“Shall it (the happy life) be that of the philosophers, who put forward as the chief good, the good which is in ourselves? Is this the true good? Have they found the remedy for our ills? Is man’s pride cured by placing him on an equality with God?”
— Pascal, Pensēes, #430.
“Salvation, such as it shall be in the world to come, shall itself be our final happiness. And this happiness these philosophers refuse to believe in, because they do not see it, and attempt to fabricate for themselves a happiness in this life, based upon a virtue which is as deceitful as it is proud.”
— St. Augustine, The City of God, XIX, 4.
“When, however, the Gospel and its message of salvation are rejected, a process of the erosion of moral values is begun, which easily has negative repercussions on the life of society.”
— John Paul II, Agrigento, May 9, 1993.
Is the happy life, the beata vita, as conceived by the philosophers, sufficient for man? And if it is not, ought philosophers to be content? What alternatives are open to the philosopher who suspects that virtue, even high virtue, is not necessarily its own reward? The philosophic life is considered to be the highest human life. The philosophic life is the quest for the truth, for the whole, for the explanation of what is. “The unexamined life is not worth living,” Socrates told us in The Apology. But the examined life, the philosophic life, yields its own perplexities. It knows that it does not know. But knowing this, it still wants to know the highest things. What has the philosopher found when he has found all he can find by his own methods? Can he call it happiness? Dare he call it happiness?
The life of the philosopher, the life of the poet, and the life of the politician, moreover, have clashed. The poet, the philosopher, and the politician are not necessarily friends to one another. The poet accuses the philosopher Socrates. The city condemns him. Socrates himself, worried about both the poets and the politicians, avoided public life because it was dangerous to be a philosopher in a democracy. The philosophers and politicians have quarreled most dangerously when the politician, thinking himself also to be also a philosopher, has endeavored to set up the best city in reality, not in speech, and thereby to command the poets sing its praises.
Is the politician’s failure to erect any example of the abiding city in speech also a failure of philosophy? Is the question of the best regime itself an illusion? Is the lack of the best city in actuality rather a failure of virtue? But are there not bad philosophers from whom the politician must protect the city? Is not philosophy, as Aristotle implied, the most potent corrupter of man and the city? Philosophy itself must discuss the question of erroneous or bad philosophy; the politician is aware of this.
To begin a reflection on Augustine in political philosophy with a citation from Pascal about philosophy, I confess, might seem, at first sight, altogether odd. No doubt some circuitous link can be found between the Bishop of Hippo and Port Royal. But Pascal, like Augustine, did bring up the question of the way of the philosophers, the way of contemplation. Both doubted if philosophy really was the chief good of man, the best way of life.
Pascal likewise maintained that something was ominously missing in the way of the philosophers. They had broached a question they could not themselves resolve, but still, with a touch of pride, they insisted on finding answers only from within philosophy, within their own way of life. They remained, however, abidingly perplexed. They needed a “guide,” as Maimonides implied. And their calling it “philosophy,” that is, the “love” of wisdom and not wisdom itself, only served to keep things unsettled. For perpetual quests with no theoretic end in sight appear to be more nightmares than hopes. Philosophy seemed to suggest that man’s life was a way, a search, but, at the same time, it could have in principle no end, a conclusion that contradicted the very notion of a natural quest.
Pascal’s questions, moreover, when looked at closely, already hinted at the whole subsequent path of modern philosophers, leading from self-interest in ourselves, to the social causes of evil, and, finally, to anticipations of Nietzsche and Dostoevsky about man, in seeking his own meaning, replacing God with himself, with his own willed order. The philosophers thus have not solved their own problems.
Those philosophers who were also politicians, moreover, those who were tired of contemplating the world, who wanted to change it, only brought to light again previous problems that somehow seemed to lie in the path of all true philosophy. In retrospect, Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations seem more abiding than Marx’s Manifesto. It is impossible to change the world correctly without knowing what the world is, without knowing its distinction from and relation to man, himself also a being in the world and yet with powers that seem to transcend it.
Is the way of the philosophers a false way, then, or is it merely a dangerous way? Is it a natural way, one following the laws of being, or is it artificial, a way set in defiance to anything in nature, including human nature? We might, at times, venture out onto dangerous paths, of course. But we ought to avoid those paths that lead nowhere, or worse, those that lead to destruction. Augustine himself, in the passage from The City of God cited above, clearly foresaw a danger in philosophy. The defining of this danger is a principal task of political philosophy itself.
Augustine, of course, wrote not as some stranger to philosophy. Very early in our literature he was aware of the limits of philosophy. He connected, as not accidental, the rejection of salvation with an attempt to set up a fabricated end for man, even when it takes, in agreement with the classics, the exalted form of a life of fine virtue for its own sake. He understood that if nature did not contain within itself its own completion, then to treat what is not God, what is not the end, as an end, all those beautiful things, is to imply that the world is subject to disorder because of man’s relation to it. The corruption of philosophy somehow does not come from itself. It comes from its quest, wherein the philosopher chooses finally to reject as not worthy of consideration something encountered from outside philosophy though intelligibly related to the search for wisdom.
I have likewise included a brief but related introductory passage from John Paul II at his philosophical best, for he clearly stands within this line of thought from St. Augustine to Pascal to modernity. The rejection of the Gospel—and the Gospel can be read by the philosophers as something intelligible to them, to their quest—is seen as a functional thing. Denial of salvation as proposed by articulated faith paradoxically cuts off one possible understanding of man’s purpose. This avenue so cut off, with its own claim to truth, forces the philosophers, poets, and politicians to imagine and propose other lines of happiness for man and for his purpose in existence. The “erosion” of moral values is seen to follow from a failure to relate these same values to something higher than themselves. Virtue manifests an inherent instability the minute it becomes its own end since it implies an unwarranted self-sufficiency, the self-sufficiency of the finite good and wise independently of the object of their goodness and wisdom.
Virtue to be virtue, it appears, cannot be only virtue. It is as if philosophy is not as abstract and neutral, as calm and contemplative as it often conceives itself to be. Slight errors in the beginning do in fact lead to huge errors in the end, as Aristotle had observed. It is as if correct answers need to be formulated, correct habits followed, and this under the penalty, when lacking, of the death of philosophic integrity itself. The failure to do this overall intellectual work will directly impinge on society, any society. In Augustine’s terms, no existing civil society is the City of God. On the other hand, all members of any existing civil society have to choose what ultimate city they will belong to. The seriousness of life in existing cities is only comprehended by the universality of the City of God and the City of Man. Otherwise, the life of the mortal, of the individual existing man, is only that, mortal, something of no final and ordered meaning.
To understand what is at issue here, we cannot avoid considering the guidance we can find in an Augustine, in a Pascal, or in a Pope John Paul II. Since what they argue is pertinent to the perplexity at hand, I want to clarify the argument by referring to a brilliant and too little known essay on Augustine by Charles N. R. McCoy. McCoy wrote:
“All virtue, then, as St. Augustine is saying, when not referred to God is vice by excess . . . The inordinateness of seeking virtue on its own account is of the essence of variable impiety because the frustration of man’s final end (eternal beatitude) leads to an insane searching for a substitute infinity—as in emperor worship—and destroys the proper forms by which human life is well lived on this earth.”
In this remarkably acute analysis of the essence of St. Augustine’s place in political philosophy, McCoy was conscious of the subtle ways in which the philosophic and moral virtues, that is, the ways of the philosopher and of the politician, could lead to frustration in their own orders. The philosopher was not content with the incompleteness of his mind; the politician was not content with the inadequacy of his city. The philosopher and the politician became rivals once the philosopher could not answer his own questions. The politician, geared to action, thought that he could find the answers in a regime, the spiritual artifact it was the politician’s to construct.
