The Saint Augustine Lecture Series

Saint Augustine and the Augustinian Tradition

The Saint Augustine Lecture 1971

Political Idealism and Christianity in the Thought of St. Augustine

Ernest L. Fortin

Two closely related events have altered the intellectual climate of our time and supplied the framework for its liveliest theological and political debates: the resurgence of utopianism among the prophets of radical or egalitarian democracy and the programmatic violence which in recent years has frequently accompanied the demand for a just society.

The new utopianism comes after a wave of bitter disillusionment and ubiquitous pessimism brought on by two World Wars and the collapse of the liberal ideal which for centuries had been the lifeblood of the Western world and the purveyor of its most enduring hopes. It heralds the end of modern man's "journey to the end of night" and the dawn of a new Age of Aquarius, whose promises inspire the New Left in the advanced industrial societies and the liberation movements at work in the developing countries of the Third World. It issues in a call for political action and, on the Christian side, for a political theology oriented toward social reform as the primary fact with which our generation will have to come to terms. Its impact is clearly visible in the various theologies of hope abroad in the land, as well as in the realignment of forces that has made fellow travelers and in some cases companions-at arms of such traditional foes as Christians and

[end of page 1]

Marxists. It culminates in the alleged discovery or rediscovery of the Gospel as a revolutionary document and in the redefinition of Christian existence as revolutionary existence. 1

The new violence, on the other hand, finds its loudest expression in the political assassinations, the inner-city riots, and the campus disturbances of the past decade. While, on a popular level, it generally seeks to legitimize itself as the only effective form of public protest or means of self-defense against the institutionalized violence of modern society, the principles in which it is ultimately rooted go far beyond the simple repudiation of a corrupt and decaying regime. They aim at nothing less than a total critique of Western civilization and the old world of biblical and classical morality on which it was founded. To many observers, the extreme manifestations to which they occasionally give rise have become symptomatic of the deepest crisis of our time. They bear eloquent witness to the absurdity of life once the horizon of human values from which it derives its meaning has been negated--to a nihilism redeemed only by the blind act of faith that one is summoned to make in the radical newness of an indeterminate but glowing future.2

Neither of these two developments, needless to add, is entirely without antecedents in earlier political and social theory. Both have their common source in nineteenth-century philosophy and may be seen as typical products of the recent amalgamation of Marx's thought with that of Nietzsche and

[end of page 2]

Heidegger.3 Both likewise draw the power of persuasion that they lacked barely a generation ago from the material possibilities opened up for an increasingly affluent society by the success of modern technology and the systematic exploitation of the world's natural resources. At the same time, the ambiguity of the goal pursued, not to speak of the morally questionable nature of the methods sometimes used or advocated to promote it, has tended to provoke a reaction which in subtle ways could turn out to be as dangerous as the abuses it purports to counteract.

Be that as it may, both the desired revolution and the resistance to it have found contemporary theologians generally ill-equipped for the task suddenly thrust upon them. Assuming that there is some advantage to be gained from a clearer understanding of the older solutions to the problem of a just social order, one may feel justified in returning, after centuries of virtual neglect, to the origins of Christian political thought and above all to St. Augustine, the most profound political thinker of the early Church and the only one to deal with the issue of political idealism in all its breadth and complexity.

* * * * *

Augustine's political theology presents itself first and foremost as an attempt to integrate the Christian faith and the principles of Greco-Roman philosophy. The greatest representative of the ancient

[end of page 3]

political tradition, the man whom Augustine regarded as the master of those who know, was Plato.4 Although there is no evidence that Augustine had read Plato's major political works either in the original or in translation, he was acquainted with their spirit and much of their content through Plato's Roman disciples, Varro and especially Cicero. He himself did more than any other writer of late antiquity to restore the Platonic teaching to its native political context. Beyond the immediate circumstances that prompted its writing, the City of God is an answer to Plato's Republic, which it eventually replaced in the West as the most authoritative account of the manner in which man should live in the city. Taken as a whole, it represents the first all-out endeavor on the part of a Christian theologian to come to grips with Platonic philosophy in its integrity and on the level of its own highest principles, over against the truncated and somewhat bookish Platonism of the later or so-called Neoplatonic philosophers, whose approach remains largely metaphysical or mystical and from whose works the omnipresent and all-important political dimension of Plato's thought has virtually disappeared. In the City of God more than in any other ancient Christian work the contest between Christ and Socrates, of which earlier writers had spoken, achieves its true proportions. We shall begin to glimpse the issues implied in that contest if we turn for a moment to the earliest critique of political idealism to have been written by a classical author, Aristophanes' Assembly of Women.

[end of page 4]

The theme of the Assembly of Women is democracy and, more specifically, the claim that democracy is the most just and philanthropic of all regimes, the one regime capable of insuring the largest measure of happiness for all. The story is that of a group of scheming women who disguise themselves as men and successfully conspire to take over the government of the city. Democracy aims at equality, and complete equality can neither be attained nor preserved unless all things, including women and children, become common. Hence the basic principle of the new order instituted by the rebellious women and their heroine, Praxagora, which is that henceforth "all shall participate in everything and live out of the same."5

To a conservative like Aristophanes such a proposal could only appear as the acme of ridicule. It brings to light the folly of the Athenians who never tire of praising democracy on the one hand and scoff at the idea that women should rule on the other. Furthermore, the scheme will not work. Not only custom but nature cries out against it. In the name of equality handsome young men end up by having to marry old hags6 and rich citizens are required to donate their wealth to the public treasury, which they are not about to do if they can help it.7 As might be expected, the only one to derive any profit from the revolution is its instigator, an enterprising young woman who is already married to an aged husband and who can now look forward to free dinners for her family and hitherto forbidden pleasures for herself.8 She, at least, has managed

