Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers: Series I/Volume II/City of God/Book XIX/Chapter 4

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Chapter 4.—What the Christians Believe Regarding the Supreme Good and Evil, in Opposition to the Philosophers, Who Have Maintained that the Supreme Good is in Themselves.

If, then, we be asked what the city of God has to say upon these points, and, in the first place, what its opinion regarding the supreme good and evil is, it will reply that life eternal is the supreme good, death eternal the supreme evil, and that to obtain the one and escape the other we must live rightly.  And thus it is written, “The just lives by faith,”[1] for we do not as yet see our good, and must therefore live by faith; neither have we in ourselves power to live rightly, but can do so only if He who has given us faith to believe in His help do help us when we believe and pray.  As for those who have supposed that the sovereign good and evil are to be found in this life, and have placed it either in the soul or the body, or in both, or, to speak more explicitly, either in pleasure or in virtue, or in both; in repose or in virtue, or in both; in pleasure and repose, or in virtue, or in all combined; in the primary objects of nature, or in virtue, or in both,—all these have, with a marvelous shallowness, sought to find their blessedness in this life and in themselves.  Contempt has been poured upon such ideas by the Truth, saying by the prophet, “The Lord knoweth the thoughts of men” (or, as the Apostle Paul cites the passage, “The Lord knoweth the thoughts of the wise”) “that they are vain.”[2]

For what flood of eloquence can suffice to detail the miseries of this life?  Cicero, in the Consolation on the death of his daughter, has spent all his ability in lamentation; but how inadequate was even his ability here?  For when, where, how, in this life can these primary objects of nature be possessed so that they may not be assailed by unforeseen accidents?  Is the body of the wise man exempt from any pain which may dispel pleasure, from any disquietude which may banish repose?  The amputation or decay of the members of the body puts an end to its integrity, deformity blights its beauty, weakness its health, lassitude its vigor, sleepiness or sluggishness its activity,—and which of these is it that may not assail the flesh of the wise man?  Comely and fitting attitudes and movements of the body are numbered among the prime natural blessings; but what if some sickness makes the members tremble? what if a man suffers from curvature of the spine to such an extent that his hands reach the ground, and he goes upon all-fours like a quadruped?  Does not this destroy all beauty and grace in the body, whether at rest or in motion?  What shall I say of the fundamental blessings of the soul, sense and intellect, of which the one is given for the perception, and the other for the comprehension of truth?  But what kind of sense is it that remains when a man becomes deaf and blind? where are reason and intellect when disease makes a man delirious?  We can scarcely, or not at all, refrain from tears, when we think of or see the actions and words of such frantic persons, and consider how different from and even opposed to their own sober judgment and ordinary conduct their present demeanor is.  And what shall I say of those who suffer from demoniacal possession?  Where is their own intelligence hidden and buried while the malignant spirit is using their body and soul according to his own will?  And who is quite sure that no such thing can happen to the wise man in this life?  Then, as to the perception of truth, what can we hope for even in this way while in the body, as we read in the true book of Wisdom, “The corruptible body weigheth down the soul, and the earthly tabernacle presseth down the mind that museth upon many things?”[3]  And eagerness, or

desire of action, if this is the right meaning to put upon the Greek ὁρμη, is also reckoned among the primary advantages of nature; and yet is it not this which produces those pitiable movements of the insane, and those actions which we shudder to see, when sense is deceived and reason deranged?

In fine, virtue itself, which is not among the primary objects of nature, but succeeds to them as the result of learning, though it holds the highest place among human good things, what is its occupation save to wage perpetual war with vices,—not those that are outside of us, but within; not other men’s, but our own,—a war which is waged especially by that virtue which the Greeks call σωφροσυνη, and we temperance,[4] and which bridles carnal lusts, and prevents them from winning the consent of the spirit to wicked deeds?  For we must not fancy that there is no vice in us, when, as the apostle says, “The flesh lusteth against the spirit;”[5] for to this vice there is a contrary virtue, when, as the same writer says, “The spirit lusteth against the flesh.”  “For these two,” he says, “are contrary one to the other, so that you cannot do the things which you would.”  But what is it we wish to do when we seek to attain the supreme good, unless that the flesh should cease to lust against the spirit, and that there be no vice in us against which the spirit may lust?  And as we cannot attain to this in the present life, however ardently we desire it, let us by God’s help accomplish at least this, to preserve the soul from succumbing and yielding to the flesh that lusts against it, and to refuse our consent to the perpetration of sin.  Far be it from us, then, to fancy that while we are still engaged in this intestine war, we have already found the happiness which we seek to reach by victory.  And who is there so wise that he has no conflict at all to maintain against his vices?

