Augustine and the Problem of Power: The Augustinian Prognostic

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The problem of power is one of perennial interest and importance in human life, but at no period in history has it presented itself with greater urgency and insistence than in the days of St. Augustine. For, during his manhood, the Empire, which for so many centuries had guarded the frontiers of organized society, was tottering to its fall. Everywhere there were signs of disintegration and decay, and the world appeared to be headed for one of those periodic cataclysms such as had been envisaged by Plato in the Laws—a cataclysm from which, as he put it, a mere fraction of the human race was destined to survive, condemned to eke out a miserable existence as hunters and herdsmen until, with the slow multiplication of population and the rediscovery of the arts, the forms and practices of “political” or civilized life should eventually be renewed.[1]

In the year 410 the threat to civilization was signalized by an event which shook the Roman world to its foundations. This was, of course, the occupation of the Eternal City itself by Alaric and his Goths. For the first time in precisely eight hundred years, i.e., since the Gallic raid under Brennus in 390 BC, the proud capital, “venerable mother,” as the poets called her, “of civilization and law,” lay helpless at the feet of a barbarian conqueror. The sack which followed was attended by all the usual circumstances of horror and destruction; and it served to provoke a vast flight of the civil population from Italy to places of refuge across the Mediterranean.

The rape of the Eternal City was no isolated incident. On the contrary, it was but the culmination of a long series of defeats and disasters which had marked the declining fortunes of Romanitas since the fatal battle of Adrianople, some thirty years before. Adrianople has been described as the “second Cannae” of the empire. But this time, despite the valiant efforts of the Emperor Valentinian and Theodosius, there was to be no real recovery for Rome. Four years or more before the Gothic occupation of the city, the few legionary formations which remained to garrison Britain and the Germanies had been withdrawn to Northern Italy for the protection of the peninsula. The consequences were soon to be apparent. On New Year’s Eve of the year 406, a mixed horde of Teutonic warriors swarmed across the ice of the undefended Rhine, to establish themselves permanently and without more than local resistance in the provinces of Gaul. But even worse was in store. Spoliation of the ancient capital, itself crammed with the rich spoils of secular conquest, was to be followed within less than two decades by the loss of Spain and Africa, and in 430 Augustine himself was to perish during the Vandal siege of Hippo Regius, his episcopal seat, while ministering to the spiritual needs of the defending imperial troops. The picture thus presented throughout the West was that of a vast and complex society in rapid dissolution. On every hand the lights of civilization were flickering out, and nothing that human ingenuity could accomplish by way of reform or reconstruction seemed adequate to restore the imperial power.

The shock caused by such a train of uninterrupted calamity was universal and profound. As early as 396, the year following the death of Theodosius, St. Jerome, from his monastic retreat at Bethlehem, gave utterance to a sense of distress and apprehension such as must have been experience by all who permitted themselves to reflect on the position and prospect of the Empire. “The mind shudders,” he declares, “to contemplate the havoc of our time. For the last twenty years, the blood of Romans has drenched the lands between Constantinople and the Julian Alps, where countless numbers of ferocious barbarians spread devastation and death . . . The bodies of freemen and nobles, of matrons and maidens have become the prey of lust. Bishops are imprisoned; churches plundered; horses stabled at the altars of Christ; the bones of martyrs are flung out of their coffins . . . Everywhere sorrow, everywhere lamentation; everywhere the shadow of death.”[2]

The emotions thus excited manifested themselves in diverse ways. On the one hand, they served to engender in many a mood of lassitude, apathy and cynicism, the consequence of a situation felt to be well-nigh desperate. Ridens mortua est, “the Roman world went laughing to her doom.” Like all generalizations, this familiar aphorism contains no doubt an element of exaggeration, yet it will suffice to describe the behavior of all who abandoned themselves to this mood. Among others, the tendency was to provoke a violent resurgence of religio, that powerful and sinister impulse of the pagan mind for the workings of which there is ample evidence to be found in the literary and archaeological remains of classical antiquity. Pagan religio found expression inter alia in what St. Augustine calls “unusually virulent attacks” upon the Christian faith and its adherents, attacks in which the misfortunes that had overtaken the empire were attributed to the anger of the offended pagan deities at the prohibition recently imposed by Theodosius on their cults.

To add to the perplexity of the situation, so far at least as thoughtful Christians were concerned, there was the fact that the Empire thus apparently doomed to extinction was itself formally and officially Christian. This position had been reached by a series of imperial measures beginning in A.D. 313 with the Protocol of Milan and culminating in the revolutionary legislation of the Theodosian house for the suppression of paganism and heresy. By the former, Constantine and Licinius had broken with the Roman past and accorded to Christianity the status and privileges of a religio licita or “licensed cult,” thereby inaugurating the new order to be extravagantly hailed by Eusebius and other politically-minded ecclesiastics of the day as the “millennial kingdom.” By the latter, Theodosius had made the formal profession of Trinitarianism the prerequisite to imperial citizenship, thus completing the structure of a wholly novel type of polity, the “orthodox state.” Thenceforth, the full resources of the imperial power had been invoked to extirpate all manifestations of dissent, and various devices of legal pressure, ranging from civil excommunication with the loss of property rights to the most atrocious forms of capital punishment, such as burning alive, or consignment to beasts, were used in a concerted and systematic attempt to enforce spiritual conformity. This last desperate expedient of statecraft proved, however, to be futile. Its failure marked the final eclipse of hopes cherished during the century which had elapsed since the first Christian emperor had taken the Labarum as his personal standard and assumed the motto, hoc signo vinces.

