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Augustine on Love, Justice, and Pluralism in Human Nature

Justice is an integral theme in Augustine’s political theology, and justice is directly correlated and contingent upon his theology of love.  True justice, for Augustine, begins with the love of God (and thereby extending to love of others since the love of others is the ultimate expression of love of God; the two commandments that embody the whole of the Law).[1]  Since a republic, or any political order, exists in some manner to dispense justice (however imperfect),[2] an understanding of the role of justice in the political thought of Augustine rests upon the role of love in dispensing justice.  That is to say what people love affects how justice is dispensed in society since the dispensing of justice will correlate with love of self or love of others.  To that end it was necessary to begin with an explanation of Augustine’s theology of love before discussing his understanding of political justice.

As Augustine defined justice, justice is something deeply personal but with social implications since humans are not atomized animals but essentially social.  “The function of justice is to assign to each his due.”[3]  But Augustine’s definition does not stop there.  Justice is also something interior to the order of humans (in much the same way here, he follows Plato[4]), “hence there is established in man himself a certain just order of nature, by which the soul is subordinated to God, and the body to the soul, and thus both body and soul are subordinate to God.”[5]  Thus, the love of God is the fountain from which justice flows; for it is only in the love of God, manifested in the love of others, from which justice can “assign to each his due.”  And since the city of man is centered on the love of self (and falsity) rather than the love of God (and truth), which prevents the city of man from effectively and charitably loving others, “the general characteristic of that city [of man] is that it is devoid of true justice.”[6]  It is devoid of true justice because the desires of humans in the city of man are disordered and inevitably exhaust into falsity which prevents true justice from being dispensed:

“So when man lives by the standard of truth he lives not by his own standard, but by God’s.  For it is God who has said, ‘I am the truth.’  By contrast, when he lives by his own standard, that is by man’s and not by God’s standard, then inevitably he lives by the standard of falsehood…Falsehood consists in not living the way for which he was created . . . And hence the falsehood: we commit sin to promote our welfare, and it results instead in our misfortune; or we sin to increase our welfare, and the result is rather to increase our misfortune.”[7]

Misery and misfortune, the lust for domination and ethos of coercion, all follow from the interior disorder of human desire no longer guided by the light of truth.  Thus, while justice has both external and interior elements it is equally important for the external dispensation of justice to occur that humans have their interior order properly subordinated.  This is why true justice belongs to God; it belongs to the order of truth and not the false pretensions of fallen humans.

But this is not to say that there is no justice in the city of man, or that there are no signs of justice in the city of man.  It is to say that the justice dispensed in the city of man is deeply flawed – often failing to dispense justice according to the dues that each person deserves.[8]  Since social justice is the realization of the common good, founded on love of God extending to love of others, then justice is necessarily dispensed in accordance with the oriented love which defines the political.[9]  In this way the justice of the city of man which is oriented to solely the self is flawed but retains seeds of the truths about the nature of justice defined by Augustine as both incorporating interior and exterior elements.  This is crucial in understanding Augustine’s view of justice – it is not that there is “no justice” in the city of man; it is that the justice dispensed in the city of man is incomparable to the “true justice” found in love of God which has relational and social ramifications for loving other creatures of God and coming to know the proper ordering and degree of loves given to each person.


Justice in the city of man is held in tension between being self-oriented because the city of man is defined by the love of self over the love of God and others, and being oriented to a common good and common love because the principle of justice implicitly acknowledges the wronging of persons and a natural order of human action and flourishing that has been corrupted as a result of the Fall of Man but not completely eliminated from the human conscience (or soul).  The nature and structures of justice in the city of man, however, is primarily retributive in nature.[10]  Persons seek justice only for themselves which generally prevents reconciliatory justice, including the love of others, from taking root in society.  Augustine’s fallen humanity and depravity of sinful humans is not the wholly bleak version of John Calvin’s theology.  Even in a fallen world, the fallen condition of humans retain some signs of their pre-fallen condition (although those signs remain marred by coercion, domination, and exploitation).[11]  Justice is one of those signs.  For even in retributive justice, the idea of justice involves more than the self.

Augustine’s city of man is not without some sense, or sign, of justice as already stated.  Justice is one of the cornerstones of all political society and a cornerstone on which the state itself is founded.  As Augustine stated in a series of rhetorical questions on the topic of justice and the city, “Remove justice, and what are kingdoms but gangs of criminals on a large scale?  What are criminal gangs but petty kingdoms?”[12]  There can be no republic without justice as justice is the public good.[13]  Thus, the most important function of the political order in Augustine’s political theology is to dispense justice.  Any state that is not engaged with the dispensation of justice is no state at all, but a criminal gang writ large masquerading as a state.  While it is also true that the supreme good, and supreme justice, comes from God and not corrupted political entities,[14] the nobility and grandeur of any political society – which is the same as saying any human society – rests upon justice.  From Augustine’s perspective, “Justice is the cornerstone of civil society.  Upon it depend the unity and nobility of any human society.”[15]

The classical philosophers of Greece and Rome acknowledged the importance of justice in the polis, but they also acknowledge the shortcomings of the actuality of justice therein (which was often a stumbling block for them to address).[16]  Augustine’s assessment of justice in the city of man includes an agreement with the classical philosophers concerning the importance of justice and justice being an integral cornerstone of any society, but he is more interested in also exploring why justice fails in the city of man instead of posturing and propagandizing the past glories and splendor which mask the internal failings of the city or offering a specific path to justice as, say, in Cicero.

But Augustine’s low-view of the state does not preclude him from realizing the importance of the state and of state action and the state’s role in society.[17]  The justice which is dispensed by the state is, however imperfect, an important and necessary corrective to the coercive and domineering ethos of a fallen and depraved humanity.[18]  Augustine’s low-view of the state is not that he opposes political structure and order; it is that he is skeptical of the possibility of the state in providing the highest life possible for the human being.[19]  The state, in other words, cannot socially engineer or coerce humans to their teleological end (which, for Augustine, is ultimate happiness which is to be found in the interior self coming to know God).  To this end Augustine’s critique of the justice in the city of man is that it is devoid of true justice because it is self-oriented rather than relational and restorative.

