Augustine was a Christian philosopher, who lived in the 4th and 5th century A.D., on the fringes of the rapidly declining Roman Empire in the North African town of Hippo. He served as bishop for 35 years, proving popular and inspirational to his largely uneducated and poor congregation. In his last days, a Germanic tribe known as the Vandals burnt Hippo to the ground, destroyed the legions, made off with the town’s young women, but left Augustine’s Cathedral and library entirely untouched out of respect for the elderly philosopher’s achievements. He matters to us non-Christians today because of what he criticised about Rome, its values and its outlook, and because Rome has so many things in common with the modern West, especially the United States. The Romans believed in two things in particular. One, EARTHLY HAPPINESS. They were on the whole an optimistic lot. The builders of the Pont du Gard, and the Colosseum had faith in technology, in the power of humans to master themselves and in their ability to control nature and plot for their own happiness and satisfaction. Writers like Cicero and Plutarch had a degree of pride, ambition and confidence in the future, which with some revisions wouldn’t be out of place in modern-day Palo Alto or the pages of Wired. The Romans were keen practitioners of what we would nowadays call SELF-HELP training their audiences to greater success and effectiveness. In their eyes, the human animal was something eminently open to being perfected. Two, A JUST SOCIAL ORDER. For long periods, the Romans trusted that their society was marked by justice – JUSTITIA – people of ambition and intelligence could make it to the top. The army was trusted to be meritocratic. The capacity to make money was held to reflect both practical ability and also a degree of inner virtue. Therefore showing off one’s wealth was deemed honourable and a point of pride, and fame, was considered a wholly respectable ideal. Augustine disagreed furiously with both of these assumptions. In his masterpiece, The City of God, he dissected each of these two points, that human life could be perfected and the societies were just, in ways that continue to prove relevant to us today. It was Augustine who came up with the idea of ORIGINAL SIN. He proposed that all humans, not merely this or that unfortunate example, were crooked because all of us are unwitting heirs to the sins of Adam. Our sinful nature gives rise to what Augustine called a LIBIDO DOMINANDI, a desire to dominate, which is evident in a brutal, blinkered, merciless way we treat others in the world around us. We cannot properly love, for we are constantly undermined by our egoism and our pride. Our powers of reasoning and understanding are fragile in the extreme. Lust haunts our days and nights. We failed to understand ourselves. We chase phantoms. We are beset by anxieties. Augustine concluded his assault by chiding all those philosophers in his words “have wished, with amazing folly, to be happy here on earth and to achieve bliss by their own efforts.” It might sound depressing, but it may turn out to be a curious relief to be told that our lives are awry not by coincidence but by definition simply because we are human, and because nothing human can ever be made entirely straight. We are creatures fated to intuit virtue and love, but never quite being able to secure them for ourselves. Our relationships, careers and countries are necessarily not as we’d want them to be. It isn’t anything specific we have done – the odds are simply stacked against us from the start. Augustinian pessimism takes off some of the pressure we might feel when we slowly come to terms with the imperfect nature of pretty much everything we do and are. We shouldn’t rage or feel we’ve been persecuted or singled out for undue punishment. It’s simply the human condition, the legacy of what we might as well, even we don’t believe in Augustine’s theology, call ORIGINAL SIN. Romans had, in their most ambitious moments, thought themselves to be running a meritocracy – a society where those who got to the top were deemed to have done so on the back of their own virtues. After the Emperor Constantine’s conversion to Christianity, the philosopher Eusebious even proposed that earthly power was God’s instrument for establishing Christianity on earth, so that the powerful in Rome were now not just privileged, but also blessed and righteous in God’s eyes. What arrogant, boastful and cruel claims, responded Augustine, there never was nor ever could be justice in Rome, or indeed anywhere else on earth. God didn’t give good people wealth and power, and nor did he necessarily condemn those who lacked them. Augustine distinguished between what he called TWO CITIES, the CITY OF MEN, and the CITY OF GOD. The latter was an ideal of the future, a heavenly paradise where the good would finally dominate, where power would be properly allied to justice, and where virtue would reign. But men could never build such a city alone, and should never believe themselves capable of doing so. They were condemned to dwell only in the city of men which was a pervasively flawed society, where money could never accurately track virtue. In Augustine’s formulation, true justice has no existence, save in that republic whose founder and ruler is Christ. Again it may sound bleak, but it makes Augustine’s philosophy extremely generous towards failure, poverty and defeat, our own and that of others. It’s not for humans to judge each other by outward markers of success. From this analysis flows a lack of moralism and snobbery. It’s our duty to be skeptical about power and generous towards failure. We don’t need to be Christians to be comforted by both these points. They are the religion’s universal gifts to political philosophy and human psychology. They stand as permanent reminders of some of the dangers and cruelties of believing that the life could be made perfect or the poverty and obscurity are reliable indicators of vice in a city of men.