[end of page 5]

to solve her personal problem, but in a most elegant fashion by giving it the air of a public problem. The public life has not really triumphed over the private life. In their efforts to bring about a just but impossible social order, the women of Athens have simply created a new and more ridiculous situation. Democracy, which advertises itself as the rule of all, is in fact the rule of a part which, like any other part, claims to rule in the interest of all and to be best fitted for that rule. What is most objectionable in it is that, while it pretends to benefit everyone, it discriminates against the best or those who are superior by nature. The inequalities that it produces are even more shocking than the ones it sets out to eliminate. It strives for an unattainable ideal and wreaks devastation in the pursuit of it. Since the perfect society is a delusion, one would be well-advised to settle for more moderate goals and make do with a political arrangement that promises less but in the end accomplishes more than any of its deceptively more attractive alternatives.

The challenge issued by Aristophanes was taken up in a novel way by Plato, whose Republic was intended as a direct reply to the Assembly of Women.9 The teaching of the Republic, most briefly stated, is that the notion of the perfectly just society and its attendant communism, which Aristophanes had dismissed as absurd, is not ludicrous at all. Given certain very special circumstances, such a society is conceivable, but its coming into being is contingent on the one thing of which Aristophanes seems

[end of page 6]

to be unaware or which in his cleverness he has forgotten, namely, philosophy. Evils will cease from the land if and when, according to that most famous of all Platonic teachings, kings become philosophers and philosophers become kings.10

Augustine's own City of God is all the more interesting from our point of view as it is directed in the first instance against the idealism of the Republic. The basic argument that it develops may be summarized as follows. Platonic political philosophy studies human behavior in the light of man's highest possibilities or the noblest goals to which one may aspire, that is to say, in the light of virtue; and it claims to be able to show the way to the attainment of those goals. It culminates in a discussion of the best life and, on the political level, of the best regime or the kind of rule that is conducive to the best life for everyone. By the best regime it understands that regime which is most according to wish, a regime of the sort that wisdom and virtue would prescribe if one were in the rare and enviable position of being able to act with complete freedom in these matters.11 The society that serves as its model is based entirely on reason and makes no concessions to prevailing customs or the lower appetites by which men are guided for the most part. In that regard it exhibits greater consistency than Roman political thought, which was forced to compromise with human weakness and officially sanctioned numerous practices that were contrary to its own principles and inimical to human dignity.12 By resisting all such compromises, "Plato

[end of page 7]

showed the Romans what their genius had left incomplete."'13

The trouble with that approach in Augustine's view is that it compels one to speak about an ideal that has never or hardly ever been seen to exist among men and whose actualization is dependent on the unlikely confluence of an untold number of auspicious circumstances. Plato is essentially right in his estimation of what men ought to do and how they should live in society, but he was incapable of providing the means by which that ideal could he translated into practice. The just society of which he speaks is a society that exists in private discussions--domesticis disputationibus--rather than in the actions of the market place.14 As such, it is nothing but a beautiful pipe dream, setting down goals that elude most men all of the time and all men most of the time and thus destined to be deprived forever of that which it deems indispensable to the happiness of individuals and cities.15

The improbable, not to say hopelessly quixotic, character of the Platonic scheme is borne out for Augustine by the example of actual cities, all of which fall short of the standards established by reason and nature. Ideally, cities are, according to Cicero's definition, "assemblages of rational beings bound together by a common acknowledgment of right or justice.''16 In fact, what holds their members together is rarely anything more than their collective selfishness or, as Augustine puts it more euphemistically, a 'common agreement as to the object of their love.''17 All cities suffer

[end of page 8]

from the same radical defect and none has ever been known to prefer habitually righteousness to injustice. The mere fact that cities must resort to such agencies as law and law enforcement in order to secure a measure of peace among their citizens is already sufficient proof of the all too human quality of their moral life.18 If everyone were virtuous, laws would be superfluous and men would pursue of their own accord the good that they are intended to protect.19 As it is, few men can be trusted to seek justice for its own sake. With a view to its self-preservation, if for no higher motive, civil society must structure itself in such a way as to exploit man's perversity to its own advantage. It inhibits the potentially destructive manifestations of human egoism, not by appealing to one's reason or sense of decency, but by pitting evil passion against evil passion and using the one to countermand the other.20 It sees to it that even scoundrels unamenable to persuasion and with no attraction for virtue will be impelled by their own self-interest to perform virtuous acts. The greedy person who seeks his own aggrandizement at the expense of others will refrain from cheating or stealing, not because he has renounced the inordinate love of material goods, but out of fear of losing those goods which he already possesses and of which the law threatens to strip him as a punishment for whatever crime he may be tempted to commit.

What is remarkable in all of this, however, is that Augustine's attack on Plato hardly does more

[end of page 9]

than bring to light what was already implicit in the Republic, which, as closer examination reveals, must itself be read as a critique of political idealism and indeed perhaps the most devastating critique of political idealism ever written.21 Its blueprint of the best society is one which, in the mind of its own author, can never be fully implemented in society at large. The book as a whole fulfills the function of a noble lie, calculated to incite men to as high a degree of virtue as may be reasonably expected of them, but without much hope of seeing its dream parlayed into a reality.22 It is strictly utopian, to use a word which is not properly speaking Platonic but which was coined by a later disciple of Plato who had admirably captured the spirit of Plato's work. In that sense it is true to say that the Republic is a comedy,23 but a comedy of the highest order, which consciously imitates and surpasses that of Plato's rival, Aristophanes. Like all great comedies, it, too, is based on an impossibility. It describes a state of affairs which could obtain only if in speaking of political matters one were able to prescind from the body and bodily passions or if one were dealing with angels instead of men.24 It accomplishes its purpose by forcing the wise reader to reflect on the reasons for which the proposed scheme is impossible. Its comic character is evinced by the fact that its most daring and outlandish proposals--such as the perfect equality of the sexes even in regard to warfare,25 the community of wives and children,26 and the rule of the philosopher-king, on which the success of the

