BMCR 2002.09.16

Augustine and Politics as Longing in the World

, Augustine and politics as longing in the world. Master and use copy. Digital master created according to Benchmark for Faithful Digital Reproductions of Monographs and Serials, Version 1. Digital Library Federation, December 2002.. Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 2001. 1 online resource (xvi, 278 pages).. ISBN 0826263712 $37.50.

Speaking very broadly, one can think of the development of Greek and Roman political thought as a four-stage process. First comes the primordial (and prehistoric) development of political institutions. Second, with the spread of literacy, a corpus of political writings accumulates, primarily rhetorical manuals, collections of speeches, and political histories, to educate young men of means in their own political traditions. The third stage, to a great extent simultaneous with the second, is the emergence of the philosophic critique of the city and its pretensions, a critique that begins with the “pre-Socratic” aspiration to expose the laws, cults, and mores of the city as mere human artifacts but evolves into the efforts of Plato and Aristotle to reform politics and its ethical underpinnings to accord with the provisional conclusions of the philosophers’ investigations of human nature within an ordered cosmos. Finally, there is the critique of the city’s worldliness by religious teachers whose ideas originate beyond the classical world, most notably, of course, the Apostles and the Christian preachers who succeeded them.

In Augustine and Politics as Longing in the World John von Heyking addresses the principal question about Augustine for the student of the history of political thought, namely, to locate Augustine with respect to the four stages or streams, or more precisely with respect to the later three which are stages in the history of texts, and their composition and reception. Anyone who has read a few pages of the City of God knows that Augustine cannot be assigned to the corpus of writers who aim to inculcate the traditions of the city. Most readers would assign Augustine to the anti-political, religious, tendency. It is true, they would admit, that Augustine was brought up as an orator and immersed himself in those philosophic texts available to a late fourth century Roman with little Greek, but after his conversion (and perhaps even before it, in his Manichean period) Augustine molded himself into an uncompromising critic of the ancient city, its religion, and its world.

The conventional view is then that Augustine is an external critic of the classical political tradition. The difficulty with this conventional view, as von Heyking shows, is twofold: first, Augustine builds on the philosophers and especially Plato, who were themselves critical of the standards that the city professed. Second, Augustine’s critique of the ancient city is not just religious, an attack upon the city’s failure to pay due service to the one true God, but also moral. Augustine’s understanding of civic life, von Heyking argues, building on work by Ernest Fortin and others, works within what von Heyking calls the “Platonic-Aristotelian understanding” of political phenomena. To the extent that Augustine’s moral critique relies upon the moral standards of the city itself or of its philosophic critics, Augustine could be said to be within the classical political tradition more broadly defined so as to include philosophic critics of the ancient city together with those writers who would lead young men along the hard and toilsome path of the vita activa. The broader definition of the tradition is methodologically primary for us, who have received this tradition in fragments, since some of our most important sources for understanding the ancient city, such as Livy, Plutarch, and Cicero, incorporate elements of the philosopher’s critique of ancient civic life.

Following Plato and Aristotle, von Heyking’s Augustine recognizes the value of the ethical virtues, once these virtues have been philosophically purified. He recognizes the distinctions among human types, distinctions in what persuades each, that ancient political philosophy explored. Augustine, for all his seeming moralism, holds to a morality of “right by nature” or, in the locution von Heyking wishes to avoid, “natural right”, rather than a moral law of exceptionless categorical principles. Adultery is wrong, von Heyking’s Augustine reassuringly teaches, but might be permissible when a wife fornicates with a wealthy admirer in order to receive the money her husband needs to redeem his life from the tax man, so long as she is in no way motivated by desire for her admirer (120-1).

To redeem Augustine’s reputation as a political thinker, von Heyking defends him from the twin charges of resigned quietism and fanatical theocratism. Von Heyking argues that Augustine believed in the value of political participation (191), accepted, with appropriate reservations and conditions, the right of revolution against tyrannical governments; admired, moderately, the “love of liberty that inspires any nation to repel a foreign enemy” (162); and opposed the promulgation of Christianity or Christian orthodoxy by force. Heretics should be persecuted, von Heyking’s Augustine preaches, only when the heretics themselves have resorted to violence and thereby undermined public order.

Von Heyking’s scholarship is detailed and yet urbane. The result is a book whose accomplishments are primarily apologetic: Von Heyking defends Augustine’s reasonableness and prudence, that is to say, his faithfulness to the Platonic-Aristotelian understanding. It is less clear to the reader of Augustine and Politics as Longing in the World how Augustine corrects or supplements Plato and Aristotle. For Augustinian Christians, whether Catholic or Protestant, who seek to determine their own orientation between the two seemingly opposite poles of Athens and Jerusalem, von Heyking’s book is probably indispensable. Moreover, future efforts to unearth a radically anti-political message in the writings of Augustine will have to grapple with von Heyking’s erudite defense of the African bishop’s political wisdom.