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Reading Charles Norris Cochrane as a Political Theorist: Canada’s Neglected Contribution

Reading Charles Norris Cochrane As A Political Theorist: Canada’s Neglected Contribution


Delivering the Presidential Address to the Canadian Historical Association in 1946, Frank Underhill lamented sorry state of Canadian intellectual contributions to the analysis of the “modern crisis of liberalism.” He wrote, “It is a remarkable fact that in the great debate of our generation, the debate which has been going on all over the western world about the fundamental values of liberalism and democracy, we Canadians have taken very little part…Canada is caught up in this modern crisis of liberalism as are all other national communities. But in this world-debate about the values of our civilization the Canadian voice is hardly heard. Who ever reads a Canadian book? What Canadian books are there on these problems?”[1] A great irony of Underhill’s acerbic remarks is that he failed to acknowledge that his criticism was already refuted in the work of Charles Norris Cochrane and his 1940 classic, Christianity and Classical Culture. Far more insightful was Harold Innis, who credited Cochrane with making “the first major Canadian contribution to the intellectual history of the West,”[2] and George Grant, who perceived that, “To read [his] work is to understand that the history of the ancient world has been illuminated for him by the predicaments of his own society, and that he uses the examples of the ancient world to throw his light towards the solution of the modern predicaments.”[3]

Following Innis’ and Grant’s admiration and against Underhill’s neglect, I want to argue that Charles Norris Cochrane is best understood as a Canadian political theorist who was motivated to consider the whole sweep of Western civilization by his proximity to the problems of modernity and the spiritual and political crises of the twentieth century. I think such an approach places Cochrane favorably among notable twentieth-century figures such as Leo Strauss and Eric Voegelin, and best illustrates the need for a rediscovery of Cochrane within political philosophy.

Cochrane’s work is suffused with political reflection, and politics is prominent as an ordering theme in his major publications: Thucydides and the Science of History,[4] Christianity and Classical Culture,[5] and Augustine and the Problem of Power.[6] For the purposes of the present essay I wish only to adumbrate the main political themes of Cochrane’s work by focusing on his elucidation and critique of the classical concept of “creative politics,” and the response of a distinctly Christian political philosophy. Focusing on creative politics entails developing the implications of this idea for understanding power, progress, and ideology or what Cochrane calls the “fantastica fornicatio.

Creative Politics

On first encounter without context, a modern assumption would likely guess that creative politics is a positive term. As an expression of dissatisfaction with our current political practice, or as a general appreciation for the notion of creativity as a good characteristic we might anticipate that creative politics will be Cochrane’s desired outcome. This, however, is not Cochrane’s intention in using that term. Instead of a positive vision of creativity, we should instead approach his usage by focusing on how he develops it as a representation of the pretentious attitude of those who imagine that they can “create” something new under the sun.

Cochrane developed the term “creative politics” during the writing of his magnum opus,[7] Christianity and Classical Culture: A Study in Thought and Action for Augustus to Augustine to describe the encompassing vision of culture and politics that was implicit in “Romanitas,” that is “Roman-ness,” or the Roman way of life. Augustus’ Romanitas was built upon the basis of the classical inheritance delivered to Rome from the Greeks, and so Cochrane takes it as the high-water mark of classical political philosophy, calling it “the last and not least impressive undertaking” of “creative politics.”[8] Despite the seeming differences between the diverse thinkers and statesmen of Greece and Rome, Cochrane claims that they all shared the overarching desire for a permanent and final philosophy of life and politics that was jointly shared in the classical idea of the commonwealth.

After the Civil and Social Wars and the collapse of the Roman Republic, Augustus’ challenge was to reinvigorate the classical idea of the commonwealth which had decayed as a result of the factional strife that had fissured Roman society.[9] Cochrane writes, “The crisis which issued in the principate may be regarded as, on the whole, a crisis of adjustment, during which men never quite lost faith in the possibility of conserving the essential elements of the classical heritage. This, indeed, was the precisely the aim of Augustus; his work marks a herculean effort to solve the problems of his age in terms consistent with the thought and aspiration of classical antiquity. From this standpoint, his problem was to associate the notion of power with that of service.”[10] Put another way, Cochrane writes, “The effort of Classicism was…an effort to rescue mankind from the life and mentality of the jungle, and to secure for him the possibility of a good life. That is to say it was envisaged as a struggle for civilization against barbarianism and superstition.”[11] If successful, Augustus would not only have justified his own power in Rome and Rome’s power in the world, but this also would have supported the claims of classical politics as an enduring solution to the problems of communal life. Classical politics would have forever solved “the problem of politics” in finding a way to “reconcile ‘liberty’ with ‘authority.’”[12] In carrying forward its pretentious vision, Cochrane claims the “task of creative politics” is “an elaborate and comprehensive scheme of social planning in which, with the [telos] of man constantly in view, ‘function’ shall be ‘adjusted to capacity’ and ‘instruments to both.’”[13]