This frustration in turn led to attempts to concoct and set into being alternate worlds to the one that is because it is not likely that man will be content with nothing. It will be very intellectually difficult, as Aristotle had already observed, especially when other natural things seem to have a purpose, to accept that, even though everything else had a purpose, man alone had no purpose, that his being was “in vain” (1197a31).
One of the most challenging and unexpected alternatives to nothing, to this “in-vain-ness,” no doubt, is revelation itself and its own integrity. In the subsequent history of philosophy, this philosophical uncertainty about philosophy’s own incapacity to explain the whole is why revelation will come to be seen by some philosophers as merely uncertain or mythical, not to be taken seriously because it did not derive directly from philosophic methods. By still other philosophers, revelation will be understood merely as a “substitute infinity” with no other claim but man’s own powers. In neither of these cases will the coherence of revelation and philosophy be seen as at least possible, however carefully this coherence must be spelled out from both the side of philosophy and of revelation.
These very moral and philosophic virtues are described, defined, and reflected upon in the classics. By being only themselves and by no means denying their objective goodness, moreover, the virtues could lead to ideology (another more modern word for “substitute infinities”). This path from virtue to ideology was an effort to break out of the impasses into which philosophy and politics seemed invariably to lead if left to themselves. There always remains a certain haughtiness in error, particularly in the error that erects its own kingdom from its own resources.
Virtue, then, the object of the philosophers to define, of the poets to praise, and of the politicians to incorporate into life, must itself have a purpose. It must fit into some higher order whereby it can remain itself while not denying its own limits. Aristotle understood much of this danger when he related the practical sciences to the theoretic ones as their proper ends in the last book of the Ethics. But the theoretic life, while explaining how the practical life might be limited, itself arrived at the boundaries of a life higher than itself, a life that included knowing and loving, but one that apparently could not respond to the philosopher in his own terms.
For the classics, then, politics is the highest of the practical sciences, but not the highest of the sciences themselves. The “substitute infinities,” as McCoy called them, appear on the scene because the higher science that politics proposes is itself a quest and not a complete finding. The “substitute infinities,” that is, the explanations of the world and man apart from metaphysics and revelation, appear also out of a failure to acknowledge an end that did not arise from philosophy, or at least from an explanation of an end that did not arise from philosophy. Philosophy by itself, again, is a dangerous enterprise. Augustinian realism requires that we recognize this unexpected threat deep in the heart of philosophy, even if we do not, as we should not, cease to praise this same philosophy as it is in itself.
Even to ask the question of the place of Augustine in political philosophy, consequently, implies that political philosophy possesses an intelligible structure both of periods and of ideas, of issues that can be distinguished, identified, and related. I want to approach the understanding of Augustine in political philosophy by referring to something curious in Leo Strauss, one of the greatest thinkers about the order and sequence of political philosophy in this century. Even though one might look almost in vain in the works of Leo Strauss himself for a reference to Augustine, Strauss’ three editions of the History of Political Philosophy contain two very penetrating essays on Augustine, the one by Charles N. R. McCoy cited above and other by Ernest Fortin, whose general work on Augustine is of fundamental importance.
Indeed, the practical absence of Augustine in Strauss’ own work itself presents an intellectual problem that serves to set the stage for a proper and fresh consideration of Augustine. It is an absence, I think, occasioned by the way that Augustine related Judaeo-Christian revelation to classical political philosophy. Augustine integrated revelation and philosophy as if revelation completed philosophy while not denying its legitimacy. The highest form of life, for Augustine, was not merely that of the philosopher aware that he could not absolutely exclude revelation.
Since this completion evidently implied the truth of the Christian aspect of revelation as well as the truth of philosophy, Strauss retained his characteristic reserve. Strauss himself has taught us to take his own silences and reserve most seriously. This reserve sought to protect Old Testament revelation, the Hebrew revelation, without taking a position on New Testament revelation, while at the same time retaining philosophy as the highest way of living—Jerusalem and Athens, not Jerusalem, Athens, and Rome. Strauss, it is to be noted, does not take a position on the truth of Hebrew revelation either, but he is more naturally sympathetic to it than to the further question of the relation of Hebrew and Christian revelation, particularly whether they are inner-related.
The philosopher in Strauss, knowing that he could not, without contradiction, absolutely exclude the possibility of revelation, since the philosopher did not know the whole, was still to continue with the quest for truth. Strauss’s own “restless heart,” as it were, carefully examining texts and traditions, was by choice unwilling to repose there where Augustine found rest in the striking coherence of reason with Old and New Testament revelation. The Platonic side of Strauss corresponded to an awareness, at least, in his own soul of the “wandering Jew” who still sought the Messiah. Thus, Strauss was not willing or able to exclude a possibility that the philosopher could not by himself conceive.
Augustine; of course, never wrote any systematic tract on politics after the manner of Plato or Aristotle. But he did write The City of God, obviously a treatise, even in name, with Platonic and political overtones. The very title comes from the Psalms—”Glorious things are spoken of you, O City of God” (87:3). Moreover, Augustine’s works are filled with issues and references that can only be called political. Augustine discussed war, the place of heretics in the polity, the disorder of regimes, justice, good rule, bad rulers, and punishment. He is indeed said to be the father of political realism, if not exactly after the manner of Thucydides or Machiavelli, still with a definite awareness of the dire conditions that often appear among actual men in existing states.
Augustine is also said to be the father of political universalism and indeed in a more penetrating way than even St. Thomas. John East stated the issue most forcefully:
“To build a bona fide believing ecumenism, the Church will need to rely more upon the Augustinian perspective, and less on the Thomistic. Augustine is basic in the Catholic and Protestant traditions of Christianity, and he would have no peers as a point of departure in building a philosophical unity of all Christian believers. It is curious that Thomists should find universalism in Aquinas and provincialism or particularism in Augustine. The facts seem otherwise, for if you are talking about Christian universalism, it is Augustine who has the universalist appeal . . .”
Thus universalism, of course, in East’s view is particularly aware of the limits and even failures of all existing polities.
“Augustine reflects the fundamental Judaic-Christian view which teaches us there are moral absolutes even though they may be dimly perceived by finite, fallible man,” East continued:
“It instructs us that man is not the center and measure of all things, but rather God is. In contrast to his Creator, man is, in addition to being finite and fallible, characterized by a nature that has its “evil” side. Because of these limitations of man there will always be imperfections in the world regardless of the structureof human institutions. Out of this perspective springs the realization that men will never be as gods, and that some tragedy is inherent in the human condition.”
This realism about the causes and origins of human disorder is not designed to reduce politics to inert and inept reactions, for Augustine does maintain that something new is in fact available to us.
Augustine’s understanding, however, does prevent, on a universal scale, a kind of misunderstanding of the human condition that, by expecting too much from human means, ends up further undermining the human good itself. It is not a formula for inactivity, but is a formula for alertness. Augustine’s realism did not deny the validity of principles and standards. His universalism did not deny the distinction of polities and societies into manifestations of differing degrees of virtue and vice codified into lawand custom. It did caution against any too easy handling of human nature that would not recognize the depths of both evil and good that flow in and through the human will, itself presupposed to any political action or society.
No doubt, the question of the place of Augustine in political philosophy implies his place in philosophy itself. In his Confessions, Augustine recounts how, as a young man, he was launched into a consideration of philosophy. In a passage that never ceases to strike the placid reader with great force, Augustine tells how he came across Cicero’s essay, Hortensius. The young Augustine caught from Cicero the charm of the pursuit of truth for its own sake. He was subsequently never quite the same; his life had gained a new dimension. In a sense, Augustine might be called the true son to whom Cicero had dedicated his On Duties, that wonderful final gift of his philosophy to that son who would read him carefully. Augustine, some four hundred years later, was much more his spiritual son than Cicero’s actual son Marcus, off studying philosophy haphazardly in Athens.
