“The glorious City of God is my theme in this work,” says Augustine in the opening of his masterpiece by that name, a masterpiece of theological historiography, for the pagan Romans had cried out, “The Christians have come into our inheritance!” Therefore, they said, the gods had abandoned the old and venerable city—queen of the western world—to rape and pillage and slaughter at the hands of the half-barbarous Goths. These were Arian Christians, led by the ambitious Alaric, who wanted nothing less than to be what he imagined a genuine Roman general and statesman was. So the pagans cried, and Augustine responded—to defend the innocence of Christians, to describe the salutary influences of Christian teaching for the common weal, and to distinguish between two cities, both dwelling in the same world at the same time: the city of man, and the City of God.
In the introduction to my edition, Thomas Merton writes that “the difference between the two cities is the difference between two loves. Those who are united in the City of God are united by the love of God and [the love] of one another in God. Those who belong in the other city are indeed not united in any real sense,” for each man’s hand must be raised against his neighbor. This is not because men in that earthly city are wicked by nature. Rather, they are fallen in will and intellect, and so they mistake earthly goods for heavenly ones, temporal goods for the eternal, and human goods for the divine in their efforts to supply the want that only the loving praise of God can fill. I intend the phrase “praise of God” in both grammatical directions. We are made for praising God, says Augustine in Confessions, and our hearts are restless until they rest in him. But we also long to hear God’s praise, when he shall say, “Well done, good and faithful servant! Enter into the joy of thy Master.”
“A great work this, and an arduous [one],” says Augustine, “but God is my helper. For the King and Founder of this city of which we speak has in Scripture uttered to his people a dictum of the divine law in these words: ‘God resisteth the proud, but giveth grace unto the humble.’ ” This is not to be understood as arbitrary on God’s behalf. Humility is the door of the soul thrown open to love. “Except the Lord build the house,” says the psalmist, “they labor in vain that build it,” and except the Lord make tall the posts and raise the lintel high, each man must dwell in the small, dank, mud-thatched dugout of the self, for all that he may pretend that it is a palace fit for a king, spending his days leering with nervous envy at his neighbor, whose windowsill is a foot higher, and whose cow has not munched a hole in his thatch. Call those neighbors Athens and Sparta, or Rome and Carthage.
“And therefore,” the bishop continues, “we must speak also of the earthly city, which, though it be mistress of the nations, is itself ruled by its lust of rule”—its libido dominandi. I read these words now, which Merton applied to the triumphant America of his time, and I think that we have but repeated the experience of republican Rome, which triumphed over Carthage and Greece to her own moral undoing, as Augustine cites Rome’s own historians as saying. Pride must go before a fall. This is so due to the structure of pride and the nature of what is truly great. Then comes the aftermath. “The question that he frames in all but words,” says Frost of his stoic and lonesome summer singer, the Oven-Bird, “is what to make of a diminished thing.”
This calls for some analysis. Think of the libido dominandi. What is it like? What does it do? It is masculine (or mannish), overbearing, and big with dreams: Alexander, with worlds to conquer, building a causeway to Tyre to pulverize the city; Caesar at the Rubicon, his faithful armies straining like thoroughbreds to gallop against their nominal masters in the senate; Edison stringing a continent with lights (and now our cities do not sleep); and Armstrong planting the American flag upon the moon, though now I wonder whether America will still be whole when the next man treads upon that dead world. Edgar Allan Poe sang of “the glory that was Greece, and the grandeur that was Rome,” and who will deny it? The Romans knit up Europe with roads, bridges, aqueducts, canals, ports, public buildings, and laws. Yet there was brick beneath that marble facing. It must be so, because man is man—for
empires have their little day and hour,
And if their solemn passing be deferred,
It is that they may fall to the absurd,
Lumbering giants useless in their power:
Their travesties, and not their triumphs, tower.
Thus does the pride-engendered libido dominandi shrivel like a spider and become the libido diminuendi, born of self-hatred and envy. What is this libido like? It is effeminate, meddlesome, and flustered with nightmares; it is little Simone de Beauvoir, hating the happiness of fertile women; it is the petit moderne, sniggering at “monuments of unageing intellect” and tearing down five massive forms of art for every feeble little finger it erects; it is a Church scornful of the crusade because the cross is heavy and gives splinters to the shoulder. It is not the lion but the jackal, not the general but the pasty bureaucrat, and not the shout of the brawler but the whisper of the tale-bearer and liar. It glories in a weakness that is not humility, and it detests the magnanimous and magnificent, calling it arrogance and pride.
We are in this condition now, I believe—in the rachitic libido diminuendi. It is the humility of devils. It is the inverse of that condition of obedience in which man thrives. Think of the words of Jesus, that they who love Him will obey His commandments, and that the Father will give them light. Homo oboediens must obey; the question is not whether he will obey, but whom—or what. The strong-shouldered and dutiful son obeys his father for all his years, growing into his father’s authority, so that father and son, working the land, are one. To obey the good and wise father is to grow and to share in the father’s stature; it brings increase, and the yield is bountiful. Man is that creature who stands taller when he bows, says Chesterton, so long as he bows to what is genuinely greater than he.
But when the libido diminuendi has infected his blood, man does not bow but cringe—he cringes on tiptoe, ever on the lookout for something tall and noble, to scribble graffiti upon it, or to bring it down. He rejoices in belittling his own ancestors. The game is worth it to him because he can attain dominance in no other way. When he belittles his ancestors, he belittles yours into the bargain, and he rejoices when you join him in the petty enterprise. In such a manner does he exercise power over you. He cannot believe, so he makes sure that you, too, cannot believe. He cannot fashion works that are great of soul, so he makes sure to spoil your appreciation of them. He calls it “criticism” and bids you join him in his sophisticated tastes. And so you trade Scripture for the editorial page and Thomas Aquinas for Madison Avenue. Eunuchs look with loathing upon men filled with spirit and energy. Therefore they castrate and make the geldings thank them for it.
Some people suppose that the libido dominandi must rise again to drive the libido diminuendi back into its wet little hole. I do not think that will happen. Satan and Belial are on the same team. One man alone can save us. One man—one vir—mightier than any Caesar, tenderer than woman, more stalwart than the walls of a city, and brighter than any lights fashioned by man or the hand of God. The city we long to dwell in “has no need for the sun, neither for the moon, to shine, for the very glory of God [has] illuminated it, and its lamp is the Lamb.”
Image: The Consummation of Empire by Thomas Cole