A good idea from ... Augustine

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EVERY SOCIETY is obsessed with hierarchy, with ranking people in order of importance. What one needs to earn a place at the top of the pile may change, but the idea of a pile does not. In the distant past, being at the top required one to have noble blood, to be man and be a good fighter. Nowadays it's more important to excel at business (especially IT) and have good communication skills, but the basic idea remains the same; that some people are more worthwhile than others.

This is of course deeply depressing for all those of us who aren't deemed important. Ordinary social life is full of humiliations, from the snobbery of shop assistants to the sadism of employers. These humiliations hurt because at heart we all long to be treated roughly as an ideal mother treats her baby: as a gorgeous thing who is just about the most special person in the world - which is not exactly the impression most of us derive after a few days of looking for a job.

It's at such moments that we should turn to St Augustine (354-430), Doctor of the Latin Church and Bishop of Hippo. In Confessions and City of God Augustine explained that there were two quite separate hierarchies at play in the world or, as he termed them, two separate cities. The first of these was the familiar, depressing hierarchy that ranked people according to wealth and power. The aristocrats of the "earthly city" were nobles, strong soldiers and statesmen, the nobodies were slaves and peasants. But then there was another hierarchy, the true hierarchy according to Augustine, which ranked people according to their innate goodness and devotion to the Christian God. In the "heavenly city" a lowly peasant could come at the top of the pile, while a senator or rich merchant could find himself at the bottom.

And fortunately, the world which rewarded monstrous people, and snobbishly ignored virtuous ones would soon end, promised Augustine. On the Day of Judgement, the true hierarchy would come into the ascendant. Wicked rulers would be replaced and the rule of the just and the good would begin.

This would have been cheering news for a slave in 429AD. His position might look desperate, but hope was around the corner. If one's heart was pure and one worshipped God, then - even as a slave - one was better off than the arrogant, wealthy snobs who rode in chariots and could afford to go to the baths. "The good man, though a slave, is free. The wicked, though he reigns, is a slave."

You don't have to swallow the whole of Augustine's thesis to appreciate it. Stripped of its religious dimension, it is simply making the valuable point that the official hierarchy often doesn't appreciate those it should - which is useful to bear in mind when snobbish people look through us at parties.