The Roman Empire was the most extensive, most enduring and, measured by the standard of its economic, social and cultural achievement, unquestionably the most beneficent power-structure thus far erected by human hands, the instrument whereby, as Augustine puts it, “it had pleased God to subdue the whole world and, by drawing it into a single community united in the bond of common interest and law (in unam societatem rei publicae et legum) to pacify it far and wide.”[3] Its collapse was thus an occasion for reflection and, more particularly, because of the historical situation to which I have just alluded, a challenge to Christian thought. Nor was this challenge to be evaded, since it was notorious that the faith of many professing Christians had been gravely shaken by the events of the time. It was, indeed, precisely to such persons that Augustine addressed himself, a task to which he set his hand in the De Civitate Dei.

In considering the argument of the De Civitate Dei, we may begin by noting that, as Augustine freely admits, the Roman Empire had implemented, so far as was possible in view of the intellectual and moral resources at its command, the legitimate demands of secular order or peace (pax terrena). Augustine does, indeed, permit himself a certain degree of misgiving as to the ethics of Roman empire-building. “Did the Romans” he asks, as though to discount their secular effort of world-conquest and world-organization, “do any real harm to the peoples they subjected to their sway, apart, that is, from the slaughter which resulted from their wars? Could the same object have been attained by peaceful agreement (concorditer), it would have been even more gratifying.” “But in that case,” he grimly observes, “there would have been none of the glory of conquest.”[4] On the other hand, he entertained no doubt whatever as to the efficacy of Roman methods, “the arts,” as he puts it, “by which, as though along a direct path, the Romans have climbed to honor, empire and glory, by which they have earned regard throughout the earth and have imposed the law of their empire upon many nations, until today they are glorified in the history and literature of virtually every people.”[5]

We may go further and assert that Augustine does not deny or minimize the genuine value of Roman achievements in the establishment and maintenance of a secular world order. “The really significant point,” he declares, “for the generosity and humanity of which the world has reason to be thankful, is that, when once Mars and Bellona had played their part, all who belonged to the empire were taken into full association with it and granted citizenship, so that what had once been the privilege of a few became in the end a possession common to all.”[6] And, with respect to political power in general, “humanly speaking,” he adds, “there can be no greater good fortune than this that, through the mercy of God, those who are endowed with true piety, provided they have the necessary competence, should exercise authority over their fellows.”[7]

Augustine was most emphatically no Christian “anarchist” or “theocrat;” men being what they are, he never supposed that the forms and procedures normal to organized society could be dispensed with. As he observed in a familiar passage from the Letters: “Clearly these institutions have not been devised in vain, the authority of the sovereign, the sword of the law, the hooks of the executioner, the might of the armed forces, the discipline of the landed proprietor, even the strictness of the good pater familias in his household. Each and all these have their own modalities, their own causes, their own justification in reason and utility. And, when such agencies are respected, the dispositions of evil men are kept in check, so that the good may live more tranquilly among them.”[8]

This being so, we may dismiss as merely malicious the insinuation of Gibbon that “while professedly justifying the ways of Providence in the destruction of Roman greatness, Augustine celebrates with peculiar satisfaction this memorable triumph of Christ.”[9] True indeed that, in his references to secular order, Augustine seems on occasion to speak the language, if not of active hostility, at any rate of utter indifference; as when, for example, he asks, “with respect to the life of mortal man, limited as it is to a few brief days, what difference does it make under what regime he lives, provided the authorities do not compel him to act in a manner contrary to faith and morals?”[10] It should, however, be remembered that to indict the spirit of secular order is not necessarily to proclaim oneself the enemy of organized society; it is merely to expose the vanity of its pretensions. And the vanity of Roman pretensions, as Augustine saw them, may be stated in a word; it was to have mistaken relatives for absolutes, to have put forward its finite, partial, “man-made” insights and aspirations as though they were the truths of God. In this respect, indeed, the imperial city had been the chief of sinners, and her sin was epitomized in the formula aeternitas populi Romani, the claim to eternity made on behalf of the Roman people. For in this claim there was implicit the assumption that the Romans had solved, once and for all, the problem of human relationships, and that the solution was embodied in the structure and objectives of imperial society in accordance with the celebrated maxim of the Roman jurists, suum cuique reddere, “render to each man his due.”

