Wednesday, September 13, 2006

Augustine and Calvino similarities

Lucy Butler


Although Augustine of Hippo’s City of God and Italo Calvino’s Invisible Cities were written during different eras, their similarities are numerous. Calvino’s secular work echoes some of the key themes of Augustine’s religious urging for people to reform their ways of living in order to ensure their place in Heaven with God. A few of the major parallels are the presentation of the two faces of a city, the need to work toward a better future, and the impending destruction of a city.

Most people, upon visiting a city, only notice the version of the city that is meant for tourists: the monuments, the shopping districts, the best restaurants. They do not realize that there is another side to the city, such as the poorer areas, the close-knit neighborhoods, or the community center. Both Augustine and Calvino recognize that there are two faces to every city, and both seek to explain them. For Augustine, there is the Earthly City and the Heavenly City, the Earthly City being the one of the selfish and the secular and the Heavenly City being the one of the pious and the reverent. Augustine defines the Earthly City as that which is characterized by “love of self extending even to contempt of God” (Augustine 632), the focus on “the goods of the body or of [the] mind” (Augustine 632), and which consists of those who live according to man” (Augustine 634). The Heavenly City, on the other hand, is characterized by “love of God extending to contempt of self” (Augustine 632), is populated by those who recognize “man has no wisdom beyond the piety which rightly worships the true God, and which looks for its reward in the fellowship not only of holy men, but of angels also, ‘that God may be all in all’” (Augustine 632-633), and consists “of those who live according to God” (Augustine 634). Augustine believes that there are two polar opposite, mirror images of the city – the inhabitants must choose which one to which they would like to belong. Calvino, too, recognizes that there are two faces to a city when he describes the city of Beersheba in which there is this same dichotomy between a heavenly city and a hellish city: “This belief is handed down in Beersheba: that, suspended in the heavens, there exists another Beersheba, where the city’s most elevated virtues and sentiments are poised…[and] another Beersheba exists underground, the receptacle of everything base and unworthy that happens to them” (Calvino 111). The celestial city holds everything toward which the citizens strive, while the lower city holds everything from which the inhabitants flee. Each city possesses a mirror image of itself – one above and one below. Augustine’s portrayal of a model city and an undesirable city is echoed in Calvino’s depiction of the mirror images of Beersheba. Both authors acknowledge that there are two versions of a city and that one representation is more attractive than the other based on the moral foundation.


As already briefly mentioned, Augustine’s and Calvino’s cities attempt to reform their ways in order to attain a brighter future . Augustine describes Jerusalem saying,

There was, indeed, a kind of shadow and prophetic image of this City of the Saints: an image which served not to represent it on earth, but to point towards that due time when it was to be revealed. This image, Jerusalem, was also called the Holy City, not as being the exact likeness of the truth which is yet to come, but by reason of its pointing towards that other City…One part of the earthly city, by symbolizing something other than itself, has been made into an image of the Heavenly City; and so it is in bondage, because it was established not for its own sake, but in order to serve as a symbol of another City. (Augustine 636-637)

Jerusalem is the city that represents the Heavenly City, and is thus the perfect site to inspire reforms that the citizens wish to make in order to become inhabitants of the celestial city. Jerusalem’s providing man with a physical symbol of the celestial city gives him an incentive to live according to God’s laws in order to achieve the advanced version of the city. Calvino also describes cities that use their current metropolis as a foundation for a better future. Marozia is said to be a city “of the rat…[and] of the swallow” (Calvino 154), implying that the current city is corrupt while the future city is honorable. Calvino remarks,

…[T]oday Marozia is a city where all run through leaden passages like packs of rats who tear from one another’s teeth the leftovers which fall from the teeth of the more voracious ones; but a new century is about to begin in which all the inhabitants of Marozia will fly like swallows in the summer sky, calling one another as in a fame, showing off, their wings still, as they swoop, clearing the air of mosquitos and gnats. (Calvino 154).

Marozia is a community that is destined to liberate itself from the immoral and dirty city of the present in order to embrace the free and bright city of the future. Like Jerusalem, Marozia is using its current city as a springboard for the hopes of the new environment that will be created. It lies in the citizens to reform their ways in order to reach the purity of the future. If all goes well for both cities, men will reach “the peace of the heavenly country” (Augustine 642), and Marozia’s cities will “both change with time, but their relationship [will] not change; the second is the one about to free itself from the first” (Calvino 155).


Although these cities will strive to reform themselves in order to reach the celestial versions, there is always the possibility of impending destruction if the cities refuse to improve. There is no guarantee that the earthly cities will be able to survive. Augustine notes, “But the earthly city will not be everlasting; for when it is condemned to that punishment which is its end, it will no longer be a city” (Augustine 638). If the citizens of the earthly city fail to recognize that they need God’s peace in their lives and that they need to disregard their pride and jealousy, then they are doomed to destroy themselves because they have nothing to save them from their amoral habits:

But if the higher goods are neglected, which belong to the City on high, where victory will be secure in the enjoyment of eternal and supreme peace: if these are neglected, and those other goods desired so much that they are thought to be the only goods, or loved more than the goods which are believed to be higher, then misery will of necessity follow, and present misery be increased by it. (Augustine 639)

If the men on earth live according to worldly manners, then their world will crumble before them because they do not have the Heavenly City as a refuge. Calvino also comments on the possibility of ruin. In describing Laudomia, Calvino comments on the fact that the future is uncertain and that if the inhabitants of the present do not care for the city and its development, then everything will be lost and the population will end in destruction. The citizens need to take every measure they can in order to ensure that the future generations will develop and prosper instead of pass away:

Or else you might think that Laudomia, too, will disappear, no telling when, and all its citizens with it; in other words the generations will follow one another until they reach a certain number and will then go no further…[E]ach passage between birth and death is a grain of sand that passes the neck, and there will be a last inhabitant of Laudomia born, a last grain to fall, which is now at the top of the pile, waiting. (Calvino 143)

The people need to think positively and look toward something more than just the current time – they need to prepare for the future. Augustine and Calvino both recognize that the cities need to work toward something more than the present circumstances in order achieve their full potential in the future.


Augustine’s and Calvino’s similarities lie in their hopes for the two versions of the cities that they propose. As the authors analyze the earthly and the celestial views of the cities, they demonstrate that the metropolises need to work toward a brighter future by living according to a moral standard in order to avoid destruction. It is by reaching toward something pure that the cities will be able to survive.