In a famous phrase E. F. Schumacher used to love to cite from The City of God, Augustine asked rhetorically, in a sentence that linked forever happiness with philosophy, “Man has no other reason for philosophizing than that he may be happy” (Bk. XIX, c. 1). The very purpose of philosophizing is to examine the alternatives available to man and to find which of these will be that which corresponds to his own proper being, the conditions of which are now understood through his own self-reflection. It is not merely that we are made to know, but that somehow our very knowing, in all its forms, is what fulfills us, what makes us happy.
Augustine began to examine his life by scrutinizing the available philosophies. He tried them all and in this, Augustine presents something both attractive and challenging to modern students, who are not nearly so brave. Augustine had real problems and perplexities. For the solution to these ever-recurring enigmas, he turned to the major philosophical systems of his day, including Scripture which, by his own admission, he had underestimated as a source of knowledge and wisdom. All philosophical systems were unsatisfactory to him, though he learned much from all of them, especially the Platonists. Even Scripture needed clarification for Augustine. This clarification he acquired from the sermons of Ambrose that he was to hear in Milan before he could take it seriously.
In a wonderful, even amusing remark, he despairs of “being thirty-two years old and not having found the truth yet” (Confessions, Ch. VIII, c. 7). He would no doubt be perplexed at his modern contemporaries who, at the same age, do not despair when they think that they have found, in their various relativist philosophies, that there is no truth to be found. In this sense, Augustine’s philosophy, rooted in his own experience, allows for less self-deception than almost any other philosophy ever to have been proposed.
Augustine felt the attraction of Manicheanism, of the idea that there are two gods, of evil and of good, partly because it enabled him to continue on his own ways. If what he did was caused by some necessity beyond himself, then he was not responsible. He clearly saw a logic that he liked because it enabled him to do what he liked. Already here we find the intimate relation between moral integrity and the accuracy of philosophic insight.
Augustine, with considerable honesty, found Faustus, the Manichean bishop who was, he hoped, to explain philosophic and religious things to him, to be a rather nice man with some eloquence but not too learned. Faustus had only read a few treatises of Cicero and some other things of little import. Faustus would have had to show more acumen and more literary style to impress this sharp young man. What really moves Augustine are the philosophers, like Victorinus, who finally accept the faith. If Augustine is to believe, he is to do so with the style of the philosophers. Humility, thus, needs philosophical encouragement.
Augustine, moreover, was astonished that even the local professors had difficulty reading Aristotle’s Categories (Confessions, Bk. IV, c. 16). These professors were pretty pleased with themselves, as everyone knew Aristotle’s to be a tough work. Augustine, however, tells us, with no little charm, that he himself had absolutely no difficulty at all with that perplexing work. We cannot help but to admit that Augustine was a little vain, yet we have to concede that he probably did grasp Aristotle fairly easily, even to our own consternation if we ourselves have ever tried to read, as we should, this seminal treatise. Any of us who imitates the example of Augustine to read a philosophic work of Cicero or the Categories of Aristotle will know that serious study is required to master the material.
Augustine himself, however, unlike Ambrose in Milan, was never an actual politician. He taught rhetoric that no doubt prepared lawyers and judges for public life, but it was a life which, at the end of his stay in Milan, he considered to be mainly empty and boastful. As a bishop he dealt, as we know from his letters and sermons, with many delicate political issues. One of the most unsettling of these political issues was his dealings with the Donatists. Augustine’s later policies over the Donatists have merited for him an unduly harsh reputation among those who think it is a rather simple matter, in any polity, including a democratic one, to deal with fanatics. It is easy to criticize Augustine on the Donatist controversy if we think them to be merely pious dissenters.
In the beginning of this controversy, Augustine too thought that it was best to be tolerant and patient. Reluctantly, he found his kindly instincts ran stark up against the bloody reality he had to deal with. The theological issue in the light of the Donatist attacks necessarily required political attention. His fellow bishops and priests were being tortured, beaten up, killed, even. Augustine, then, is not the philosopher of the best state in this world, though he does have much to say about it. Rather he is the philosopher of the worst and those slightly less bad than the worst states—that is, most actual states in history.
Henry Paolucci put the issue as well as anyone:
“Doctrinaire libertarians are not likely to be persuaded by St. Augustine’s arguments supporting the view that, when civil governments are willing to do so, they have a right to compel heretics to enter the Church. Yet, upon close examination, these arguments [of Augustine] seem to stand up rather well as compared or contrasted with, say, President Lincoln’s views on compelling the rebellious Southern States to remain in the Federal Union, or the views of those who have justified the use of force to compel integration of the races in American schools, or of the separated provinces in the old Belgian Congo. St. Augustine pleads eloquently for mercy in the administration of civil laws, and demands of Christian public officials that they respect his pleas. Yet, at the same time, he warns all concerned with the maintenance of civil order not to undermine the foundations of society by attempting to ‘legalize’ or ‘legislate’ mercy.”
In more recent times, situations like Jonestown, or Waco, or Islamic fanaticism make it clear that changes in ideas are ultimately the only things that can really stop certain kinds of terrorism. Augustine was aware of this dilemma that eventually confronts all actual political societies. Augustine’s realism, as it is called, is not a principle for justifying evil deeds, but it is an awareness that evil deeds and deeply flawed thoughts that cannot be absolutely separated do exist and do cause unavoidable problems for any commonwealth, or for any tyranny, for that matter.
Augustine’s realism has, however, been said to protect bad regimes. It should be recalled, in this context, of course, that one of the functions of Aristotle’s description of good and bad regimes was to indicate that a change in regime will not necessarily mean a change for the better. But change is justified only if it is a change for the better. For the most part, Augustine advises citizens and Christians to obey the Emperor, as St. Paul himself recommended (Romans, 13:1-7). By failing to seek a radical change, Augustine is said to contribute to keeping the worst regime in power. But Augustine’s strategy, like that of Paul, was to realize that changes of regime are often better achieved by working to save and foster what is good even in a bad or tyrannical regime.
Augustine was in fact always talking about changing things. His whole personal life is a witness to such change. In addition to being aware of Aristotle’s notion that we could change from a bad regime to one even worse, something Augustine would have had no trouble understanding, it was primarily a question of what to change first, oneself or one’s state. Indeed, it might be argued that Augustine has elaborated for us the most radical political philosophy possible by the very fact that he changed himself, changed himself, that is, as he tells it in The Confessions, by the grace of God, and, we might add, by the sharpness of his own insights into himself and others.
Augustine, in fact, does not deny the classical distinctions between the different forms of rule-monarchy, aristocracy, polity, democracy, oligarchy, and tyranny, together with mixtures of the same. Augustine does not deny that some forms of rule are better than others. Rome was better than Carthage, not to mention better than the invading barbarians, even though these barbarians eventually became Christians and good Romans.
Augustine’s advice for those caught in bad regimes is that the highest things are still possible for them, but in the City of God. That is to say, there is not a one-to-one correlation between the final destiny of human beings and the sort of city in which they actually lived. Man is by nature a social animal, but the society to which he is destined is not a polity after the manner of existing cities. On the other hand, Augustine thought that right living and rightly ordered souls would inevitably produce a more prosperous and a more noble public order. In fact, in The City of God, he continually pointed out to the Roman politicians and philosophers that it was the Christians who were serving in the army and obeying the laws of the Empire. Thereby, the very backbone of the Empire depended not on the pagan Romans but on the virtue of the Christians.
In his reply to Leo Strauss (to recall Strauss’s silence on Augustine), EricVoegelin, as is not uncommon with him, does mention Augustine. “With respect to the relationship of science (and especially metaphysics) and revelation,” Voegelin wrote (April 22, 1951):
“Augustine seems to me in principle to have shown the way. Revealed knowledge is, in the building of human knowledge, that knowledge of the pregivens of perception (sapientia, closely related to the Aristotelian noun as distinguished from episteme). To these pregivens belongs the experience of man of himself as esse, nosse, velle, the inseparable primal experience: I am as willing and knowing being; I know myself as being and willing; I will myself as a being and a knowing human…. To these pregivens belongs further the being of God beyond time . . .”