It is, however, precisely this assumption which Augustine is concerned to repudiate. “Wretched is the people,” he declares, “which is alienated from the justice of God. Yet even they enjoy a kind of order of their own, an order which is not to be despised, although indeed they will not maintain it in the end, seeing that they have failed to utilize it properly before the end. It is, nevertheless, to our interest also that they should maintain it provisionally in this life; because, so long as the two societies are intermingled, we also utilize the order of Babylon, from which indeed the people of God are set free by faith (and so, in principle), save that meanwhile they sojourn therein like resident-aliens.”[11]

From this position of relative, if not absolute, detachment Augustine propounded what he felt to be the real question raised by the grandeur and decadence of imperial Rome. That question, as he puts it, is why God, who has the power to bestow goods of the kind human beings may possess even though they themselves fall short of (true) goodness and so of (true) felicity, should have willed that the Roman empire be so vast and so long.”[12] In other words, his problem was to discover the hidden springs alike of Roman strength and Roman weakness, in the light of which it might fairly be said of the Romans, that they had no reason to complain of the justice of the one supreme and just God; they had, in fact, received their reward.[13]

The thought just expressed is further developed in a subsequent passage:

“In an empire so extensive and so enduring, and in the distinction conferred upon it through the virtues of so many of its sons, the Romans for their part have reaped the reward of their consistent purpose. At the same time, they have provided us with the exemplar we need to warn us that, should we in our battle for the society of God fail to manifest the qualities shown by them on behalf of the terrestrial society, we ought to be stricken with shame . . . For while, to quote from the Apostle (Romans 8:18), the sufferings of this present time are not to be compared with the glory destined to be revealed in us, nevertheless, by every criterion of strictly human and temporal glory, their life has been adjudged to be worthy enough.”[14]

Thus far, our main concern has been to dispose of possible misconceptions with respect to Augustine’s attitude toward the Roman Empire, such as might interfere with a correct appreciation of his argument in the De Civitate Dei. By doing so, I hope we have cleared the ground for a further investigation into the argument. The interest of such an investigation is, as I see it, two-fold. In the first place, it helps to throw light on the resources (moral and intellectual) with which Augustinian Christianity addressed itself to problems originating in the social order: in other words, to indicate something of the social significance of the Evangel as it presented itself to the mind of the early fifth century. But this, in itself, is far from exhausting the meaning and value of Augustine’s achievement. For the issues raised by the collapse of Roman order remain to this day of vital importance; what they involve is nothing less than a question of the nature and sources of genuine power in human life. Accordingly, in undertaking to explore those issues, Augustine in effect addressed himself not only to his own generation, but to posterity as well; and not least, perhaps, to our own distracted age. And what he sought to put forward for the consideration of his readers was, we suggest, the preface to an original and distinctively Christian philosophy of power.

This is not to suggest (as might be supposed) that what is sometimes called the message of ancient wisdom, whether classical or Christian, may be taken to provide a ready-made solution for historical problems which are more or less specific to the twentieth century. Indeed, we need no authority beyond that of Augustine himself for rejecting the notion that, in the sense just indicated, there is and can be any history “recurrence” or “return.” “Christ,” he assures us, “died once and for all for our sins.” Accordingly, it is no part of my intention to elaborate a comparison between the events which have shaken the foundations of modern society and those which marked the decline and fall of ancient Rome, and to palm this off as a significant contribution to understanding. But it is one thing to recognize that historical events, considered as such, are each and every one unique in its time and circumstances; quite another to imagine, with more extreme exponents of historical relativism, that the experience of those events recorded in contemporary literature and art, is devoid of meaning for future generations; since it is, in fact, precisely this experience which raises events from the plane of brute fact and gives them the character of history. To recover and re-present that experience, so far as may be possible in view of the obvious barriers to understanding, is the task of historical investigation. This must be my excuse for embarking on a discussion of issues that were debated in the Roman world more than fifteen hundred years ago, in the last decades of the Western Empire.

What we may venture to call the Augustinian prognosis of power claimed to be and—in form at least—really is, both critical and constructive. It is this fact which determines the general direction and scope of the argument in the De Civitate Dei. The immediate purpose of Augustine, as he himself informs us, was “to defend the faith against the blasphemies and errors of those who contended that the origin and diffusion of current evils was a direct consequence of the ban imposed on the official cults.”[15] This was paganism on what Augustine designates as the vulgar or popular level, i.e., as it had been enshrined in the ius divinum or constitutio religionum, the attempt to consecrate the material, moral and intellectual values of secular life conventional to the classical polis. As such, he points out, it rests upon the essentially superficial assumption that the value of religion is primarily economic or utilitarian, i.e., that it somehow serves to guarantee temporal or worldly success. But, as he argues, this assumption, however congenial to the secular mentality (whether ostensibly Christian or pagan) does not find the slightest warrant in history or experience. On the contrary, the evidence suggests that, in the hidden wisdom of his omnipotence, God bestows the elements of secular prosperity alike on the just and the unjust; and we can only suppose that He does so in order that we should learn not to overvalue temporal felicity.[16] It is with this thought in mind that Augustine denounces the pragmatism of conventional secular ethics; winding up with a criticism of the Emperors Constantine and Theodosius in the so-called Mirror of Princes with which he concludes the first section of his work.[17]