[end of page 10]

enterprise is said to hinge--are not put forward as serious proposals in the usual sense of the word. Given the scarcity of truly philosophic natures,27 the difficulty inherent in their nurture,28 the forces that threaten their corruption,29 and the frequent antagonism of the multitude toward them,30 one cannot assume that the right person will always be available when needed or, if he were, that he could easily accede to power. The philosopher, whose interests lie in a direction diametrically opposed to that of the city, will never take on the burden of rulership unless compelled by some necessity to do so; and the many, who know little or nothing of wisdom, are not apt to seek or accept a wise man as their sole ruler.31 All in all, the hoped for encounter of wisdom and political power leaves much to chance and precludes the kind of planning that could guarantee its realization at any chosen moment. Moreover, even in the unlikely event of its establishment, the new regime is faced with the necessity of maintaining and perpetuating itself; for the absolutely perfect regime, if such there be, necessarily contains within itself all that is required for its own preservation. Yet the books that follow in the Republic are devoted precisely to an analysis of the manner in which by a gradual process the would-be perfect Regime degenerates into less perfect and eventually totally corrupt regimes;32 which is as much as to say that the perfect regime has never existed and probably never will.

The central point of the argument is summed up in Socrates' remark, later echoed by St. Augustine,

[end of page 11]

to the effect that the city whose foundation has just been described is one that has its place in speech only and is not to be found anywhere on earth.33 Its pattern is laid up in heaven, and, in the end, it makes no difference whether it is or will be anywhere. The principles on which it is based are not susceptible of being applied directly to the concrete situation of cities and must be diluted in order to become operative. In short, the Republic, as Cicero had already observed, is a philosophic rather than a political book.34 Its main purpose is to reveal the nature and hence the limitations of the political life. By so doing, it points beyond itself to another life or type of life, though not to another world, in which alone true happiness is to be encountered.

What has just been said of Plato's Republic applies, mutatis mutandis, to Cicero's Republic, which, despite its more traditional approach,35 does not convey an essentially different teaching and is itself to be interpreted as a tacit admission that the problem of civil society is for all practical purposes humanly insoluble. In it Cicero explicitly takes up the question of whether justice or injustice necessarily underlies the successful management of the affairs of the state. The case for injustice is entrusted to Philus,36 who takes the position that the faithful observance of the demands of justice runs counter to human nature and is seldom reconcilable with the demands of wisdom and self-interest. To act at all times in accordance with the rules of strict justice would be sheer folly. If Rome had done so she would have remained a poverty-stricken

[end of page 12]

village.37 Wisdom counsels that it is the appearance rather than the substance of justice which is to be sought, for thus one may benefit from the advantages stemming from a reputation for virtue while avoiding the misfortunes that could accompany an unswerving compliance with its dictates.38

Philus's argument in favor of injustice is rebutted by Laelius,39 the oldest and most conservative member of the group, who expounds the Stoic conception of natural law and is firmly convinced that the paths of justice and wisdom necessarily converge. The drift of the discussion makes it quite clear, however, that, while Laelius's uncompromising moralism is undoubtedly preferable to Philus's blatant immoralism, neither position can be regarded as adequate. All states should strive for justice but none can do more than approximate its highest standards. Even the regime which, for purposes of edification, Scipio had praised as being the most perfect was not free from injustice.40 The harsh but inescapable conclusion at which one arrives is that for Cicero, no less than for Plato, civil society is inconceivable without injustice, however much one may deplore that situation and however eager he may be to rectify it. The perfect regime would seem to lie beyond the scope of human capacity. Whether one likes it or not, man's expectations from the political life can never equal his desires in regard to it.41

By denouncing the classical scheme as idealistic or utopian, Augustine was not saying anything that had not already been said or implied by Plato and

[end of page 13]

Cicero. His merit is to have grasped with remarkable clarity and penetration the basic intention of the Republic. In this he showed himself to be an infinitely more astute critic of Plato and the Platonic tradition than his predecessor Lactantius, who remains utterly impervious to the more subtle implications of the Republic and sees in it nothing more than an invitation to licentiousness and promiscuity.42 Lactantius, the Christian Cicero, was Ciceronian in style but not much else.

* * * * *

Augustine's indictment of the Platonic tradition is not substantially different from that of the early modern philosophers, who later broke with classical thought on the ground of its inability to produce the kind of society which it presented as essential to man's political well-being.43 It is difficult to read Augustine's vivid account of the rapacity and ruthless depredations of nations and empires without being constantly reminded of Hobbes's famous descriptions of the state of nature as a state in which every man is at war with every other man.44 His analysis of the mechanism of government, with its reliance on institutions rather than on education or virtue, appears at first sight to foreshadow the attempt made by the seventeenth century theorists to establish the state on the bedrock of passion instead of reason.45 And his endless disquisitions on the mostly evil heart of man announce from afar the approach devised by

[end of page 14]

Francis Bacon, who ends up by advocating the systematic study of evil rather than of the good in the formation of the future statesman.46

Yet Augustine is anything but a Machiavellian or a Hobbesian before the letter. One misses completely the point of his argument if one construes it as a defense of political immoralism47 or an anticipation of the modern contractualist theories.48 His views on civil society are not in any way predicated on a denial of man's social nature and he never approved of anything like the divorce between ethics and politics which became prevalent in modern times.49 His remark to the effect that Scipio's definition of the state is acceptable only with the stipulation that the word "justice" be stricken from it was not meant to be taken as an acknowledgment that states should not be concerned with justice and virtue; nor was it motivated by the desire to substitute a descriptive definition for a prescriptive one50 or to find a definition broad enough to fit all states regardless of the intrinsic goodness or badness of their respective ways of life.51 It simply calls attention to the unfortunate but habitual cleavage between the "is" and the "ought" in the lives of states as well as of the individuals who make them up.

