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Dr. Larry Arnn And Dr. Jeffrey Lehman Wrap Up The Hillsdale Dialogue On St. Augustine

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HH: Thank you for coming to the last hour of the radio show each week, the hour of the Hillsdale Dialogue. All of the Hillsdale Dialogues are available at You can get there by going to and hitting on the Hillsdale button, or you can go to Hillsdale’s website directly at And rarely do current events and the news of the very hour merge so well with a classical text as they do today. But here on the opening night of the Sochi Olympics, where the city of man is flowering before our eyes, where the Olympic movement and the five rings are coming together, and on the very day that St. Augustine is mentioned as a key part of a key Wall Street Journal editorial, I’ve got Dr. Larry Arnn, the president of Hillsdale College, and Dr. Jeffrey Lehman, a member of his faculty, to talk about The City of God, Augustine’s mighty work which we began last week. Dr. Arnn, Dr. Lehman, welcome back. And I want to begin Larry Arnn, by saying I hope you embrace the Olympic movement as all that is right, true and good, and the flowering, they all say at the opening ceremonies, this is what it’s all about, right?

LA: Yeah, well, the purpose of human life is to stage Olympic games.

HH: (laughing)

LA: I believe that. (laughing)

HH: I think you’ve just undone my entire premise.

LA: (laughing)

HH: I was expecting something at length on why the absurdity of this. But that really did it. All right, expand on the absurdity of the Olympic movement’s rhetoric.

LA: Well, you know, the point is the Munich Olympics in 1936, you know, that, by the way, was a flowering of international cooperation that transcended politics. And so it’s really because of those Olympics in Munich that there weren’t any major wars for decades after that, because of the good feeling that was there. You know, for example, Hitler didn’t like it that a black man, Jesse Owens, won a bunch of medals, and thought it unfair to use animals to compete against human beings.

HH: And of course we forget all that every time the four year clock comes around.

LA: Yeah.

HH: And we forget Munich in 1972, and hopefully, nothing bad happens at Sochi. But the man who’s putting them on is every bit the authoritarian/totalitarian Hitler was when it comes right down to wielding power. He’s not a genocidal maniac, but he is an authoritarian/totalitarian.

LA: Yeah, and he’s killed a lot of people, and he’s not running a regime in which the government works for the people. They may speak as they please and their property be secure regardless of his power. And so the thing is, the world is organized into different kinds of regimes. And what’s fundamental is what kind it is. Is it a good regime or not? Read Winston Churchill’s really fantastic speech in Fulton, Missouri in 1946, in which he salutes the United Nations movement, but then immediately, he introduced into it the question of what kind of nations are going to manage its affairs, because if it’s one kind, if it’s the regime of Joe Stalin, then you’re not going to get the result that you’re after. And the Olympic movement is an attempt to ignore that basic fact.

HH: That basic fact drove a lot of The City of God, and Dr. Lehman, you’ve provided me with the outline which I’ve been using this week, supplemented by some additional readings. And we’re talking about part two of The City of God, Books 11-22. Can you give us sort of the overarching view of what Augustine sets out to do in this second half? The first half of the book, he’s refuting the pagan theology. He’s taking on attacks on Christianity. But this is his theory of the world. This is his political theory. And how does he organize it?

JL: He organizes it around the concept of two cities. And it has three parts, so he traces these two cities from their origin through their develop, and then to their ultimate end. But it’s important for us to realize, though, that these are not literal cities, of course. They’re cities by analogy, and at any given time, we don’t know who’s in and who’s out. But in a certain way, they coexist this side of eternal judgment.

HH: And so one of those cities symbolized by Jerusalem, and one of those cities symbolized by Babylon. And just to continue on with how I began with Dr. Arnn, Dr. Lehman, the Olympic ideal, what is that in this prism? What kind of a joke is that on our dichotomy?

JL: Well, if Augustine were speaking to this, my impression is that the first thing that he would say is Babel. Of course Babylon is at the end of the Bible where it happens to be in the Book of Revelation, and it occurs elsewhere, but that the reference here from Augustine is to the Babylon of the Book of Revelation that’s opposed to the City of God. But we also have Babel occurring very early in the chapters of Genesis at the beginning of the Bible. And in a certain way, they’re the same impulse, the same temptation, for man to make a name for himself wholly apart from God. And I think that’s the way Augustine would view it. He would say okay, this is another miniature version of an attempt to create a Babel.