But what of the rationalizations (interpretationes physicae) which, as Augustine says, underlay the practice of secularism and with which philosophy sought, “under color of a loftier teaching, to whitewash the ugliness of secular error?”[18] To deal with these was, as he recognized, a much more arduous and hazardous enterprise. For what it involved was nothing less than the refutation of “every error perpetrated by every philosopher,” a task which, within any reasonable limits, was quite impossible. He therefore proposed to confine his attention to such opinions as bore directly on “theology” or, as we should say, metaphysics; in other words, to the efforts of philosophic paganism to relate experience to some “divine center,” a cosmic principle or order and value in terms of which it might be rationalized and justified.[19]

It is important to notice the limitations of the program thus enunciated by Augustine, since this is bound to affect our judgment regarding the effectiveness of his polemic on both the critical and constructive levels. What it means is that his attention was directed primarily to questions of first principle, such, e.g., as the Platonic Idea of the Good, or the Peripatetic and Stoic concept of nature, and the claims put forward on behalf of them as possible principles of integration for the individual and the community. Theoretically, the proposed limitations do not preclude a consideration of secondary factors, for example, the tributaria sollicitudo or “fiscal grief” referred to by Orosius and by him put forward as one of the chief causes making for the disintegration of Greco-Roman society.[20] But what it does most emphatically suggest is that such factors have, and can have, significance only in so far as they are referred to principles which comprehend much more than any mere question of economics, considered in the abstract and without reference to its character as an ingredient in the determinations of what Augustine calls “the total man.” For while, indeed, as he remarks, the maxim “buy cheap and sell dear” (vili emere, caro vendere) may well be accepted as a formula to describe and account for the wealth of individuals and peoples, its usefulness in that regard is qualified by its relevance to criteria of value which are not necessarily or exclusively those of “economic” or, indeed, of “political” man. [21]

The importance of these considerations, as they affect the argument of St. Augustine, will be readily apparent. His concern, as an exponent of Christian wisdom, is not so much with the positive findings of classical scientia, as with the presuppositions, whether explicit or implicit, which underlay them; in other words, with the fundamental postulates upon which rested the thinking of classicism in relation to the great issues of contemporary experience and which determined its interpretation of those issues. To those who have been nourished on the conventions of modern historiography, Augustine’s position may come with something of a shock, and they may be inclined to dismiss it out of hand, as “a theological straight-jacket” which takes all meaning out of history. I need hardly comment on the intellectual arrogance concealed in such an attitude. It may be challenged as nothing but the reflection of a prejudice which has survived from the seventeenth century, a prejudice in favor of methods of enquiry indigenous to the field of natural philosophy of science and subsequently applied, with indifferent success, to the study of human nature and human history. On the other hand, it is possible to argue, with a distinguished modern writer, “All historical judgments are based upon an explicit or implicit assumption about the character of history itself; and there can be no judgment about the character of history which does not rest upon a further assumption about the relation of history to eternity.”[22] From this point of view, the question is not whether we are to approach history without presuppositions or preconceptions, but rather what presuppositions and preconceptions it may be legitimate and profitable to entertain. To recognize the truth of this proposition is to take the first step toward a sympathetic and intelligent appreciation of Augustine, who is thus to be seriously regarded as the earliest, but by no means least considerable, of the long line of thinkers, ancient and modern, who have set themselves to investigate the decline and fall.

Augustine’s position was, no doubt, imposed upon him largely by the exigencies of the situation with which he was confronted. For if he was to face and overcome the challenge of classical practice and classical theory, it was necessary for him to meet classicism on its own ground. And that ground was, as I have already stated, “theological.” But since he himself was (at least to begin with) a characteristic product of classical life and discipline, with all that this implies, there is not the slightest reason to suppose that he would have been under temptation to do otherwise, even if this had been historically possible. We may therefore assume (as the text of the De Civitate Dei suggests) that the main interest of Augustine as a controversialist was in what may be called the classical idea of the commonwealth, or rather in its claim to be a means, indeed (as at least one eminent classical authority had maintained) the only possible means to τελείωσις or perfectio, a complete fulfillment of the human potential for development. Over against the pretensions of the classical commonwealth it was the task of Augustine, as a Christian, to set the alternative program proposed by Christianity. And his point of departure was, no doubt, the so-called Christian counsel of perfection, put forward by the Master himself in the injunction, Be ye perfect, even as your Heavenly Father is perfect,[23] together with the promise of illumination and power held out to the faithful. But for a fuller understanding of the nature and conditions of perfection, as these were set forth in the Evangel, Augustine drew upon the general body of Christian thought, especially perhaps as it had been expounded by St. Paul in his Epistles to the Romans and the Galatians. Certainly, his references to the Apostle are endless; the anti-Pelagian treatises, in particular, are little more than a commentary on various Pauline texts.