Revelation here is said to stand before (be pregiven to) knowledge or science. We are ourselves, indeed, pregiven to our own thoughts. Our reality of being, our ability to know and to will is given to us; we do not cause these faculties to exist in us in the first place. In Voegelin, even God curiously stands here among the pregiven. And Augustine is said to be the authority for this view.
That there is some subtle problem with this explanation, Strauss himself was quick to point out. God is not a philosophical pregiven, nor even an experiential one. In Aristotle or St. Thomas, the existence of God is not a pregiven but the result of a careful philosophic proof beginning with what is clearly given, with actual things that move or change. Even some form of mystical awareness of God, beyond proof, as it were, must itself happen in the experience of the human agent and be judged by some clear criterion as not being itself deceptive. And Augustine, for his part, does not start with God, but with his own already existing, already searching self that has felt and posed the essential questions to itself. These questions, moreover, are not just idle ones, but they arose because they caused real unsettlement, real perplexity to an actual mind, to Augustine.
“What is consequently important to grasp is that the program of Christian philosophy is the same for both St. Thomas and St. Augustine: invisibilia Dei per ea quae facta sunt [the invisible things of God are known through those things which are made],” as Etienne Gilson, in a fundamental essay on Augustine, put the matter:
“It is in no case possible for man to start from God to deduce from Him the creature; on the contrary, he must mount from the creature to God. The course recommended by St. Augustine—and herein lies his personal contribution to the treasures of tradition—is the path to God, leading through this particular creature which is man, and in man, thought, and in thought, truth. But this means, quite beyond the speculations about the nature of truth and its metaphysical conditions, a sort of moral dialectic that, taking as object of its search the search itself by man of God, endeavors to show the presence in the heart of man of a contingency much more tragic and disturbing than that of the universe, because it is the contingency of our own beatitude.”
What is to be noticed in this incisive passage from Gilson is first that it is in agreement, as we shall see below (footnote #21), with Strauss’ comment that he was closer to Catholicism than Voegelin on this very topic. God is not, for us, a pregiven, even though, as we read in The Confessions, we are first sought by God. The primal experiences of esse, nosse, and velle exist as ontological realities before we exercise our willing or knowing faculties. Willing and knowing in turn are first activated not by themselves, but by something else inciting us to curiosity and wonder. We want to know some finite thing that is. We affirm that it is and that it is this and not that sort of thing based not on our thought but on our examination of what it is.
The second thing to be noticed in the Gilson analysis is that the philosophic life is seen, through the eyes of Augustine, himself a philosopher, as itself both the location for and a sign of the most tragic and essential activity in the universe, the activity by which we choose to accept or reject beatitude. Our beatitude is itself contingent upon our freedom. This contingency suggests that the urgency that revelation puts into the philosophic quest makes it far more problematic than the philosopher himself realizes. The search that leads through a particular man, through thought, to truth is not merely an abstraction. It is itself a probe embedded in a life in which the search exists, pressingly exists.
Perhaps a third aspect that can be remarked in Gilson’s analysis has to do with Augustine’s realization that our tragic and contingent beatitude is not just a problem for the philosophers, the few who have the time and talent to devote their lives to the quest. It is not without significance, in this regard, that Augustine eventually becomes a bishop and not a lawyer, politician, or professional philosopher.
On the other hand, because Augustine sees beatitude as belonging properly to anyone who chooses it, each is to know and love God and neighbor, it does not mean that the position of the philosopher is not one of special importance. Augustine, of course, did not think that many, including many philosophers, in fact chose God above some other alternative. He is often called a pessimist for this stand, but it was merely a practical judgment based on the evidence of the majority of actual human lives, most of which did not by any standard appear to be just. The optimist who thought everyone was to be saved not only took all drama out of human existence, but proved himself incapable of taking notice of what men do “do.”
Augustine already knows from his own life that disorder of soul seeks explanation, theoretic explanation or justification. Philosophy will always be called in to justify disorder of soul. Thus, in Augustine’s view, philosophy must also be called in to explain itself. Augustine, in other words, knows that there is such a thing as erroneous philosophy and that it must be reckoned with on its own terms. Christianity offered salvation to everyone, not just to the philosopher, but it recognized that the reason why this salvation might not be accepted or understood was most often, in historical fact, the result of the opinions of the philosophers of the time.
Ernest Fortin, I think, has rightly suggested the significance of this aspect of Augustine. The issue involves the question of what Augustine found to be wrong or ambiguous with Plato, whom he (I might add along with Strauss and Voegelin) considered to be the best of the philosophers. The first issue, no doubt, as I have indicated, is that Augustine did not think beatitude, however much dependent on the problematic of one’s own will, was meant only for the philosophers.
There was a kind of anti-philosophic audacity in revelation about philosophy, already typified by St. Paul (1Corinthians,1:18-23), that upheld the highest of standards without denying that its end or purpose was that each person, even the myriads of non-philosophers, see God. As opposed to modernity, which sought to lower standards to include everyone in the happiness of a civil society, but at the price of constructing its own moral laws, Augustine retains the standards. But he proposes another way to achieve happiness, one which does not deny the worthiness of Plato, yet one which sees both that more than the philosopher must be included in the reality of beatitude and that the object of philosophy is itself insufficient for human happiness though not entirely untrue as far as it went.
“What finally convinced him [Augustine] that happiness was not to be sought in philosophic contemplation but in the Christian ideal of the love of God and neighbor?” Fortin asked.
“Augustine’s works contain a variety of answers to that question but none more readily intelligible than his probing analysis of the internal difficulties besetting classical moral and political philosophy. Stated in its simplest terms, the argument runs as follows. The pagan philosophers correctly define happiness in terms of virtue or excellence, that is to say, in terms of the highest goals to which human beings can aspire, but they are unable to show the way to those goals. People are happy when they are at one with themselves and with one another, and they achieve this harmony when justice prevails both within and among them. Yet experience demonstrates that few of them ever manage to live perfectly just lives.”
It was not that the classic philosophers did not have a theory of justice that in quite an elaborate fashion recommended justice and even generosity. The fact is that justice was only rarely achieved, given the selfishness and disorder in most human lives. Classical thought did not know what to do about this situation and seemed content to present at least the possibility of finding a few good men, even if it could find no example of good regimes.
This situation then made it clear that philosophy did understand virtue. This grasp of the importance of virtue was not its problem. The problem was action, being virtuous, not knowing what virtue is. How in fact is it possible to be good in the context of this actual selfishness and disorder we find in every human being and society? Thus, the classical philosophers, Fortin continues:
“were the first to admit that their model of the most desirable society cannot be translated into action. It exists in speech or “private discussions” only. De facto, one is always faced with some sort of trade-off, that is to say, with a choice among a variety of regimes none of which is superior in every respect to any of the others. Even the mixed regime, which these philosophers present as the “practically” best solution to the problem, is nothing but an attempt to maximize the advantages and minimize the disadvantages of each individual regime.”
The existence of the best regime in speech, the Platonic conclusion, does not convert into action except at the danger of producing something far worse. Only by accident and rarely does the best possible regime exist to any degree. The reason why Aristotle argued for a multiplicity of small city-states and why Strauss was against world government was precisely to protect this rare possibility, a possibility that itself confirmed the validity of the philosophic enterprise itself even for a few.