HH: And so Larry Arnn, as we step back from The City of God, what is he trying to teach us here? Is he trying to teach everyone how to order their own government the right way?

LA: No, he’s, first of all, the big thing going on in this book, and it’s a thing that has to go on in the life of everyone, every Christian for sure, is how are you to think of questions of rule and politics and earthly life while practicing a universal faith that knows, that pays no respect to countries, and that aims for the life hereafter? How are you going to do that? And so the first huge conclusion of this book is you have to think of the city on Earth as inferior to the City of God. The City of God sets standards to which the earthly cities can only aspire. It is good for them to aspire that way, but they’re not going to achieve it. And by the way, that introduces, and it’s probably, Jeff knows this better than I do, but it’s probably true that this is the first great argument like this, because for example, the American regime has a certain sense of humor about what you can hope to achieve in politics, because you’re not going to perfect the world, and in politics. And indeed, you can do a lot of damage in politics. And so you can do, glorious things can happen in politics, but don’t expect the City of God.

HH: And Dr. Lehman, expand on that, what he’s saying here is that this is a book about the limits of what we actually can hope for on this side of Heaven.

JL: That’s right, and Augustine really, Dr. Arnn is right in saying that this is the first serious attempt made by a Christian, in fact, made by anyone of a serious religious persuasion, to give an account of the coming of a revealed religion like Christianity, and how it should understand its place with respect to the temporal order. So there’s an account that he gives for how things are going to play themselves out in this world, but yeah, the ultimate horizon for Augustine, and he draws this directly from Scripture, is that the City of God will be that eternal city that goes on and on. And based upon what we think and how we act with reference to that earthly city, it will either draw us closer to that eternal communion, or take us farther away from it. The City of God is not meant at all in this life to replace the earthly city, but it’s meant to, in a certain way, to supplement it and lead it to higher things.

HH: Now there is a very famous book for some Christians of the last 30 years called How Now Shall We Live, or actually, a speech that came around through Francis Schaeffer’s other work, and he was a great attempt to reconcile what Christians believe and how they ought to act. Is that what Augustine is doing here in sort of its first comprehensive iteration, Dr. Arnn?

LA: Yeah, and you know, of course, he does this, by the way, without some of the apparatus that’s in Francis Schaeffer of modern thought. This is, understand the absolute quality of this book. It’s a claim that there’s an ultimate destination for man, and this life is ordered toward that destination, and you can judge this life by how well it is adapted to that destination. It’s not value neutral, and so there’s something that we don’t understand very much about natural law thinking these days, and this lays the ground for some later natural law thinking that I actually prefer to this. But Jeff can explain this better than I can.

HH: And Dr. Lehman sent me one point I want to make sure people understand, this is not Plato’s ideal city that he’s talking about.

LA: No.

HH: We’re not trying to build the perfect polity.

JL: Exactly, exactly. And he really follows more Cicero, which of course, that’s still in the Platonic line of thinking. But Cicero himself is less interested in the ideal city. He’s more interested in how we can make the very best things of politics come to be here and now. And so when he writes his Republic, he’s doing something different than what Plato does in his work of the same title, namely, whereas Plato is thinking of the ideal. What Cicero’s trying to do is work through real, historical examples, and in particular, he holds up the Roman Republic as being perhaps the best instance he knows of, and then talk about what we can do here and now.

HH: And now the reason you ought to be looking up in your car and saying so why do I care, well, maybe because if you go to the Wall Street Journal today, you’ll find Augustine cited 1,700 years later. And I’ll tell you why when we come back from the break.

— – – –

HH: And when I went to break, I was making the point that The City of God is actually referenced in today’s Wall Street Journal in a piece by Nicholas Hahn on whom Pope Francis might pick as Chicago’s next cardinal. And it goes on to reference in the penultimate paragraph the former cardinal, Cardinal Bernardin, who said thoughts on war were unsettling whether as an inspiration for a president or the choice of a new archbishop. The article continues that at the height of the Cold War, when the American bishops opposed nearly everything that came out of the Reagan White House, Cardinal Bernardin led a committee tasked with writing a pastoral letter on war and peace. The resulting document in 1983 inverted the Church’s classical theory of just war, suggesting instead that the Church “begins in every case with a presumption against war. The Saints, Augustine and Aquinas, would beg to differ. The tradition begins, rather, with the notion that governments have a duty of charity to protect the people whose security is their responsibility.” Jeffrey Lehman, a book that’s 1,700 years old, and is nevertheless being cited as an argument for the selection of Chicago’s next cardinal, is a fairly unique book.

