skip to Main Content

Preface to an Augustinian History of the United States (Introduced by a Reading of Dante)

In the first Canto of his Inferno, having projected himself into a dream of his own making, Dante is confronted with a she-wolf (lupa), ultimate incarnation of evil.  The beast is, to some extent a corruption of old-Rome’s she-wolf suckling Romulus and Remus.  The new beast does not nourish, but smother political life and order: she is not nations’ natural inspiration, but their pretentious parasite.  Thus, we read:

And a she-wolf that, of all cravings

seemed charged in her emaciation,

and many peoples did she drive into affliction,

she did impose so much weight upon me 

with the fear that issued of her sight,

that I lost the hope of all heights”

(Inferno I.49-54, anticipating 97-99).

The beast counters men’s will to ascend to the sun, driving them back into the earthly.  Thus, “mi ripigneva là dove ’l sol tace”: “she pushed me back there where the sun hushes” (Inferno I.60).  Yet, thereupon Virgil rises to the rescue, suggesting that the coming of the she-wolf stands as reminder of “another voyage”—another way—allowing us to settle out of harm’s reach in the wild place into which we have fallen, as if into a dream (91, 93).  For, the she-wolf, oppressor of nations (frustrating peoples’ natural political aspirations), “leaves no man pass upon her way / but much impedes him ’till she kills him” (96).  A lustful monster, mating with entire generations, “until the hound / shall come, making her die with pangs” (102).  Upon mating with the heroic hound, the she-wolf shall no longer engender slavish natures, or wasted lives (after 49-50), but rather die of her own unfruitful pangs.  How shall the hound achieve his mission as “savior” of his ancestral nation—of a nation Dante evokes in the name of civil martyrs of classical antiquity (105-06)?   The answer: by hunting the beast down “through every village, / finally to send her back into Hades / there whence primal envy had dispatched her” (109-11).

Dante’s hound converts false promises and the frustration they engender, into the virtues of a long-abandoned way of life that rises to the Sun, not as Icarus in unreachable heavens, but as prudent Daedalus who seeks himself hidden at the heart of the divine (Virgil, Aeneid, VI.20ff, Paradiso XXXIII.133, Purgatorio XXXI.110).

Let us take our bearings from our poet’s intimations of a heroic quest, the twofold twilight war confirmed in the opening verses of the second Canto of Inferno—to fight on the two fronts of humanity and divinity, of what is ordinarily manifest to men and what lies by night in sacred concealment (Inferno II.1-6): “sì del cammino e sì de la pietate” (after I.1, 21 and 35), referring at once to our poetic desire and our religious fear.  Dante, personified by his valiant hound, mediates the two (desire and fear), guiding us along the way, lest our souls be caught between two fires, crushed as manure (faex) devoid of both humanity and divinity (cf. the faex Romuli of Cicero’s Epistle to Atticus, 2.1.8).

Dante’s lesson serves here as cornerstone for an Augustinian History of the United States—an account written in the light of a classical Platonic intuition into the permanent bond between humanity and divinity.  In the terms revived more recently by Leo Strauss, there is no politics without theology and no theology without politics.  The collapse of the tension, even conflict between Religion and State translates eo ipso into the utter demise of civilization.  Now, this demise may result from the rise of a Church reducing the political to the merely-earthly, or abandoning the original bond between politics and divinity; or, it may result from the rise of a modern, secular State reducing the religious to the merely-earthly, thereby condemning us to a genetic or evolutionary conception of man, a conception reducing man to a function of the sub-human, without any inalienable tie to the supra-human.  To be sure, modern man may understand himself as building a new world (what Strauss dubbed “second cave”) of ideals symbolically transcending the sub-human, but a “symbolic” transcendence amounts to none at all with respect to the concrete quest to salvage civilization.[1] Once reality catches up with our “ideals,” these burst as soap bubbles into thin air, exposing us in the blink of an eye to Icarus’s fate.

The United States are perhaps the only present-day republic founded on the principle of indivisibility of the human and the divine, with the understanding that the former proceeds really, not merely symbolically, from the latter.  What contemporary republic besides the USA holds that the political is really rooted in the divine without being reduced to it?  Consider, for instance, the French republic, which is famously based on the modernist “Separation of Church and State”.  That separation would be the steeple of a revolution that was fully compatible with Robespierre’s appeal to the two symbolic principles of the république, namely belief in a Supreme Being and in the Immortality of the Soul (l’Être Suprême et l’Immortalité de l’Âme).  The Separation of Church and State, in other words, is fully compatible with the modern State’s upholding of divinity as a human ideal, de facto a creation of men: a symbol of the republic.