The greatest enemy of normal virtue, however, has most often proved to be the effort to put perfect virtue into the world by political means. Thus, the classical discussion of regimes—good, bad, and mixed—is not a discussion that could result in what men really wanted, either in actual cities or in the very different, though related, City of God that Augustine used to replace the “Republic” of Plato. Fortin again describes the difference between modernity, the classics, and Christianity as it is seen in Augustine’s analysis:
“Augustine’s critique, which is all the more pertinent since it is based on his opponents’ own principles, reminds us of the one that would later be developed by Machiavelli and his followers, who likewise took issue with classical thought on the ground of its impracticality. The difference is that Augustine never thought of lowering the standards of human behavior in order to enhance their effectiveness, as did the early modern philosophers when they boldly tried to root all moral principles in some powerful but selfish passion, such as the desire for self-preservation. If anything, his own standards are even more stringent than the most stringent standards of the classical tradition. As he saw it, pagan philosophy was bound to fail, not because it made unreasonable demands on human nature, but because its proponents did not know or were unwilling to apply the proper remedy to its congenital weakness. That remedy consists in following Christ, apart from whom one can do nothing (John 15:5), for he alone both reveals the true goal of human existence and furnishes the means whereby it may be attained.”
What is striking about Fortin’s remarks is the degree to which he sees in Augustine an agreement of revelation and philosophy in everything but the means to achieve a commonly related end.
We may thus have the philosophic ambition to know ourselves, to know even our faults and defects. What we lack is the means to achieve regularly and certainly what we know is right or better. We are first dependent on knowing something else, something not ourselves. This reliance on something else in turn depends on our awareness that we do not even cause ourselves to exist in the first place. Augustine’s famous expression, “noverim me, noverim Te” (“if I would know myself, I would have to know Thee”), does not contradict this requirement that to know either oneself or God, we must begin with what is neither ourselves nor God. We must examine all those lovely things that are not God both to see how we might choose them instead of God and to see that the final source of their being good or attractive in the first place is not from themselves even though they be good. What is perplexing about the human condition, something Christian theology with Augustine calls original sin, is our inability to achieve the ends that we somehow still understand to be offered to us both in terms of virtue and in terms of beatitude.
With considerable perception, then, Strauss recognized that this approach of Voegelin was distinctly curious. Strauss wrote:
“There are criteria that permit a distinction between illegitimate [heretical] and legitimate formulations. If I [Strauss] understand you [Voegelin] correctly,…[this] is your view. On the basis of the same, you accept Christian dogmas. I do not know, however, if you do this in the Catholic sense. In case you did this, we would easily come to an understanding. Because my distinction between revelation and human knowledge to which you object is in harmony with the Catholic teaching. But I do not believe that you accept the Catholic teaching.”
Strauss’ “Catholicism,” as it were, is spoken both paradoxically and truly, for he was closer on this point to Catholicism than Voegelin.
Strauss’s remark to Voegelin that he (Voegelin) did not seem to “accept the Catholic teaching” acquired its force from Strauss’ doubts about the pregiven positions that were not themselves in any sense subject to philosophy. Revelation in Catholicism, however, as Strauss knew, had to withstand the test of philosophy as essential to the coherence of revelation. Gilson himself had pointed out the danger of a later Augustinianism that sought to use any prevailing reason to elaborate positions that were derived from faith.
If faith were to seek intelligence, this meant that human intelligence had to be used to order and clarify what was found in revelation. Thus, a philosophy did clarify revelation, as the neoplatonism of the Augustinian tradition undoubtedly showed. But this clarification was valid only when philosophy itself had already grounded itself in the permanent questions, in what is. On the contrary, the only solid basis for revelational positions was when theologians could at least formulate and understand principles that were not totally unrelated to philosophic experience.
In his book Plato and Augustine, Karl Jaspers tried to show how that form of philosophic mind, closed in principle to any claim of revelation, purports to find the origin of ideology in Augustine, only in an Augustine stripped of the claim to truth within his thought. “Through the grandeur of his thought,” Jaspers concluded:
“Augustine remains the most impressive representative of those who, human themselves, dare to claim that they can instruct others about God, and then to go on to cite as their witnesses to an absolute truth men who, as far as we can know, were without exception human beings, no less subject to error than we are. While this claim attests a love of man for man, a joy in sharing his certainty with others, it also discloses unmistakably a will to power, having as its corollary a will to submission, which in the main point has relinquished all striving to think independently.”
As a description of Augustine, of course, this passage reads almost like a parody.
The main witness to Augustine’s philosophy, of course, was not other men, but Augustine himself. And what “witnesses” that were “no less subject to error” than Jaspers himself seemed to be in Jaspers’ mind the Scriptures. The ideal of “thinking independently” in spite of the evidence would strike Augustine himself as precisely ideological, that is, as manifestations of the “substitute infinities.”
Jaspers extrapolates his position on Augustine, in a manner almost contrary to that of Strauss, into a critique of Christianity:
“A strange atmosphere of arrogant humility, of sensual asceticism, of perpetual veiling and reversal runs through Christianity more than any other faith. Augustine was the first to perceive all this. He knew the torrent of inner disharmony, of false and hidden motives—the dogma of original sin made this evil absolute in regard to worldly existence and in a manner of speaking justified it. The self-penetration that set in with Augustine continued down through the Christian thinkers to Pascal, to Kierkegaard and Nietzsche.”
Of course, this “strange atmosphere” of veiling and reversal is simply the doctrine and reality of free will, not of original sin. Inner disharmony and false motives are the consequences of the Fall, to be sure. But the “self-penetration”, as Jaspers called it, hardly “justifies” the evil. This self-penetration, however, is the whole point of Augustine’s life, of his realism, of his idea of free will.
The place of Augustine in political philosophy, I think, does relate, in a kind of reverse fashion, to Jaspers’ thesis. Jaspers had sought to make Christianity itself an ideology by denying that any of the witnesses were any more human than he was. This denial left Jaspers with philosophy as the highest life. By reducing Augustine’s witness, his metaphysics, to just that of another thinker, however attractive, Jaspers was able to stigmatize Augustine as the founder of the ideological claim to answers unavailable to the philosophers.
We have noticed in the beginning from Augustine himself, from Pascal, John Paul II, and even from Strauss’ response to Voegelin, that a path to strange infinities, to alternate structures of the world, did follow directly or indirectly from the rejection of any coherence between philosophy and revelation. St. Paul himself had noted something like this tendency (1 Corinthians, 1:18-24). The fundamental issue is whether philosophy, without ceasing to be itself, is the highest science, the highest way of life, or is it a handmaid, necessary and watchful, to the highest life.
A philosopher, like Jaspers, open to everything but the possibility that Augustine was not just addressing himself, sees the threat, the danger. Christianity—that is, the inner description of salvation as found in Scripture and Tradition—will appear to such a philosopher as merely another ideology and not as another possible response, with solid intellectual groundings, to genuine philosophic questions. The possibility of revelation’s truth is repudiated in such wise that what is rejected takes on the form of a strange infinity. The modern rejection of Christianity takes on itself the form of identifying Christianity as fanaticism, as an impossible solution, a strange infinity, however close it remains to what we actually want and to the principles of classical metaphysics.
Augustine’s Confessions stand in a particularly crucial position in this context. Romano Guardini, in his valuable little book The Conversion of St. Augustine, explained what is meant by the term “confession” for Augustine:
“The word [confession] signifies a stepping forth from the inmost reserve to the open, the public. Here, for religious reasons, the step is taken God-wards. A private life with its acts, just as it unfolded from attitude and intellectual struggle, is displayed—publicly, but also piously—before God, but so that men may hear.”
Augustine spoke of that small portion of the human race who would read his words (Confessions, Bk. II, c. 3). Jaspers saw in this public presentation of Augustine’s journey a “love of men” but more especially a “will to power.” Since the love of men in any Christian sense cannot in principle be simultaneously a “will to power” in the pejorative sense of that expression, there is something contradictory in Jaspers’ analysis.
The key, I think, lies in Augustine’s wholeness. In his Encyclical on “Augustine of Hippo,” John Paul II observed that Augustine:
“realized that it was impossible that the path to truth should be closed to the human mind; if it is not found, it is because men neglect and despise the means that will lead to the discovery of truth…. Reason and faith are two forces that are to cooperate to bring the human person to know the truth, and that each of these has its own primacy: faith comes first in the sequence of time, reason has the absolute primacy.”
