Everyone loves to quote Augustine, and everyone loves to call a position “Augustinian.” When it comes to political theology, Roman Catholics and Anabaptists have both been known to adopt the modifier. He’s radical and orthodox all at once. Augustine teaches us to dramatically transform culture, or he frees us up to be West-coast Straussians. The man contains multitudes, or so they say.
The reality is that Augustine is probably more like a restrained version John Piper.
The two cities are ultimately the elect and the damned. “I also call these two classes the two cities, speaking allegorically,” Augustine says (City of God 15.1). “By two cities I mean two societies of human beings, one of which is predestined to reign with God for all eternity, the other doomed to undergo eternal punishment with the Devil” (ibid). The members of the City of God pass through the City of Man on their way to their final destination, but they never find their true home there, as they know themselves to be pilgrims moving towards another city (15.1; 19.17).
Still, even with this distinction, the City of Man is only accidentally bad. Considered in itself, as a temporal order of life, “it would be incorrect to say that the goods which this city desires are not goods” (15.4). The City of Man becomes bad precisely when it values the temporal goods as ends in and of themselves, when it neglects the higher goods of the City of God and desires earthly goods “as to be considered the only goods, or…more than the goods which are believed to be higher…” (15.4). It is important to notice that Augustine even ranks things like “physical beauty” as “a temporal, carnal good, very low in the scale of goods” (15.22).
While the two classes of men comingle on earth, they can be distinguished by the standard of living which they follow, or the organizing principle which directs their pursuit of the good life (14.1, 4, 9). The City of Man lives “by the rule of self, that is by the rule of man (14.3). Instead of submitting to God’s law as the standard, members of the City of Man follow after the desires of the flesh, and this is a disordered flesh affected by the Fall. It therefore frequently acts upon the mind and leads it astray. Augustine even applies this to the level of emotions (14.6, 7, 9). This is why the City of Man is characterized by lust and the desire to dominate (preface to Book 1, 5.19, et al.) While members of the City of Man and City of God will live alongside one another, and even in the same earthly polity, their behavior and manner of life will differ in this way. The citizens of the heavenly city will constantly seek to bring about harmony between the spirit and the flesh by submitting their minds to the law of God and subduing their flesh to keep it into conformity. The citizens of the earthly city will be unable to do this, as their minds are in fact slaves to their passions and they mistakenly think the goods of the earthly city are the highest goods and the way to achieve peace and happiness.
From this perspective, Augustine lays out what we now think of as well-worn, perhaps cliché, arguments like being in the world but not of it, and using something in this world as if you were not using it or as if you do not have it. His point is not physical separation but a sort of spiritual detachment. And it’s not so total a detachment as to renounce the thing but rather to relativize it, to see it as less important than the higher spiritual good, to see the things of this world as temporary and destined to be eclipsed. Augustine affirms the pursuit of happiness. “If a man is content with happiness– and in fact man has nothing which he should desire beyond that…” (4.25). But we must understand that true and lasting happiness is only found in God. Thus we subordinate lesser goods to that greater good, precisely to maximize our happiness (19.4, 20). We are made truly happy in this life by the hope of that eternal happiness, and thus our mind grasps that future happiness now, even while our body does not seem to possess it (19.21). This allows Augustine to be able to say something so odd as “Men may have this happiness– or not have it– when they are slaves, or when they are rulers” (4.34). The possession of true happiness may occur even within dramatically mismatched temporal scenarios.
So what does this mean for Augustine’s “political” thought? Is he just a basic Baptist (rather than immanentized RadTrad or The Chad Anabaptist)?
Augustine believes that human life should indeed be social. Men must work with other men for joint goods. But he believes this will always bring some measure of misery (19.5). The larger human society becomes, the greater the occasion for strife and misery (19.5-7). Society moves from household, to nation (or “people”), to the world, and each of these units are affected by sin. As such, the citizens of the City of God do not identity any of these realms or spheres or authority as the source of true and lasting good. Christians can be entirely indifferent towards “what dress is worn or what manner of life adopted by each person who follows the faith that is the way to God” (19.19). This extends even towards debates between the life of leisure and the active life. Both can be good for Augustine, but more often both are bad. Both should be used as means towards the pursuit of the City of God. Augustine is similarly disinterested in the form of government an earthly city adopts, so long as it does not violate basic justice. “She [the Heavenly City] takes no account of any difference in customs, laws, and institutions, by which earthly peace is achieved and preserved…” (18.17). Interestingly, he prefers Julius Caesar to both the late Republic and the rule of Augustus (3.30).