What shall I say of that virtue which is called prudence?  Is not all its vigilance spent in the discernment of good from evil things, so that no mistake may be admitted about what we should desire and what avoid?  And thus it is itself a proof that we are in the midst of evils, or that evils are in us; for it teaches us that it is an evil to consent to sin, and a good to refuse this consent.  And yet this evil, to which prudence teaches and temperance enables us not to consent, is removed from this life neither by prudence nor by temperance.  And justice, whose office it is to render to every man his due, whereby there is in man himself a certain just order of nature, so that the soul is subjected to God, and the flesh to the soul, and consequently both soul and flesh to God,—does not this virtue demonstrate that it is as yet rather laboring towards its end than resting in its finished work?  For the soul is so much the less subjected to God as it is less occupied with the thought of God; and the flesh is so much the less subjected to the spirit as it lusts more vehemently against the spirit.  So long, therefore, as we are beset by this weakness, this plague, this disease, how shall we dare to say that we are safe? and if not safe, then how can we be already enjoying our final beatitude?  Then that virtue which goes by the name of fortitude is the plainest proof of the ills of life, for it is these ills which it is compelled to bear patiently.  And this holds good, no matter though the ripest wisdom co-exists with it.  And I am at a loss to understand how the Stoic philosophers can presume to say that these are no ills, though at the same time they allow the wise man to commit suicide and pass out of this life if they become so grievous that he cannot or ought not to endure them.  But such is the stupid pride of these men who fancy that the supreme good can be found in this life, and that they can become happy by their own resources, that their wise man, or at least the man whom they fancifully depict as such, is always happy, even though he become blind, deaf, dumb, mutilated, racked with pains, or suffer any conceivable calamity such as may compel him to make away with himself; and they are not ashamed to call the life that is beset with these evils happy.  O happy life, which seeks the aid of death to end it?  If it is happy, let the wise man remain in it; but if these ills drive him out of it, in what sense is it happy?  Or how can they say that these are not evils which conquer the virtue of fortitude, and force it not only to yield, but so to rave that it in one breath calls life happy and recommends it to be given up?  For who is so blind as not to see that if it were happy it would not be fled from?  And if they say we should flee from it on account of the infirmities that beset it, why then do they not lower their pride and acknowledge that it is miserable?  Was it, I would ask, fortitude or weakness which prompted Cato to kill himself? for he would not have done so had he not been too weak to endure Cæsar’s victory.  Where, then, is his fortitude?  It has yielded, it has succumbed, it has been so thoroughly overcome as to abandon, forsake, flee this happy life.  Or was it no longer happy?  Then it was miserable.  How, then, were these not evils which made life miserable, and a thing to be escaped from?

And therefore those who admit that these are evils, as the Peripatetics do, and the Old Academy, the sect which Varro advocates, express a more intelligible doctrine; but theirs also is a surprising mistake, for they contend that this is a happy life which is beset by these evils, even though they be so great that he who endures them should commit suicide to escape them.  “Pains and anguish of body,” says Varro, “are evils, and so much the worse in proportion to their severity; and to escape them you must quit this life.”  What life, I pray?  This life, he says, which is oppressed by such evils.  Then it is happy in the midst of these very evils on account of which you say we must quit it?  Or do you call it happy because you are at liberty to escape these evils by death?  What, then, if by some secret judgment of God you were held fast and not permitted to die, nor suffered to live without these evils?  In that case, at least, you would say that such a life was miserable.  It is soon relinquished, no doubt but this does not make it not miserable; for were it eternal, you yourself would pronounce it miserable.  Its brevity, therefore, does not clear it of misery; neither ought it to be called happiness because it is a brief misery.  Certainly there is a mighty force in these evils which compel a man—according to them even a wise man—to cease to be a man that he may escape them, though they say, and say truly, that it is as it were the first and strongest demand of nature that a man cherish himself, and naturally therefore avoid death, and should so stand his own friend as to wish and vehemently aim at continuing to exist as a living creature, and subsisting in this union of soul and body.  There is a mighty force in these evils to overcome this natural instinct by which death is by every means and with all a man’s efforts avoided, and to overcome it so completely that what was avoided is desired, sought after, and if it cannot in any other way be obtained, is inflicted by the man on himself.  There is a mighty force in these evils which make fortitude a homicide,—if, indeed, that is to be called fortitude which is so thoroughly overcome by these evils, that it not only cannot preserve by patience the man whom it undertook to govern and defend, but is itself obliged to kill him.  The wise man, I admit, ought to bear death with patience, but when it is inflicted by another.  If, then, as these men maintain, he is obliged to inflict it on himself, certainly it must be owned that the ills which compel him to this are not only evils, but intolerable evils.  The life, then, which is either subject to accidents, or environed with evils so considerable and grievous, could never have been called happy, if the men who give it this name had condescended to yield to the truth, and to be conquered by valid arguments, when they inquired after the happy life, as they yield to unhappiness, and are overcome by overwhelming evils, when they put themselves to death, and if they had not fancied that the supreme good was to be found in this mortal life; for the very virtues of this life, which are certainly its best and most useful possessions, are all the more telling proofs of its miseries in proportion as they are helpful against the violence of its dangers, toils, and woes.  For if these are true virtues,—and such cannot exist save in those who have true piety,—they do not profess to be able to deliver the men who possess them from all miseries; for true virtues tell no such lies, but they profess that by the hope of the future world this life, which is miserably involved in the many and great evils of this world, is happy as it is also safe.  For if not yet safe, how could it be happy?  And therefore the Apostle Paul, speaking not of men without prudence, temperance, fortitude, and justice, but of those whose lives were regulated by true piety, and whose virtues were therefore true, says, “For we are saved by hope:  now hope which is seen is not hope; for what a man seeth, why doth he yet hope for?  But if we hope for that we see not, then do we with patience wait for it.”[6] As, therefore, we are saved, so we are made happy by hope.  And as we do not as yet possess a present, but look for a future salvation, so is it with our happiness, and this “with patience;” for we are encompassed with evils, which we ought patiently to endure, until we come to the ineffable enjoyment of unmixed good; for there shall be no longer anything to endure.  Salvation, such as it shall be in the world to come, shall itself be our final happiness.  And this happiness these philosophers refuse to believe in, because they do not see it, and attempt to fabricate for themselves a happiness in this life, based upon a virtue which is as deceitful as it is proud.


  1. Hab. ii. 4.
  2. Ps. xciv. 11, and 1 Cor. iii. 20.
  3. Wisdom ix. 15.
  4. Cicero, Tusc. Quæst. iii. 8.
  5. Gal. v. 17.
  6. Rom. viii. 24.