The very function of justice, however, implicitly acknowledges a concern for others instead of being wholly and entirely concerned with only oneself.  The need for justice would be non-existent without others.  Justice is, by its very nature, something relational and social.  While justice has a self-oriented nature to it (since justice is directed to a self), the justice which is dispensed in politics is a multi-person transaction which – in its multi-person nature – retains a dim recognition of the other as something more than a mere object.  Justice is also the only one of the cardinal virtues that Augustine directly linked to a theological virtue.[20]  Justice is rooted in faith.  Accordingly, justice is something that all Christians should be concerned with and seek to live by.[21]  For by living in accord with justice one is living in accord with nature and with God.

Since humans are social animals, and the political is a social body, then justice is necessarily social in its application.  The function of justice is important but the action of dispensing justice is more important.  The dispensation of justice in the city of man is not done out of love of other.  But the functionary role of justice recognizes the other, takes some sort of concern into consideration for the other, which ultimately reveals the traces of imago Dei and cooperative love in how justice is meant to function.

The nature of justice is concerned with correctives of the affronts against a person’s property or body (e.g. physical harm done to another).[22]  Slander against someone’s character is, interestingly enough, not something that Augustine concerned himself with.  Rather, justice recognizes ownership of property and body which should not be violated by others in their own lusts for satisfaction or domination, “The laws should punish offences against another’s property, not offences against a man’s own personal character.  No one should be brought to trial except for an offence, or threat of offence, against another’s property, house, or person.”[23]  Law and justice have corrective, and therefore educational, purposes.[24]  The very idea of justice, even justice rooted in the self and concerned with the self, acknowledges that a wrong has occurred and must be redressed.

But Augustine is playing with a multiplicity of definitions in understanding justice.  He defines true justice as that “just order of nature” which is the interior subordination of body and soul to God which allows for the proper ordering of love in life which has exterior implications since humans are a combination of body and soul.  This definition, however, carries with it an informing ethos of the disordered love of the city of man.  For the wrongs against one’s property and one’s body seems to imply that the wronging is understood from the perspective of the incurvatus in se (the inward curve to the self) whereby the person is concerned with themselves.

This is not to presume that Augustine has a contradictory attitude or understanding of justice.  Rather, just as one must turn inward to understand their failings and shortcomings as a result of sin (the introspective self being a major Augustinian theme which, when done right, leads to the discovery of God and the self simultaneously since we cannot know ourselves apart from God), one must also turn inward for justice to have those corrective and educational purposes.   The feeling of being wronged implies that “just order of nature.”  For one to wrong you there must be a just order of nature otherwise justice is as the sophists describe in Plato’s Republic, the law of the mighty over the weak.[25]  This further indicates that despite the Fall and the ramifications of Original Sin in Augustine, there are still traces and signs of that pre-fallen condition and nature in the city of man which can be awakened and known.

Justice emerges as something necessary to pursue in the city because justice is the response to the lust for domination of human interaction.  Therefore, justice manifests itself in opposition – and correction – to the human lust for domination and coercion.  Those corrective and educational purposes are attempts to curb the lust for domination of humans, and, by that extension, the lust for domination in a society at large.  This curb of libido dominadi implicitly pushes humans, and human society, away from the inculcated sin of fratricide and the residue of Original Sin and the Fall which defines the city of man and its love of only the self.[26]  For in the curbing of the lust for domination there remain traces of the imago Dei and the “original condition” of humanity in that harmonious and mutually cooperative state that defined existence before the Fall.  The reconciliatory aspect of justice pushes humans toward a return to that original condition but cannot, on its own, propel either humans or society there.  Thus, the restraint of law “safeguards the innocent; it constrains certain sins; and it contributes to an environment in which a more holistic healing of the sinner may take place.”[27]

But it is the function of justice, in its dispensation of “assign[ing] each his due,” that allows for that environment of a more “holistic healing” to take place (which pushes humans, and society, toward that “just order of nature”).  For law does not completely prevent the sins of humanity and humanity’s lusts for domination from occurring, which is why justice becomes necessary to pursue in the city of man.  The shortcomings of law and self-control in humans leading to coercive action and domineering abuse of others demand justice to be dispensed.  The very internal logic of justice already recognizes that law will have its shortcomings, which is why structures of justice exist in the first place.  For if law was perfect then there would be no need for justice.  Justice, in Augustine’s thought, actually retains a remnant of that original human condition.  Though certainly imperfect, it is the most magnanimous sign of what was lost in the Fall and what is to be restored by the love of God and love of others.  The shortcoming of the justice in the city of man, while still exhibiting this implicit corrective against the lust for domination, is because the city of man is oriented to love of self rather than embracing the relational aspect of human nature which requires the love of others, world, and ultimately, of God – which requires that interior subordination that Augustine speaks of first.


Fitting with Augustine’s theme of love, love of God would recognize God’s justice.  Imitation and union of God logically implies that one would imitate justice.  A decisive aspect of Augustine’s understanding of justice is the fact that humans are, as already mentioned, social and relational creatures.  For Adam was not fulfilled by himself in the garden while naming the animals.  It is true, as Augustine recognized, that Adam had a harmonious relationship with the creation – in the sense that he was not exploiting creation or engaged in coercive domination of it – but he remained, on the whole, unsatisfied.  The creation of Eve, while Augustine also reads this as a prefiguration and foreshadowing of the relational nature of the Church with God,[28] was also meant to bring about a unity between each other in a mutually loving relationship that was a reflection of the love exhibited by the relations of the Trinity.  “The woman, then, is the creation of God, just as man; but her creation out of man emphasizes the unity between them.”[29]

Joseph Torchia has written about the four dimensions of Augustine’s understanding of human nature: that humans possess the gift of reason since God is Reason and Reason is God, a free will which makes one culpable for one’s actions, the want for love and to give love (affectivity), and most importantly, the capability (and need) for human relations which magnifies the human capacity for love.[30]  Torchia wrote, “[the] relational dimension to Augustine’s understanding of human personhood . . . raises the bar of human affectivity to a higher plane.”[31]  Justice, in its very state of being, is relational.  Since human nature is not lost in the Fall from Augustine’s perspective, merely corrupted inward to the self – the incurvatus in se – the magnanimity of God’s restorative and healing justice in salvation should illuminate the justice to be sought and dispensed by relational creatures in the body politic.[32]

What Adam and Eve shared prior to the Fall was a blissful union under the Divine Order of Nature, which is the say the rational order of creation which emanated from the Logos (Christ).  This was one of the many things lost in the Fall.[33]  One of the crucial things lost in the Fall was the relational unity and mutual love between people.  But if justice is relational, and if justice is a sign pointing humanity back to their pre-fallen condition, what exactly does this entail?