Members of the City of God will participate in the “peace” of the City of Man while in this mortal life, and they cannot but do so. But they must use earthly goods in a certain way. “Like a pilgrim in a foreign land, who does not let himself be taken in by them or distracted from his course towards God, but rather treats them as a supports which help him more easily to bear the burdens of ‘the corruptible body which weighs heavy on the soul'” He adds, “they must on no account be allowed to increase the load” (19.17). And so, again, Christians should live in the world and use the things of this world, but without sinning. They must be in control of those things and should always subordinate them to the higher end. The controlling qualification is, “provided that no hindrance is presented thereby to the religion which teaches that the one supreme and true God is to be worshipped” (19.17). Christians can live in any sort of earthly polity, so long as they are not required to sin and especially so long as they are not required to offer false worship.
Augustine believes that this upholds most earthly power structures– “not that she annuls or abolishes any of those [means of maintaining earthly peace], rather she maintains them and follows them” (19.17). Thus, Augustine affirms the traditional role of the paterfamilias, with the husband ruling over the wife (15.7) and the head of the household ruling over all in his household (19.16). Augustine extends this even to slaves (19.16). The Christian, in Augustine’s view, can be a slave master or a slave. He does believe that slavery is unnatural. It would not have existed apart from sin, and it is a kind of punishment. But Augustine does not believe that slavery can be wholly done away with in this world of sin, and he thinks many attempts to abolish it would disturb the preservation of order (19.15).
So does Christianity have no effect on politics for Augustine? It does, but in a spiritual rather than fleshly manner. It transforms the motivation for civil life and action. It changes the goal, and therefore it also changes the way in which the action is carried out. Because of their understanding of the Two Cities, for Christians “even those who give orders are the servants of those whom they appear to command” (19.14). This is Augustine’s version of the servant leader. “For they do not give orders because of a lust for domination but from a dutiful concern for the interest of others, not with pride in taking precedence over others, but with compassion in taking care of others” (19.14). The external relationship remains, but a spiritual equity is understood. Speaking of those righteous Christians known to own slaves, Augustine writes:
…they so managed the peace of their households as to make a distinction between the situation of children and the condition of slaves in respect of the temporal goods of this life; and yet in the matter of the worship of God–in whom we must place our hope of everlasting goods–they were concerned, with equal affection, for all the members of their household. (19.16)
He then connects this to current Christians with authority, “those who are genuine “fathers of their household” are concerned for the welfare of all in their households in respect of the worship and service of God, as if they were all their children” (19.16). Nevertheless, this does not undo the authority structure. “But until that home is reached, the fathers have an obligation to exercise the authority of masters greater than the duty of slaves to put up with their condition as servants” (19.16). And so even Christian rulers must reprove “an enemy to the domestic peace” by use of “a word, or by a blow, or any other kind of punishment that is just and legitimate, to the extent allowed by human society” (19.16). Augustine is no pacifist. Neither is he a revolutionary. The Christian fathers should follow the laws of the city and “govern his household in such a way that it fits in with the peace of the city” (19.16). A little later, Augustine repeats this point. “It [the City of God] does not hesitate to obey the laws of the earthly city by which those things which are designed for the support of this mortal life are regulated; and the purpose of this obedience is that, since this mortal condition is shared by both cities, a harmony may be preserve between them in things that are relevant to this condition” (19.17). Still, Augustine is critical of unjust laws, and the Christian may never attempt to vindicate himself by appealing to the unjust laws of the city, even if this is an unavoidable dilemma (19.6).
Again, Augustine shows a relative disinterest. Politics are necessary and inescapable on this earth, but they are also not so important the the Christian need transform them in and of themselves. Rather, he should conform to local custom as much as possible, so long as temporal peace is secured and sin not required. True, Augustine states that vice continues to reign if only the body and other externals are brought under the command of justice while the mind still pursues its own carnal ends (19.25). But he does not use this argument to delegitimize earthly governments. Rather, it means that full happiness and peace will not be realized in this life (19.20, 26). Our fulfillment will always be in the eternal city, and thus, again, earthly politics are relativized.
Still, perhaps this observation is transformational in its way. Without abolishing the hierarchy, Augustine does suggest we redefine what it means to be a people. After considering arguments from Cicero (and finding them lacking), he puts forward this thesis, “A people is the association of multitude of rational beings united by a common agreement on the objects of their love” (19.24).
