September 3, 2019


Augustine of Hippo, Christian Democrat (Paul D. Miller, September 3, 2019, Providence)

What can Augustine teach twenty-first-century Americans about how to renew a culture of self-government?

Augustine starts from a very different understanding of human nature. Rather than defining us by our ability to reason, he defines us by our ability to love--because that is what it means to be made in God's image. "As a body is impelled by its gravity to move in a particular direction, so the psyche or soul is moved by love. 'By it I am carried wherever I am carried.'"[1] We are defined by the object of our love and devotion. Those who love God are marked by caritas or charity; when we love sinfully, we have cupidity, the libido dominandi--not merely the will to power, but the lust for it.

Put another way, Augustine starts with the biblical view that "God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them," (Gen. 1:27). As part of God's good creation--indeed, as the pinnacle thereof--humanity is unique and good, the "greatest adornment of things earthly."[2] For all the naïve optimism of the Enlightenment, Augustine affirms something even more astonishingly positive about humanity: we are, in some sense, like God. And this likeness to God accounts for humanity's seemingly innate feeling for goodness, justice, beauty, and truth. "If the image of God and the law of God were completely obliterated from man's soul by would have no conception of justice, righteousness, or peace," according to Augustinian scholar Herbert Deane.[3]

Additionally, we are naturally social creatures. Augustine melds the biblical idea that "it is not good for man to be alone" with Aristotle's concept that "man is a political animal" and stressed the natural sociability of humankind. "The philosophers also consider that the life of the wise man is a social one; and this is a view of which we much more readily approve. could that City [of God] have first arisen and progressed along its way, and how could it achieve its proper end, if the life of the saints were not social?"[4] This is a key difference with the Enlightenment, which downplayed humanity's social nature in favor of an emphasis on our individuality.

Augustine departs even more sharply from the Enlightenment and complements his view of humanity's original goodness with a stark, even brutal appraisal of humanity's sinfulness. When we love anything more than we love God, we sin--and we become enslaved to that love. "A man is necessarily a slave to the things by means of which he seeks to be happy...those who think to escape servitude by not worshipping anything are in fact the slaves of all kinds of worldly things."[5] Naturally, we all do this. "All men are a mass of sin," he argues. The human race is "sick and sore...from Adam to the end of the world."[6] He sees "man as essentially selfish, avaricious, ambitious for power and glory, and lustful."[7] This naturally leads to selfishness, materialism, and conflict when people struggle to get the basic necessities of life and satisfy their needs--but, contrary to Marx, it does not stop there. "Even if all material desires were satisfied, the lust for power and glory would still remain and would continue to drive men into personal and societal struggles and wars."[8]

Augustine is drawing on the older, pre-Enlightenment understanding of human nature. The book of Genesis says that "God saw that the wickedness of man was great in the earth, and that every imagination of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually" (Gen. 6:5). The prophet Jeremiah laments that "the heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately corrupt; who can understand it?" (Jer. 17:9). The biblical view of man is that he is ignorant and foolish at best, downright bestial and wicked at worst. This view differs decisively from the view of human nature found in unconstrained visions, including progressivism and nationalism, as well as socialism, communism, fascism, and more--all of which are premised on the improvability, even perfectibility, of mankind.

Augustinian Liberalism

Humanity's god-like dignity, sociability, sin, wickedness, and brokenness have social and political implications. Because of our sin, "it is therefore absolutely impossible to establish on earth a society or state made up of saints or true Christians. Thus, if we wish to understand how social, economic, and political life operate, and how, indeed, they must operate, we have to start with the assumption that we are dealing, for the most part, with fallen, sinful men," according to Deane.[9] As a result, "every human society from the family to the empire is never free from slights, suspicions, quarrels, and war, and 'peace' is not true peace but a doubtful interlude between conflicts."[10]

True peace and true justice are, in fact, not possible in the earthly City of Man. "True justice, however, does not exist other than in the commonwealth whose Founder and Ruler is Christ."[11] Such a city has never been found among the cities of men. Augustine goes so far as to reject Scipio's definition of a "people" as a group united in their understanding of justice under the reductio ad absurdum that Rome, marred by civil wars and injustice, was not a people under Scipio's definition. True justice cannot be essential to the definition of a commonwealth because if so, there have never been any commonwealths. Instead, Augustine adopts a humbler definition of a people: "an assembled multitude of rational creatures bound together by a common agreement as to the objects of their love."[12] This is descriptively more accurate and prescriptively more realistic.

This is why Augustinian liberalism is, at heart, a constrained vision of political and society life par excellence. Augustinian liberalism does not pretend we are able to definitively solve social and political problems, eradicate evil, eliminate all poverty, or enable flourishing for every person. It does not try to do most of the things that progressivism or nationalism try to do. It does not burden the state with the responsibility of policing identity, of manifesting the unfolding historical idea of American national promise, or of embodying the heritage and culture of the American nation. Augustinian liberalism expects less of politics.

Augustinian politics is the comparatively humbler task of adjudicating disputes peacefully, allocating power in a roughly fair way, enforcing agreed-upon rules, and upholding the best approximation of justice we can expect in this sinful world. We will never through political action build the Kingdom of Heaven, achieve the perfected American ideal, or revive the fabled organic polity of antiquity. As Deane says, "rebirth and salvation come through Christ and the Church that He established, and not through the activities or instrumentalities of the state."[13] Augustinian liberalism is not merely anti-utopian. It is anti-utopianism: the ideology of principled opposition to utopian politics. All illiberal movements are utopian because of the boundless faith they invest in some leader or group of leaders.

Posted by at September 3, 2019 12:50 PM