JL: It sure is, and in a way, it speaks to Augustine’s genius. This is one instance, but in so many different fields of human inquiry, Augustine got us started. The notion of the City of God and the city of man, of course, those are founded in Scripture, but he really puts that on the table and starts to elaborate. The just war theory is another instance of the same sort of thing in a specific case. So yeah, he sets the stage for so many later discussions and conversations that happen throughout the West.

HH: Did he settle the conversation for a period of time? Or did he merely begin it, and then the Dark Ages descended and it got put on a shelf for 700 years?

JL: Are you thinking of the general question of the City of God and the earthly city or the more specific question?

HH: Yes.

JL: Well, in a certain way, for about a thousand years, The City of God became the definitive work on the history and politics of the Christian faith. And you had to answer to Augustine if you were going to be taken seriously. That doesn’t mean that everyone agreed with him, by no means. But it did mean that it had an enduring effect, and it really kind of set the stage and the context for a later dialogue.

HH: And so when I was trying to bridge out our next few weeks, Dr. Arnn, you said we’re going to have to deal with the dumb ox, the great Aquinas. And why was he necessary if Augustine got it all down?

LA: Well, there are important differences between Augustine and Aquinas, and Aquinas went further in many respects, and here’s one. The question arises for every living human being. Human beings are made naturally to live under laws. The question arises what are those laws going to be like and what is the authority for them? This Cardinal, Bernardin, he’s passed away now, but he was a big liberal in the modern sense of that term.

HH: Yes.

LA: And he wrote a lot of things that justified things that many traditional and many contemporary Catholics don’t agree with.

HH: Yes.

LA: And when he would speak about these, it was a pronouncement from the authority of the Church, right? So he’s using heavy weapons here.

HH: Yup.

LA: And so what is the, and just raises the question, what is the relation between faith and politics? And are you going to have a system of freedom of religion? So, now just start with Augustine and we’ll talk about Aquinas later, but with Augustine, the first thing is remember, what’s running through this is the earthly city is going to fall short. And so a deduction that follows and become explicit in Aquinas and stronger is you have to leave people alone to practice their faith, and you don’t compel them with the law. And the law, and the faith cannot, and a thing like war, but also in a thing like the question of property rights, here’s a point. If you’re going to equalize the property in a nation, let’s say somebody proposes that. The Socialists did in Britain in Churchill’s time, for example. You’re going to have to have a government strong enough to take people’s property away from them. And they’re not going to like that, because they had to work and earn it, and they took risks to get it, and they’ve got families to take care of and churches to support. You’re going to have a very strong government. Is that government going to be oppressive of churches? What do we see going on today all the time? Property is not secure, and people like, say, your friends, Hugh, at Hobby Lobby…

HH: Yup.

LA: …are feeling that their ability to practice their faith in public is truncated. And those things go together.

HH: Now a lot of unthinking people would say that’s because theocracy is trying to reassert itself, and that Augustine’s City of God is actually just a theocracy. He took Cicero’s natural law, and he blended the Bible with it, and he came up with the Catholic Church ruling over everything. Jeffrey Lehman, where are they wrong in that?

JL: Well, where they’re wrong in that is that what he’s not trying to do is impose any kind of a theocratic regime or anything like that. In fact, far from it. One of the things that’s distinctive of his thought is the clear divide that he makes between civil and ecclesiastical authority. That’s another issue, by the way, that he puts on the table, and he doesn’t speak to it as if he can definitively say how the Church and the state ought to relate to one another. In fact, from what he does say, we get the impression that he thinks that’s a very difficult question to settle, one with very many variations and subthemes that would be involved on both sides, both the civil and the ecclesiastical side. So he’s far from sanguine about how to settle that issue. But he realizes that he sees them as distinct, and he wants to give some kind of an account of how they might relate to one another.

HH: And how they ought to relate to others, right?