Upon reflection, this might be quite radical. After all, this is not a definition according to blood. This people is not organized by language or custom. It is organized by an act of the will, “a common agreement.” Augustine’s propositional nation, we might call it. But the proposition is not about equality or liberty. Rather, it is “a common agreement on the object of… love.” In the context of Augustine’s larger thought, the nation comes together in its agreement to love God, self, and neighbor, all according to the standard of God’s law (19.14). Augustine’s new nation is aspirational, as it progresses in true harmony towards the endearing good.
From this, one could imagine how the Roman Catholic “integralist” might build their position. In an effort to bring harmony to the entire body politic in pursuit of the good, the higher spiritual offices ought to direct the lower temporal offices towards true virtue through their teaching and guidance. And yet, what about the visible church’s potential to be a mixed body, to contain citizens of the city of man within it? Surely the possibility has become reality a time or two throughout history? In the case of a carnal clergyman, submission on the part of the laity would not necessarily be that of the lower to the higher but indeed might be a disordered case of the heavenly citizen being enslaved by the carnal man and having to negotiate the appropriate way to submit temporally without doing so spiritually. The same somewhat paradoxical dynamics Augustine explained about the Christians living in the Roman empire would apply to Christians living in the Roman Church.
For the Protestant Reformation, this Christendom model could largely be retained, but with a stronger parity between magistracy and ministry, with each having “supremacy” in their jurisdiction and doing their best to work together. The city of man/city of god division could run through both church and state, and all Christians would still need to recognize the provisional nature of the establishment. Some coercion could be employed, but persuasion would take priority, as the realization of spiritual felicity comes first through hearing. I confess myself partial to this approach. Natural law would be a foundation, and Christian reforms of the disorder of the Fall could be implemented on a select basis, but always with care not to overturn proper order and ordained jurisdictions. Different Christians nations would be free to pursue the good differently.
For the world of modernism, or liberalism (or choose your nomenclature), Augustine is also useful. In some ways, we are closer to his world than either medieval Rome or the Reformation. However, one difference is essential to understand. While it is true that Augustine wrote during the fall of Rome, it was actually a fall of a pagan and pre-Christian Rome to a band of mostly Christian barbarians. He stood at the crossroads, but as the movement was working towards Christendom. We now live on the opposite side of the spectrum. We are moving away from Christendom towards a more self-consciously pagan society. Many theories offer themselves to us as explainers. Perhaps we are now in a secularized Protestantism. Abstract universals have set themselves up as the “common agreement on the object of love.” But there is no common agreement. The agreement seems precisely to be a rejection of any common notion of love. However, isn’t this just another version of each man pursuing his notion of the good, of happiness, or even of peace? Indeed, “Liberalism,” is the proposal that the good is best realized when each man is allowed to pursue it individually. Yet this leads to disharmony.
And so we return to Augustine’s advice. We live in this world as if not in it. We use it as if not possessing it. If we are ruled and even dominated, we know that we are free. “It is obviously a happier lot to be a slave to a human being than to a lust” (19.15). We appeal to justice, and we use the mechanisms of law and order as much as we can. We are thankful for constitutional gains and judicial review. We are not ashamed to hire effective lawyers. And yet still, for all of this, we don’t give it our heart. We know that this social arrangement is temporary and limited. It cannot keep its promises. It cannot fill our souls. Even if it were working, it would not give what we seek.
We know that disharmony is bad. We try to minimize it. Insofar as our society rejects the concept of nature– natural law, original goodness, creation ordinances– we must reject that rejection. We must model the original intent of human sociality, as much as possible. But the challenge is to do this without making this model the ultimate good or chief end. We must fight the culture war as if not fighting it. We must engage but only in a way of secondary interest and significance. We must climb the things of this world, this evermore insane world, as we ascend to things higher. Whenever our civic interaction causes us to descend, we stop and reset.
To borrow CS Lewis’ expression, we need our “chest.” We need it to harmonize the spiritual truths we know with the things of the stomach, the bodily life we desire. Insofar as modernity has minimized or erased the very existence of the chest, we must reclaim it. And yet, we cannot let the chest be overtaken by the belly all over again by allowing certain provisional earthly social expressions to claim to be the City of God. This trap is as commonly fallen into as it seems obvious to explain. We cannot make our harmonization of this world’s goods to be the ultimate good. Defend the existence of the chest, and then protect your chest.
In what way is Augustine giving us “political” thought in City of God? How is he “conservative” in approach, and how is he radical? And in what ways are our current idolatrous politics in need of strategic desecration, chiefly a toppling of those idols which dominate our minds?
Somewhere along the way, this summary essay turned into a sermon. I don’t apologize. But I should restore your liberty and give you leave. I will keep thinking things over, being but a pilgrim on this passing blog.