Etienne Gilson argued that human relations and interactions “are not performed under the compulsion of the divine order; they have a purpose of their own, and this purpose is to realize the divine order. With them it is not a matter of being subject to the law but of willing it and collaborating in its fulfillment.”[34]  If justice was one of the central foundations for the salvation of humanity, whereby they could be re-awakened (made alive again) to love and know God, God’s order, and God’s creatures (including other humans), then it follows that human flourishing in the post-fallen condition cannot be manifested without justice.  For God’s natural order is just, God’s soteriological actions in history involved justice, and the binding of the rupture of relational wounds from humanity’s lust for domination and self-immolation upon the altar of love of self involves a recognition of God’s just and loving actions toward humans which allows humans to begin loving God and loving their neighbors; for the love of God is not mere abstraction but incarnational.  That God took on a body means that to love God one must love others; this is, after all, Christ’s summary of the whole Law to the disciples.

Justice, to be effective, requires the right degree of loving other humans.  Without this right degree of loving others the possibility of justice becomes null and void as it sinks back into the incurvatus in se and becomes purely retributive – that is, self-centered.  Self-centered justice is indicative of the lack of the right degree of loving.  Justice works to restore the enjoyment of God through the proper loving of humans.  “Loving the God who becomes human for us means that fruitio Dei does not inhibit human action in the world or extricate it from the world but frees it by ordering it rightly in the world.”[35]  In order to love God, in the fullest sense, Augustine does not forsake God’s creation and God’s creatures.  In fact, part of the enjoyment of God comes in enjoying (in the right degree and proportion) the natural order God has bestowed to the world.  Love of the beauty of the whole cosmos is the greatest wisdom one can attain.[36]

Given that this right degree of love was lost in the Fall, and justice points the human back to the pre-fallen condition, justice takes on an even greater meaning in Augustine’s political theology given that justice is the cornerstone upon which society stands or falls.  And since society is a relational construct and endeavor, the ebb and flow of justice is indicative of humanity’s loves: either the love of self to the point of contempt of God and all that God has created (including other humans) or the love of God to the point of contempt of the self in the sense the self is not the “measure of all things” in the cosmos or the city.  Justice, in of itself, is an act of love of others – which is an expression of the love of God.[37]  Augustine is at pains to reiterate that love is incomplete without justice, and justice is incomplete without love, and no city can endure – let alone be called a republic – without the twin marriage of love and justice:

“It follows that justice is found where God, the one supreme God, rules an obedient City according to this grace, forbidding sacrifice to any being save himself alone; and where in consequence the soul rules the body in all men who belong to this City and obey God, and the reason faithfully rules the vices in a lawful system of subordination; so that just as the individual righteous man lives on the basis of faith which is active in love, so the association, or people, of righteous men lives on the same basis of faith, active in love, the love with which a man loves God as God ought to be loved, and loves his neighbour as himself.  But where this justice does not exist, there is certainly no ‘association of men united by a common sense of right and by a common interest.’  Therefore there is no commonwealth.”[38]

That love and justice are tied together is of the utmost importance to recognize in Augustine’s political theology, and that this love and justice corresponds with the right degree of loving God’s creation and creatures for this leads to a fuller enjoyment of God.  The capacity for reasoning, affectivity, and relationships are all heightened through justice which is necessary because of the residue of the Fall and of Original Sin.  Additionally, justice heals the will and the idea of justice accepts that the will is morally culpable for its actions.

The city that loves God to the point of the contempt of self is not a nihilistic self-hatred as critics of Augustine have sometimes maintained.  For Augustine maintained that there was no law needed to instruct one to love oneself.[39]  Everyone knows this by their nature.[40]  St. Bernard of Clairvaux, ever the Augustinian, placed love of self as one of the four pillars of love (but the lowest one at that).  When love of self becomes the only love one exhibits this leads to humanity’s (self) destruction and is why love of self (and only the self) is the root of sin.[41]  The contempt of self through love of God is not self-hatred; it is the fulfillment of the self because the self was not made for self-use and self-enjoyment.  Returning to Augustine’s fourfold understanding of human nature humans have a strong capacity for affection which can be turned inward (love of self) or outward (love of others and the world).  The relational aspect of human nature is what magnifies affectivity and situates affectionate desires to others, world, and God.

Augustine’s critique of the justice in the city of man is not that he is opposed to the dispensation of justice as some of his critics misleadingly charge.  It is that he is critiquing the shortcomings of the justice being sought in the city of man.  Where is this great republic of Cicero’s?  Where is the great republic (in name) of the current state of the Roman people?  It is nowhere to be found because Rome was interiorly divided like the lot of fallen and corrupted humanity.  Since sinful, coercive, and domineering people controlled Rome, justice was nowhere to be seen.  This is because, as Augustine tells us, the justice sought in Rome was curved to the self.  It was retributive in nature.  “That commonwealth [of Cicero’s] never existed, because there never was real justice in the community…But true justice is found only in that commonwealth whose founder and ruler is Christ.”[42]

In countering the nature and structures of justice in the city of man Augustine often leans in favor of reconciliatory (or “restorative”) justice over and against retributive justice.[43]  Thus, it is very reasonable to conclude that “social justice, [for Augustine], is first and foremost a work of love.”[44]  I would also contend that justice is the work of life when matched with the totality of Augustine’s works.

