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City of God v. the Just City of Socrates

  • December 19, 2020
  • By Donielle
City of God v. the Just City of Socrates

A guest post by Faith Kazim on the cities of St. Augustine of Hippo and Plato!

The Just City and the City of God

by Faith Kazim

In The Republic, Socrates sets out to theoretically create the “just city”. He strips the city down to its very base, and then closely examines each aspect before deciding if it should be included, discarded, or changed. Socrates very nearly reaches his goal, but in doing so, he removes from the city, freedom of expression, individuality, and pathos in general. In City of God, St. Augustine discusses the City of God in comparison to the City of Man. Augustine’s “City of God”, unlike Socrates’ “just city” is less of a physical model, and more of a lifestyle and worldview.

Seeing that both of these cities have a similar objective, that is, to be an ultimately just and perfect city, it follows that we should investigate whether or not these two cities are the same. Both the just city and the City of God are cities, both are supposed to be perfectly moral and just, and both depend on a philosopher-king to bring order to the city.

A Model

While the City of God and the just city are both cities, the just city is an enlarged theoretical model with which to consider justice in an individual, and the City of God actually exists.

“So then, perhaps there would be more justice in the bigger and it would be easier to observe closely. If you want, first we’ll investigate what justice is like in the cities. Then, we’ll also go on to consider it in individuals, considering the likeness of the bigger in the idea of the littler?” (Plato, The Republic)

Additionally, the just city is a physical model of a city, a sort of guidebook to creating a just city, while the City of God is more of a lifestyle and worldview. The idea of a just city is created by a man, and the City of God, while conceptualized by a man, is created by God, naturally leading to divorces in thinking. One example of this is when Socrates, while examining the various aspects of a society, decides that an entire style of writing must be banned and discarded. Yet Augustine says, “And evil is removed, not by removing any nature, or part of a nature, which had been introduced by the evil, but by healing and correcting that which had been vitiated and depraved”. It can be assumed then, that Augustine would not approve of Socrates’ method of discarding, preferring rather to redeem and correct the faulty subject.

And mortal

Socrates’ city is also mortal. While it is “perfectly just”, it is not eternal. It is a city subject to decay and wear, and it is inhabited by mortal people who will get sick and die. On the other hand, the City of God is eternal. It can’t be destroyed, and its citizens are redeemed.

“In enunciating this proposition of ours, then, that because some live according to the flesh and others according to the spirit, there have arisen two diverse and conflicting cities…” (Augustine, City of God)

At a cost

While both the City of God and the just city are supposed to be perfectly moral and just, the just city accomplishes this at the expense of other things.  In attempting to achieve a perfectly just and moral city, because of man’s sinful nature, Socrates creates a city without freedom of expression, individuality, and pathos. Even parenthood is sacrificed for the city’s sake.

“And as the offspring are born, won’t they be taken over by the officers established for this purpose-men or women, or both… they will take the offspring of the good and bring them into the pen to certain nurses who live apart in certain section of the city. And those of the worse, and any of the others born deformed, they will hide away in an unspeakable and unseen place, as is seemly… Won’t they also supervise the nursing, leading the mothers to the pen when they’re full with milk, inventing every device so that none will recognize her own… ” (Plato)

The Giver, anyone?

This passage reads as a page out of a dystopian novel. Socrates claims that in order to produce ideal citizens for this just city, reproduction cannot only happen between couples, children must be raised by the state and kept apart from their mothers, and any substandard children must be hidden away, out of sight. The City of God, however, its citizens being redeemed, has a perfect balance of justice and mercy, order and inspiration, and reason and regard. God requires marriage to be kept sacred and unblemished. “Let marriage be held in honor among all, and let the marriage bed be undefiled, for God will judge the sexually immoral and adulterous.” (Hebrews 13:4)

Of Philosopher-Kings

While the City of God and the just city both depend on a philosopher-king to bring order to the city, the philosopher king only exists in the City of God. In order for Socrates’ city to succeed, it must be ruled by a philosopher-king. The philosopher-king he describes is not possible to find among men.

“It will be possible then, and only then, when kings are philosophers or philosopher-kings. The philosopher desires all knowledge. Justice, beauty, good, and so on are single, though their presentation is multiplex and variable. Curiosity about the multiplex particulars is not desire of knowledge, which is of the one constant idea–of that which is, as ignorance is of that which is not. What neither is nor is not, that which fluctuates and changes, is the subject matter of opinion, a state between knowledge and ignorance. Beauty is beauty always and everywhere; the things that look beautiful may be ugly from another point of view. Experience of beautiful things, curiosity about them, must be distinguished from knowledge of beauty; the philosopher is not to be confounded with the connoisseur, nor knowledge with opinion.

The philosopher is he who has in his mind the perfect pattern of justice, beauty, truth; his is the knowledge of the eternal; he contemplates all time and all existence; no praises are too high for him.” (Plato)

Not qualified for the job

Socrates describes here a man “who has in his mind the perfect pattern of justice, beauty, truth”, understands eternal matters, contemplates all existence. No human can fully embody all the attributes Socrates believes are crucial for such a philosopher-king. Flawed humanity cannot possibly hope to produce such a person. Because of this, Socrates’ just city could never be a reality. The City of God, however, already has such a philosopher-king in Jesus. “For it was fitting for us to have such a high priest, holy, innocent, undefiled, separated from sinners and exalted above the heavens;” (Hebrews 7:26)

While both the just city and the City of God are cities, are supposed to be perfectly moral and just, and depend on a philosopher-king to bring order to the city, the City of God is eternal, achieves perfect justice and morality without sacrificing any other aspect of the city, and has a philosopher-king capable of ruling it.

Every time that someone attempts to create a perfect city, or Utopia, the city fails in some way. Perfect logic and order lead to flawed human relations. Complete emotional freedom comes at the expense of reason. Only in the City of God, the perfect city created by a perfect being, can we experience a “…new heavens and a new earth in which righteousness dwells”. (2 Peter 3:13)

By Donielle, December 19, 2020
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