To accept the Pauline version of Christian doctrine with respect to human nature and destiny was to adopt concepts of interpretation original to Christianity but largely, if not wholly, foreign to the classical or secular mind. The language used to express these concepts was, however, classical Greek or Latin and, thus, historically determined. Hence the possibility of grave misunderstanding as to the precise significance to be attached to old words in the new context of thought. Of this possibility Augustine himself appears to have been fully aware. “Moses said this and passed on,” he somewhere remarks, “what did he really mean?” The danger was particularly acute with respect to terminology which had been consecrated by centuries of usage in the ancient philosophic schools. In this, as in other aspects of their activity, the problem of the Christians was to spoil the Egyptians. This involved a radical revision in the use of terms. Some were eliminated as meaningless or misleading except in relation to the discarded ideology of classicism; others as totally incompatible with the premises of Christian faith. Still others were taken over and utilized, but to these a fresh significance was imparted in keeping with the intellectual and moral demands of the Christian order. From this point of view the Christian revolution emerges primarily as a revolution in thought. What it thus involved was, in the first place, a radically new and specifically Christian picture of nature, and of the status therein of mankind. This picture was, of course, derived from the Scriptures, more especially from the Book of Genesis, accepted as a revelation of the creative activity of God and, so, the basis for a distinctive cosmology and anthropology. These, in turn, served as the starting-point for a fresh diagnosis of the human situation, particularly as it related to the ancient classical problem of τελείωσις or perfectio. The result was a complete restatement of the problem, as this had been formulated by the classical mind. This included a fresh vision of the end or goal (the classical summum bonum), together with a fresh examination of the means by which it was to be attained, and of the conditions which governed its attainment. And, in order to convey precisely what it meant in this connection, Christian thinking invoked its own original concepts of “nature” and “grace.”

In the Retractations, the last work of his life, Augustine reviews the process by which he gradually emancipated himself from the vestiges of classical ideology, the damnosa hereditas of his early life and upbringing, while, at the same time, he strengthened his grip upon the Christian concepts of understanding, and developed their implications both for theory and practice. To trace the process under his guidance would be an interesting and profitable task. But I shall here refer only to one point, since it has a direct bearing on the attitude to be assumed by Christian thinking to the problem of perfection for mankind. This has to do with the classical notion of τύχη, fortuna, or, as we should say, contingency or luck.

No one familiar with the literature of classical antiquity will question the importance of the role ascribed to fortune in both popular and philosophic thought. Indeed, it is hardly too much to say that it constituted a crucial difficulty for the classical mind. In a reference to the De Academicis, the earliest of his published essays, Augustine takes occasion to regret that, owing to the immaturity of his thinking at the time it was written, he had so often used the word, fortuna, not indeed in the sense in which it was personified and worshipped as a god, but in the sense of luck or chance, the contingent, the accidental. Words like forte, forsan, fortisan, fortasse, fortuito, he observes, have no place in the vocabulary of a Christian, since to use them is to deny by implication the universal power and providence of the Creator. The conclusion follows: “that which is commonly designated fortune is in all probability subject to a hidden order, and we use the word chance only with reference to events, the reason and cause of which is not disclosed to us.”[24]

To reject the concept of fortune was to identify oneself with a sentiment long since expressed by Cicero when he described it as nothing but a word invented by men to cover up their ignorance. But what was for Cicero a mere obiter dictum was with Augustine translated into a matter of fundamental conviction. And what troubled Augustine was not so much the popular tendency of the pagan mind to deify personifications like Fortuna and Felicitas, as the admission of pagan metaphysics which made such deifications possible. In this connection we may recall the so-called “errant cause” (πλανωμένη αἰτία) of Plato in the Timaeus, the “disorderly and discordant motion” of primordial matter, upon which Plato argues, the demiurge seeks, so far as possible (κατ δύναμιν) to impose the pattern of the Eternal Ideas—a theory of creative activity yielding a picture of nature as subject to the necessary imperfection of a process of becoming which, however, never attains the status of complete finality (γιγνόμενον μν εί, ν δ οδέποτε). Or, to put the point otherwise, Platonic cosmology includes an element of blind necessity, by virtue of which chance and circumstance (τύχη and καιρός) play a part coordinate with that of the gods.

The difficulty of Plato originated no doubt in a characteristic vice of Greek speculation, viz., its inability to establish an intelligible relationship between order and process. Nor did Aristotle, despite his unique gift for analysis, succeed in finding a way of escape from conclusions hardly less fatal to an adequate theory of nature than those of Plato. In this connection, we may perhaps be permitted to repeat the words of an eminent contemporary authority:

“For Aristotle, chance or the contingent is not conceived as a pure indeterminism, that is to say as something which might occur without any reason and, in this sense, he does not create a breach in an (otherwise) universal determinism; but it is the incompletely determined; that which, in relation to the efficient cause, is accidental, because it has not been produced by the efficient cause with a view to any end, or because it is not the end for the sake of which the efficient cause acts. The fortuitous then, in nature, is that which has no end.”[25]