More importantly, it never occurred to Augustine to enhance the efficacy of his teaching by deliberately lowering the standards of human conduct, as was the case with the early modern political theorists. By reason of the absolute demands that they make on men, his own standards are even loftier

[end of page 15]

and more stringent than the most stringent standards of classical thought. Classical thought has failed, not because it expected too much of most men, but because it was compelled to rely on purely human means to bring about the realization of the noble goals that it set for them. Thanks to the revelation of divine truth, the justice which had hitherto eluded man has at last become accessible to him, but it belongs properly to that city of which Christ is the founder and ruler.52 Divine grace and not human justice is the true bond of society.53 It alone fulfills both the ideals of pagan philosophy and the prescriptions of the Old Law, not in the sense that the Law was wanting in anything that may have been essential to it, but in the sense that it accomplishes what, despite the best of intentions, the literal command had failed in doing.54 The City of God and not Plato's Republic is the true apology of Socrates. Just as Plato had suggested that the scheme devised by Aristophanes, absurd as it may have seemed to Aristophanes himself, might succeed if philosophers could be induced to become kings, so Plato's solution, which was never intended as a workable solution, is hence forward applicable in deed, but on one condition: that one be enrolled as a member of the city of God.

As Augustine himself was eventually forced to recognize, however, there was no tangible evidence that the new solution, even admitting its moral superiority, would yield better results. That solution, as it happens, was not without difficulties of

[end of page 16]

its own, which soon became apparent as a result of the changing political situation of the time. In the eyes of Augustine's pagan contemporaries, the great objection was not that Christians did not always live up to their own high ideals--that they did not practice what they preached--but that they might some day be tempted to do so. By propagating the view that all men are equal and potentially members of a single cosmopolis ruled by God, Christianity revealed the horizon of the political life as a mere horizon, thereby destroying it and depriving the polis of the protective atmosphere within which it had thus far been able to thrive. It engendered a tendency to regard the natural differences and traditional boundaries that set men off as separate groups leading separate lives as politically irrelevant, and thus stripped the city of its status as an exclusive community, as the all-embracing whole and unique expression of that common life which stands above its individual members and binds them together as fellow citizens. Just how the universal love that it enjoined on its adherents could be reconciled with a life of dutiful citizenship was far from clear.55 Its teaching that all men are brothers, descended from the same couple and children of the same heavenly Father, blurred the distinction between friend and foe and robbed the city of its sole reliable means of defense against external enemies.56 Christianity proclaimed the possibility on the level of human life and action of a universalism which is restricted to the republic of spirits and is more at home on Portia's Belmont than in the

[end of page 17]

cities of men. By preaching the love of all men it, in effect, made it harder to love any. Since it prescribed what appeared to be unfulfillable duties, it proved guilty of the very defect with which Augustine had reproached classical philosophy. It was at best a tragic illusion, noble in its inspiration but blind to the necessities of the political life and irresponsible in its practical applications. As long as Christians represented only a minority of the total population, their presence was not likely to inspire any great fear on the part of the civil authorities ;57 and as long as the Empire remained secure, even large numbers of Christians within it did not constitute an imminent threat to its safety. The issue took a new turn the day the Empire was overrun and its existence menaced by hordes of invading barbarians.

It fell to Augustine to think the problem through anew and explain how Christianity, far from subverting the city or breeding contempt for it, could positively strengthen and benefit it. His whole outlook on the question finds its most striking analogy, as well as its sharpest contrast, in Plato's conception of the relation between the philosopher and the non-philosopher or between philosophy and the city, particularly as it is developed in the Apology of Socrates.

* * * * *

The Apology refutes the charge that philosophy was hostile to the city by showing that Socrates

[end of page 18]

was neither a denier of its gods nor a corruptor of youth but a teacher of virtue. Socrates helps his fellow citizens by persuading them that they should be more concerned with improving their souls than with taking care of their bodies.58 Unlike the Sophists, he accepts no money for his services and cannot be accused of acting for a selfish motive. His preoccupation with virtue is such that it prompts him to neglect his own affairs in order to attend to those of others.59 Despite his poverty, he is more philanthropic than any of the wealthy citizens of Athens. Nor is there any substance to the accusation of impiety leveled against him. The proof that he does not reject the gods of the city is that his examination of his fellow citizens was undertaken at the behest of a god and carried out as a form of service to him.60 Throughout his defense, he presents himself as a pious man who does not challenge directly the laws of the city and especially its laws concerning the gods. By assenting to these laws, he implicitly teaches that they are indispensable to the city and that it is in part because of their belief in the gods that most men are able to live as decent citizens within it. He does not for one moment take the city for granted and readily acknowledges that it, too, has its requirements, to which in the common interest all loyal citizens are expected to conform. His own loyalty has been amply demonstrated by his readiness to fight for his country and the courage that he subsequently displayed on the battlefield.61 He himself is the first to recognize his debt to the city.

