BMCR 2001.10.32

Augustine: Political Writings

, , Augustine : political writings. Cambridge texts in the history of political thought. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2001. 1 online resource (1, 299 pages) : map.. ISBN 9780511172847. $64.95.

This volume of the Cambridge Texts in the History of Political Thought demonstrates Augustine’s application of some of his religious, social and political principles to particular individuals and events. His personal sensitivity and pastoral perspectives definitely influence the ways he appeals to principles enunciated in his more formal treatises. This series has recently published other volumes of texts from Classical authors such as two volumes of selections from Cicero in 1991 and 1999, two volumes from Plato in 1995 and 2000, and one on Seneca in 1995. The series has also produced its own version of Augustine’s City of God translated by R.W. Dyson in 1998. Of the editors of the present volume Margaret Atkins has already had experience in this successful series with her contributions to Cicero: On Duties in 1991, while Robert Dodaro brings his established expertise in Augustinian scholarship. They make an effective case that this collection of Augustine’s Letters, Sermons and Commentaries provides an excellent complement to Augustine’s more formal writings. Here are the same religious themes which inform his more theological, apologetical and polemical texts. Augustine maintains his emphasis on the sovereignty of God, the goodness of creation, the primacy of human choice, the fall and its consequences. He continues to acknowledge the legitimacy of political authority, the coercive use of law and authority, the impact of subjugation, the institution of slavery. In these exchanges with particular individuals and communities, Augustine demonstrates a sensitivity to the perspectives of his correspondents and even those who are his adversaries.

The events to which Augustine is responding in these texts present the editors with an opportunity and a challenge. The events themselves hold intrinsic, often dramatic, interest. To make them intelligible for the modern reader, however, the editors have to provide the context for the political, military, legal and religious activities behind these documents. The unifying theme in the collection is “Church-State” relationships in the Roman provinces in North Africa in the early fifth century, but the range of episodes in these texts is extensive. In the course of these documents Augustine deals with a range of intriguing social, political, legal and religious topics such as homicide, suicide, asylum, slave traders, usury, comic theatre, excommunication, Christian service in the military and imperial bureaucracy, the life of Christian asceticism, Christian responses to Alaric’s sack of Rome, military rebellion against imperial authority, and the threat of barbarian invasion in North Africa.

Furthermore, the extensive range of people in these texts provides an immediate contact with complex interactions of civic and religious leadership within Augustine’s society. In the correspondence Augustine is addressing political leaders: Nectarius, a pagan municipal leader in Calama; Marcellinus, a Catholic and military tribune; Apringius a Catholic and proconsul of Africa; Macedonius, a Catholic and vicar of Africa; Donatus a proconsul, Catholic and property owner in Hippo; and Boniface, a military tribune and comes in Africa. Augustine is also corresponding with bishops both Catholic and Donatist: Paulinus of Nola, Alypius, Auxilius, Crispin, and Emeritus. In Sermon 302 he addresses his congregation in Hippo Regius; in Sermon 13 he is addressing a congregation at the basilica of St. Cyprian in Carthage.

To help the reader deal with this diversity of events and persons, Atkins and Dodaro have expanded a number of the useful strategies found in previous volumes of this series. They have organized the selection thematically and chronologically. They have provided an informative introduction of fifty pages dealing with the genres, the methods, the social, legal and religious context. There is a very useful section on Latin terminology, such as the meanings of the honorific terms and res publica and traditores. This section should have included a discussion of the term paganus. The editors also supply seventy-six extensive notes on persons named in these texts. Their selective bibliography, principally drawn from English-speaking scholars, identifies important discussions of their own organizational themes but also extends to current discussions of gender and sexuality as well as the relevance of Augustine to modern political theory. Finally, the informative endnotes deal with problems in the Latin manuscript tradition, versionsand interpretations of Scripture, the identification of quotations from Roman authors such as Vergil, Cicero, Sallust, Seneca, and Terence and sources and discussions of Imperial edicts and legal processes. They also point out parallels in Augustine’s City of God.