What is justice, then, to return to that most seminal question?  For Augustine it seems that justice is the re-ordering of the loves within the self, so as to love – to the right degree – all that God had created to which the fullest enjoyment of God is possible: self, others, world, God.[45]  The “assigning each his due” is the love that is due to all persons.  In the context of the political, the justice that is dispensed is meant to be a restorative justice that would foster a healing ethic of love between aggressor and aggrieved, and between dominator and dominated.  The love expressed to others leads to the greater appreciation, or love, of the world – which is the greatest created sign pointing to God whereby the love of the world, properly understood, leads to the love of God and all that God has created.[46]

In Augustine’s account of restorative justice, of which love is the central core from which restorative justice flows, the healing of rupture orients persons back to the love, harmony, and unity of pre-fallen humanity.  This entails orienting oneself to the proper degrees of love, whereby that reorienting of love in the self has social effects of loving one’s neighbor and redressing the wrongs committed against him.  For if love is an essential aspect of human nature as Augustine claims, it follows that the depravation of love is a stripping away of one’s essential human dignity and worth.  This is what the lust for domination does.  And this is what justice seeks to recompense.  It is also the case that justice seems to be a fifth aspect of human nature, for justice is the elevated plane which gives back to human rationality, free will, affectivity, and the relational animus, and makes healing in the post-fallen condition possible among humans.


Augustine was one of the first great pluralists, situating himself in the social pluralist tradition of Western thought.  While he followed in the footsteps of Aristotle in the sense that Aristotle also recognized the pluralistic composition of the city and the world, Augustine’s pluralism is often misunderstood because of his engagement in the Donatist Controversy which taints his legacy on this important issue.

Pluralism is the philosophical doctrine that holds that reality is composed of a multiplicity of substances that are brought together in a composite form to represent totality.  Pluralism often stands in contrast to universalism or monism, which is the doctrine that all existence can be reduced to a single substance.  Pluralism maintains reality is composed of multiple substances and, therefore, reality cannot be reduced to a single substance.  Pluralism, then, also implies that there is difference and particularity when dealing with the nature of things (metaphysics).  This should not be confused as meaning superiority or inferiority in difference but simply a recognition of difference qua difference wherein the recognition of difference is the first act engagement with plurality.  Part of Augustine’s pluralism is his celebration and defense of difference as good and leading to a more beautiful world and human experience; Augustine’s engagement with pluralism is to try and defend pluralism as constituting a richer order to the nature of the creation.

The first instances of pluralism present in Augustine’s thought are found in his ontological pluralism.  In line with Aristotle, Augustine saw a hylomorphic composition of human nature which I already outlined in the previous chapter concerning his thoughts on justice.  Human nature, for Augustine, is minimally a combination of reason and desire, along with affectivity and a social relational animus.  He also understood the imago Dei in a humanized Trinitarian manner.  The three things of the human person that are likened to God are existence (God the Father), knowledge (God the Son), and will (God the Holy Spirit).[47]  For as Augustine remarked, “The three things are existence, knowledge, and will, for I can say that I am, I know, and I will.  I am a being which knows and wills; I know both that I am and that I will; and I will both to be and to know.”[48]  This hylomorphic pluralism is united together in a sort of humanized hypostatic union akin to the Trinity, for “although they are distinct from one another, the distinction does not separate them.”[49]

The pluralism that constitutes human nature, as well as the existent world, for the world is not simply made of matter alone but is intelligible as it is ordered and created by Wisdom, or the transcendent rational,[50] extends into Augustine’s treatment with political pluralism and the pluralism of the world.  After all, it is written in Genesis that creation reproduces after its own kind which implies a multiplicity of distinctions which compose the world.  Augustine’s pluralism touches all aspects of his thought: from the pluralism that constitutes the Church (the mixed church is pluralistic by definition – corpus permixtum), the human person, creation, and what can be constructed together to constitute his political theology.  For even Augustine stated that part of the task of the heavenly city on its journey through this world is to foster compromise between competing (domineering) wills in the city of man.[51]  Part of the spirit of compromise is to limit or mitigate libido dominandi in society.  Since the city of God and city of man are intermixed together, part of the responsibility of the city of God is to shepherd the desires of the city of man to its better nature.  Unity does not imply monism, for one’s body, united together in unity, is nevertheless made up of constitutive parts which are each different from one another and function differently from one another, but when brought together in unity serves to bring about a fully functioning and flourishing body.


One of the difficult aspects of addressing the pluralist political theology of Augustine is in the fact that he never produced a strict political treatise.  Unlike Plato’s Republic, Aristotle’s Politics, or Cicero’s Republic and On Obligations (Di Officiis), Augustine’s political thoughts have to be constructed from the myriad of his writings that directly address political issues or have implications for politics.  As I have already indicated, to understand his pluralism one must understand his theology and reading of human nature in the form of theological anthropology, as well as his reading of creation which is not the product of chance but the product of the love and wisdom of God.  Therefore, it is necessary to highlight Augustine’s pluralist understanding of human nature and of creation and how this flows into his understanding of human nature.

In a dispute with a Phoenician-speaking critic, Maximus of Madaura,[52] Augustine responded by accosting Maximus for wanting to abandon his Phoenician heritage for a Greek heritage.[53]  This is peculiar because Augustine, in accosting Maximus, is arguing that Maximus should be ashamed if he abandons the Punic language which is something natural and essential to Maximus having been born a Phoenician speaker with Phoenician identity.  The world, and he, would be better if the Punic language remained.  Augustine’s criticism of Maximus is masked by a defense of Phoenicianism, “And if the Punic language is rejected by you, you virtually deny what has been admitted by most learned men…Nay, you ought even to be ashamed of having been born in the country in which the cradle of this language is still warm, i.e. in which this language was originally, and until very recently, the language of the people.”[54]

Augustine’s sadness in seeing a Phoenician abandon Phoenicianism was probably something dear to Augustine’s heart.  After all, being born in Thagaste, North Africa, to Latinized Berber parents – Patrick and St. Monica – Augustine likely had Punic heritage in him.[55]  It is likely that Augustine, coming from this heritage, retained a consciousness of his Punic identity despite his parents being Romanized Latin-speakers.[56]  As Henry Chadwick stated, “In Augustine’s time the Punic-speakers retained a consciousness of their old Phoenician forefathers.”[57]  Chadwick even continues in reminiscing upon this one-off dispute with Maximus, “Augustine acquired a conversational knowledge of the patois, and never speaks of the Punic language or culture with the least touch of scorn as the pagan Maximus of Madauros.”[58]

Augustine was an early connoisseur of identity and culture.  He felt called to learn of the arts, culture, and traditions of other peoples and languages besides his own (though not without his prejudices like regarding Greek as inferior to Latin).  While Augustine fervently embraced Latin culture and the Latin language, his knowledge of his Punic past, as well as familiarity with Greek culture and epics from his education, turned Augustine into a “mind…excit[ed] by exquisite poetry.”[59]  Augustine’s love of culture, language, poetry, and the arts remained with him all throughout his life.