JL: Exactly.

HH: And so I want also to give people some sense of the comprehensiveness of this. I spent most of my time in Book 19 looking for the just war doctrine, but finding there things, chapters like the end of the world, of equitable rules, of the happiness of the eternal peace, which constitutes that the true and perfect perfection of the saint. It’s comprehensive. He just didn’t stop writing, Jeffrey Lehman.

JL: Exactly. This, in a way, is a retelling of salvation history. If we think about sacred Scripture, that is the foundational document in salvation history, but what Augustine does is he thinks in his own time about what he world has done since the time Scriptures were written, where we are, what the implications are for his own life and times, and how he can help to lead other people in the appropriate directions to be thoughtful and committed Christians.

HH: And so Dr. Arnn, at the end of this, does he make sense of the world for people in 400AD? And does he make sense of the world for people in 2014AD?

LA: Well, yes, he’s a great thinker, and he’s dealing with the questions that are implicit in the human soul and the relationship of the human being to God. The point is, look at the Declaration of Independence. It speaks of the laws of nature and of nature’s God. And that’s an appeal to two different things, and then it conjoins them, right? And the prescription that the founders come up with, and in my opinion, perfect, is suggested in this relationship between the City of God and the earthly city, because the moral things, the things about how we ought to act, are the same in reason and in faith.

HH: I’ll be right back with Dr. Larry Arnn, Dr. Jeffrey Lehman. It’s the Hillsdale Dialouge.

— – – – —

HH: Before I go back to the just war, Larry Arnn, I noted as well, and we’re talking about The City of God and Book 19, there is a short chapter on friendship there, and I recalled when we were talking about the Ethics and Aristotle quite a lot about friendship there. And Augustine talking about friendship writes, “If we escape this pitiable blindness, is it not the unfeigned confidence and mutual love of true and good friends are one solace in human society, filled as it is with misunderstandings and calamities. And yet the more friends we have, and the more widely they are scattered, the more numerous are our fears that some portion of the vast masses of the disasters of life may light upon them.” It’s really kind of a grim thing.

LA: Yeah.

HH: He said you’ve got to have friendship, but they will make you suffer.

LA: Yeah, that’s right, and it is a grim thing. But also, notice this aspect of it, because this runs through the greatest of the philosophies, right? This is the greatest writers in history. They all understand this. In the communion between souls of a certain kind trained to know the best things, in that communion is the nearest earthly thing to the City of God. It means people in prayer and discussion of the highest and best things. And you know, go back to this Cardinal Bernardin and compare him to Augustine. Augustine thinks that to the extent that we’re going to approach the City of God, we’re going to do it in settings like that, and we’re not going to do it making laws on people, on the authority of the Church.

HH: Oh, interesting. That goes to what you said, Dr. Lehman, in your notes to me, that the best and happiest condition of mankind would be in small cities or kingdoms existing in neighborly concord. I suppose people by those small communities that Dr. Arnn just referred to of like-minded souls pursuing higher objects.

JL: That’s right. I’d like to comment on two things. First of all, just with the question of friendship, I think it’s key both in The City of God and especially in The Confessions that we take the whole context of friendship within the rhetorical kind of mode that he’s presenting it. If you read certain parts of Confessions where it’s much more of a thematic and ongoing discussion, it looks very pessimistic. But it’s good to remember, and this ties in with what Larry was just saying, that in the end, those friends are the people who are a part of the City of God, who are part of what we calls there the Body of Christ, and they are pursing the highest things in communion with one another. So they can’t help but be fulfilled as human beings, and they can’t help but have hearts that are overfilled with joy and love and so forth. So it’s a very, in the end, a very happy picture, even though this life is a valley of tears, as Scripture puts it.

HH: There is an amazing line in that chapter. “Although then our present life is afflicted, sometimes in a milder, sometimes in a more painful degree, by the death of those very dear to us, and especially of useful public men, yet we would prefer to hear that such men were dead rather than to hear or perceive that they had fallen from the faith or from virtue.” Now that’s a forgotten sentiment, Larry Arnn. What an interesting aside of useful public men in a very intimate chapter.

LA: Yeah, the standards here are very high. Better to die than to live badly.

HH: That’s really quite a statement, isn’t it, Dr. Lehman?