[end of page 19]

He was not born of an oak or a stone but of human beings who were married and lived all of their lives under the protection of its laws;62 and he was allowed to live unmolested in Athens for seventy years. Any city that can produce a Socrates and tolerate him for that long a period of time cannot be totally bad. Under the Tyranny of the Thirty, Socrates would probably have died much sooner.63

This does not mean that he regards all of Athens' laws as just. Some of these laws, such as the law which permits a trial of life and death to be concluded in a single day, are manifestly unjust.64 But he is nevertheless prepared to submit to them. The only law which he cannot accept under any circumstances is the law which forbids him to philosophize;65 for compliance with such a law would harm his soul and not merely his body.66 The city, of course, has the power to retaliate by putting him to death, but he has nothing to fear from such a punishment. The gods of the city-- those gods in whom his true judges believe--are not indifferent to the fate of good men.67 From these gods, granting their existence, Socrates can expect a treatment that is more equitable than the one which he stands to receive at the hands of his accusers.68 Moreover, by enforcing that law the city defeats its own purpose. It places itself in the position of not being able to meet on their own ground the philosophic attacks aimed at its most fundamental beliefs, and deprives itself of the one weapon by which it could effectively refute atheists, such as Anaxagoras, who reject even the cosmic

[end of page 20]

gods and contend that the sun is no more than a stone and the moon a clump of earth.69 It also forfeits any means by which it could redress its own unjust decrees, such as the decree in virtue of which the admirals of the Argenusai were prosecuted as a group for having abandoned their dead after the battle, even though in individual instances the action could conceivably have been dictated by prudence and may have served the best interests of the fleet.70 A simple reflection on the inadequacy of its laws should be sufficient to convince Athens that it cannot dispense with the one thing which it is unwilling to allow. By punishing Socrates, it punishes itself. Its action is absurd and self-contradictory.

Still, the preceding remarks reflect only one side of the teaching of the dialogue and shed more light on the attitude of the city toward philosophy than on the nature of the philosophic life itself. As one penetrates beneath the surface of the argument, one soon comes to the realization that the existence which Socrates leads has little in common with that of most citizens and that its requirements differ profoundly from those of the political life.71 His claim to piety rests on the assertion that he who believes in divine things necessarily believes in the gods;72 but that assertion has about as much validity as the statement that the man who believes in brooms also believes in witches. When the question comes up as to what Socrates would do in the next life if he were to be put to death, the answer is that he would persist in the kind of activity in

[end of page 21]

which he has always been engaged--an activity that consists essentially in interrogating others and discussing human excellence with his friends.73 There is no longer any talk of making men better by exhorting them to virtue. It becomes apparent by this time that Socrates' understanding of nobility, justice, and piety bears little resemblance to that of the multitude. Among those whom he could anticipate meeting in afterlife are men who have been unjustly sentenced in this life, along with their accusers.74 The implication is that he is not satisfied with the verdict of other men or even of the gods concerning these men. He sets himself up as the judge of the justice of the gods. His entire life is devoted to a search for answers to the most basic questions, and he has no other desire than to pursue the endless or Sisyphean quest for the knowledge of truth and justice.75

One can only infer from these observations that Socrates is more preoccupied with wisdom than with moral virtue. His own god, as distinguished from the gods of the city, is not a god who takes an active interest in the affairs of men. He is a wise god whom one comprehends, rather than a loving god whom one accepts and obeys. The wise Socrates does what the god himself does, not what the god orders him to do. Whereas his service to the city is an activity that is imposed on him, the search for knowledge is an activity on which he embarks freely and which alone, though few men understand it, promises true fulfillment. The satisfactions that it affords are intrinsically in-

[end of page 22]

dependent of the city and are impeded rather than favored by the duties that one discharges toward one's fellow men. To the extent to which it proceeds from an awareness of the limitations of the political life, it is transmoral and transpolitical and necessitates a high degree of detachment from the city and its concerns. From the standpoint of the dedicated citizen, it is self-gratifying and heartless.76 The philosopher lives in the cave, but as someone who is not at home in it and does not really belong to it.

The purpose of the whole discussion as it is presented to us is not so much to prove that the city needs philosophy as to offer a defense of philosophy which will render the city less hostile to it. Socrates is not interested in the city and its virtues for their own sakes but for the sake of philosophy. For, if the city needs philosophy, philosophy itself needs the city. It is not a plant that grows in any soil and it requires for its nurture certain conditions that are not encountered everywhere. There are no philosophers in the wilderness or in the land of the lotus-eaters; but neither are philosophers to be found in any city whatever.77 Some cities are more open to philosophy and more conducive to its development than others. The city itself does not philosophize, but it can either encourage, tolerate, or persecute philosophers. For his own benefit or, better still, for the benefit of philosophy, the philosopher cannot remain completely indifferent to its life; but the efforts that he dispenses in its behalf are plainly more a matter of necessity than of choice.

[end of page 23]

Only under the best regime, such as the one sketched in the Republic, can the relationship of the philosopher to the city be thought to be based on nature.78 But the perfect city of the Republic exists in speech only. This means that for all practical purposes the relationship in question assumes the form of a tacit contract79 or a kind of gentleman's agreement whereby, in return for the freedom granted him, the philosopher refrains from intervening directly in the affairs of the city and accepts to exercise the greatest restraint in the public expression of his own, essentially private views. The alliance thus forged, however, is no more than a marriage of reason, entered upon for motives of calculation or mutual self-interest, rather than a marriage of love, or perhaps a kind of shotgun wedding, constantly threatened and never perfectly harmonious. That marriage was consummated by the death of Socrates. Socrates himself can hardly be thought to have been moderate in his dealings with the city, as is evident from his own behavior and that of the young men whom he influenced.80 The Apology teaches that one should not imitate the young men who imitate Socrates. It thereby teaches that one should not imitate Socrates himself. By discussing philosophy only indirectly, by showing us only its political face, the Apology inculcates a lesson in moderation. It illustrates in dramatic fashion the tension between science and society or the ultimate irreconcilability of the demands of the philosophic life with those of the political life.