Although Augustine, as any orthodox Catholic of his day would assent to, thought Pagan doctrines and ideas to be in error, he nevertheless felt there were signs of truth in their doctrines and teachings.[60]  As Augustine wrote:

“After all, it is no reason for us not to learn our letters, just because they say Mercury is their patron god; nor, just because they have dedicated temples to Justice and Virtue, and have preferred to worship in stone images what should [have] carried in the heart, is that any reason for us to shun justice and virtue.  On the contrary indeed, all good and true Christians should understand that truth, wherever they may find it, belongs to their Lord.”[61]

Likewise, Augustine defended pagan art and literature, even cultural and political institutions, which helped to “contribute to the necessary ordering of life.”[62]  Such arts, cultures, and institutions should not be rejected but upheld and oriented by the truth of Christianity to what they already contained.[63]  There was a natural beauty that was appreciated by the pagans; they simply failed to recognize the natural beauty of the world and of the arts as signs pointing to the Ultimate Beauty.  But simply because the pagans had confused the sign for the thing-itself, doesn’t mean it should all be discarded.  Beauty and truth, wherever they are found, as Augustine made clear, are to be preserved and cherished.

For instance, it is well known that Virgil and Cicero, along with Plato and Plotinus, were important influences over Augustine.  Augustine even credited the beauty of Cicero’s writings and philosophy of truth as having led him away from atheism to embrace that there had to be some Supreme God.[64]  Virgil’s Aeneid, while it celebrates sacred violence, an earthly empire without end, and eroticism to the point of death (as was the case with Dido), Augustine nevertheless saw so many signs of truth in Virgil’s epic.  The desire for love, matrimony, and the union of humans (Aeneas and Dido) was a sign of the truth of holy matrimony.  The desire for a kingdom – or a place to call home – was a sign of the desire for eternal citizenship (represented by the Trojans venturing across the Mediterranean to eventually found Rome).  The desire for a kingdom of justice and a kingdom without end were signs of the desire for the heavenly kingdom of Christ.  Even Virgil’s statement that humans should yield to love[65] was understood by Augustine as the greatest pre-Christian declaration that prepared the pagans for the reception of the gospel of love.[66]

Augustine’s pluralism, as seen in his dealings with culture, language, and identity, does have political ramifications.  The political is intertwined with culture, language, and identity, and it was more than likely the case that this was always true.  In fact, the dream of the so-called Enlightenment urged abolition from particularity and the embrace of abstract and homogeneous universality.[67]  To this end Augustine sided with the preservation and maintenance of cultural plurality and particularity in the realm of the political, and also offered a path for how one should understand this particularity and how to interact with the abounding differences of in cultures and ideas.

Augustine’s political pluralism lays at the center of his critique of the Roman lust for domination which transformed her from city-state republic to empire.  Augustine laments about how much uniqueness and diversity was lost in Rome’s conquest of other cities.[68]  He equally laments the loss of the peoples, history, and distinctiveness of cities allied to Rome during the Punic Wars as Carthage lays waste to those peoples allied with her enemy.  “[Saguntum], that unfortunate city – a flourishing community, a cherished ornament of its country and a cherished ally of Rome – was exterminated by the Carthaginians.”[69]

In Augustine’s critique of the Roman push for empire is how it laid waste to the distinctiveness of the Mediterranean world.  Countless cities and peoples, with their unique histories, traditions, and stories, were wiped out by the Romans or by the enemies of Rome as collateral damage in Rome’s numerous wars.  All of this is lamentable from Augustine’s perspective because it depreciated the diversity and richness of the world around him.  Thus, Augustine bequeathed to Catholicism a long tradition of historical and cultural conservation.  After Augustine many of Augustine’s students, like Orosius, began to salvage as much history of the ancient Mediterranean world as possible to save it for posterity.[70]


The most consequential, and controversial, moment of Augustine’s pluralism, especially as it relates to political pluralism, emanated from his theology of “Jewish witness.”  Paula Fredriksen, who has devoted much of her scholarly efforts to examining the relationship between Christianity and Judaism, has written a much more extensive work on the relationship between Augustine and Judaism in Augustine and the Jews: A Christian Defense of Jews and Judaism.  While it is easy to read Augustine’s theology of witness as patronizing and triumphalist, it also misses the original thought and revolutionary break with other early Christian fathers with regard to Christian-Jewish relations.[71]  Augustine’s theology of Jewish witness retains much of the traditional characteristics of anti-Judaism from among the early Christians, but where it differs is that Augustine insists that the Jews are to be protected, not slain, not converted, and that they – as a people (“nation”) – are to remain until the end of time.