Again here, there is the persistent theme that truth can be found and that the failure to find it has internal and personal consequences. Philosophy, the “absolute primacy” of reason, retains its importance. Will to power is not a substitute for reason but a denial of it.
This account of Augustine’s conversion and its meaning as a public testimony has received recent attention from James J. O’Donnell in his brilliant “Introduction” to his new edition and commentary on the Confessions. To a position such as that of Jaspers, that Christianity was another man-made projection of ideology, O’Donnell wrote:
“The ‘truth’ of which Augustine spoke was not merely a quality of a verbal formula, but veracity itself, a quality of a living human person. Augustine ‘made the truth’—in this sense became himself truthful—when he found a pattern of words to say the true thing well. But both the ‘truth’ that Augustine made and the ‘light’ to which it led were for him scripturally guaranteed epithets of Christ, the pre-existent second person of the trinity. For Augustine to write a book, then, that purported to make truth and seek light was not merely a reflection upon the actions of his life but pure act itself, thought and writing become the enactment of ideas.”
Augustine, as Gilson had said in his essay on “The Future of Augustinian Metaphysics,” led us to metaphysics through one actual being, Augustine himself. Augustine starts with his inner motion, accurately remembered and described, clearly spoken. The unity of faith and reason exist in Augustine, in someone for whom the problems exist and for whom the account of faith exists in an intelligible whole.
O’Donnell further pointed out that Christianity is not merely a body of doctrines, but it is also rite. Augustine embraced the sacraments as his major decision about how properly to worship God. The reading of The Confessions is always paradigmatic for the reader as it takes him through his own life, its own grounding.
“But the life of this particular act of ‘confession,’ the writing of this text by a man self-consciously turning from youth to middle age, is as present to us on the page as our own lives—indeed, it becomes as we read it a part of our own lives. It is that fragment of the ‘life’ of Augustine that is most accessible to us.”
The “public” aspect of The Confessions is, then, not something just for Augustine, because what he has described is a guide for any honest life.
This account of the inner life as it is made public brings us back to the relation between philosophy and revelation. The central issue has to do with Augustine’s celibacy and why he did not simply settle down, marry, and have a normal public life. Contained within this problematic, in O’Donnell’s view, is a discussion of a treatise of Ambrose that was written on the sacrament of baptism and its relation to philosophy. Clearly this is an odd relationship. But, as O’Donnell points out, it is the key to Augustine’s relation to philosophy. For we must remember that celibacy was not merely a Christian counsel but also a pagan ideal for the philosopher.
O’Donnell explains the point accurately:
“The way of life of the philosopher is not the true way, it is not enough to know the truth, one must have in addition sacramental membership in the Christian church. Phrased this way, the relevance to Augustine’s position is clear. What is of greater interest, however, is that in that treatise, Ambrose found it polemically necessary and useful to counter the claims of the philosophers to have achieved a higher standard of moral life by their chastity; “continence is the pedestal on which right worship rests,” says Ambrose. That was the challenge Augustine accepted: to become not merely Christian, but a Christian who outdoes the philosophers in all their excellences. In order to present himself for baptism, Augustine felt that he had to have achieved a degree of moral self-control that assured him of a lifetime of continence”.
We relate this position in Augustine back to the problem of the insufficiency of virtue, even a lofty philosophic continence. However, the practice of philosophy by itself, especially supported by this high form of life, can and does lead to a pride that is destructive of virtue in its ends.
If we must reconsider the very nature of Augustine in political philosophy as seen in much of the literature about him—his modernity, as it were—as I think we must, it is because political realism, while valuable, is not the principal legacy of Augustine, nor is it that of his supposed influence in inspiring ideology or political fanaticism into the modern world. What Augustine teaches is the philosophical insufficiency of virtue, of the philosophic life. But that life is really dangerous when it is presented with and subsequently refuses to see the completion of the virtuous life in revelation.
The fanaticism, Augustine himself thinks, comes from precisely this source:
“Salvation, such as it shall be in the world to come, shall itself be our final happiness. And this happiness these philosophers refuse to believe in, because they do not see it, and attempt to fabricate for themselves a happiness in this life, based upon a virtue which is as deceitful as it is proud” (The City of God, Bk. XIX, c. 4).
All the elements of the modern formation of ideology are already here, in the philosophers who actively refuse to believe, and who therefore see no final end to virtue, so that they have to “fabricate” an alternative over against the salvation that contains the true end of virtue.
Ernest Fortin, in a profound essay, has suggested that we need “a fresh inquiry into the nature of Augustinian political thought” because of Augustine’s indirect relation to Nietzsche, to his (Augustine’s) critique “of classicism in the name of faith.” Augustine’s bond of love and faith between all citizens of any city, the bond that replaced justice in Cicero’s definition of the state, tended to undermine the basis of any actual city. As a result, Augustine himself had to spend much time explaining why Christians were also obedient to existing states in the things that mattered to the state.
The fact was, however, that no political life or life of virtue was capable “of exhausting the full range of human possibilities or satisfying completely man’s longing for wholeness.” Nietzsche had tried to restore specifically human greatness but on the basis of the modern critique of reason. What mattered was not the objective order but “the sincerity and intensity of one’s commitment to one’s freely chosen goal. Concern had replaced truth as the unique and ultimate criterion of the worth of one’s actions.” Nietzsche himself, as Fortin observed, regarded Augustine and Pascal as the true representatives of the Christian tradition.
Yet this presumed subjective side of Augustine that is seen in Nietzsche and in Jaspers neglects the fact that, while he understands the insufficiency of virtue, Augustine in no way denigrates virtue, even when he emphasizes the consequences of the Fall. The modern political theory that replaced the classical and Christian theory is characterized, in Fortin’s view, by a new “doctrinairism.” Classical thought discussed differing regimes in the context of differing kinds of chosen virtue or vice. In modernity, there is only one regime allowed and this is a “just regime … attainable anywhere and at any time.” The varieties of actual virtue and accident become irrelevant as aspects of real regimes.
Science in modernity became a project to transform the world. “Man could look forward not indeed to a new heaven, but to a new earth with its glittering prospect of a ‘shared, abundant, and secured’ but otherwise unregulated life.” We would now have a “realizable utopia” that would succeed where classical philosophy and Christianity had failed. It was the failure of this modern project that Nietzsche explained. It was a failure that had Augustinian roots, Fortin thought, because Augustine’s love and faith could, when lost and transformed into sincerity and concern, make it seem like a this worldly paradise was possible.
In The City of God (Bk. V, c. 12), Augustine wrote, “For there is no true virtue except that which is directed towards that end in which is the highest and ultimate good of man. In a sense, this is the most important sentence in his works to understand Augustine’s political philosophy. It is simply that the history of the City of God and the City of Man are so interrelated that the rejection of the former causes the other, in the sense of the state, to change its form and limited nature, which is itself possible only if not confused with the City of God:
“For although some suppose that virtues which have a reference only to themselves, and are desired only on their own account, are yet true and genuine virtues, the fact is that even then they are inflated with pride, and are therefore to be reckoned vices rather than virtues. For as that which gives life to the flesh is not derived from flesh, but is above it, so that which gives blessed life to man is not derived from man, but is something above him . . .” (The City of God, Bk. XIX, c. 25).
What philosophers find maddening about Augustine is precisely his questioning of their virtue, not on his grounds, but on theirs. The virtues of the philosophers are in fact splendid vices, pride, when they stand by themselves. Philosophers, by the historic record, cannot keep them to be virtues. Thus, they do not just stand by themselves but seek a rationale, an explanation of their independence.