Here, the peace that resulted from Augustus’ consolidation of power and long reign gave a false sense of security. “In the solution he provided, the emperor claimed to have gone beyond the immediate needs of the occasion and to have laid the foundation for an enduring settlement.”[14] “In this vision [of power] we may distinguish two elements of paramount importance. The first was an ideal or pattern of what has been called ‘strictly human’ excellence, the excellence of man as man. The second was a conviction…that this ideal was possible of realization by virtue of capacities inherent in human nature.”[15] Cochrane writes at length:

“Greek thought, starting from the concept of ‘strictly human excellence,’ admits the occurrence, however sporadically and unevenly, of individuals who, for some mysterious reason, transcend the common measure of humanity. In the lyric poets such individuals are conceived to enjoy capacities denied to the normal man…At the same time they exhibit an inclination ‘to live dangerously,’ defying the conventions which govern ordinary behavior and achieving results to which the ordinary man would be mad to aspire. That is to say, they appear to possess a quite abnormal ‘potential’ of power. This power…is rationalized in terms of the familiar ‘virtue and fortune’…complementary concepts which, as we should say, represent the ‘subjective’ and the ‘objective’ factors of success.”[16]

The subjective factor or virtue Cochrane variously describes as “character (art and industry)” and the objective factor or fortune he describes as “circumstance.”[17] This account of the “classical logos of power” is really “no solution at all” because “no intelligible relationship could be established between the two component elements.”[18] The classical account of power was therefore unworkable in theory, but the Caesars remained.

Despite strong evidence to the contrary, the Caesars where soon to be esteemed with divine honors, and this itself fits within the logic of classical power. It was only a short step from focusing on a leader’s “virtue” or “intelligence and endurance”[19] against the onslaughts of “fortune” or chance to the apotheosis of the Caesars in being declared equal to the gods. The reverence for power in a divinized leader was the only conceivable option for the problem of power in the classical world, but it was not without its flaws. “The deification of imperial virtue involves, as an inevitable corollary, the deification of imperial fortune. These considerations will help us to understand why the Christians, at least, looked with profound suspicion and disfavor upon ‘the immense majesty of the Augustan peace’; why, indeed, despite the inestimable benefits of security and order which it embodied, a man like Tertullian felt himself justified in denouncing the realm of Caesar as the realm of the devil.”[20]

It is impossible to grasps the character of Cochrane’s work without understanding the political theology motivating his study of the period and concern for the transition from classical antiquity to the advent of Christianity. Where the famed German historian Theodor Mommsen had examined the possibilities for reform of Rome under the Caesars and accordingly rehabilitated the reputation of Julius Caesar to fit with Germany’s contemporary esteem for a Bismarckian strongman,[21] Cochrane resisted the theological implications of such a view. Cochrane writes, “It is an exaggeration to describe [the political program of the Caesars] as one of regeneration for [their] deeply decayed country. What Julius accomplished was rather a task of social and political reconstruction, and this was inspired by ideas, all of which fell within the ambit of Greco-Roman thinking, which hardly contemplated, even in a metaphorical sense, the notion of rebirth.”[22] This distinction between what classicism was able to conceive and the new idea of salvation or regeneration guides Cochrane through the whole of his magnum opus, which is divided into three sections: reconstruction, renovation, and regeneration. His overriding concern is to condemn the pretension of classical politics which claims for itself some form of power for political salvation.