The basic framework of Augustine’s theology of witness is that the Jews had been chosen by God to be witnesses to the Law.  This witness to the Law is eternal, or at least until the final eschaton (where Augustine still holds out hope that the whole of Israel will be converted and saved).  While the theology of witness does mark out Judaism as being servants of the Law rather than the recipients of Grace, Augustine goes to great lengths in arguing for the protection of Jews because of his peculiar and original reading of the Jewish witness in history.  “Slay them not…Let the nation of the Jews remain,” Augustine boldly proclaimed in expounding the very concrete ramifications and application of Psalm 59.[72]

According to Augustine, because the theology of witness rests on the idea that since Jews are witnesses of the Law and were also chosen as an instrument in the salvation drama,[73] the Jews are destined to endure, “No emperor or monarch who finds under his government the people with this mark kills them, that is, makes them cease to be Jews, and as Jews to be separate in their observances, and unlike the rest of the world.”[74]  Not only do the emperors and monarchs allow the Jews to live in their land, though they are not prosperous, they grant them protection just as God granted Cain protection.[75]  And while the Jews do not embrace Christ, in their embrace of the Law and witness to the Law, this guarantees that they remain under the eternal protection of God from Christians and pagans alike who should not bring harm to them unless they violate the protection and will of God.[76]

Augustine’s reading of the special protection afforded to the Jews was from his high love of the Hebrew Bible.  Unlike Marcion, unlike the Manicheans, and even unlike St. Jerome whom Augustine accused of abandoning the Law which would exhaust Christianity into forgetting its Jewish roots,[77] Augustine loved the Hebrew Bible and believed that not a word contained therein was false or deceitful.  This led him to rebuke Jerome and anti-legalism in early Christianity insofar that following the precepts of the Jewish Law, while not required to Gentile Christians, was not necessarily prohibited if one chose to follow them.  Augustine wrote to Jerome, “Although, however, these rites were not to be imposed upon the Gentiles, the compliance with them, to which the Jews had been accustomed, was not to be prohibited in such a way as to give the impression that it was worthy of abhorrence and condemnation.”[78]  Part of the fallout between Augustine and Jerome happens to coincide with their dialogue over the merits of the Law and whether Christians should, or can, observe them.  On which Augustine stands out in that he leaves openness to the importance for Christians to observe the Law if they choose to do so – after all, the apostles, despite being followers of Christ, observed the Law (or some of the Law).[79]  Augustine is clear in his dispute with Jerome whether Christians should fully discard the Law and see the Law as evil – no.  While the Law does not save it is not without its own merits.

Therefore, Augustine’s formulation of pluralism and respect of old traditions, and not discarding the Law, comes from the Hebrew Bible more than it does from any other source.  Additionally, it is likely that Augustine had personal contact and encounters with Jews in North Africa and in his basilica,  which may have shaped his opinions of the Jews as a people to have special protection status.[80]  His respect for the Hebrew Bible led him to conceive the Jews in a complex rather than simplistic light.  But in comparison to the more anti-Semitic and anti-Jewish Marcionites and Manicheans, Augustine stands out from them in his nuanced acceptance and appreciation of Jews and Judaism.

Cain may have been the founder of the earthly city, rife with having been built on domination and death – the sin of fratricide – and was a prefiguration of the Jews as a whole, but even Cain was guaranteed a certain terrestrial life.[81]  Cain may have lost control of his passions and slain his brother, but Augustine admonishes that this is a lesson to Christians to be set apart from the ways of the city of man.[82]  This is what ultimately led Augustine to conclude that Christians should protect the Jewish people and “slay them not.”[83]  Christians should try to avoid engaging in the lust for domination which characterizes the city of man.  And in the witness to the Christian ethos of mercy and love, Jews may themselves convert on their own.[84]  Augustine’s regard for the Hebrew Scriptures led to his paradoxical, albeit imperfect, but comparatively progressive, outlook on Jews and Judaism in fifth century Late Antiquity.

On one hand Augustine does see the Jews as inferior to Christians and guilty of the crimes of Cain, Esau, and disbelief to the point of rejecting Christ.  On the other hand he saw them as the eternally chosen people of God who have never lost this election as bearers of the eternal Law.  While the Law does not save, in the sense of bringing eternal life, it does ensure earthly life and protection nevertheless.  Hence, the Jews as a nation will always persist until the eschaton.

Given the problem of anti-Semitism in the patristic era, Augustine stands out as a light in the darkness.  His theology of witness ends with him declaring that Christians should not slay Jews, and that Christians should see the Jews under protective status which prevents their willful slaughter.  At the same time, however, the theology of witness does demean the Jewish religion and places Jews beneath Christians.  But in a time when it was very common to take militantly anti-Jewish attitudes to the point of rejecting the Hebrew Bible and calling for the scattering and killing of the Jewish people, Augustine’s defense of the Hebrew Scriptures, drawing pluralism out of the Hebrew Bible (especially in his reading of Pslam 59 and Deuteronomy 2, specifically Deuteronomy 2:2-6), and developing his theology of witness as it specifically related to Jews, he was a cause of both harm and good but ultimately more good than harm.  As Paula Fredriksen wrote:

“Nevertheless, because of Augustine’s tremendous authority, his ‘witness doctrine,’ mediated through City of God, became part of that erudite tradition through which patristic learning shaped Western Christian thought.  In the changed context of medieval Christendom, Augustine’s invocation of Psalm 59, interpreted literally, ultimately would safeguard Jewish lives”.[85]

Augustine’s pluralism is most visible in his metaphysics and ontology.  It is also evident in his scattered ruminations on culture, epistemology, and Biblical interpretation – all of which have cultural, social, and political ramifications.  This moves Augustine in the direction of pluralist philosophy, and he can rightly be seen as an important founder in pluralist philosophy and created a space for pluralism to emerge in the Christian tradition.


In a time when universal empire, from the Mesopotamians and Egyptians, to the Greeks (under Alexander) and Romans was the norm, the emergence of Augustine’s pluralism was a moment of unique originality and contradistinction.  Furthermore, Augustine’s pluralism was an important step in cultural and interfaith understanding and study which helped mitigate the tendencies of violent and oppressive universalism in politics and offered a defense of pluralism and particularity.  Likewise, Augustine’s anthropology of relational love and how it is related to justice is still relevant today.  Given the reality of fallen humanity for Augustine, and the corruption of love that resulted from this, justice—as it is related to love—is an integral component to his understanding of human nature; human nature seeks after justice from Augustine’s perspective.