It is from this background that McCoy’s remarks about The City of God become important. He calls Augustine’s contribution here “altogether original.” This originality of Augustine consists in the fact that “matters that belong to the separate philosophical sciences (such as ethics and politics) are given a higher unity by reason of the more universal formality under which they are regarded, namely, Divine Revelation.” The point of this new relationship is not that man does not owe final allegiance to the state. This understanding of the limited nature of the state is already in Plato and Aristotle. What is lacking to natural virtue is precisely the final end of man, a clear understanding of his duty and his happiness. This understanding is supplied in revelation and not in philosophy, though there is nothing in it with which philosophy can find ultimate fault.
Augustine never tires of describing the disorders present in human society. For this blunt reminder, he is often considered to be a consummate pessimist. But in fact what he describes is no different than what is read in any daily newspaper or history book in any place or any time about what actually happens among men. Augustine in fact is surprisingly encouraging about the possibilities of a relatively civil public order, once the deeper questions of man’s ultimate end and the means to achieve it are known, something that is the burden of revelation.
The key text here is found in The City of God (Bk. XIX, c. 13):
“God, then, the most wise Creator and most just Ordainer of all natures, who placed the human race upon earth as its greatest ornament, imparted to men some good things adapted to this life, to wit, temporal peace, such as we can enjoy in this life from health and safety and human fellowship, and all things needful for the preservation and recovery of this peace, such as the objects which are accommodated to our outward senses, light, night, the air, and waters suitable for us, and everything the body requires to sustain, shelter, heal, or beautify it: and all under the most equitable condition, that every man who made a good use of these advantages suited to the peace of this mortal condition, should receive ampler and better blessings, namely, the peace of immortality, accompanied by glory and honor in an endless life made fit for the enjoyment of God and of one another in God; but that he who used the present blessings badly should both lose them and should not receive the others.”
No Enlightenment utopia could be more fulsome.
Augustine, of course, would not be surprised that historically such a more pleasant earthly existence did not often occur. He understood human will too well. But the fact is that there is present in Augustine a positive appreciation of earthly peace provided that its conditions are clearly recognized, namely, that it itself depends upon the relation of the virtues to the higher end of man.
“Far from eliminating the State by referring its temporal peace to eternal peace,” McCoy explained, “St. Augustine’s thought rather would re-establish the State’s integrity both in the mode of its operation (which is free) and in the order of its end (which is the temporal human common good).”
For this to happen, the moral rectitude and the understanding of man’s final end must be known. That is, the end of man is understood to be the life of the Trinity. The moral means of grace and spiritual life are needed to address the consequences of the Fall. These ends and means must be present in the citizens’ own inner life.
Virtue, when sought for itself, however, is not neutral. All civil and personal life is shot through with the presence of a human destiny higher than the state. Thus, in McCoy’s conclusion, “the central idea, the chief significance for politics and political philosophy of The City of God” is precisely the freedom given to the citizen and the state not to have to solve transcendent questions by political means. This liberty leaves the citizen free to know his higher end, an end that includes virtues and goals that enable the natural virtues to work without the pride that would corrupt their integrity.
The place of Augustine in political philosophy, therefore, includes both his taking seriously Plato’s effort to locate the best polity, now for Augustine in the City of God, and his proposing that the best practical city is also more frequently possible than for the classics because of grace, because more than the philosopher, men are aware of the real nature of the highest end. As to the worst states, those Augustine looks at with acold eye, he realizes that they do not in principle prevent anyone from achieving man’s final end and that they themselves cannot prevent that conversion of heart from which all societal change in principle originates. On the other hand, Augustine’s realism requires that we also know clearly the terrible things men do “do” precisely so that we will not underestimate the seriousness and difficulty of fallen men ruling fallen men.
From John R. Meuther’s “Story of an Encounter,” itself an account of conversations about Augustine, two final aspects of the scope of Augustine’s political philosophy need to be spelled out. In these discussions, Ernest Fortin had observed that there is no discussion of the best regime in Augustine. Since this was the essential question of classical political philosophy, its absence was surely significant.
“The problem of the best regime lay at the heart of the City of God, according to Robert Markus. The only good regime, let alone the best regime, is one which cannot be established by human agency. ‘So what does Augustine settle for?’ Markus asked. ‘Rather than describing any one of a number of alternative possible utopias, he talks about a state in which you do the best that you can in purely pragmatic terms. This is the point of the City of God. It is to formulate a concept of theses publica to which the Christian and the pagan alike will be able to give loyalty. That is the fundamental point, once you get all the polemics out of the way: how to speak of an ideologically neutral community.’”
This neutrality, of course, must leave open the possibility of lives being influenced by the norms of revelation, even of living according to these standards in public. That is, the content of the civil order was itself the major factor on whether one could be loyal to it.
But what this pragmatic argument misses, I think, is that Augustine does not entirely abandon the question of the best regime. Indeed, his whole genius is to recognize that this Platonic question about the best regime is quite legitimate. It is a necessary question posed by the very dynamics of living itself. The best regime, however, is precisely the City of God. We ought not to deny the significance of this fundamental affirmation, while we acknowledge that by comparison to it, all actual regimes are pragmatic and imperfect.
Rather Augustine sees the profound worthiness of Plato in posing the question about the best regime in the first place. It is because Plato had asked the question as a philosopher that the response of revelation made intellectual sense. Without Plato, what is revealed would appear as arbitrary or chaotic. The location, not the legitimacy, of the best regime is what The City of God is about. The fact that it is not in this world does not denigrate political philosophy but raises it to its proper horizon and defines more clearly what is its own task or scope.
Hannah Arendt, to stressa second final point, had remarked that Augustine was the founder of the discussion of will in Western philosophy. Jean Elshtain commented on the influence of Augustine on Arendt:
“The one great twentieth-century philosopher who turned to Augustine repeatedly was Hannah Arendt. What she found in Augustine that figures in all of her work is the power of his argument against the cyclical theory of history. He creates space for new beginnings that the cyclical theory denies. He also has a profound sense of living in fallen times . . . Much of her politics is about keeping the worst from happening.”
The linear theory of history is what makes willed actions significant in their non-repeatability.
“Augustine, the first Christian philosopher and, one is tempted to add, the only philosopher the Romans ever had,” Arendt herself observed,” was also the first man of thought who himself turned to religion because of philosophical perplexities.” As I have suggested, this turning was itself made possible because Augustine did have philosophical problems that were not being met by philosophy itself but which did serve as a link to revelation. Worldly politics is indeed important in preventing the worst from happening. This again is Augustinian realism. The location of the best regime, however, was the more profound philosophic problem, the one that could lead to the much deeper disorders of society and polity if some adequate response to its location were not given. This response was what Augustine did in The City of God.
Christopher Dawson, I think, at the end of his remarkable essay “St. Augustine and His Age,” drew together the various strands of Augustinian political thought. He underscored the revolution that the discovery or more precise clarification of the nature of will made in political philosophy. Augustine’s reflection on will, beginning with his own, really implied a new founding for both for the City of God and for civil society.
“Under the Roman Empire, as in the sacred monarchies of the oriental type, the state is exalted as a superhuman power against which the individual personality had no rights and the individual will had no power. In the East, even Christianity proved powerless to change this tradition, and alike in the Byzantine Empire and in Russia the Church consecrated anew the old oriental ideal of an omnipotent sacred state and a passive people. In the West, however, St. Augustine broke decisively with this tradition by depriving the state of its aura of divinity and seeking the principle of social order in the human will. In this way, the Augustinian theory, for all its otherworldliness, first made possible the ideal of a social order resting upon the free personality and a common effort towards moral ends. And thus the Western ideals of freedom and progress and social justice owe more than we realize to the profound thought of the great African who was himself indifferent to secular progress and to the transitory fortunes of the earthly state, ‘for he looked for a city that has foundations whose builder and maker is God.'”
What is to be noted here, as in the earlier remarks of McCoy, is that the effort to acquire a consistent understanding of both reason and revelation, of experience and of philosophy, does serve to correct principles of polity and to specify the virtuous quality of public life.