 Aristotle’s recognition of a metaphysical contingency is the direct and inevitable outcome of his notion of the Deity as Prime Mover, and of the relation between the Prime Mover and the cosmos. But for Augustine, in the light of a revelation whereby God was disclosed as a genuine creator, creating ex nihilo, there was no need to accept any such conclusion. To return once more to my authority:

Nothing which occurs escapes Divine providence; even matter, since it is created, cannot introduce into the cosmos an element of blind necessity, nor play the role of accidental cause which it played in the uncreated world of Aristotle.[26]

But how, it may be asked, do these considerations, interesting and important as they may be in themselves, bear on the question of the Augustinian prognostic, i.e. the concepts of interpretation which Augustine employs? And even if it were true, as has been asserted,[27] that the disease of pagan philosophy was metaphysical, and further that this disease of pagan metaphysics meant death to pagan civilization, in what sense could it properly be maintained that Christian thinking offered to humanity the promise of a new and more abundant life? These are precisely the questions with which I shall try to deal in the present course. Here I wish merely to suggest that one result of accepting Christian faith was to bring about a radical change in perspective. In the light of that faith, it became evident that the problem, as it had been posed by classical speculation, was so formulated as to be quite incapable of a satisfactory solution. And for the simple and obvious reason that what philosophy asked for was the impossible, viz., a program of perfection in a radically imperfect world.

Hence, we may infer, the characteristic difficulties of classical scientia in its secular effort to work out a doctrine of perfection which would do justice to the legitimate demands of reason and sense. Hence also the atmosphere of ineradicable pessimism which cast its blight upon the fairest promise of classical achievement, as well as on its most impressive performance—a pessimism which has often been noted, but seldom adequately explained. In the lectures to come it will be my task to examine certain of the more fundamental difficulties encountered by classical theory (as Augustine saw them) and to expose their fatal consequences for practice. Here I need only remark that, if these difficulties were in fact radical (as he contended), then the only thing for them was a radical cure; no mere palliative was worth a moment’s consideration. And such a cure he found in the article of faith, “God created the world.” Envisaged in terms of this proposition, the classical antithesis of “body” and “mind,” of κόσμος ασθητός and κόσμος νοητός, proved to be illusory; and, with this discovery, it was seen that most of the historic πορίαι debated by classicism were mere shadow-boxing, as also were most of its solutions; in other words, that they hardly touched the real problems of human existence, of motion and order, of time and eternity, of nature, man and God.

Positively, the first fruits of Christian doctrine were to be found in a refreshingly novel attitude toward nature. There are many passages scattered throughout the works of Augustine (notably in the Confessions and the De Civitate Dei) in which he gives expression to the Christian sense of nature as a realm of bodies in orderly motion, each and every one (no matter how huge or how diminutive from the human standpoint) exhibiting the divine principles of number and proportion; the whole, despite its immensity, designed and governed in such a way as to maintain its equilibrium, thereby manifesting the power and glory of a Creator who, as he puts it:

“does not withhold, even from the lowliest of his creatures, its specific power and dominion; who produces the seeds and nourishment of mortals, dry or liquid, which their natures require; who founds and fructifies the earth; who dispenses its fruit alike to man and beast . . . who so administers everything he has created, as to permit it to enjoy and exercise for itself the motions proper to it.”[28]

Thus, in a mood which is almost, if not quite, romantic, Augustine envisages nature, neither as chaos nor mechanism, but as a spacious and hospitable abode provided by God for the human spirit. Accordingly, there is nothing for surprise in his warning that, remembering that she is the world of an omnipotent and beneficent creator, we should approach the mysteries of nature in a spirit, not of dogmatism, but of enquiry.[29] In the attitude this recommended, it is hardly too much to see an anticipation of all that is finest and best in the spirit of modern experimental science. Certainly it indicates the spirit in which Augustine embarks on one of the great controversy of his life, viz., that with the Manicheans.

This debate, as we may learn from the Retractations, was provoked “by the boasting of the Manicheans regarding the false and deceptive abstinence by which they mislead the ignorant, an abstinence which bears no relation whatever to the principles of true Christian asceticism.” [30] But the discussion, which thus began as a simple question of ethics, presently expanded to include the broadest issues of metaphysics and cosmology. That it should have taken this course will astonish no one who is acquainted with the Retractations. For the basic problem raised by the disputants was soon perceived to be the origin of evil (unde sit malum); and, on this question Augustine was at one with orthodox Christian thought when he ascribed moral evil purely and simply to the free self-determination of the human will.[31] The Manicheans, on the other hand, rejected the Christian doctrine of evil and contended that, if it were valid, this would mean that God, as the architect of all natures, was radically at fault. And, in order to avoid this conclusion, they went on to postulate a principle of evil in nature, independent of and coeval with the Creator. By so doing, they introduced into the concept of nature an absolute dichotomy, represented in the imagery of the sect by two cosmic souls or spirits, the one supposed to be a part of God, the other belong to the realm of darkness (de gente tenebrarum) which, they held, God never created and which was opposed to him as darkness to light.

