, it becomes abundantly evident that Augustine believes that the virtues of Christian citizens and magistrates directly benefit the temporal, political society particularly because they are oriented towards the eternal, lasting City and due to the fact that only the members of the City of God have the rightly-ordered loves needed to bring about a truly flourishing and peaceful community. 

Augustine’s Conception of Civic Virtue in Book II of The City of God Against the Pagans

Before turning to Augustine’s letter pertaining to politics, it is fitting to explore the topic of civic virtue with respect to his most renowned work, The City of God. Within this book, Augustine speaks of two cities — one eternal and one temporal. The City of God is the lasting City which is marked by true blessedness; all Christians ultimately and primarily belong to this city, meaning that they are both pilgrims and exiles in any earthly cities which they now inhabit. On the other hand, there is the City of Man. The City of Man is temporal and full of those whose loves are disordered. Because of this, true blessedness, happiness, and peace cannot be found in the City of Man, only in the City of God whose ruler is the Lord himself.

In the second book of The City of God, Augustine provides an overview of many of the vices that plagued Rome prior to its sacking in 410. Augustine seeks to give an apologetic in light of the accusation from the pagans that the Fall of Rome was the fault of the Christians. In chapter nineteen of book two, Augustine states the following about Rome’s corruption: 

Here, Augustine identifies how vices of luxury and avarice demonstrate how corrupt Rome had become and how those vices led to her downfall. He goes on to state that Rome’s gods “required their worshippers those indecent and ignoble displays to which they lent a pernicious authority by their pretended divinity!” Augustine posits that Rome’s gods encouraged vice, as opposed to virtue. The pagan claim that Christianity led to the downfall of Rome could not stand; Augustine demonstrates that the City of Man led to its own downfall as it could not cultivate the virtues needed for its maintenance. 

In contrast, Augustine argues that the adoption of Christian precepts of moral virtue would bring about happiness, even for the temporal civil society. Later in the same passage, he states poignantly, 

For Augustine, it is specifically the virtues which accompany the Christian faith that allow for the flourishing of civil society. Moreover, Augustine suggests that these virtues are not limited merely to citizens but to magistrates as well. Augustine does not suggest that these members of the City of God, with their moral virtues, should remove themselves from society; in actuality, their participation in the earthly commonwealth is necessary, even if the earthly commonwealth has rejected these Christian precepts of moral virtue. He states, “As it is, however, one man listens while another condemns, and more are lovers of the blandishments of vice than of austere virtue.” He finishes the chapter with a call to faithfulness, saying, “Christ’s servants, therefore, be they kings or princes or judges, soldiers or provincials, rich men or poor, free or slaves, of whichever sex, are commanded to endure this earthly commonwealth, however depraved and wholly vile it may be…” Augustine’s call to faithfulness is given to all Christians without distinction, regardless of the type of society in which they inhabit. 

Augustine suggests that there are two temporal possibilities for the Christian’s role in civil society. First, Augustine posits that if a society were to adopt the Christian precepts of Justice and moral virtue most clearly communicated in the Scripture, then “would the commonwealth adorn its lands with happiness in this present life.” If members of earthly cities were to adhere to Christian civic virtues, then those earthly cities would reap the benefit of temporal happiness, even if that happiness still pales in comparison to “the summit of life eternal.”

The other possibility in Augustine’s understanding is that in a society that does not adopt these Christian civic virtues, members of the City of God must still endure those earthly commonwealths while looking to and anticipating the heavenly commonwealth that is to come. On the then-current status of Rome, Augustine states in chapter twenty of book two of the City of God, “But those who worship and love the gods of Rome, whom they rejoice to imitate even in their wickedness and shame, do not at all care that the commonwealth is depraved and wholly vile.” Thus, the Christian citizen, in that sort of depraved society, must endure that society while still maintaining Christian moral virtues.  

With these two possibilities in mind, it is important to highlight the fact that Augustine does see it as a possibility that there can be a society (made up of individual magistrates and citizens) that adopts Christian moral virtues and thus “adorns” itself with some form of earthly happiness and leads its members to the eternal blessedness in the city to come. For Augustine, it is particularly through civic virtue that is only nurtured by the Christian faith that earthly communities can properly manifest peace and justice. He goes so far as to say in chapter twenty-one that “True justice, however, does not exist other than in that commonwealth whose Founder and Ruler is Christ.” Therefore, only members of that Christ-ruled commonwealth can bring about justice in earthly commonwealths.

Augustine’s Conception of Civic Virtue in Letter 91

While Augustine is widely known for his books and sermons, scholars have created compilations of his letters pertaining to political topics, which prove to be insightful resources in examining the thought and legacy of the Bishop of Hippo. Many of these letters are written specifically to magistrates — both pagan and Christian. Augustine, while never directly involved in politics as a magistrate, maintained great influence due to his authoritative role in the Christian church in North Africa. In “Letter 91,” Augustine writes to Nectarius, a pagan magistrate from another city who had written to Augustine requesting that Augustine use his influence to ensure that pagans who were involved in a riot do not experience harsh legal penalties from local magistrates in Nectarius’ hometown, Calama. 