Against the backdrop of German scholarship’s favorability to Bismarckian realpolitik, and the contemporary rise of Hitler, Mussolini, and Stalin, Cochrane resisted the admiration for classical sources and parallels as a model for present politics. Cochrane writes in a 1937 review essay, “The Augustan peace was a pax imperfecta, an enforced order which, while perhaps requisite for a people capable neither of freedom nor of servitude, yet depends for its ultima ratio upon the sword.”[23] As Cochrane continues to explain, “Statecraft constructs; it does not create, since the material with which it deals consists of native moral and spiritual forces which are presupposed in all forms of activity. These forces it may indeed stimulate and direct, as it may also pervert or destroy them. But, in that case, its function is purely and simply one of social mechanics; to describe it as one of regeneration is to subscribe to one of the most dangerous fallacies of the political mind.”[24]

Cochrane clearly sees this drive at work in his day as he makes a modern connection between his classical subject and rising European totalitarianism when he relates Aristotle’s concept of habituation:

“Aristotle (no doubt as a consequence of his biological investigations) hit upon a most important discovery. This was that, since the human animal requires such a relatively long time to mature, the human soul is capable of almost infinite malleability through the process of habituation (ἐθισμός). In this undoubted truth of human biology we may discern the secret which underlay most of the pretensions of “creative politics” in classical antiquity—a secret of which the modern European exponents of classical political technique have been quick to take the fullest possible advantage of in their schemes to ‘produce’ moral and spiritual, as well as merely external ‘conformity.’”[25]

The historical experience of the classical commonwealth had confirmed the desire for peace and stability in society, but it was unable to give a true account of how these could be realized in life. If the possibility of regeneration is subtly floating, ever-present but never realized, beneath the crises of antiquity, the question naturally occurs: what power can realize social salvation?


In politically framing Cochrane’s project using a concept like power, we clearly see again the importance of reading Cochrane as a political theorist. Cochrane’s concern for Romanitas and creative politics is not the exercise of an aloof classicist. Cochrane’s concern for these issues cannot be separated from the two world wars of his lifetime, and the ideologies of political power that were competing in the world of thought and action. Cochrane, however, is also quick to point out that his concern for the history of late antiquity should not be understood superficially. Defending himself from such charges at the outset he writes:

“This is not to suggest (as might be supposed) that what is sometimes called the message of ancient wisdom, whether classical or Christian, may be taken to provide a ready-made solution for historical problems which are more or less specific to the twentieth century…[I]t is no part of my intention to elaborate a comparison between events which have shaken the foundations of modern society and those which marked the decline and fall of ancient Rome, and to palm this off as a significant contribution to understanding. But it is one thing to recognize that historical events, considered as such, are each and every one unique in its time and circumstances; quite another to imagine, with more extreme exponents of historical relativism, that the experience of those events recorded in contemporary literature and art, is devoid of meaning for future generations.”[26]

While Cochrane thus resists the temptations to score easy points through superficial parallels, he continues on to assert in a statement clearly indebted to Collingwood that, “To recover and re-present that experience, so far as may be possible in view of the obvious barriers to understanding, is the task of historical investigation.”[27] From this we can situate his concern for the political problems of his day, as well as understand his vision for his own scholarly contribution to withstanding the trials of these crises.

Cochrane was concerned not only about the present problems of the modern age, but also about the weakness of the response from those who should have led the way in resisting disorder. Writing in 1943, Cochrane exclaims, “It is a weakness of contemporary political liberalism that it shrinks so painfully from the problem of power. And it is precisely this weakness which has exposed liberal democracies to the crisis of our time, a crisis from which they can escape only as they succeed in facing the duty of making a fresh analysis of this—perhaps the most baffling—problem of human life.”[28] This indictment necessarily leads us to consider what Cochrane means when he invokes the “problem of power.” At its broadest meaning, Cochrane uses power as a shorthand term for the existence of civilizational order and stability and its necessary components of liberty, security, peace, and prosperity. Power here does not mean simply the ability to do something, but the total account of human relations that provides for the possibility of human life together in community. Cochrane rightly understands that, whatever the deficiencies of classical political philosophy, the ancient world properly understood that humanity was meant to live together in community, however difficult it is to realize this foundational need in the actual practice of life. Life together is impossible without some account of power, but in the life of classicism power resisted an easy definition and a stable career. “The human quest for power is seen for what, in fact, it is, viz., the real horme or dynamic of all secular endeavor, the impulse which serves to explain the most splendid and impressive achievements, as well as the most abject failures of the race. Thus envisaged, the problem of power emerges as the crucial problem of human history.”[29]

According to Cochrane, one of Christianity’s key contributions to the order of Western civilization was its understanding of power. In seeking to curtail the return in modernity of political ideas indebted to classicism’s creative politics, Cochrane offered insight into the revolution that Christianity had accomplished in thinking and doing by bringing an entirely different vision of the world and humanity’s interaction with it. In so doing, he points out that Christianity offers an “original and distinctly Christian philosophy of power.”[30] To develop this claim he extended the analysis offered in Christianity and Classical Culture with a series of lectures he delivered at Yale Divinity in 1945 titled: “Augustine and the Problem of Power.”

