Saint Augustine and the Augustinian Tradition
The Saint Augustine Lecture 1971
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
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
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.
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
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
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
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
What is remarkable in all of this, however, is that Augustine's attack on Plato hardly does more
The central point of the argument is summed up in Socrates' remark, later echoed by St. Augustine,
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
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
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
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
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.
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
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
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-
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.
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.
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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-
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.
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