JL: It certainly is, and I think that’s the right way, I’m glad you brought that up, because that’s the right way to read The City of God. You can get a kind of, filled with looking at the low things, and it can look drab and dreary, but in the end, what draws you to the highest things that Augustine has in mind, both in the Confessions and in The City of God.

HH: But he is, at the time he’s living, the world’s like going to hell.

JL: It is.

HH: And so he’s writing these vast treaties without much real reason to believe that 1,700 years later, people would be talking about it in a transformed world where the Declaration and the Constitution had brought light back in.

JL: Yeah, and to be quite honest, what some people don’t realize is that there was a general believe among the early Christian writers that the coming to power of Rome and the centralization, the peace that’s possible, the transportation possibilities there, that’s all part of God ushering in this great time for the Gospel to be preached and for Christ to come and so forth. Augustine didn’t buy into that. And he also didn’t buy into the idea that we were going to, in human terms, to be able to create a kind of paradise on Earth before Christ comes. So in that respect, it was more of a dark view of here and now, and we had to do the best with what we’ve got.

HH: When we come back, the just war doctrine, much abused, with Dr. Larry Arnn, Dr. Jeffrey Lehman of Hillsdale College.

— – – –

HH: Dr. Arnn, I’ll turn to you. One cites Cardinal Bernardin, the other cites Augustine or Cardinal George or somebody else. Someone cites Benedict, another cites John Paul I. You know, it actually is, what’s the natural law say? It’s not who says what, but what ought to be, and that’s what Augustine was writing about. And what did he say about war in that context?

LA: Jeff’s better to answer that. What did he say?

JL: Sure, well, what he said was while on the one hand, war involves us frequently in all kinds of very inhuman matters, he doesn’t say that Christianity should denounce war per se, but just denouncing unjust war and the evils that often attend it – a love of violence, inhuman cruelty, and the lust for power. Those are the things to avoid. And so it’s a very chastened view of what would make war acceptable, what would make is just, but that kind of gets us going in the right direction.

LA: And so excuse me taking over your interview here, Hugh, but I’ve done it before.

HH: Yup.

LA: If…understand the large point. First of all, unless priests are going to rule us under the authority of their station, then there has to be room carved out for the law to operate, especially in matters like war. And so in Augustine, and in Aquinas, and in the great tradition, they’re looking to do that. And that means that it’s mainly a prudential decision. You can’t participate as a Christian in the murder of the innocent, but you must defend your country. And you have a duty there. And so that whole thing, right, in other words, this kind of thinking is essentially liberal in the old sense. It leaves room for us to live our lives, and by the way, it’s in that space where we have that room to make laws that our freedom of religion lies, too. And so what this, you know, this modern liberalism turns all politics, but when it’s in Christianity, all Christianity into an engineering project to remake the world.

HH: And Augustine as a defender of and a revealer or an expositor of natural law, rejected that from the start, because it doesn’t, it can’t work, Jeffrey Lehman.

JL: That’s right, it can’t work. He’s far too realistic in his understanding, and he did really pick up the natural law theory that he saw in Cicero, and he just offered his own more robust account of it that took account of the special revelation of sacred Scripture, and basically raised the bar.

LA: Also, it’s a fundamental theological point. Heaven is not located on this Earth.

HH: Yeah.

LA: And not now for us.

HH: And so when you gentlemen see arguments over just war, are any of them remotely close to that which Augustine was talking…I’ll go to you, Dr. Lehman, when you see at the invasion of Iraq, or the invasion of Afghanistan, or the discussion that surrounded last winter, or last fall, whether or not to attack Syria, or whether or not to preemptively attack Iran by Israel, and people talk about just war, are they getting remotely close to what Augustine laid down as the factors that ought to inform such a decision?

JL: It’s not clear that they are. I want to affirm something that Larry said a bit ago, namely determining what a just war is in any given case is going to involve deliberations of free persons that are thinking carefully, and that have the common good in mind. Augustine says at the end of the day a war may only be waged out of necessity and for the sake of peace. Now how we determine that is going to be very difficult. And what I see happening again and again is people making reference to just war, but it’s not clear at all that they have those principles in mind that Augustine has delineated.

HH: I also want to ask both of you, and we only have a couple of minutes left, but Augustine has quite a lot of writing on angels and devils, and the whole sort of medieval hierarchy that comes about. Does he launch all of that? And is that central to his work?