What happens where a State turns divinity into a political symbol?  Freedom of Religion is eo ipso replaced with freedom from Religion, which is to say, freedom to replace Religion proper with a mere object of choice, or trade.  Thereupon, what is called “religion” (as in the contemporary expression, “Religious Studies,” for instance) comes to refer to no more than an image people conceive a-politically, or “subjectively” of Religion.  Churches survive at best in the shadow of the State, relegated by the State to the role of plaything of market forces.

Now, when this occurs, republican freedom as originally understood, classical freedom disclosed in the light of our political access to the divine, falls into obscurity.  Freedom is no longer understood, appealed to and lived in terms of the bond between political life and divine transcendence, but in terms of political life’s alienation from divine transcendence.  The challenge we now face is not to witness divinity in our ordinary lives—so that ethics no longer serves as mirror of metaphysics—but to create our ends given the presupposition that our ordinary life, or “the public sphere” is cut off from any and all divine transcendence.  The divine does not enter providentially into matters of State.

What holds true for the vast majority of countries, today, is incompatible with the foundation, birth, or essence of the republic of the United States of America, given that the American republic was founded unequivocally upon the independence principle of freedom of Religion, entailing that politics is essentially open to, or oriented towards religious ends, without ever being reduced to any particular representative Church.  All religions, as understood by America’s Founding Fathers, are admitted and indeed welcome in the public sphere, insofar as religions can guide politics to resist the temptation of closing itself upon itself, thereby converting into ideology, which is the project of creating a world devoid of creative divinity, a world shut to the divine pre-conditions of any and all humanity.[2]

What, in his Brothers Karamazov, Dostoevsky denounced as “socialism,” evoking the biblical prophecy of the Tower of Babel, is the essence of modernist republics, republics that unlike the American one, are essentially modern in the respect that they reject freedom of religion in favor of a politics redefined ideologically as creator of human ends, and thus as standing super partes, above any political critique; for, politics is not seen or lived in the light of a higher end.  To be sure, in modernist republics we have political parties that critique one another, yet diatribes never touch upon their foundations, or upon fundamental issues, remaining instead swamped with the technicalities of Realpolitik, while political actors seek Machiavellian solutions to conundrums generated by a Machiavellian logic.  The foundations of politics remain obscured, then, and political debate constitutes a sort of rhetorical cloud, noise in effect, preventing people from catching the slightest glimpse of what is really at stake, namely the problem that modern radical secularism is established to overcome, or “solve” symbolically.  Modernist politics eclipses its own dawn, distracting itself from it by driving itself progressively into ever more sophisticated schemes advancing its future-oriented cause.  What does modernist politics ultimately drive at?  By definition, the consolidation of a political regime leaving its theological roots behind, if not by severing them once and for all, at least by “reinventing” them, or pretending that they amount to no more than misguided products of what has been called the “creative imagination” of peoples.

American politics unfolds on a stage, or in a context that modernist countries such as France fail to appreciate, insofar as they abide in denial of their original motives: the reason why modern secularism arises, to begin with.  There where religious freedom is publicly or politically conceived as freedom of the public sphere from Religion, or as politics detached from supra-political (given) ends, America’s war for Religion, America’s struggle against the “socialist” segregation of the supra-political from politics, remains incomprehensible.  Indeed, Europeans are often baffled at the sight of American republicans fighting against socialist benefits.  Can these benefits not be cherished on merely technical, expediential grounds and thus aside from theological concerns?  Here the European is taking a Machiavellian conception of politics for granted; he thereby remains oblivious to an original understanding of politics as essentially bound to theological ends.

The American political arena remains incomprehensible to foreign Machiavellian republics and outright dictatorships, alike.  Yet, within America itself lingers fierce opposition to the principles of the American republic.  These principles are not necessarily limited to biblical expressions, yet they find their strongest formal representation in the Bible (both Testaments).  Accordingly, Americans adopting a modernist conception freedom are most likely to look down upon, not to say denigrate and despise, Americans appealing to the Bible as cardinal point of reference for our understanding of politics.