As he begins the letter, Augustine immediately states that he would “love to count” Nectarius “as a citizen of a certain country beyond; it is because we love that country with a holy love…” Augustine’s first remark to the pagan magistrate is an invitation to become a citizen of God’s city. He goes on, 

Augustine’s encouragement to a pagan civil magistrate here is profound, as he suggests that if the magistrate were to become a Christian it would cause him to become a “finer man.” Moreover, Augustine sees it as wholly possible for the magistrate to serve the eternal city in their temporal pursuits “in the present time.” 

Augustine then turns to address Nectarius’ request. Augustine argues that a society without the requisite civic virtues (and corresponding punishments for vice) cannot flourish. He asks, “Do you think that leaving an outrage like that to go unpunished, or failing to reform the guilty as they deserve, will allow you to leave your homeland ‘flourishing’? Flowers like that won’t produce fruit, but thorns.” Unpunished vice will not allow for a flourishing society. Augustine continues and suggests that it is the Christian who is ultimately eager for the flourishing of the homeland.

Citing Cicero’s On the Republic, Augustine lists a variety of civic virtues that lead to the flourishing of one’s hometown. He says to Nectarius, 

Restraint, marital faithfulness, modest behavior, and moral uprightness stand out as civic virtues necessary for a harmonious society. Where might these civic virtues be learned? In Augustine’s understanding, the Church is the fountain from which these civic virtues flow. He states beautifully, 

Those virtues that are required for members of the City of God to be in fellowship with God allow earthly cities of men to flourish. For Augustine, churches — the sacred lecture halls for the peoples of the world — are the means by which people grow in eternity-oriented virtues that allow them to benefit earthly commonwealths. This aligns seamlessly with Augustine’s articulation of virtue in Book Two of The City of God: the commonwealth adorns its lands with happiness as the Christian precepts of moral virtues are practiced by its people and rulers. 

What then, should Nectarius seek if he wants to leave his hometown “safe and flourishing?” Augustine argues that the people must be converted. He says poetically,

The ultimate solution to the lack of flourishing of the earthly city being addressed is the conversion of the people to the Christian faith. Evidently, Augustine includes “chaste and pious habits” alongside “true worship.” For Augustine, the Christian faith and the requisite moral virtues that lead to a flourishing political community go hand-in-hand. 

In the remainder of the letter, Augustine discusses the use of punishment regarding the pagan riot. He argues that the guilty should be punished for two reasons: reform and deterrence. Interestingly, in Augustine’s view, it is the Christians who have the requisite virtues needed for the proper treatment of the guilty. 

For Augustine, the political task of punishing crimes should be oriented toward the eternal city of God. Even in punishing civil crimes, Augustine’s focus is on the salvation of souls. Once again, one sees how Augustine understands that the civic virtues needed for a society to flourish (even when it comes to punishing the guilty) are inherently rooted in the Christian religion and the preoccupation with the life to come in the eternal city, whose Founder and Ruler is Christ. 


In analyzing both Book II of The City of God and Augustine’s “Letter 91,” it is clear that Augustine believes that the virtues of Christian citizens and magistrates directly benefit temporal, political society because they are oriented towards the eternal, lasting City and because only the members of the City of God have the rightly-ordered loves needed to bring about a truly flourishing and peaceful community. Indeed, it is Christians — particularly — who have learned and been instilled with the necessary virtues that allow for the flourishing of earthly commonwealths, even as they live as pilgrims and exiles awaiting the life of true blessedness in eternity. Churches serve as “sacred lecture halls for the world” promulgating virtue that not only benefits members of the city of God, but those earthly cities which these members inhabit.

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Lucas Vieira

Lucas Vieira serves as the Upper School Assistant Principal at Beacon Hill Classical Academy and the Founder of the Beza Institute for Reformed Classical Education. He lives in Ventura, California with his lovely wife and children. He can be found on Twitter/X @bezainstitute

3 thoughts on “The Necessity of Sacred Lecture Halls 

  1. There are two problems here. First, the context of Augustine’s writings are not mentioned. Augustine was converted after Christendom had started. His writings came after his conversion. Thus we might want look at where Augustine’s writings were a product of his time more than a reflection from the Scriptures.

    Second, the Christianity of our founders did not stop them from believing in white supremacy and expressing that belief through their treatment of Native Americans and of Blacks. Native Americans were ethnically cleansed from the land. And the horrific treatment of blacks continued up through the Civil Rights Movement. Even some of America’s greatest theologians believed in white supremacy. And though it has been significantly reduced, we still have systemic racism today because of our past. Despite, or because of, how America was treating non-whites, America flourished economically during Christendom.

    Has our current secular society become less moral American society was during Christendom? How one answers that question depends on the markers one uses. There seems to be more gun violence today but that is partially enabled by gun rights groups. Elective abortion is highly immoral but its practice has spanned over both when Christendom held sway in America until now. The LGBT community has emerged from the margins of society to the chagrin of many religiously conservative Christians. But if that is the marker used, then hasn’t one implied that homosexuality and transgenderism is more immoral than the atrocities committed in slavery and those practiced during Jim Crow? And, btw, though Jim Crow laws did not exist in the North, a harsh segregation did.

    Augustine had many great things to teach. But we must be careful not to accept what he said simply because he said it. He based his statements about moral virtues and a civil society by observing his times in the context of Christendom. If we automatically believe what he said, then we no longer need to observe other times and their contexts including our own to test what he said. And our nation’s history of racism is evidence that Christianity doesn’t produce virtues necessary for a civil society in people.

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