The vision of power is based on the desire to stabilize human existence in community. Cochrane writes, “[The] passion for freedom and security manifests itself in an unquenchable thirst for power.”[31] Cochrane does not deny humanity’s desire for “freedom and security,” he simply insists that humanity is impaired in its quest, and that the terms in which classicism envisioned its goal were radically defective. The defect in classicism is centered in its unrestrained features of idealist philosophy, whether derived from Plato or Aristotle. By situating man’s highest existence in the polis, Greek idealism sought to “integrate” its “formal,” “ideal of justice” with the “justice of the polis.”[32]

“It is precisely at this point that the idealist commits the crime of Prometheus in seeking to appropriate what belongs to Zeus or, like Adam in the garden, eats of the forbidden fruit in order to become ‘like God.’ In other words, what he does is to treat knowledge not as a means to ‘wisdom’ but as a source of ‘power.’ The power to which he thus aspires proves, however, to be quite illusory. For what he has in fact accomplished is to substitute his notion of order for the order which exists in the universe; the fictitious for the actual; the dead concept of the living reality. His problem is thus to give currency to this counterfeit of cosmic order by persuading or compelling men to accept it as genuine. The effort to do so constitutes the history of ‘politics’ in the classical antiquity.”[33]

In contrast to classicism, Christianity accepts Christian revelation as wisdom or sapientia. That is, as the preconditions of knowledge and life in this world, and so Christians place themselves in submission as opposed to seeing themselves in opposition to the reality that will not oblige humanity’s dictates. Cochrane uses the Promethean metaphor to describe the revolt against the universe that humanity necessarily embarks on whenever it tries to act according to the dictates of the “fictitious” reality it has created for itself. In Christianity and Classical Culture, Cochrane had stated the matter more obliquely, “In this respect the error of Classicism may be summarily described as a failure to identify the true source of power and, therewith, its true character and conditions…These fallacies Christianity explodes in a sentence: all power cometh from on high.”[34] Christianity thus cuts the Gordian knot which had developed from the “claim of science to be architectonic and, therefore, entitled to legislate with sovereign authority for the guidance of human life.”[35]

What I have called a Promethean metaphor, Cochrane more strikingly labels “secular perversity.” It is secular in the sense of being “worldly,” and it roots both evil and salvation in the present world of the saeculum. Cochrane writes, “Secular perversity…uncritically assumed that, if indeed there existed some ‘flaw’ or ‘fault’ operating to prevent the fulfillment of the human potential, the place to look for such a fault was in ‘nature’ (envisaged as the sphere of incompletion) when, in point of fact, the fault was not in ‘nature,’ but in the construction placed upon it by the human mind.”[36] The outworking of this secular perversity is most clearly seen by outlining Cochrane’s use of the concepts of progress and ideology, both as they relate to the creative politics of the classical world, and as they relate to Cochrane’s concerns about the political mass movements of the twentieth century that were challenging Western civilization.

Progress and Ideology

As we have seen above, creative politics provides a false view of power and essentially negates the idea of progress by claiming to encapsulate for all time the final solution for all social structures and problems. As Cochrane notes, “Of all elements in Christian teaching, there was none more remarkable than the notion of progress and none more incongruous with the thought and practice of classical antiquity.”[37] Thus, one of the reasons that Christianity was appealing to the Rome world, both to the poor and dispossessed as well as to disillusioned neo-Platonic philosophers was that it offered a vision of progress. While Constantine was the first emperor to see the potential offered by the new religion, it is best to follow Cochrane’s outline of the development of his vision for Christianity to its logical outcome in the later emperors and understand that they all misunderstood and misused Christianity for political purposes.