[end of page 24]

The picture changes abruptly the moment we come to the parallel issue of the relation of Christianity to the city. The distinction between the philosopher and the non philosopher, which Plato regarded as the most fundamental distinction among men and which underlies his treatment of the problem at hand, loses its paramount importance. By the same token, the nature of the bond that unites the Christian to his fellow men undergoes a profound transformation. Between the love of truth and the requirements of a life wholly dedicated to its pursuit on the one hand and the service of one's fellows on the other, there can no longer be any final opposition. Christian wisdom or the knowledge of the divine truth is not only reconcilable with but inseparable from the love of neighbor.81 The responsibilities that it carries with it go far beyond anything that had previously been thought possible or desirable. They extend to all men, for one cannot love God without at the same time loving those whom God wants to be saved; and God wants everyone to be saved. To reject a single man is to break the covenant of love that links the Christian to all other men regardless of natural or conventional differences, inasmuch as by sinning against any member of Christ's body one sins against Christ himself.82 The sign and locus par excellence of Christian love is the Church, which is not an entity distinct from the world but the world reconciled unto itself and unto God: mundus reconciliatus ecclesia.83

[end of page 25]

Since its motive is God, the love that the Christian owes to others is in no way determined by the personal qualities that one may or may not find in them. It encompasses one's enemies as well as one's friends and fellow citizens, and it manifests itself as much by its opposition to evil as by the efforts that it displays in the pursuit of the good;84 for the toleration of those evils which cannot be allowed to prevail without prejudice to a greater good is as much a betrayal of love as is the self righteous and fanatical desire to extirpate forcefully all evil from among men. Its total dimension is summed up in Augustine's well-known dictum, "Love and do what you will,"85 which expresses not only the primacy of love but it's necessary concomitant, the sometimes painful duty of castigating wrongdoers. Interestingly enough, the maxim appears to have been invoked for the first time in the course of the Donatist controversy as a means of justifying reprisals against heretics.86

The knowledge with which the Christian has been gifted is not to be understood merely as a new theory, destined to replace a philosophic theory which, judged by its own standards, had seemingly proved inadequate, but as a new type of knowledge altogether which, once accepted, necessarily issues in deeds and is itself productive of that which it expresses.87 By its very nature it implies a transformation of the whole person and its sole possession suffices to make him good, dealing as it does not only with things

[end of page 26]

that one cannot know without knowing that one should will them but with things that one cannot know without at the same time willing them.88 Such a doctrine cannot be simply detrimental to the good estate of the realm and destructive of the loyalty that one owes to one's city. In Augustine's own frequently quoted words: Let those who say that the doctrine of Christ is incompatible with the well-being of the commonwealth give us an army of soldiers such as the doctrine of Christ requires them to be; let them give us such subjects, such husbands and wives, such parents and children, such masters and servants, such kings, such judges, in fine, even such tax-payers and tax-collectors as the Christian religion has taught that men should be; and then let them dare to say that it is adverse to the wellbeing of the commonwealth. Rather, let them no longer hesitate to confess that this doctrine, if it were obeyed, would be the salvation of the commonwealth.89

The specific answer to the question of how Christianity as a religion of universal love and a universal way of salvation may be reconciled with one's patriotic duties as a member of a particular society lies in the sharp distinction which Augustine introduces between the two spheres of spiritual and temporal power. That distinction finds its strongest support in Romans 13:1-7, which Augustine takes as a warning to all Christians that the freedom acquired through faith cannot be cited as a valid reason for refusing submission to one's temporal rulers.90 To these rulers has been entrusted the administration of the material goods that all men

[end of page 27]

need and use in this life. Since the Christian benefits like everyone else from the advantages of civil society, he remains subject to its authority and bound by its laws in all matters pertaining to his earthly existence. His respect for these laws is all the greater as it is inspired not by fear of punishment but by the intimate knowledge that, as he defers to them, he is fulfilling a sacred duty: for he who resists power resists the ordinance of God (Rom. 13:2). For this reason, his obedience, unlike that of other citizens, can never be merely feigned.91

The only laws in which he may not acquiesce are those which would take away what God has given in view of eternal life, over which temporal rulers have no jurisdiction. For, if it is a grave error to think that, because one is a Christian, one is not subject to civil authority, it is an even graver error to think that temporal rulers should have any say in matters relating to the faith.92 By withholding his allegiance in such cases, the Christian exposes himself to the penalties that civil society ordinarily inflicts on those whom it regards as lawbreakers and risks being deprived of his temporal goods, among which, with noble simplicity, Augustine does not hesitate to include life itself.93 But the harm that he suffers in his body cannot hurt his soul, inasmuch as all power, not excluding the power wielded by wicked rulers for wicked purposes, comes from God, who would never permit evil if it could not somehow be made to contribute to the spiritual welfare of innocent and unjustly punished men.94

[end of page 28]

Until such time, then, as one is delivered from the unrighteousness of the present life, one must accept its constraints and put up with a situation that may be better or worse according to circumstances of time and place but never as perfect as one would wish it to be. The paradoxical conclusion is that the Christian is both freer from the bonds of civil society and, by virtue of the summons received from God, more strongly obligated to it than any other man.95 Hence, addressing a member of the municipal Senate who for years had deferred baptism because of the presumed incompatibility between Christianity and citizenship, Augustine does not hesitate to quote with approval Cicero's statement to the effect that "for good men there can be no limit, no end, to their efforts in the service of their country."96

