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Augustine recognized that the flaws of human nature precluded perfection on earth, and he concluded that government cannot save souls by coercing virtuous conduct…

Since Augustine’s death in 430 A.D., the world has changed so much that this irreplaceable figure of Christianity would likely find difficult it to recognize. The advent of extraordinary technological advances might suggest that Augustine, while perhaps consequential for his own time, is of no use to “the new man” in the age of postmodernity. Such a historicist view of Augustine is completely misleading, however, for Augustine is one of those peculiarly great men seen sporadically throughout the ages whose voice resonates as clearly in our own day as it did during the Fall of Rome. His influence extends even beyond the confines of his legacy in theology and philosophy, to the realm of political theory, where Augustine seems to be an early proponent of limited government, a view grounded in large part on his philosophy of history and his realistic conception of human depravity.

Augustine’s Philosophy of History

There is hardly a more consequential question for the thinker than the meaning of history. It can be said that someone’s view of history in many cases defines his view of God. Wrapped in the question of history stands an ultimate point of contrast between an Augustinian and a secularist. If history exists by the power of a divine Providence whose very finger can define human destiny, there is nothing in this world which exists without causation. In stark contrast to providential history lies the secularist vision, which holds that there is no causation to historical events except for human reason and experience. The relevance of a proper philosophy of history to the state cannot be denied. If human reason or experience are the driving force of history, and not God, then man is given the existential task of shaping the world in his own image using the coercive power of the state. Friedrich Hegel, for example, claimed that all a father needed to do to raise a good son was place him in a state with good laws.[1] Augustine, on the contrary, holds that since God is the author of history, man’s knowledge of the divine will is fundamentally lacking. As such, there is no inevitable destiny for the state to decide, because only God can determine such a destiny.

For Augustine, “the date of the event was of far less importance than its theological significance.”[2] This is a core value of Augustine’s view of history. While dates may provide proper guidance for understanding the linear progression of world events, they alone are not sufficient to comprehend their divine meaning. Augustine’s philosophy echoes Paul’s notion in First Corinthians that God’s “mysterious secret wisdom” is “not what is called wisdom by this world, nor by the powers-that-be, who soon will only be the powers that have been.”[3]

Mankind’s situation is almost hopelessly ephemeral. Even those who are currently in positions of power to define earthly “wisdom” will not be in such a position for long. Earthly wisdom is eternally subordinate to God’s spiritual wisdom, which cannot always be understood. What can be known about history, according to Augustine, is given to us by divine grace. Scripture records God’s providence in human history. God’s providence relies not on dates but on the centrality of the Incarnation of Christ. God first prepared man for the coming of Jesus. After Christ’s coming arose the Christian Church. The final stage of God’s design has not yet come to pass. It is the Day of Judgment where the Kingdom of God is victorious over all sin.[4] The role of the earthly state in fulfilling the last day is hardly clear, much less indispensable. To Augustine, God’s providence is the supreme force over time—not man, and not the state.

At the forefront of Augustine’s philosophy of history is the perpetual warfare between the City of God and the City of Man. All of human history is the unfolding of this great spiritual struggle in accordance with God’s plan in time.[5] The two cities, despite their antithetical nature, run their course side by side. They are spiritually separated, but they share the same temporal goods of peace and general tranquility.[6] Control of the wicked within the bounds of earthly peace is fundamental to Augustine’s idea of the purpose of government.[7] The state is an example of this spiritual conflict. Denizens of both cities reside in the political process and because of this spiritual gulf, their possibilities are limited. Ultimately, only what the two cities have in common is what politics should be pursuing. Augustine claims that peace is this least-common-denominator in Book XIX of the City of God. [8]

A government fulfilling its proper role in accordance to God’s providential history makes no attempt at grandiose utopian abstractions. It should maintain the internal order of society and protect against external enemies — the one point of cohesion uniting the otherwise contrary cities. [9]

Augustine’s Conception of Human Nature

Augustine said in his Confessions that “none is pure from sin before you, not even an infant of one day upon the earth.”[10] Augustine’s anthropology rests on the original sin entrenched in the human condition. This vital point ensures real limits on the political system. If man is not tainted by original sin, then there is no proper reason for limitation on state power. Herbert Croly, a leading figure of the Progressive Era, claimed that “democracy must stand or fall on a platform of possible human perfectibility.” True democracy then, “must have some leavening effect on human nature; and the sincere democrat is obliged to assume the power of the heaven.”[11] Augustine would be troubled by Croly’s faith in human reason and institutional political structures to perfect human nature. No one could “assume the power of heaven” and shape humanity in accordance with virtue. The only salvation offered from the taint of original sin is given by God through divine grace. The state cannot save the soul from sin.