Augustine’s philosophy of justice is premised on purely theological-anthropological grounds.  The Fall stripped from humanity the mutual relational nature that binds persons together in love.  Moreover, justice is the corrective against libido dominandi between fallen humans.  It is also a corrective against the lust for domination exhibited by states in the form of those aforementioned universal empires.  Augustine’s pluralism and justice, rooted in his understanding of human nature, was a profound argument against coercive and domineering lust of man and everything he touched and therefore corrupted.  In the words of Christopher Dawson, “the Western ideals of freedom and progress and social justice owe more than we realize to the profound thought of the great African.”[86]



[1] Mary T. Clark, “Augustine on Justice,” in Augustine and Social Justice, eds. Teresa Delgado, John Doody, and Kim Paffenroth (Lanham: Lexington Books, 2015), 3, 10.

[2] Here Augustine agrees with Cicero that the task of the state, in some meaningful manner, is the function of justice.  See City of God, trans. Henry Bettenson (New York: Penguin Books, 2003), 19.21.  Augustine, nevertheless, critiques Cicero for believing “true justice” was ever dispensed by the Roman Republic since it lacked the common love of God, which prevented Roman judicial structures from dispensing justice to each according to his due in love.  This is a common theme in Augustine’s encounter with Greek and Roman philosophy, wherein aspects of Greek and Roman philosophy show signs of truth but fall short of the Supreme Good due to lack of love of God and others.  This does not prevent Augustine from utilizing Ciceronian philosophy.

[3] Augustine, City of God, 19.4.

[4] Ernest Fortin, “St. Augustine,” in History of Political Philosophy, 3rd ed., eds. Leo Strauss and Joseph Cropsey (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1987), 182.

[5] Augustine, City of God, 19.4.

[6] Ibid., 19.26.

[7] Ibid., 14.4.

[8] It seems that Augustine’s understanding of exterior justice is similar to Aristotle’s notion of “just deserts.”

[9] Mark Doorley, “The Pursuit of Social Justice,” in Augustine and Social Justice, 14.

[10] Teresa Delgado and Kim Paffenroth, xvi.

[11] Augustine, On Man’s Perfection in Righteousness, trans.  Peter Holmes and Robert Ernest Wallis, Ch. 2.  Augustine explicitly states here that the ramifications of the Fall is a weakened and corrupted will that cannot overcome the temptations of sin apart from God’s grace.  But sin, as a form of “misdirected love,” nevertheless means that humans – in their sin – are seeking love (but only for the self) and from the lower order of creation and remain, in some sense, in idolatry insofar as never seeing the material world as signs leading to God.

[12] Augustine, City of God, 4.5.

[13] Justice as necessary for a republic was also endorsed by Cicero.

[14] Fortin, 183.

[15] Ibid., 181.

[16] Ibid.

[17] Dorley, 16.

[18] Ibid., 15-17.

[19] Linda Raeder, “Augustine and the Case for Limited Government,” Humanitas 16, no. 2 (2003): 95.

[20] Augustine, City of God, 4.20.

[21] Ibid.

[22] Ibid., 2.20.

[23] Ibid.

[24] Robert George, Making Men Moral (New York: Oxford University Press, 2002), 46.

[25] Plato, The Republic, trans. G.M.A. Grube (Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing, 2005), 1.338c.

[26] Although Augustine takes much of Genesis to be allegorical, the truths contained in those stories are very much “literal,” e.g. that since the sons of Cain are the founders of the first cities in the Genesis narrative, and Cain’s sons are the offspring of a fallen son of Adam, and sons embodying Cain’s sin of fratricide, envy, and jealousy, the “city of man” embodies the vices and sins in a more explicit way than Abel.  The Jewish philosopher Philo, for instance, in Legum allegoriae, notes that the story of Cain’s murdering of Abel is a story about the way of death embodied by Cain rather than a tale of simple murder.  In this way, paradoxically, Cain is more the victim in that he and his descendants in that they embody the “unrighteous philosophy” of death writ large which characterizes the city

[27] Sarah Stewart-Kroeker, “Friendship and Moral Foundations,” in Augustine and Social Justice, 254.

[28] Augustine, City of God, 22.17.

[29] Ibid.

[30] Joseph Torchia, “St. Augustine: A Harmonious Union,” in Exploring Personhood: An Introduction to the Philosophy of Human Nature (Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, 2008), 119.

[31] Ibid.

[32] See Augustine, De Trinitate, 4.12.15.  Perhaps shockingly to some, Augustine does not state that Christ’s death for humanity was just about atonement and sacrifice for sin.  Rather, Augustine opines and stresses the nature of justice within Christ’s death and resurrection.  Life is tied to justice and injustice tied to death.  The logic of Augustine implies that the struggle for justice is the struggle for life.  God’s justice is what ultimately brings life back to dead humans (dead to sin), but the ramifications of this for social ethics is profound.  A city is not healthy unless it is dispensing justice.  This makes sense given Augustine’s strides in City of God to identify justice as the pillar upon which all republics rest.  For without justice, the city is not like God.  It is not the truly rational and loving city.  It is the city that has given itself over to death: The death of love of self, of vindictive retribution, and the celebration of vanity for vanity’s sake.

[33] Augustine’s understanding of the Fall of Man is complex and multifaceted.  There is a great array of scholarship on the topic.  However, as I see it, there are four key ruptures that occur in Augustine’s reading of the Fall.  First is the lost harmony and unity between humans – exemplified with Adam and Eve.  In particular, when God comes before Adam and asks him about his sin Adam blames God for having created Eve.  This marks the rupture between the relationship of man and woman, or between humans more archetypally, wherein distrust seeps into human relations which prevents the ability to fully love one another without distrust and coercion.  It also represents, simultaneously, the rupture between humanity and God.  Given that love of God and love of neighbor are intertwined together, this reading perfectly aligns with the teachings of Christ and Augustine’s artful reading of Scripture insofar that Adam no longer loved God and no longer loved Eve in this moment of deflected blame (blaming God and blaming Eve at the same time).  Second is the lost harmony between humans the natural world – exemplified by Adam and Eve’s expulsion from nature (the garden).  Lastly is the interior rupture of human nature itself where desire and reason are no longer in a unitive harmony with another – with reason guiding desire to its source of fulfillment.  A fourth rupture, and perhaps the most famous, is that in Adam all sinned whereby all future progeny suffer from this ruptured relationship with other people, with the natural world, and with themselves.