* * * * *

One cannot claim, however, that with this answer, even if one were to accept it, the problem has been completely resolved. What constituted the strength of Augustine's position could from another point of view be regarded as its greatest weakness. That position was, in its most obvious intent, the outcome of a deliberate attempt to do justice to the legitimate demands of civil society; but one still does not see how it does equal justice to the demands of the Christian faith. If, as Augustine argues, earthly cities are necessarily imperfect, if each one is to a greater or lesser degree a "compact of wick-

[end of page 29]

edness,"97 the Christian who considers it his religious duty to love his country becomes by that very fact a party to its injustice. One cannot function as a law-abiding citizen of a particular society, hold public office in it, and share its general way of life without being implicated in its inequities and actively contributing to their enshrinement. The argument, it seems, has made of injustice a requirement of love and of the Christian an instrument of its preservation. How, then, to phrase the question in more general terms, can one live as a moral man in an immoral society"

Augustine's reply to this final and decisive objection may be described as the primitive version of the natural right theory in the Christian world. That theory was expressed with greater clarity but also perhaps greater rigidity by later writers who, taking their cue from Augustine, distinguished between two forms of natural right, namely, absolute natural right, whose principles are immutable and universally applicable at all times, and conditional, relative, or secondary natural right, which presupposes the Fall and sanctions such institutions as private property, slavery, and political authority, all of which were absent from the state of original justice and are necessitated solely by man's present inability to live fully in accordance with the dictates of reason.98

Although Augustine himself never speaks of relative or secondary natural right,99 he nevertheless acknowledges the impossibility of doing away once and for all with the various inequalities which human

[end of page 30]

law and custom sanction but which from a higher vantage point may be looked upon as the source of the greatest injustices among men. To the extent to which men share in the unity of the faith, all such differences, whether of nation, sex, or social condition, have been transcended; but they retain their political significance and are to be accepted in conformity with present customs, lest by flouting these customs, one should bring discredit on the faith itself.100

The same is true of war, which is an outgrowth of the actual division of humanity into separate cities and nations and which can never be eliminated as long as that state of affairs endures. However much one may dislike and regret it, war is unavoidable, not because good men want it, but because it is not within their power to avoid it altogether, since it is imposed on them by the wicked, whose evil designs must be resisted in the interest of justice; for nothing is more injurious to mankind than that evildoers should be given free reign to prosper and use their prosperity to oppress the good.101

Assuming the inevitability of war in the present economy of mankind, the least one can do is to strive to humanize it within the limits of possibility. The just war theory, for which Augustine has sometimes been blamed, was obviously propounded not with the aim of extolling war and encouraging it whenever permissible but as a means of mitigating its harshness and imposing curbs on man's innate aggressiveness. It did not recommended itself to Augustine because it settles the issue once

[end of page 31]

and for all but because, everything considered, no better solution could be found.102 Even from Augustine's viewpoint, it is doubtful whether any war can be regarded as absolutely just. The clearest instance of the so-called just war is the war waged in self-defense and for the protection of one's borders.103 But such a view proceeds on the premise that existing boundaries are just to begin with. In the light of what Augustine says elsewhere about the origin of nations and empires and the crimes in which they were founded, it is difficult to imagine that he himself would have considered these boundaries as natural. If, in addition, one bears in mind that the state of war invariably gives rise to situations in which the ordinary rules of justice are suspended, one can only conclude that war is part of an order of things which, no matter how one looks at it, leaves much to be desired and is at best suited to the condition of an imperfect and wounded human nature.

It follows as a consequence of the views just expressed that there is, strictly speaking, for Augustine no such thing as a Christian polity. Christianity was never intended as a substitute for the political life. It transcends all regimes and is of necessity limited in its practical application by the modalities of its existence in this world. Christian wisdom and political power may occasionally coexist in a single subject, the person of the Christian ruler,104 but even in that case they remain distinct, cooperating with each other whenever possible but never merging one into the other.105 Christianity

[end of page 32]

liberates man neither by removing him from the cave nor by promising to dispel the shadows in which it is immersed but by supplying him with standards of judgment that are ultimately independent of the regime and the pervasive influence of its principles. It requires only that Christian citizens comply with the obligations of the political life, not that they allow their souls to be molded and determined by the taste and opinions of the regime under which they happen to live. In principle if not always in practice, it is equally free from the intransigence of the doctrinaire and the complacency of the passive defender of the status quo.106 Since it is neither subversive nor conformist, it cannot of itself be interpreted as a call to anarchism or as an apology for legitimism. In a spirit of moderation and charity it simply teaches that Christians should bear with equanimity the inescapable evils of life without ceasing to toil unwearyingly for the suppression of those evils which can be successfully overcome by human effort and perseverance.

