BMCR 2020.03.29

Augustine’s political thought

Richard J. Dougherty, Augustine's political thought. Rochester studies in medieval political thought, 2. Woodbridge: Boydell & Brewer Ltd., 2019. 290 p.. ISBN 9781580469241 $125.00.

[Authors and titles are listed at the end of the review.]

The times when it took a theological interest to study Augustine are long gone. Aside from philosophers and historians, the late antique bishop from North Africa receives more and more attention by scholars from various fields, but particularly from those interested in his political thought. And most often investigations along those lines not only aim for a reconstruction of his ideas but seek to bring Augustine into dialogue with contemporary theories, questions and problems. Whoever reads but even small parts of his work will agree that the inspirations he offers are plenty. The new Volume on Augustine’s Political Thought, edited by Richard Dougherty, fits well into the current interest in the political dimension of Augustine’s thought. But as the editor points out in the introduction, in many other publications the comparative approach prevails over intensive study of Augustine himself. This volume, however, aims at “understanding Augustine’s own argument comprehensively” (2), which does not preclude examining the “perennial questions” (2) Augustine tackles. The individual contributions, two of which have been published earlier,[1] fit very well into the overall topic, which is not always the case with a collection of that sort. The topic of Ryan Balot’s contribution (s. below), for example, runs like a thread through the whole volume. Not all of the contributions can be discussed equally here, but the index attached facilitates the handling of the volume for those with special interest.

Consistent with the editor’s outlines the individual essays focus mainly on texts from the Augustinian corpus, tracing aspects of political thought, sometimes in places where they are not always looked for. So Michael Foley in his contribution (“The Other Happy Life”) turns to the early dialogues Augustine has written shortly after his conversion. These works, written during his philosophical retreat at Cassiciacum, have a political dimension, generally overlooked at first site, that is centred on his theory of desire. Foley discovers a “pedagogical strategy” (41) by which Augustine aims to denigrate patriotism as it is bound to an earthly desire and replace it with an education that frees the soul from such desires and allows for the turning back to the earthly civitas, which is now no longer seen as a source of salvation of any kind. Being no more and no less than an important part of life, individual action in the political sphere is not precluded, but should not be overrated. In this sense, the Cassiciacum dialogues can very well be called political.

Similarly, Adam Thomas looks at the third book of the Confessions (“The Investigation of Justice in Augustine’s Confessions”) and the complexity of the notion of justice unfolded there. Douglas Kries (“Echoes and Adaptions in Augustine’s Confessions of Plato’s Teaching on Art and Politics in the Republic”), to name another contribution, points to parallels between Plato and Augustine regarding the role of art, such as the critical view on its imitative structure and the way it interacts with human emotions, but also the possibilities of a reformed art that proves salutary for the people. Understanding the story of Monica’s life in Africa in book nine as such a salvific narrative with political implications, shows the wide range of phenomena covered by this concept, but calling her sorting out of neighbourly quarrels political might be a bit farfetched. This points to the problem of defining politics in the first place, a task all the more difficult considering the antique context. But it might have helped getting a tighter grip on some of the aspects discussed throughout the essays. Unfortunately, the conceptual foundations of the volume (or methodological questions, for that matter) are never really made explicit.

For most contributions this is of lesser concern, since the emphasis of their analysis still lies on de civitate Dei, unquestionably political in many ways and Augustine’s inexhaustible source for the relation of Christian religion and politics, about his attitude towards civic virtues and – most intriguing – about his concrete conception of Christian politics, the very existence of which is debated. The majority of the contributions in this volume, however, seem to agree that Augustine’s thought can enrich political philosophy if not give normative guidelines for today. For the historian this offers a refreshing diversion from narrowminded historicism that sometimes equates understanding an author with listing his quotations. That said, the claim to understand an ancient writer in his own right – paradoxical as it is anyway – always involves the danger of implicitly seeing him in the light of our modern values and neglecting the distance that separates an author of this age from us.

As an example may serve the text of Ashleen Menchaca-Bagnulo (“Deeds and Words”), who chooses an interesting path into Augustinian politics by examining his treatment of right worship (latreia) in Book 10 of civ. Arguing that for Augustine the attitude towards others is based on the right relation to God (and vice versa) – what she calls “Eucharistic politics” (87) –, she poses the question if this relation is exclusively bound to the Christian-catholic form of worship or if it is open to pre-Christian and pagan people as well. In trying to prove the latter, she reconstructs Augustinian ethics as based on an emotional state of contrition and sacrifice, that reveals itself in merciful deeds towards others. While this is an important observation helping with the question of how Augustinian politics look like in praxi (focusing on sacrifice and overcoming pride), the overeager inclusiveness that lets Augustine disregard Christian Creed in favour of an all human emotional state is hardly an accurate representation of his thought. For him all the pre-Christian members of the civitas Dei were members of the one Church, that, though largely invisible at first, stretches through history (and beyond), and they were made members by an individual revelation, not by a general human capacity like their natural reason (s. civ.17,47). Tellingly the examples she gives from the Christian era (the apostle Paul and emperor Theodosius) are baptized Catholics, baptism and (inner and outer) conversion to Christianity being a necessary condition for salvation (s. civ. 21,16 or retr. 1,4,3). That the emperor Theodosius, finally, is praised by Augustine for urging his relatives to become Christian is just as well dropped here, as also his measures against Arians and pagans (s. civ 5,26).