As applied in practice, this dualistic version of classical naturalism entailed the most disastrous consequences. Its effect was to subvert in toto the notions of freedom and responsibility, to resolve human life into the theater of an endless and indecisive conflict between opposing natural forces, the one good, and the other evil.[32] At the same time, by an equally hypothetical identification of darkness or evil with the life of sense, it promoted a horror and loathing of the body far beyond anything proposed even by the Neo-Platonist Porphyry with his omne corpus fugiendum est and, in extreme cases, amounting to sheer insanity. Accordingly, it is no matter for surprise to learn that Manichean asceticism should, on occasion, have stood on its head, finding a relief from its program of unreasonable and excessive repressions (the three “seals” of the head, the heart and the belly) in spasmodic outbursts of unbridled lust which it thus sought to justify, so to speak, on homeopathic principles. But, in so doing, it succeeded merely in illustrating the truth of Augustine’s maxim that, without correct belief about God, a good life is impossible.[33]

The picture of Manichaeism, as we have it from Augustine, was that of a loudly-advertised rationalism which, notwithstanding its pretensions to certitude, ended in sheer intellectual and moral chaos; and, from this point of view, it presents itself as the reductio ad absurdum of classical scientia. But how to avoid the conclusion to which Manichean science pointed, viz., that God and Devil ride mankind?—this was the question of practical importance. Two possibilities were open. One was to fall back upon Academic skepticism or suspension of judgment, the method of philosophic doubt. The other was frankly to adjure reason and abandon oneself to the sway of irrational animal impulse. From either of these alternatives Augustine was saved by faith. “Academic doubt,” he protests, “is Academic madness.”[34] And, as far any of the various forms of irrationalism current in antiquity, to accept them would have been to admit a radical imperfection of the instrument which was wholly incompatible with belief in God as the principle of order in an orderly world. In these conclusions we may discern a practical application of the well-known Augustinian precept: “believe in order that you may understand.”

It should further be noted as a conviction from which Augustine never wavered, that the order in which he thus asserted his belief was in no sense incongruous with freedom and responsibility; on the contrary, the absolute sovereignty of God, so far from nullifying the possibility of voluntary self-determination, was its surest guarantee. In defending this characteristically Christian paradox, Augustine took issue with an opinion deeply rooted in the tradition of classicism and, in fact, enjoying an unbroken descent from Homer. The locus classicus for the problem, as it presents itself to the poetic imagination, consisted of the Homeric couplet: τοος γρ νόος στν πιχθονίων νθρώπων οον π μαρ γησι πατρ νδρν τε θεν τε,[35] with which may be compared the turn that Seneca gives the same idea, ducunt volentem fata, nolentem trahunt.[36] But while, on a question of this kind, refusing to concede any authority to the poets, Augustine thought it necessary to refute this opinion in the form in which it appeared to be endorsed by philosophy. This he did in a passage of the De Civitate Dei which recapitulates and reaffirms the substance of his De Libero Arbitrio, pronounced by the commentators to be a landmark in the development of his thought.[37]

The problem of liberty and necessity served to create an apparently irreconcilable dilemma for classical humanism. Augustine refers to this dilemma only in its Ciceronian version, although actually it may be traced back in philosophic thought at least as far as Plato, with whom, indeed, it emerges in a singularly acute form. Nor did Plato, for all his intellectual acumen, succeed in resolving the dilemma in question; as may be judged from the fact that, all efforts at a scientific explanation failing, he ultimately had recourse to myth. The myths of the Gorgias, the Phaedo, the Politicus and the so-called “Choice of Lives” at the end of the Republic represent a succession of attempts to deal with the difficulty. Mythology, however, served merely to illustrate; it did not dispose of the dilemma, which thus survived to constitute a stumbling-block for scientific thought until Augustine found a way of escaping from the impasse. This he did by challenging the presuppositions upon which scientific thought proceeded; thereby giving a wholly new turn to the problem of human freedom. I shall come back to this point in my next lecture. Meanwhile, I can only record his conviction that, by divine fiat, the human will is so constituted as to be capable of free self-determination and, further, that this capacity for self-determination original to the will is not and cannot possibly be lost, despite the notorious truth that, as a matter of historical record and universal experience, it has in fact been enfeebled and impaired throughout the whole course of secular history. But, in seeking to account for this deterioration in the will of historical man, Augustine refused to resort to mythological “explanations” such as had been proposed by poetry and philosophy. Rejecting every such hypothesis as “fate” and “fortune,” “natural necessity,” or the “Gods,” he fell back in the spirit of Christian realism upon the Biblical doctrine of original and actual sin. In the position which he thus adopted we may discern the grounds of the controversy on which he was to embark with Pelagius.

