Lecture: The Political Philosophy of Augustine

Augustine portrait by Philippe de Champaigne, 17th century


Augustine (354 A.D.—430 A.D.), a one-time bishop of Hippo, is undoubtedly the most distinguished clergyman to which the Roman Catholic Church—or any church, for that matter—can lay claim.  He was also one of the most prolific and illustrious thinkers to have ever walked the Earth.

The modes of thought to which Augustine contributed are many.  Not only would Christian theology be all but nonexistent in the absence of his influence, it is arguable that the contemporary Western political imagination would be unrecognizable to itself had it not been for the genius of the Saint.

Westerners are unique among the peoples of the world insofar as they alone were the first to insist upon carving out more than a merely theoretical distinction between politics and religion.  Some of our contemporaries locate the grounds for this distinction in the words of Jesus Himself: “Give to Caesar what belongs to Caesar, and give to God what belongs to God.”  We can be all but certain that Augustine agreed with this assessment.  But he supplied a philosophical justification for it the force of which has been felt throughout the ages.

In his magisterial, The City of God, Augustine situates his thoughts on politics within a larger metaphysical or theological context.  In order to understand the former, we must take stock of the latter.

First of all, the universe for Augustine is teleological in character.  It is purposeful, ordered by God toward the ultimate end of union with Himself.  Mirroring the orderliness of the cosmos is the orderliness or harmony that is to be found in each of God’s creatures.  This harmony, Augustine says, is “a mutual peace among all” of a thing’s “parts.”

Peace, then, is not only a good, but a prized good.  And “civil peace,” the peace of those political associations that we call states, is a harmony or order among their parts—their citizens.

For all of the variety of which the human race admits, there are essentially but two types of people: those who live according to the flesh, and those who live according to the spirit.  The former, motivated as they are in all of their endeavors by the love of self, are engulfed by the deadliest of all sins, the sin of pride.  The latter, in glaring contrast, love God before all else.

Corresponding to these two types of personality are two “cities.”  Those who live by the flesh compose “the earthly city” or “the city of man.”  On the other hand, those who live by the spirit constitute “the heavenly city” or “the city of God.”  In theory, these cities and their residents are distinguishable from one another.  And it is true that, according to Augustine, Christ will separate “the wheat from the chaff” on Judgment Day.  But in the meantime, they are “entangled together.”

That the two cities are inseparably joined in this world means that, while the city of God is “a pilgrim” on this Earth, it is just as contingent as is the city of man upon temporal goods and evils.  Thus, the question of how the associates of a civil association ought to attend to their institutional arrangements—the question of politics—is a question that neither believer nor unbeliever, neither Christian nor pagan, neither lovers of self nor lovers of God, can afford to neglect.

To put it more bluntly, it is neither possible nor, crucially, desirable to avoid politics, for it is only by way of this enterprise that the residents of both earthly and heavenly cities can obtain the satisfactions and avert the pains endemic to this world.

And the greatest of such satisfactions is that of peace.

Now, it is, of course, correct that earthly peace “is not a good which can discharge its devotees of all distresses [.]”  It is correct that earthly peace, coming as it does at exorbitant costs in bloodshed and treasure and requiring for its maintenance unceasing vigilance, is never more than tenuous.  Yet, nevertheless, it is and remains the best of earthly goods, for without it, these other goods promise to be forever elusive.

The earthly and heavenly cities both want earthly peace, but they want it for different purposes.  Residents of the former identify it with their greatest good.  Residents of the latter, however, “use as pilgrims such advantages of time and of earth as do not fascinate and divert them from God, but rather aid them to endure with greater ease [.]”

In establishing the indispensability of earthly peace, not just to the procurement of the basic necessaries of daily subsistence, but the cultivation of spiritual growth, Augustine provides a justification for the Christian’s obligation to be law-abiding.  “Consequently, so long as it [the city of God] lives like a captive and a stranger in the earthly city…it makes no scruple to obey the laws of the earthly city, whereby the things necessary for the maintenance of this mortal life are administered [.]”

Aristotle is widely regarded as a “perfectionist,” for he held that the polis existed for the sake of enabling its residents to grow in perfect virtue.  No one could ever mistake Augustine for a perfectionist.  An association of the sort that he favored, one committed to earthly peace—not moral excellence or perfection—is marked by the modesty of its aims.  Beyond this, Augustine is the first to point out that earthly peace is essentially negative in nature.

“But the peace which we enjoy in this life,” he writes, “whether common to all or peculiar to ourselves, is rather the solace of misery than the positive enjoyment of felicity” (emphasis mine).

Furthermore, the most that anyone can hope to achieve in this life is “the remission of sins”—not “the perfecting of virtues.”

Justice may be the virtue of a political association, but “true justice” exists only “in that republic whose founder and ruler is Christ [.]”  In the absence of justice, “what are kingdoms but great robberies,” and “what are robberies…but little kingdoms?”  Augustine considers Cicero’s definition of a republic as “the weal of the people”—and concludes that it is wanting.

If Cicero is correct, Augustine reasons, then we have no option but to conclude that “there never was a Roman republic, for the people’s weal was never attained among the Romans.”  As Augustine reads Cicero, “the people” is an association held together by “a common acknowledgement of right”—justice—and “a community of interests.”  But there was no common acknowledgment of right among the associates of the Roman Republic.  This, in turn, means that neither could there be said to have been a people.

And there was, then, no Roman Republic.

Furthermore, there was no acknowledgment of the one true God in the Roman Republic of old.  There can be no justice when “man desert” God “and yields himself to impure demons.”

Augustine maintains that a people is “an assemblage of reasonable beings bound together by a common agreement as to the objects of their love [.]”  This explains why he distinguishes the earthly and heavenly cities in terms of the former’s love of self the latter’s love of God.

Self-Educated American Contributing Editor, Jack Kerwick, holds a BA in religious studies and philosophy from Wingate University, a MA in philosophy from Baylor University, a Ph.D. in philosophy from Temple University, and is currently adjunct professor of philosophy at Rowan University; Penn State University; and Burlington County College. Mr. Kerwick writes from the classical liberal perspective inspired by Edmund Burke. He blogs at www.jackkerwick.com. You can contact him at [email protected]