“Constantine had thought of Christianity as a tonic, to be administered in carefully regulated doses to the debilitated body-politic. What Theodosius proposed was not so much a tonic as a blood-transfusion, as the only possible means of restoring to the polis something of the vitality which, in the interval since Constantine, had passed from it to the ecclesia. And therein he was sustained by a firm belief that in Orthodox or Trinitarian Christianity was to be found a principle of political cohesion, acceptance of which would ensure to the empire a finality in keeping with her secular claims…Thus apprehended, however, Theodosianism betrays a fatal confusion of ideas. For to envisage the faith as a political principle was not so much to christianize civilization as the ‘civilize’ Christianity; it was not to consecrate human institutions to the service of God but rather to identify God with the maintenance of human institutions, i.e. with that of the pax terrena.”[38]

The problem with pagan, Constantinian, or Theodosian visions of creative politics is that “it rests upon the essentially superficial assumption that the value of religion is primarily economic or utilitarian, i.e., that it somehow serves to guarantee temporal or worldly success.”[39] In the case of both the pre- and post-Constantinian empire, the facts do not bear out this assumption.

Just as in late antiquity, it is possible to view the spiritual and political crises of the twentieth century as contests over the idea of progress. However, whereas in the classical period progress was denied with the claim that creative politics had provided the definitive solution to problems of human community, in the twentieth century the Christian notion of progress escaped its proper bounds and ran wild outside the bounds of Christian orthodoxy. In some sense combining the worst elements of the creative politics of classicism and the triumphant imperialism of Constantinian Christianity, the ideological mass movements of the twentieth century brought havoc and destruction, and as with their classical predecessors, “the remedy for the evils of government could be nothing but more government.”[40] Just as with the ancient world, the ideologies of the twentieth century identified evil as some aspect of the created order and sought to solve the problem by offering a worldly salvation from the evil so identified.[41] Cochrane writes, “Secular pride rejects the major premise of the faith, viz., that God created the universe and that the work of creation is thorough and complete. By rejecting this proposition, and by claiming the right to perfect what it conceives to be the imperfection of nature’s handiwork, pride arrogates to itself the status and prerogative of a god. But it does not thereby alter the facts of natural life; it merely sees them in terms of its own inverted and distorted perspective. In other words, it deliberately cuts itself off from the authentic source of being, truth and goodness and condemns itself to a life of subjectivity.”[42]

This deficient subjectivity of the mind well describes what we would call an ideology. While ideology can be understood in as a neutral, descriptive concept for quantitatively oriented political scientists, for Cochrane ideologies are not just deficient, they are politically and theologically dangerous. Cochrane writes, “An ideology…is simply a rationalization invented by the discursive reason in order to bridge a chasm which its own activity creates; its value for this purpose being in no sense dependent upon its inherent truth but wholly upon its capacity to stimulate ‘action.’”[43] In perhaps his strongest language, Cochrane writes, “For such perversions of intellectual activity Augustine has a name and it is a strong one; he calls them fantastica fornicatio, the prostitution of the mind to its own fancies. To him, therefore, they represented, in its grossest and ugliest aspect, the betrayal of understanding.”[44]

The “prostitution of the mind to its own fancies” risks not only the salvation of individual souls, but also has consequences for the social order because the disorder of individuals will solidify in the community through life shared together. Therefore, Cochrane’s opposition to modernity’s revival of creative politics through the ideologies of political mass movements leads him to again draw on the Promethean metaphor to describe the socially destructive consequences for ancient and modern ideologies.

“The choice for man, as Augustine sees it, does not so much lie between science and superstition as between two kinds of faith, the one salutary, the other destructive, the one making for fulfillment, the other for frustration. Of these alternative faiths, the former saves by illuminating experience and giving it value in terms of an absolute standard of truth, beauty, and goodness. To pledge allegiance to this faith is thus to experience no sense of limitation, but only a feeling of enhanced freedom and power. The latter may well be described as Promethean. Based as it is on a distorted or partial apprehension of ultimate reality, its character is necessarily felt as oppressive; and the sense of oppression bears its inevitable fruits in defiance and revolt to be followed by confusion, defeat, and despair.”[45]

Christianity’s advent in the late antique world offered a way out of this Promethean impasse by envisioning history, not as a conflict with some flaw in the created order, but as “a record of the divine economy, the working of the Spirit in and through mankind, from the creation of the first conscious human being to its full and final revelation in the Incarnate Word.”[46] History is thus “an account of human freedom, its original loss through Adam and its ultimate recovery through the second.”[47]

To assume any other culmination of history, particularly one located in the work of political leaders or parties commits the sin of Prometheus, and destroys life and community. Cochrane insists on the important implications of Augustine’s two-cities model. He writes:

“There is not and cannot be any finality to human history, no city of refuge in which historical man may rediscover the security of his lost Eden and protect himself from the impact of change and novelty; but the life of historical man is in very truth a peregrinatio, pilgrimage or trek through the wilderness, a trek which must continue until, as Christianity puts it, the consummation of all things. To such an experience and such a history mankind is committed by the law of his being as a free agent. By the selfsame law of his human freedom he is, indeed, in a position to reject his destiny, but, in so doing, he merely stultifies himself and his humanity, and deliberately paves the way for his own destruction.”[48]

Accepting human life on these terms is a form of salutary bondage that promotes freedom and power, rather than limiting human fulfillment. It is a false claim that man can transcend the limits of created order and control himself and the world without acknowledging these boundaries. It represents what Cochrane calls, “idolatry in its most subtle and seductive manifestation, the worship by man of himself.”[49]


In many ways Cochrane stands as an excellent contrast with his better known contemporary Reinhold Niebuhr, who is frequently consulted by political theorists interested in the twentieth century. Both Cochrane and Niebuhr are related in their assessments of the conditions of modernity and both focus on understanding Augustinian Christianity as a needed corrective for the ideological crises of their day. The importance of Cochrane, however, lies in his difference from Niebuhr. Perhaps fittingly, Cochrane and Niebuhr split their time as invited lecturers at Yale Divinity School in 1945. While both generally speak of Christian realism, Niebuhr’s response to the ideologies of the modern world is a straightforward rebuke of any ideologies that seek to realize their disordered heaven on earth. Niebuhr writes, “The dream of perpetual peace and brotherhood for human society is one which will never be fully realized. It is a vision prompted by the conscience and insight of individual man, but incapable of fulfillment by collective man.”[50] Donald Meyer further develops the extent of Niebuhr’s view of the division of Christian hope and political realities, “The grace [of Christianity] to which Niebuhr was pointing carried no positive guarantees for politics, for society, or for history. It was not a resource that, supplementing the virtue and intelligence of men, guaranteed the Kingdom. It was a resource that consoled men for the fact that the Kingdom was an impossibility in history. Even more, this resource could allay the anxiety of men so that they need not compound the tragedies inevitable in history by insisting upon perfection in history.”[51] While there is no denying an Augustinian tone to Niebuhr’s point, it is still possible to argue that Niebuhr does not capture the full extent of Christian social teaching.

Cochrane certainly thought leaving the matter in this purely negative position was unacceptable. He pointedly critiques Niebuhr writing, “To admit as final any dualism between ‘moral man’ and ‘immoral society’ is to perpetrate the most vicious of heresies; it is to deny the Christian promise and to subvert the foundations of the Christian hope.”[52] Stressing only the limits of politics in response to the extravagant claims of creative politics and the fantastica fornicatio of ideological visions cannot fully express Christian view of the politics of the present world. Returning again to the division that structured Christianity and Classical Culture, Cochrane reminds his Yale audience, “Christian faith perceives that the task of mankind is emphatically not one of ‘creation,’ as secularism in its arrogance has supposed, but rather one of ‘construction,’ in humble and patient submission to the divine will. The prerequisite to this task must be a complete reversal of the attitude characteristic of secularism, an acknowledgment that the sine qua non for genuine perfection must be a rebirth, renewal or renovation of the human spirit.”[53] Cochrane does not advocate withdrawal from life in the world or deny the work of politics; he is endorsing the work of construction.

In some sense, we are right back to the opening section of Christianity and Classical Culture. Augustus had been right regarding the need to reconstruct communal life after the upheaval of the Civil and Social Wars, but he had erred in his aims. A limited reconstruction, however, would not have been open to Cochrane’s critique. According to Cochrane, the Christian vision of the City of God is “not a myth, the unsubstantial dream of a Golden Age,” rather “it is a prospect held out to human beings, a prospect for which they are called upon to work and fight because it constitutes the fulfillment of their humanity.”[54] This is Cochrane’s answer to those who hold that Augustine only has a negative vision for the political life. It is also his response to Niebuhr’s split between moral man and immoral society. Cochrane’s assessment and response to Edward Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, which castigated Christianity but held out no vision other than perpetual maintenance of the status quo, can also serve as a summary here, “Happily, there is no need to accept his depressing conclusion. It is quite possible…to make a fresh beginning from a less inadequate starting point.”[55] An orthodox Christian approach to politics can still hope for a better world without necessarily holding to a triumphal view of guaranteed progress or a permanent solution to all the difficulties of communal life. This firm presupposition is just as needful today as it was in Cochrane’s day as well as when Augustine first formulated it in the crumbling classical world of late antiquity.