The utter permanence of the human condition underscores an important point in Augustinian political philosophy. Humanity cannot overcome its sinfulness regardless of what country one into which one is born or what laws are brought forth. Sin essentially created the need for a state to curb dangerous human actions. While Augustine believed that man is social, and would have been so without our sinful nature, political society would have no real purpose without the need to coerce its citizens to act with justice.[12] Even with this coercion, government cannot create the heavenly city here on earth. Augustine highlights this tragic fact of political society in discussing the emperor Theodosius. Theodosius was a man whom Augustine believed to be a true Christian emperor.[13] Augustine claims that Theodosius used his power to inhibit paganism, perhaps allowing God’s grace to touch more souls. However, more than anything else, Theodosius was a great ruler because “he took more joy in belonging to the church than he did to be a king upon the earth.”[14] Despite Theodosius’ greatest efforts here on earth, Augustine maintained that no kingdom can be made truly just. The only reward for a Christian emperor is in heaven,

Augustine believed that, for all its virtues, the government is an inefficient vessel in creating a good society. Such a society, Augustine holds, cannot possibly exist in this world of sin. As he forthrightly puts it: “True justice has no existence save in that republic whose founder and ruler is Christ.”[15] Political society has to deal with a fundamental issue recognized in Augustine’s philosophy of history— the perpetual warfare between the two Cities.[16] Even the most educated political rulers cannot come to any basic agreement about right and wrong. Citizens of the City of Man who hold political office have no true conception of justice, as they ignore its divine author. Citizens of the City of God have to govern in accordance to the desires of the City of Man, so even they can never perfect a sinful society.[17] If the ruler is just as sinful as the subject, then it stands to reason that his authority cannot be unlimited. Due to this fundamental spiritual divergence, the possibilities of politics are extremely limited. A government which recognizes these limits inevitably pursues only that which it can realistically carry out: maintenance of public order and peace.

Conclusion

Petrarch said that “no one… can hope to equal Augustine. Who… could hope to equal one who, in my judgment, was the greatest in an age fertile in great minds?”[18] Augustine reminds man of the necessity for God, a great illuminator who provides the light which conquers the darkness of the external world. Augustine reminds us that neither mankind, nor the state, are the measure of all things, for neither can claim to be God. The need for limited government is, at least in part, derived from Augustinian philosophy. Augustine’s philosophy of history recognized the limits of human power in creating some desired future. He recognized that the flaws of human nature precluded perfection on earth, and he concluded that government cannot save souls by coercing virtuous conduct. Augustine’s writings outline the need for limited government in handling mankind’s problems. Thankfully, as Augustine always reminds his readers, regardless of who is ruling, the Christian is subject to a ruler of unlimited virtue and sovereignty.

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Notes

[1] Leo Strauss and Joseph Cropsey, History of Political Philosophy, 3rd ed. (Chicago: University of Chicago Press., 1987), 773.

[2] Gerald James Whitrow, Time in History: Views of Time from Prehistory to the Present Day  (Oxford: Oxford University Press., 1988), 183-184.

[3] J.B. Phillips, The New Testament in Modern English: Revised Edition (New York, NY: Simon & Schuster., 1996).

[4] C.T. McIntire, ed, God, History and Historians: An Anthology of Modern Christian Views of History (Oxford: Oxford University Press., 1977), 31-33.

[5] Ernest L. Fortin and Douglas Kries, Augustine: Political Writings (Indianapolis, IN: Hackett., 1994).

[6] Robert Markus, Saeculum: History and Society in the Theology of St. Augustine (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press., 1989), 96.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Ernest L. Fortin and Douglas Kries, Augustine: Political Writings (Indianapolis, IN: Hackett., 1994), 150.

[9] John P. East, “The Political Relevance of St. Augustine,” Modern Age 16 (spring, 1972), 170-171.

[10] Augustine, The Confessions (Oxford: Oxford University Press., 1998), 43.

[11] Herbert Croly, The Promise of the American Life (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press., 1965).

[12] Eleonore Stump and Norman Kretzmann, The Cambridge Companion to Augustine (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2001) 240 – 242.

[13] Ernest L. Fortin and Douglas Kries, Augustine: Political Writings (Indianapolis, IN: Hackett., 1994), 46-47.

[14] Ibid.

[15] Ernest L. Fortin and Douglas Kries, Augustine: Political Writings (Indianapolis, IN: Hackett., 1994), 21.

[16] Linda C. Raeder. “Augustine and the Case for Limited Government,” Humanitas 16, no. 2 (2003): 97.

[17] Ibid.

[18] James Harvey Robinson, Petrarch: The First Modern Scholar and Man of Letters (New York, NY: G. P. Putnam’s Sons., 1898), 418.

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3 replies to this post
  1. Would I seem to be a wise guy if I concluded that Augustine was an early Federalist, or conversely the Founding Fathers were? In any case the angels are with Limited Government, or should be.

    • I think that there is plenty of evidence for that assessment. A book that you may want to check out is “Moral Foundations of Constitutional Thought: Current Problems, Augustinian Prospects.” Additionally, there is a chapter in Vital Remnants which discusses the Augustinian contribution to the American constitutional tradition. Both of these works, I think, indicate that Augustine’s thought leads to decentralized federalism because it best holds in check the pervasive effects of sin in a society. We would later see a more fleshed out view of Augustine’s political philosophy in Johannes Althusius and Abraham Kuyper. The former formulated the doctrine of federalism, while the latter was a Christian statesman who developed Augustine’s philosophy in his understanding of “sphere sovereignty.”

  2. I think Augustine’s philosophy of history may have had greater effect on the Anti-federalists as manifested in the likes of the Bill of Rights to limit power of both government and the potential mob rule of the majority while protecting individuals to chart their course with the two cities.

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