In chapters 21-24 of Book XIX in City of God, Augustine reflects on whether Rome, or any empire, can be thought of as a commonwealth. He’s asking, in other words, whether an empire can exist for the common good of its citizens. First he takes up a definition from Cicero’s On the Republic which identifies a commonwealth as the “the weal of the people” – or, the good of the people – wherein people are defined as a group “united in association by a common sense of right and community interest.” This right and interest, according to Augustine’s interpretation of Cicero, “cannot be maintained without justice.” In short, a commonwealth exists for the good of those who are united by justice.
Without justice, according to Augustine, the whole thing unravels and rather than a commonwealth the empire is actually “some kind of a mob, not deserving the name of a people.” A few pages later he suggests a different definition of “a people” as if to explore whether an empire is ever capable of pursuing the common good of all of its citizens. Perhaps a people should should be defined as “the association of a multitude of rational beings united by a common agreement on the objects of their love.” In this instance the focus is on love rather than justice, particularly on the common objects of the multitudes’ love. In this case, to determine the quality of the people we must observe what they love. “Obviously, the better the objects of this agreement, the better the people; the worse the objects of this love, the worse the people.”
By this second definition Augustine is willing to concede that perhaps Rome is a commonwealth, but only barely given the direction of its loves: “bloody strife of parties and then to the social and civil wars, and corrupted and disrupted that very unity which is, as it were, the health of a people.”
When he considers both expressions of a state that exists for the common good, Augustine ultimately finds each lacking because of their disregard for God. The first disdains justice and so “takes a man away from the true God and subjects him to unclean demons.” Similarly, the second cannot acknowledge God as ruler “because it disobeys his commandments that sacrifice should be made to himself alone.” Both visions of commonwealth ultimately fail because they do not recognize the lordship of the one God. Any attempt at justice or love apart from the One who embodies them will be a shadow of the common good at best, oppressive at worst.
Augustine, it should be said, does not sound especially judge-y about these two inadequate expressions of the common good or the disappointing states and governments they represent. It’s not as though he expects anything different; he concedes that these are the best empires can do. The City of Man, in contrast to the City of God, is severely limited in its capacity to be just or to inspire love because it does not submit to the God who is the definition of justice and love.
Within our own American expression of empire we have a version of Christianity that seems hellbent on establishing its particular vision of the City of God using tools from that other city. I doubt that Augustine would be impressed, seeing the willful association with injustice and disordered loves as a pathetic attempt to grasp what can only be fully known within that future city wherein God alone will be worshiped, when justice and love will be defining characteristics of his people forever. No empire can ever be good for all, something the representatives of this grasping Christianity probably know full well. In the meantime, I fear they appear to their neighbors as nothing more than some kind of a mob.