[1] Frank Underhill, In Search of Canadian Liberalism (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013), 4-5.

[2] Harold Innis, “Obituaries: Charles Norris Cochrane, 1889-1945.” The Canadian Journal of Economics and Political Science 12 (1945), 96.

[3] George Grant, Collected Works of George Grant: Volume 2, 1951-1959, ed. Arthur Davis (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2002), 13.

[4] Charles Norris Cochrane, Thucydides and the Science of History (New York: Russell & Russell, 1965).

[5] Charles Norris Cochrane, Christianity and Classical Culture: A Study of Thought and Action from Augustus to Augustine (Indianapolis: Liberty Fund, 2003).

[6] Charles Norris Cochrane, Augustine and the Problem of Power: The Essays and Lectures of Charles Norris Cochrane, ed. David Beer (Eugene, OR: Wipf & Stock, 2017).

[7] Cochrane first previewed the term “creative politics” in a book review he published in 1937 of Augustus by John Buchan. Cochrane, “Render Unto Caesar,” University of Toronto Quarterly, 7 (1937), 261.

[8] Cochrane, Christianity and Classical Culture, viii.

[9] See Cochrane, “Revolution: Caesarism” in Augustine and the Problem of Power.

[10] Cochrane, Christianity and Classical Culture, 5

[11] Ibid., 174.

[12] Ibid., 114.

[13] Ibid., 92.

[14] Ibid., 82.

[15] Ibid., 83.

[16] Ibid., 121.

[17] Ibid., 171.

[18] Ibid.

[19] Ibid., 121.

[20] Ibid., 124.

[21] “Despite its massive proportions, Mommsen’s History of Rome is vitiated by certain extravagances from which Gibbon is entirely free; the incipient racism of his Völkerpsychologie with its unjust disparagement of the Gallic spirit; the worship of power politics coming out in his estimate of Julius Caesar as the one ‘entire and perfect man’; the apotheosis of process or movement for its own sake, resulting in a picture of Roman history as one long series of conflicts and struggles.” Cochrane, Augustine and the Problem of Power, 241.

[22] Cochrane, Christianity and Classical Culture, 9.

[23] Cochrane, “Render Unto Caesar,” 264.

[24] Ibid.

[25] Cochrane, Augustine and the Problem of Power, 57-58.

[26] Ibid., 32.

[27] Ibid.

[28] Charles Norris Cochrane, “Response to Federalism in Antiquity by Moses Hadas.” In Approaches to World Peace: Fourth Symposium, ed. by Lyman Bryson, Louis Finkelstein, and Robert MacIver (New York: Harper, 1944), 47.

[29] Cochrane, Augustine and the Problem of Power, 101.

[30] Ibid., 32.

[31] Ibid., 100-01.

[32] Cochrane, Christianity and Classical Culture, 107-08.

[33] Ibid., 108.

[34] Ibid., 552.

[35] Ibid., 463.

[36] Cochrane, Augustine and the Problem of Power, 75.

[37] Cochrane, Christianity and Classical Culture, 266.

[38] Ibid., 370.

[39] Cochrane, Augustine and the Problem of Power, 33.

[40] Cochrane, Christianity and Classical Culture, 348.

[41] See David Koyzis, Political Visions and Illusions: A Survey and Christian Critique of Contemporary Ideologies (Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2003), 15.

[42] Cochrane, Augustine and the Problem of Power, 99-100.

[43] Cochrane, Christianity and Classical Culture, 462.

[44] Ibid.

[45] Ibid., 456.

[46] Ibid., 407.

[47] Ibid.

[48] Cochrane, Augustine and the Problem of Power, 94.

[49] Ibid., 75.

[50] Reinhold Niebuhr, Moral Man and Immoral Society: A Study in Ethics and Politics (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2001), 21-22.

[51] Donald B. Meyer, The Protestant Search for Political Realism, 1919-1941 (Westport: Greenwood, 1973), 239.

[52] Cochrane, Christianity and Classical Culture, 563.

[53] Cochrane, Augustine and the Problem of Power, 78.

[54] Cochrane, Christianity and Classical Culture, 567.

[55] Cochrane, Augustine and the Problem of Power, 246.

David BeerDavid Beer

David Beer

David Beer is the Associate Director of the Center for Christian Faith & Culture and Associate Professor of Political Science at Malone University.

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