[34] Etienne Gilson, The Christian Philosophy of Saint Augustine, trans. L.E.M. Lynch (New York: Random House, 1960), 132.

[35] Sarah Stewart-Kroeker, “Resisting Idolatry and Instrumentalism in Loving the Neighbor: The Significance of the Pilgrimage Motif for Augustine’s Usus-Fruitio Distinction,” Studies in Christian Ethics 27, no. 2 (2014): 215.

[36] Augustine, City of God, 11.4.

[37] Clark, “Augustine on Justice,” 8.

[38] Augustine, City of God, 19.23.

[39] Augustine, De Doctrina Christiana, trans. Edmund Hill, ed. John E. Rotelle, (Hyde Park: New City Press, 2015), 1.23.22.

[40] Ibid.

[41] Oliver O’Donovan, The Problem of Self Love in Augustine (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1980), 1.

[42] Augustine, City of God, 2.21.

[43] Stewart-Kroeker, “Friendship and Moral Foundations,” 251.

[44] Clark, “Augustine on Justice,” 9.

[45] Augustine, City of God, 11.4.

[46] Ibid.

[47] Augustine, Confessions, trans. R.S. Pine-Coffin (New York: Penguin Books, 1961), 12.11.

[48] Ibid.

[49] Ibid.

[50] Ibid., 9.10; City of God, 11.9.

[51] Augustine, City of God, 19.17.

[52] Not much is known of Maximus of Madura outside of his correspondence with Augustine.  Maximus writes to Augustine to argue that there is One Supreme God without beginning and end.  But he also makes clear to Augustine his belief in the traditional pantheons and that these are the gods that are to be worshipped among mortal men from their particular places and contexts.  See “Letter 16,” from Maximus of Madura to Augustine, trans. J.G. Cunningham, <>

[53] See “Letter 17,” Augustine of Hippo to Maximus of Madaura, trans. J.G. Cunningham, <>

[54] Ibid.

[55] Henry Chadwick, Augustine of Hippo: A Life (New York: Oxford University Press, 2010), 5.

[56] Ibid.

[57] Ibid.

[58] Ibid., 6.

[59] Ibid.

[60] Augustine, De Doctrina Christiana, 2.17.27-2.18.28.

[61] Ibid., 2.18.28.  What Augustine is defending here is the ancient Catholic doctrine of the Logos Spermatikos, which was first crystallized by St. Justin Martyr though it takes Scriptural warrant from Genesis 1 and John 1.  This is also alluded to in Augustine’s doctrine of creation and the intelligibility of the created order.  Since all creation emanated from, and was ordered by, Wisdom, there is nothing in creation (as creation is good) that is completely devoid of the good, true, and beautiful.  A result of the Fall was the loss of purity and knowledge of the transcendentals, but there remains signs of those transcendentals through every crack and crevice of the natural world.  This is one of the key claims to natural theology within the Catholic tradition.

[62] Ibid., 2.25.40.

[63] Ibid.

[64] Augustine, Confessions, 3.4

[65] Virgil, The Eclogues, “Eclogue X,” trans. Len Krisak (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press).

[66] Augustine, City of God, 10.27.  It is important to remember that while love of self is the root of sin and humanity’s destruction, love of self is something natural to all according to Augustine.  This is why there is no written law telling one to love themselves.  The problem of love of self is when the only love one exhibits is love of self, which cuts the self off from love of others, love of the world, and ultimately love of God—who is the only source that can satiate one’s restless heart.  Augustine’s criticism of the city of man, rooted in purely the love of self, is a critique of the incurvatus in se and what it leads itself to; both for the individual and society.

[67] Steven B. Smith, “Leo Strauss: Between Athens and Jerusalem,” The Review of Politics 53, no. 1 (1991): 98-99.

[68] Augustine, City of God, 3.14

[69] Ibid., 3.20.

[70] Orosius wrote History Against the Pagans under the influence of Augustine’s City of God.  Orosius took up Augustine’s mantle of rebutting Christianity’s pagan critics by highlighting the alienated ignorance of Christianity’s pagan critics.  Orosius’ history is twofold.  First, it seeks to use history to highlight the ignorance of Christianity’s critics who make demonstrably false claims about their own history and against Christianity.  Second, the work seeks to promote patriotism through attachment to history to show how Christians—in embracing the tribal histories of the various tribal peoples of the Mediterranean—were ideal and virtuous citizens.  Orosius began the Catholic tradition of chronicling the history and stories of non-Christians for the mutual benefit of Christians and non-Christians alike.

[71] Paula Fredriksen, Augustine and the Jews: A Christian Defense of Jews and Judaism (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2010), 318.

[72] Augustine, “Exposition on Psalm 59,” 1.19, trans. J.E. Tweed, <>

[73] Augustine, Answer to Faustus, trans. Ronald Teske (Hyde Park: New City Press, 2007), 12.11

[74] Ibid., 12.13.

[75] Ibid., 12.12-13.

[76] Augustine, “Exposition of Psalm 59,” 2.1.

[77] Augustine, “Letter 82,” 2.18, Augustine to Jerome, trans. J.G. Cunningham, <>

[78] Ibid., 2.15.

[79] Ibid., 2.17.

[80] Fredriksen, 308-311.

[81] Augustine, City of God, 15.7.  It was common in patristic hermeneutics for such hyper-allegorized readings of the Hebrew Bible.  Augustine was no different in this respect, but his conclusions differed from the majority of early Christian fathers with regard to openness to the option of following the Law and formulating his theology of witness.

[82] Ibid.

[83] Augustine, “Exposition of Psalm 59,” 1.18.

[84] Ibid., 1.14-15.

[85] Fredriksen, 352.

[86] Christopher Dawson, “Augustine in His Age,” in St. Augustine: His Age, Life, and Thought (New York: Meridian, 1957), 77.

Paul KrausePaul Krause

Paul Krause

Paul Krause is an Associate Editor at VoegelinView and humanities teacher. He is a classicist, literary essayist, and Senior Contributor at The Imaginative Conservative. He also hosts a humanities podcast, Literary Tales.

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