The Pathos of Politics (18) Augustine


Medieval thinkers were almost always theologians first, philosophers incidentally, and political speculators as an afterthought. Augustine was the first Christian political thinker of historical significance, but it was the least of his achievements.


Hope has 2 beautiful daughters; their names are Anger and Courage. Anger at the way things are, and Courage to see that they do not remain as they are. ~ Augustine

The world of Latin theologian Augustine of Hippo (354–430) was that of the Roman Empire. In his lifetime, that empire was dismembered in the west by Germanic warrior tribes, but not yet in decline in the east. As a provincial Algerian bishop, Augustine’s eyes were on the west.

The physical damage from the Visigoth incursion into Rome in 410 was modest. But it deeply shocked its citizens.

Many Romans saw the sack of Rome as a punishment for abandoning the Roman pantheon of gods for Christianity. Augustine wrote The City of God in response to the accusation.

Augustine’s retort was that the old gods had never kept their side of the bargain to begin with, as Rome had suffered innumerable calamities before its ostensible conversion to Christianity. Good and bad fortune fall upon the just and unjust alike.

The City of God was no political tome. Augustine nowhere bothers discussing the merits of various polities. Only in later interpretation do his words effuse political implications.

Two cities have been formed by 2 loves: the earthly by the love of self, even to the contempt of God; the heavenly by the love of God, even to the contempt of self. The former, in a word, glories in itself, the latter in the Lord. ~ Augustine

Augustine’s city of God was an imagined heavenly polis, populated by those granted entry by God. Earthly cities are populated by people, all sinners; some of whom may pass through the pearly gates by God’s grace when they shuffle off the mortal coil.

God judged it better to bring good out of evil than to suffer no evil to exist. ~ Augustine

To Augustine, pagan states can never practice true justice because they do not give God his due. He leaves it unclear as to whether a Christian state might achieve this lofty goal, but such a state does not, at least, fail from the get-go for faithlessness.

The honors of this world, what are they but puff, and emptiness, and peril of falling? ~ Augustine

Channeling the spirit of Plato, earthly kingdoms exist to promote peace. Peace on Earth is nothing to peace in the city of God, but we must accept our situation. Materiality is nothing compared to union with God, but it is not to be despised.

God had one son on Earth without sin, but never one without suffering. ~ Augustine

Augustine formulated the Christian doctrine of original sin, considering it the most salient fact about us. Some may be saved from eternal damnation in the afterlife, but all are sinners; hence, suffering is ubiquitous.

There is a nature in which evil does not or even cannot exists; but there cannot be a nature in which there is no good.
~ Augustine

Augustine did not believe that evil was an active force. Augustine accepted the Neoplatonic view that evil is a privation, a loss of rectitude. But love is an active force, which can guide us toward goodness if we have the will to do so.

In order to discover the character of people we have only to observe what they love. The measure of love is to love without measure. ~ Augustine

The ultimate cause of political societies is our innate sin. Absent our fall from grace, we might live in communist communities, without need of property, law, or government.

Augustine took it for granted that being coerced into receiving the truth was a benefit, not a burden; it was a view one might expect from a man who thought that corporal punishment might be administered lovingly and with the intention to bring the offender to his senses. ~ English political theorist and historian Alan Ryan

Augustine accepted that the central feature of the state is wielding coercive power. Just as the state has the right to punish its citizens, so too it has the right to punish other states for their transgressions.

Thus, Augustine believed that war could be just. The earthly city, with “desires that cannot justly be said to be evil, desires earthly peace for the sake of enjoying earthly goods, and it makes war in order to attain this peace.”

Punishment is justice for the unjust. ~ Augustine

Christ’s injunction to “compel them to come in” [Luke 14:23] meant to Augustine obedience to proper authority. Give the state its due in earthly matters, and the church its due in spiritual affairs.

Augustine subscribed to Stoic natural law, but naturally cast it as God’s eternal law.

Peace between man and God is the well-ordered obedience of faith to eternal law. Peace between man and man is well-ordered concord. ~ Augustine

Augustine’s measure of decent earthly society was one that was orderly. This powerful thought was an elegant kidnapping of an idea at home in the minds of republicans. But Augustine cared not a whit how a society achieved its order: any polity would do.

Augustine’s influence was enormous, owing in no small measure to his cogent writing. Augustine also had good luck in maintaining a reputation for orthodoxy despite some extreme views, such as his Aristotelian support for slavery, albeit with a moral twist.

The prime cause of slavery is sin. ~ Augustine

His ideas accepted into Christian doctrine, Augustine created a dangerous legacy: placing Christian subjects at the mercy of a ruler’s notions about where the line of heresy was drawn, making it inevitable that the church would claim to police a Christian ruler’s orthodoxy, and equally inescapable that rulers would resist the church’s claim.