This might be an extreme example and many other contributions in this volume share a more standard view on Augustine’s ecclesiology. But Menchaca-Bagnulo is not alone in trying to harmonise Augustine with the morals of today, sometimes losing sight of the alien and bizarre aspects he often enough holds for us. When Ryan Balot (“Truth, Lies, Deception, Esotericism”) argues that Augustine rejects almost any form of lie and untruthfulness, much like Kant would many centuries later, he does so with the ideal of a “liberal democratic society” (175) in mind. Radical Truthfulness, he argues, sets Augustine against the elitist assumption most philosophers act on, who do not think the whole truth accessible or advisable to the masses. As Balot points out, Augustine’s critique of Rome also revolves around its untruthfulness, the pagan empire being misled by daemons and members of the Roman elite deceiving the people. What is missed in this account is a word on the long pre-Christian (in fact philosophical) tradition of speaking one’s mind (parrhesia) which would put Augustine in perspective or on the many ways that concealment is involved in God’s (according to Augustine rather piecemeal) revelation. If we want apply modern values, the line drawn to Kant and Rousseau, finally, would have offered the chance to address the critical aspects of such a radical “regime of truth” (181), since especially the latter’s puritan vision of democracy can easily be charged with containing elements of totalitarianism. Already in antiquity we can see the dangers that lie in a truth open to everyone: it is a truth which to confess openly can be expected from anyone.[2]

Aiming for a historical contextualisation is Daniel Strand who compares “Augustine’s City of God and Roman Sacral Politics”. He claims that the demonological critique of Roman religion in books one to ten of the City of God has been largely neglected as an integral part of Augustine’s political philosophy and his critique of Roman history. What Augustine pictures here can easily be called nothing less than a cosmological conspiracy theory, claiming that all Rome’s deeds are steered by evil daemons leading the citizens astray by promising temporal goods. But this logic of do-ut-desdriving pagan worship stops with Christianity and its eschatological blessings. While rightly pointing out the importance of this part of Augustine’s thinking, Strand could have stressed that the moralizing view on religion is, to a large extent, part of Christianity’s redefinition of what religion is supposed to be. In many ways Christians first constructed the pagans they then refuted, which on the other hand should not keep us from seeing the strong continuities, with early Christians, like their pagan neighbours, living in a world of evil spirits and strange powers.

Those are examples of where, from a historian’s point of view Augustine’s text is stretched a bit too far to make him fit into contemporary perspectives and where little more critical distance would have helped letting Augustine appear as the centuries-old bishop from North Africa that he is, making it even more impressive that he still can teach us. Nevertheless, for all those who want to know what he might teach us in the field of politics, this volume offers a good overview and is not only for those with a restricted specialist interest. Particularly the last contribution by Daniel Burns (“Augustine and Platonic Political Philosophy”) might be highlighted in conclusion, since the author concludes his sketch of the scholarship of Joseph Ratzinger with a brief survey of future fields of study, especially pointing to Augustine’s early work, a path some contributions in this volume already followed. This collection convincingly shows that Augustinian political thought can and should not be limited to his relation to the Roman Empire and its history.


Authors and titles

1. Richard J. Dougherty: Introduction – Politics, Nature, and Virtue
2. Richard J. Dougherty: St. Augustine and the Problem of Political Ethics in the City of God
3. Michael P. Foley: The Other Happy Life: The Political Dimensions to St. Augustine’s Cassiciacum Dialogues
4. Peter Busch: Peace in the Order of Nature: Augustine, Giles, and Dante
5. Ashleen Menchaca-Bagnulo: Deeds and Words: Latreia, Justice, and Mercy in Augustine’s Political Thought
6. Adam Thomas: The Investigation of Justice in Augustine’s Confessions
7. Thomas Harmon: The Few, the Many, and the Universal Way of Salvation: Augustine’s Point of Engagement with Platonic Political Thought
8. Douglas Kries: Echoes and Adaptations in Augustine’s Confessions of Plato’s Teaching on Art and Politics in the Republic
9. Ryan Balot: Truth, Lies, Deception, Esotericism: The Case of St. Augustine
10. Veronica Roberts Ogle: Augustine’s Ciceronian Response to the Ciceronian Patriot
11. Daniel Strand: Augustine’s City of God and Roman Sacral Politics
12. Daniel E. Burns: Augustine and Platonic Political Philosophy: The Contribution of Joseph Ratzinger


[1] These are the texts by Michael Foley and Veronica Ogle.

[2] It is telling that Symmachus built his defence of religious pluralism on the opacity of final truths (relatio 3,10).