To grasp the significance of the Pelagian controversy, we should understand, to being with, that Pelagius considered himself a perfectly good Christian and, in this regard, he enjoyed the support of many churchmen who found his sentiments impeccable. Indeed, in the heat of his debate with Augustine, he went so far as to denounce the latter as a Manichean. Yet, if we look beneath the surface, we shall, I think, discover that Pelagius was little better than a wolf in the sheep-fold. For, couched though it was in the language traditional to Christianity, his thought was, in reality, cast in the ancient mold of classical humanism and, for this reason, it fairly bristled with terminological pitfalls. And it was for precisely this reason that Augustine deemed it essential to expose him; any failure to do so would, he was convinced, seriously imperil the future of a cause on which depended the hope of the human race. Accordingly, he set himself to oppose the heresies of Pelagianism by throwing the spot-light on the inner meaning of the sentiments which it so plausibly and engagingly expressed.

Of such sentiments we need for the moment consider but two: the one contained in the celebrated Pelagian maxim, “I ought, therefore I can”; the other in the theory of grace according to merit (gratia secundum merita nostra). In putting forward these sentiments, Pelagius professed merely to combat a disposition toward moral indolence and laxity on the part of Christians who, relying on the assurance of an all-sufficient grace, were inclined to discount the part played by works in the Christian scheme of perfection. And, on the face of it, the sentiments in question appeared to be innocuous; indeed, in certain respects, wholly admirable. Nevertheless, Augustine was quick to detect in them implications of the most subversive character; behind the former, as he saw it, here lurked the specter of Aristotelian and Stoic self-sufficiency (ατεξούσια, ατάρκεια); while in the latter he discerned nothing but a pseudo-Christian whitewash for the traditional classical doctrine of ρετή or virtus, that “strictly human excellence” which, as is generally recognized, underlay the pretensions of the classical commonwealth.

In these circumstances it is not surprising that Augustine should have perceived in the Pelagian movement the demons of civilization emerging once more from their tombs. Nor yet that, in his effort to discount the “virtue” and “self-sufficiency” preached by classical humanism, he should have stated in such unequivocal terms as he did the prerogative claims of divine grace.

The Pelagian controversy brought to a focus all the fundamental issues which divided the classical from the Christian apparatus of thought. Its implications were thus profound and far-reaching; notably as they affected the program of τελείωσις or perfectio proposed respectively by classicism and Christianity. And in this fact we may see the measure of its importance in the intellectual development of Augustine. Together with the Manichean controversy, it served to clarify his thinking and provide him with the concepts of understanding in terms of which he was to offer his interpretation of the existing situation in the Greco-Roman world. Our next task will be to consider how he applies these concepts and what light he succeeds in throwing on the malady of imperial Rome.



[1] Plato, The Laws, 677.

[2] Jerome, Epistle 60.16.

[3] Augustine, City of God, 18.22.

[4] Ibid., 5.17.

[5] Ibid., 5.15.

[6] Ibid., 5.17.

[7] Ibid., 5.19.

[8] Augustine, Epistle, 153.16.

[9] Gibbon, The Decline and Fall, 2:984.

[10] Augustine, City of God, 5.17.

[11] Ibid., 19.26.

[12] Ibid., 5.Preface.

[13] Ibid., 5.15.

[14] Ibid., 5.18.

[15] Augustine, Retractations, 2.43.

[16] Ibid., 2.23.

[17] Books 1–5, esp. 5.24–25.

[18] Ibid., 7.5.

[19] Ibid., 8.1.

[20] Orosius, Against the Pagans, 7.41.7.

[21] Augustine, On the Trinity, 13.3.6.

[22] Niebuhr, The Nature and Destiny of Man, 1:146.

[23] Matthew 5:48; the word used in the Greek text is τέλειος.

[24] Augustine, Retractations, 1.1.2.

[25] Gilson, L’Espirit de la Philosophie Mediévale, 164–65; [Cochrane’s translation; see Gilson, The Spirit of Mediaeval Philosophy, 367].

[26] Gilson, L’Espirit de la Philosophie Mediévale, 166.

[27] Collingwood, An Essay on Metaphysics, 223–4.

[28] Augustine, City of God, 7.30; cf. Books 11–12 as a whole and, above all, 22.24.

[29] Augustine, Retractations, 1.18; non affirmando, sed quarendo tractandum est.

[30] Ibid., 1.6.81.

[31] Ibid., 1.8; commenting on the De Libero Arbitrio.

[32] Ibid., 1.14, commenting on the De Duabus Animis; cf. 1.6, commenting on De Moribus Ecclesiae and 1.15 on Contra Fortunatum Manicheum.

[33] Augustine, City of God, 5.10; male vivitur, si de Deo non bene creditur.

[34] Ibid., 19.18.

[35] Homer, Odyssey, 18.136–7.

[36] Seneca, Epistle 107.11.

[37] Augustine, City of God, 5.8–9.


This was originally published in Charles Norris Cochrane’s, Augustine and the Problem of Power: The Essays and Lectures of Charles Norris Cochrane, David Beer, ed. (Eugene, OR: Wipf & Stock Publishers, 2017). 

Charles Norris Cochrane

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Charles Norris Cochrane (1889–1945) was Professor of Roman History at the University of Toronto. He was the author of Thucydides and Science of History (1929) and Christianity and Classical Culture: A Study of Thought and Action from Augustus to Augustine (1940).