One merely clouds the issue by equating the legally sanctioned injustice of a particular regime with the voluntary acts of injustice perpetrated by one individual or group of individuals against another individual or group of individuals within the same society. The Christian who, by his active presence in the city, is willy-nilly caught up in its more or less just distribution of goods and honors or its more or less just wars is not being asked to love the evils consequent on the establishment and maintenance of that society but only the substantive justice

[end of page 33]

which it embodies and which would not exist without it. One does not normally solve the problem of social justice by revolutionary action, but neither does one solve it by turning one's back on one's fellow men. Under the circumstances, to withdraw from society would only be to rob it of whatever contribution the Christian can still make to the betterment of its common life. Christians, who stand before others as witnesses of God's offer of salvation, must give an account not only of their actions in this world but of their separation from it.107 It is not up to the individual Christian to decide to whom that offer should be made. The basic fallacy of Donatism, in the struggle against which Augustine's political theology reached its final form, was that it could think of no better way to preserve the integrity and holiness of the Church than by cutting itself off from the society of the nations. Its blind idealism and single-minded attachment to what it took to be the pure teaching of the Sermon on the Mount rendered service contingent on the existence of a perfect social order and thereby foreclosed the possibility of any action by which one could still work for the improvement of the existing order.108

This is not to deny for one moment that, in the true spirit of children of the city of God, Christians should not be moved by the sight of the evils with which they continue to be confronted in everyday life or that they can ever bear with a light heart some of the less desirable consequences of their involvement in a particular social order which never

[end of page 34]

fully lives up to their hopes. These evils would be insufferable if the pain and distress they occasion were not relieved by the conviction that the ignorance and infirmity which prevent man from doing everything he would like to do, or even always seeing clearly where his duty lies, are themselves part of the secret penal arrangement and unfathomable judgment of God, with whom there is no iniquity (Ps. 92:6).109 With or without its revolutions, the political life is incapable of exhausting the full range of human possibilities or satisfying completely man's longing for wholeness. When all is said and done, there is, according to Augustine, "only one life which deserves to be called blessed, the future life, in which alone the true knowledge of God is to be found."110

* * * * *

By judiciously blending the teaching of classical philosophy with that of the Bible, Augustine was able to counter the massive objections to which on political grounds Christianity was exposed, as well as the massive objections to which on Christian grounds the political life was exposed. Yet the solution at which he arrived cannot be said to have been completely harmonious or symmetrical. It reduced but did not suppress the tension between man's perfection as a citizen and his perfection as a Christian and a human being. It disposed of the problem of the political life, not by integrating the Christian fully into it, but by moving beyond it in

[end of page 35]

the direction of a goal which was not only transpolitical but otherworldly. For that Reason it was called in question by later thinkers who saw fit to abandon it in favor of a radically different type of political theory which makes its appearance in the seventeenth century and which in time came to supplant traditional political thought, either in its classical or Christian form, as the dominant force in Western society.

The new theory is most clearly distinguishable from the old by its doctrinairism. It is no longer guided by a discussion of the various political regimes and, ultimately, the best political regime. Rather, it teaches that there is one and only one just or legitimate regime, and it further holds that this just regime is attainable anywhere and at any time. Its elaboration was the result of the cooperation of two basic premises: the realism or anti utopianism which had been the soul of the modern development since its inception, and the transformation of science into a project ordered exclusively to the conquest of nature and the relief of man's estate.111 Thanks to the benefactions of modern science and the newly posited identity of its goals with those of civil society, man could look forward, not indeed to a new heaven, but to a new earth with its glittering prospect of a "shared, abundant, and secured" but otherwise unregulated life. What had begun as a critique of utopianism had itself suddenly developed into a utopia, but this time a realizable utopia.112 Popular enlightenment would succeed where both Christianity and classical

[end of page 36]

philosophy had failed, not by effecting a change in the cave dwellers, but by inundating the cave with new light.

Since there is only one just society and since it is within man's power to achieve it, one is not only free to work for its establishment but compelled in the name of justice to do so. The Christian, along with all men of good will, is urged to convert himself into an idealist and a crusader, sharing the earthly hopes of his fellow men and assuming his portion of the burden of their struggles for a brighter future.

As the methodically planned civilization progressed, however, doubts began to arise concerning the feasibility of its goal. The new society became prosperous beyond all expectations, but there was little evidence that it had grown any less irrational in the process.113 The alarm was sounded by Nietzsche at the end of the nineteenth century. It has since become the battle cry of the marching wing of twentieth-century thought. The change that took place in the intervening years is reflected in the transition from the Old Left to the New Left. In the hastily arranged and implausible marriage between Marx and Nietzsche, Nietzsche, not surprisingly, had emerged as the stronger of the two partners. The whole thrust of Nietzsche's counter-gospel had been to restore human greatness, but on the basis of the modern critique of reason. What mattered was not the specific goal of human activity, about which rational discussion was no longer assumed to be possible, but the sincerity and intensity of one's commitment to one's freely cho-

[end of page 37]

sen goal. Concern had replaced truth as the unique and ultimate criterion of the worth of one's actions.

Nietzsche had challenged both reason and faith in the name of life. In his view, the love of God was incompatible with the love of man.114 In the light of the events of recent history, for which Nietzsche himself must bear some responsibility, one may question whether his resolutely this worldly solution115 has in fact done more for the enhancement of human life than any of the solutions which he so vehemently and eloquently opposed, not the least important of which was Augustine's otherworldly solution to the problem of human living.

Nietzsche regarded Augustine, along with Pascal, as the only true representative of the Christian tradition. His own philosophy may be understood, and was understood by Nietzsche himself, as a radical transformation of the whole of Western thought. One cannot fully grasp the transformation without first grasping the original form, and that alone would call for a fresh inquiry into the nature of Augustine's political thought. At the same time, one cannot help wondering whether Nietzsche's attack on the combined classical and Christian tradition was not itself prepared decisively, albeit indirectly, by Augustine's critique of classical thought in the name of faith. It would be difficult to deny that that critique has generated within the Western political tradition a tension which accounts for both its ecstasies and its agonies but also and perhaps more importantly its extraordinary vitality across the centuries.

[end of page 38]

editor: Robert P. Russell, O.S.A.
associate editors: Russell J. DeSimone, O.S.A. and Benedict A. Paparella, Ph.D.

Copyright, 1972 by Villanova University
All rights reserved
Library of Congress catalog card number: 72-88250