JL: Well, yes and no. He definitely talks a great deal about angels, and then the fallen angels that we call demons. But that’s because he’s operating on a received tradition that’s been handed down from the time of the New Testament. In fact, parts of it go into the Old Testament as well. So he has to give an account of that, and that’s part of what helps him to, I think, get clarity on man’s unique position, because while man is in a way the crown of Creation here in our everyday world, there are beings above us, and those beings are spiritual beings that are agents, free agents, and they’re part of this Divine plan as well. So in a way, reflecting upon the angels and their obedience and disobedience, the way they’re just and unjust, helps shed some light on human affairs.

HH: Well, I’m going to actually take the last segment of this hour, because we only have a minute and I to unfairly penalize Dr. Arnn, but not that unfairly. How in the world can you ever reconcile revelation and reason if revelation is going to introduce into it the requirement of beings we cannot see or possibly understand?

LA: Well, the angels, I mean, you know, angels are a very compelling phenomenon, and demons are an epiphenomenon of the phenomenon of angels. And here’s what they do. They represent the presence of God in our affairs, and they represent His moral commandments beginning with the commandment of love and faithfulness to God. And so in Macbeth, you know, in that, before he kills Duncan to get his throne, he imagines the angels above singing that he not do it, and the demons below crying for the blood of Duncan. In other words, Augustine is living in a richly populated moral universe. And God is present in it.

HH: But in order to live and understand that, does reason have to accept…

LA: The only thing, first of all, Augustine says that it would be foolish or contradictory, I forget which, to say that the gift that God had given us that makes us like Him, that He would hate that gift. And He meant reason when He said that. And it’s only by reason that we name God and name man, and understand the relationship between them. But about the questions of what we do here and now, morally, and in politics, we have to think that through in prayer and faith, but we have to think about it.

HH: I’ll be right back to continue thinking about it in the last segment of this week’s Hillsdale Dialogue, a special additional segment.

— – – –

HH: And the reason I wanted to ask you guys to stick around for an extra segment for the Hillsdale Dialogue this week is it’s the last opportunity I’ll have Dr. Lehman for a while, at least, to ask you how to approach this book? If someone goes out and gets a copy of The City of God, I’m afraid they’ll be overwhelmed by it. So how do you recommend they read it?

JL: Well, I would recommend that they, first of all, that they take it very slowly and let what Augustine’s saying sink in. It’s a huge book, and so one temptation might be to try to read it too quickly. This is the kind of thing that I would say you should set aside a little bit of time every day, maybe during the weekdays, and try to get that under your belt, and then just let him put the pieces together for you. Now the first ten books can be slow going. So if you get into it and you find that look, it just seems like we’re hearing the same thing over and over again, in a certain way, you are, but in a certain way, you aren’t. It’s very, very systematically ordered, and he treats a lot of the same material. If need be, you can always go back into Book 11 and following, and get more of that positive account to keep you going to get you through the whole thing.

HH: Through the interest…it’s endlessly interesting to read a small chapter at a time. Dr. Arnn, Dr. Lehman’s outline said, closing note, only in The City of God, which we can’t get to, where the citizens live in accordance with Divine revelation is true justice possible. So I guess that begs the question, what are we doing, then, when we’re passing all these laws?

LA: Lincoln said they set up a standard maximum for a free society. He’s talking about the principles of the Declaration of Independence, which he regarded as perfect. And then he says always to be striven for, always to be sought after, never to be wholly attained. The function of the City of God in our earthly deliberations is to remind us of the ultimate goal so that we can apply it as well as possible in the circumstances before us.

HH: Oh, well said. On that note, the Hillsdale Dialogues, every one of them, available at, or at, all of the free courses from Hillsdale on the Constitution, on the challenges to it, on basic economics, on American history, are available at And the button to get there quickly is over at Thank you all for listening. Next week, the curtain descends. Next week, we go into the Dark Ages. Next week, we talk about how Augustine’s lamp lit, quickly went out for about a thousand years. And we’ll get you to Aquinas along the way. But first, we’ve just got to deal with what happened next on the next Hillsdale Dialogue. Dr. Jeffrey Lehman, Dr. Larry Arnn, thank you.

End of interview.


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