This connection between will and society is precarious both for ultimate questions—Gilson’s “tragic and disturbing contingency of our beatitude”—and for civil society. But it does leave open the option to live well in the world, even in radically disordered societies. The final resolution of man’s beatitude is not in philosophy itself or in politics. Yet both philosophy and politics succeed in understanding their own limited truth because each can, with Augustine, ask the proper questions and each can understand the errors of choices that cannot in principle reach the City of God.
The place of Augustine in political philosophy, then, is not merely as a founder of political realism, though it is at least that. Nor is Augustine simply someone who stands for the transcendent over against the historical disorders of every regime, even the best practical regimes. Augustine’s theory of will does mean that the heart of change, even political change, does exist in every human person, that the state is not the ultimate locus of human action. But essentially Augustine stands for the completion and coherence of political philosophy, not by itself, but through itself, through its own questions honestly posed and open to answers strikingly related to its own inadequacies, to the “restless hearts” that Augustine knew to be found amidst all those beautiful things that surround us all.
1. John Paul II, Address in Agrigento, Sicily, May 9, 1993, in L’Osservatore Romano, English, May 12, 1993, p. 2. See John Paul II, “Augustine of Hippo,” (Apostolic Letter, August 28, 1986), The Pope Speaks, 31 (1986), 361-88).
2. Charles N. R. McCoy, “St. Augustine,” History of Political Philosophy, Edited by Leo Strauss and Joseph Cropsey (Chicago: Rand-McNally, 1963), pp. 157-58.
3. See Eric Voegelin,Science, Politics, and Gnosticism (Chicago: Regnery, 1968).
4. See especially Ernest Fortin,Political Idealism and Christianity in the Thought of St. Augustine (Villanova: Villanova University Press, 1972); “St. Augustine,”History of Political Philosophy, Edited by Leo Strauss and Joseph Cropsey (2d Edition; Chicago: Rand- McNally, 1972), pp. 151-79. (This same essay is also in the Third Edition).
5. Leo Strauss, “The Mutual Influence of Theology and Philosophy,” Faith and Political Philosophy, Edited by P. Emberley and B. Cooper (University Park, PA.: Pennsylvania State University Press, 1993), pp. 217-34.
6. See James V. Schall, “St. Augustine and Christian Political Philosophy,”The Politics of Heaven and Hell: Christian Themes from Classical, Medieval, and Modern Political Philosophy (Lanham, MD.: University Press of America, 1984), pp. 39-66; “Augustine: On Teaching and Being Taught,”What Is God Like? (Collegeville, MI.: Michael Glazer/Liturgical Press, 1992), pp. 207-30.
7. See The Political Writings of St. Augustine, Edited by Henry Paolucci (Chicago: Gateway, 1962).
8. Herbert Deane’s Political and Social Ideas of St. Augustine (New York: Columbia, 1956) remains the best statement of this view. See William Stevenson, Christian Love and Just War: Moral Paradox and Political Life in St. Augustine and His Modern Interpreters (Macon, GA.: Mercer University Press, 1987). Two essays of permanentvalue need also to be mentioned: Reinhold Niebuhr, “Augustine’s Political Realism,” Perspectives on Political Philosophy, Edited by J. V. Downton and David Hart (New York: Holt, Rinehart, and Winston, 1971), 243-57, and Ernest Barker, “Introduction,” The City of God (Everyman Edition; New York: Dutton, 1945), pp. viixxxviii.
9. John P. East, “The Political Relevance of St. Augustine,” Modern Age, 16 (Spring 1972), 170-71. See especially Etienne Gilson,”St Augustine and the Problem of World Society,” Introduction to The City of God (New York: Fathers of the Church Edition, 1960), Vol. VI. pp. xi-xcviii; R. A. Markus, Saeculum: History and Society in the Thought of St. Augustine (Cambridge: At the University Press, 1970).
10. East, ibid., p. 172.
11. E. F. Schumacher, A Guide for the Perplexed (New York: Harper Colophon, 1977), Dedication.
12. See The Political Writings of St. Augustine, Edited by Henry Paolucci,ibid.; Peter Brown,Augustine of Hippo (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1969).
13. Paolucci, “Introduction,”The Political Writings of St. Augustine, ibid., pp. xxi-ii.
14. Eric Voegelin, Letter #38, Faith and Political Philosophy, ibid., pp. 82-83.
15. See Etienne Gilson, “The Future of Augustinian Metaphysics,” A Gilson Reader (Garden City, N. Y.: Doubleday Image, 1957), pp. 101-02.
16. Ernest L. Fortin, “Augustine and the Hermeneutics of Love,” Augustine Today, Edited by Richard J. Neuhaus (Grand Rapids, MI.: Eerdmans, 1993), p. 40.
17. See Leo Strauss, The City and Man (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1964), p. 49.
18. Fortin, ibid., p. 41.
19. Ibid., pp. 41-42.
20. Strauss, Letter #39 (June 4, 1951), Faith and Political Philosophy, ibid., p. 88.
21. See James V. Schall, “Revelation, Reason, and Politics: Catholic Reflexions on Strauss,” Gregorianum, 62 (1981), #2, 349- 66; #3, 467-98; “A Latitude for Statesmanship? Strauss on St. Thomas,” The Reviewof Politics, 53 (Winter 1991), 126-45; Reason, Revelation, and the Foundations of Political Philosophy (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1987), pp. 182-224.
22. Etienne Gilson, Reason and Revelation in the Middle Ages (New York: Scribner’s, 1938), pp. 35-66.
23. Etienne Gilson, Reason and Revelation in the Middle Ages ibid., Chapter I. See also James V. Schall, “’An Atheist in the Sacristy’: Why Does Faith Seek Intelligence?” Faith or Reason, ‘XVIII (Winter 1992), 315-34.
24. Karl Jaspers, Plato and Augustine, Translated by Ralph Mannheim (San Diego: Harvest, 1962), pp. 118-19.
25. Ibid., p. 119.
26. This was Strauss’ own wonder at the beginning of The City and Man, ibid., p. 1.
27. Romano Guardini, The Conversion ofSt. Augustine (Chicago: Regnery,1969), p. 3.
28. John Paul II, “Augustine of Hippo,” ibid., p. 364.
29. James V. O’Donnell, “Introduction,”Augustine: Confessions (Oxford: Carendon Press, 1992), Vol. I, Introduction and Text, p. xvii.
30. Etienne Gilson, “The Future of Augustinian Metaphysics,” A Gilson Reader (Garden City, NY: Doubleday Image, 1957), 82- 104.
31. O’Donnell, ibid., pp. xxvi, xxviii.
32. Ibid., p. xxx.
33. Schall, “The Christian Guardians,” The Politics of Heaven and Hell, ibid., pp. 67-82.
34. O’Donnell, ibid., p. xxxix.
35. Ernest Fortin, Political Idealism and Christianity in the Thought of St. Augustine (Villanova, PA.: Villanova University Press, 1972), p. 38.
36. Ibid., p. 35. The Place of Augustine in Political Philosophy 165.
37. Ibid., pp. 37-38.
38. Ibid., p. 36.
39. “But that is true virtue, when it refers all the advantages it makes a good use of, and all that it does in making good use of good and evil things, and itself also, to that end inwhich we shall enjoy the best and greatest peace possible” (The City of God, Bk. XIX, c. 10).
40. McCoy, “St. Augustine,” ibid., p. 151.
41. Ibid., p. 155.
42. John R. Meuther, “The Story of an Encounter,” Augustine Today, ibid, p. 149.
43. Hannah Arendt, The Life of the Mind (New York: Harcourt, 1978), Vol. II, pp. 84-110.
44. Ibid., p. 147.
45. Ibid., p. 84.
46. Christopher Dawson, “St. Augustine and His Age,” St. Augustine (New York: Meridian, 1957), pp. 76-77.
This was originally published with the same title in The Imaginative Conservative on August 28, 2013.