Now, far from being accidental to our present times, the American domestic conflict between biblically inspired politics and modernist politics finds its roots at the very heart of the republic’s foundation, allowing us to speak of the American republic as such, as a battleground for two conflicting political orientations that St. Augustine identified in his De Civitate Dei, namely the civitas terrena (or diaboli) and the civitas dei (or caelestis).[3]  An Augustinian History of the United States would be the account most proper to America, approaching the republic in its essential constitution, as the place where two ways of life, two orientations of politics, clash against each other, one being foundational, the other being parasitic upon the former.  America’s own War of Independence (1775-83) would here emerge as a war waged essentially against an “earthly politics” (civitas terrena) represented by the British monarchy’s assault upon religious freedom as originally understood, not as freedom to choose/trade a religion in a strictly secular context (as contemporary Machiavellians teach us), but as politics’ constitutional exposure to ends transcending any and all human representation.  On an Augustinian reading, America’s War of Independence is not waged in the name of power, or modernist freedom, as much as the war’s dynamics necessarily pertained to tangible matters of discord.  These would be no more than shadows of the problems at the heart of the conflict, problems pertaining to the importance of saving politics from being in effect privatized, whereby the end of politics would be defined in pre-political, “material” terms.  On an Augustinian reading, then, America does not presuppose a Hobbesian “State of Nature” devoid of any divine providence, but an inalienable bond between “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness,” where we evidently do not pursue freedom (or power) as an end in itself, insofar as freedom stands as the link between life and happiness.

In sum, an Augustinian account of America would unearth the republic’s constitutional underpinnings, showing that the nation stands or falls on the principle that life is originally politically bound to divine happiness.  What is it to live?  It is to live in liberty.  What is it to live in liberty?  It is to pursue happiness as the proper end of both life and liberty.  But what is it that stands above both life and liberty, above the sub-human and the human, alike?  It is the divine that allowed St. Augustine to speak as heroic prophet of “godly politics” (civitas dei) and that allows us, today, to speak of America as the place where godly politics has known its most glorious resurgence in the modern world.

An Augustinian History of America would recover the great signposts of the American experience (not least of them the Civil War of 1861-65) in the light of a fundamental conflict between lovers of “sweetness and light” (Matthew Arnold) as integral to Biblical wisdom, and those conceiving reason as essentially alien to the Bible and perhaps then as in need of being mechanically imposed upon it, lest the Bible come forth as untamed threat to democratic life.[4]

Augustine’s America exposes an old, even permanent conflict between two conceptions of freedom, an original one on account of which freedom is the soul of law open to divinity, and a derivative, even parasitic one on account of which freedom uses law to keep divinity at bay.  Great progress and wonderous discoveries are the promises of the heralds of a “socialist” (Dostoevsky) freedom the Bible warns us against.  Dante draws our attention back to such promises, warning us against the further danger of a Tower of Babel consolidated by the use of the Bible against itself.  The Augustinian historian of America will rise further yet, to the task of showing how the conflict proclaimed by St. Augustine has gained, today, unprecedented virulence, as the legions of Babel have availed themselves, not only of the Bible, but also of the technological fruits of Christianity’s ideological secularization.

 

Notes

[1] Cf. my critique of Minkov and Trout eds., Mastery of Nature, in Interpretation: A Journal of Political Philosophy, Vol. 45.2-3 (2019): pp. 223-48 and 427-54.

[2] It is strictly in the context of modernity’s secularism that the view arises that some religions are not creationists, or that they are compatible with modernity’s evolutionism.  In reality, only by a systematic work of abstraction can we obtain a “religion” compatible with modernity’s progressive materialism, i.e. a doctrine deriving, if only intuitively, the supra-human from the sub-human.  What is often referred to as ancient “animism,” is not creationist along Biblical lines, but it is indeed creationist in the respect that it stands for the primacy of sacred spirits over any tangible “manifestation”.  As G.B. Vico noted, no religion has ever believed in mindless gods (Principi di Scienza Nuova, 1744, Book 2, “Of Principles”: “[no religion] believed in a God that was wholly Body, or else in a God that was wholly Mind, unless it was free”).

[3] De civitate Dei, XIV.28.

[4] A noteworthy example of the latter, modernist reading of the Bible is found in Thomas L. Pangle’s “The Hebrew Bible’s Challenge to Political Philosophy: Some Introductory Reflections,” Ch. 5 of Political Philosophy and the Human Soul: Essays in Memory of Allan Bloom, Michael Palmer and Thomas L. Pangle, eds. Lanham: Roman and Littlefield, 1995; 67-82.

 

Marco AndreacchioMarco Andreacchio

Marco Andreacchio

Marco Andreacchio was awarded a doctorate from the University of IIllinois for his interpretation of Sino-Japanese philosophical classics in dialogue with Western counterparts and a doctorate from Cambridge University for his work on Dante’s Platonic interpretation of religious authority. Andreacchio has taught at various higher education institutions and published systematically on problems of a political-philosophical nature.

Back To Top