What is the greatest goal in life? Do we believe there is purpose in our existence and a reason we are here? Perhaps a more pressing question is…do we think it is ever possible to discover the answers to these questions with any sort of confidence?
I would suggest that for most people today the question of Purpose still echos through our silent musings, but we have long since given up the expectation of actually finding out some sort of objective answer. We are drifting along amidst a sea of uncertainty with no rudder or sail.
This is the value of going back so far into history – for Augustine these questions were the most pressing of his day and the Search for Truth was something every serious philosopher embarked on with all their might. In Book 19 Augustine articulates this task as:
These two ends, then, are the Supreme Good and the Supreme Evil. The search to discover these, and the quest for attainment of the Supreme Good in this life and the avoidance of the Supreme Evil has been the object of the labours of those who have made the pursuit of wisdom their profession.XIX.1
Augustine then dives into what constitutes a blessed life and the attainment of happiness. He references Marcus Varro who sought to classify the possible gradation of lifestyle (eg the life of leisure, activity, or a combination of both; the pursuit of pleasure, repose, the combination of both etc) and comes up with 288 possibilities!! Spot the analyst!
Augustine then proceeds to explore the concepts of the purpose of virtue; the role of friendship and our striving for peace. One of the central themes of this section is the formation of a peaceful and healthy society.
The peace of the Heavenly City is a perfectly ordered and perfectly harmonious fellowship in the enjoyment of God, and a mutual fellowship in God; the peace of the whole universe is the tranquility of order – and order is the arrangement of things equal and unequal in a pattern which assigns to each its proper position.XIX.13
If that is where the City of God is heading, what will become of the City of Men? Augustine undertakes a fascinating exploration of the various definitions of what it means to be a “people”. According to one definition “a people is the association of a multitude of rational beings united by a common agreement on the objects of their love”.
He goes on to say “the better the objects of this agreement, the better the people: the worse the objects of this love, the worse the people” (XIX.24). This is a profound point worth reflecting on – what is the object of the love of 21st century western society?
Undeniably it is self-love – our personal self-esteem, self-worth and self-expression. We are loving ourselves to death! We have created narcissistic navel gazing societies who are superficially united in the self-love. This is only a downward trajectory, the more we worship the created rather than the Creator the more the City of Earth will war against itself spiralling into endless splintered factions. Only by changing the focus of our gaze can we wake up from our personal delusion to find ourselves part of a people where:
God, the one supreme, rules an obedient City according to his grace, forbidding sacrifice to any being save himself alone; and where in consequence the soul rules the body in all men who belong to this City and obey God, and the reason faithfully rules the vices in a lawful system of subordination; so that just as the individual righteous man lives in the basis of faith which is active in love, so the association, or people, of righteous men lives on the same basis of faith, active in love, the love with which a man loves God as God ought to be loved, and loves his neighbour as himself.XIX.23