Some of the refugees from the events of August 410 landed up in a grimy seaport city in Africa, then called Hippo Regius, today the city of Annaba in Algeria. A backwater by any standards, it owed its standing to its harbor, through which the grain and olive supply of the province of Numidia - think of it as the Roman Nebraska - came down to the sea for shipment to the capital city. It was a natural place for wealthy refugees to make landfall, and a fair number of them indeed owned the great Numidian estates in the breadbasket of empire.

The leading figure of the city of Hippo in those days was the Christian bishop, Aurelius Augustinus, known to us as Augustine or Augustine. He was at this period a minor provincial figure, known within a limited circle for some of his theological writing (including the Confessions), but deeply engaged in local politics and church politics, fighting a relentless battle against other sects of his own religion. An indefatigable social climber, he made his way among the wealthy refugees, and found there disturbing ideas in circulation. Perhaps, it was being said, the sack of Rome came from a religious failure. For centuries we worshipped the old gods in the old ways and they protected the city; now in the last century we have given allegiance to a puzzling kind of new age religion — Christianity— , and a fat lot of good it has done us.

Augustine could not stand such defeatism, and so began to write a book. His motives were self-interested and polemical, but the book quickly transcended its moment. Over the next two decades, starting from that moment of crisis and doubt, Augustine elaborated his view of human society and human history in the twenty two books of his work entitled the City of God.

The book was finished long after the sack of Rome had faded from the newspapers and before the next wave of invasions trapped Augustine in his own city, where he died in 430. What marks the book is its dramatic and inclusive vision of a society that transcends the divisions of that particular time. This is not the place to outline its contents or its theology, but it should be easy enough for you to imagine the perspective, so familiar is it to moderns. The organizing principle of human history for Augustine was not membership in a given nation or state, but participation in a society that was notionally worldwide in its scope and eternal in its duration.

My point is not to test how much of that particular vision may still make sense today, but to emphasize its visionary quality. In a world where governments and soldiers emphasized division, Augustine found a way to emphasize inclusion. His criterion of inclusion was less than absolutely world-wide, of course, depending as it did on the Christian religion. But all the barbarians whom men feared in those days, all of them, were Christians of one stripe or another. To speak of a Christian vision of society, then, was to find a way to talk about humankind that embraced potentially all the warring and suspicious parties of the time.

Previous | Page 1 2 3 4 5 6 Next