Four examples from this collection of texts demonstrate some distinctive features of Augustine’s approach to social, political and legal issues. In Augustine’s correspondence with Nectarius, a pagan civic official, in Letters 90, 91, 103 and 104 there is a discussion of competing patterns of social identity and responsibility. At issue are those who rioted at Calama in June 408 against Christian attempts to maintain Imperial prohibitions against Roman religious festivals. Fundamental to the discussion, as the editors point out, is the tension between Roman patriotism rooted in civic religion and Augustine’s Christian civic ideals. Moveover Augustine demonstrates his reluctance to press full formal charges against the perpetrators because he is opposed to the use of torture to produce admissible evidence.

Augustine’s reluctance about capital punishment is clearly expressed in Letter 153 to Macedonius in which he makes recommendations in response to the violence of the Circumcellions. Punishment is just but it must be remedial and not simply vengeance. He appeals in this Letter as well as in the selection from his Commentary on the Gospel of John to the foregiveness of the “woman caught in adultery”. He invokes comparisons with the sometimes painful remedial interventions of a doctor with a patient and a paterfamilias with members of his household. In these selections Augustine is frequently appealing for mercy and leniency even for his enemies. He argues repeatedly that leniency does not mean that he condones the evil but that he wants an opportunity for reform.

Under no circumstances do we approve culpable behaviour; we want to reform that. Nor is the reason that we want wrong-doing to go unpunished that we are pleased with it. Rather, we pity the person, but hate the offence or transgression. In fact, the more we dislike the vice in question, the less do we want the offender to die without correcting his vices. (Letter 153 to Macedonius, 72)

A third issue in a Letter, identified as Augustine’s only in 1979, illustrates Augustine’s acceptance of the institution of slavery as a consequence of the fallen condition of humanity. But in this Letter to Alypius, his friend and fellow-bishop, Augustine is advising an appeal to the imperial authorities to amend Roman Law to mitigate the harm occasioned by rapacious slave traders in North Africa and to modify punishment for offenders.

I am writing this therefore to your blessed self in the hope that, if possible, our most pious and Christian emperors will decide that when prisoners are liberated from these men, through the efforts of the church, the culprits should not face the risk of the punishment defined by this law, and in particular beating with leaden whips, which can easily lead to the victim’s death. (Letter 10* to Alypius, 45)

A final example from the correspondence with Boniface in Letters 189 and 220 demonstrates Augustine’s recognition of the legitimate role of the military in safeguarding social security in this fallen world. In Letter 189 to Boniface, Augustine defends Christians serving in the military and offers some moral advice, and then evokes the threatening conditions in North Africa which require armed defense. Augustine argues that both Christian asceticism and a life in military service have their appropriate roles. “So others are fighting invisible enemies on your behalf by praying, while you struggle against visible barbarians on their behalf by fighting.” (216) Ten years later in Letter 220, Augustine confronts Boniface’s decision to remarry despite his declared interest in the ascetical life and also his role in a military rebellion. In the background throughout this Letter loom the increasing threats to the security of North Africa.

The barbarians of Africa are succeeding here without meeting any resistance so long as you are in your present state, preoccupied with your own needs, and are organizing nothing to prevent this disaster…. Would anyone have feared that by now the barbarians would have become so bold, have advanced so far, have caused so much devastation, have plundered so widely, have made deserts of so many places that were full of people? Surely, anyone would have predicted that whenever you assumed your position as comes, the barbarians of Africa would be not only tamed, but even, eventually, tributary members of the Roman empire. (Letter 220 to Boniface, 221-222)

This last passage highlights both Augustine’s realistic assessment of troubles in his world and the necessity of force to maintain security and dramatizes the vulnerability of the Roman empire, since these barbarian forces would be at the gates of Hippo Regius three years later as Augustine lay dying in 430.

Atkins and Dodaro have successfully made these texts with their fascinating range of issues accessible to a wide audience. Their translation is fluent and accurate. They have utilized and expanded the supports for the reader very well. In these selections from responses to individuals persons and situations, Augustine demonstrates a personal and pastoral perspective sometimes overshadowed in his more formal writings.