City of God: Augustine of Hippo and Politics
Thomas looks at another Early Church Father's Political Perspective
Having begun a series on Christian thinkers and politics with my commentary Basil of Caeserea’s letter to Julian, the next Christian thinker I will discuss is one who is very well known: Augustine of Hippo. Living from 354-430, Augustine is probably the most influential Christian theologian and philosopher of the Early Church, and quite possibly the most influential theologian (bar the men who wrote the Bible) in history. However, this article is not going to discuss the theological aspect of Augustine’s work (read the Confessions as well as the book we’re discussing today) , but rather his views on politics. Much like in Basil, we will see a view that the state has a duty to support God’s laws, and a critique of the Roman Empire that inevitably comes from that. The focus shall be on book II of Augustine’s work City of God, where the primary critique of this pseudo-secular society is to be found.
To give context to the work of Augustine, the city of Rome had recently endured a brutal sacking that many pagans of the time blamed upon the rise of Christianity in Rome. Questions such as “where was the Christian God when this suffering happened?” were present. Pagans claimed that Christianity was immoral and that people should return to semi-cultural worship of the Roman pantheon to avoid such suffering in the future. The fact that many of the Barbarians that had sacked Rome were considered to be Christians (they were in fact Arians, who are not Christian but few Roman pagans cared to make the distinction) did not help matters. Certain Roman Pagan practices had been made illegal at this point in the city, and many people viewed the sacking as a consequence of those laws. In City of God, Augustine decided to take the Pagan’s moral philosophy to task, proving that the pagan vision of a world without Christianity would not lead to moral behaviour.
Augustine writes : “In the first place, why did these gods refuse to take the trouble to prevent the degeneration of morality? For the true God had a right to neglect those who did not worship him, but as for the gods of theirs-the prohibition of whose worship these utterly ungrateful men complain of- why did they give their worshippers no laws to help them in a good way of life? It would certainly have been fitting for the gods to be concerned about the conduct of those who concern themselves with their worship” (Book II. Chapter 4.)
For Augustine it is obvious that morality, to a certain extent, has to be legislated into the state. Without a law to transgress, we cannot truly define what is right or wrong in a society. This is not to say that someone who follows all the laws perfectly in any country is moral (there are plenty of people who are immoral who never break the law their entire lives) but it does show that certain systems (such as most forms of Anarchism and extreme libertarianism) inevitably leave a moral vacuum due to the lack of a law to follow. People will behave immorally without knowledge of the law, and Augustine presumes this (after all, being the theologian who fully realised the doctrine of original sin in the Bible, this is a consistent conclusion) . We are fortunate to live in a society whose morality and legal system are more or less founded on Christian principles, and if Western society rejects those principles as it does now, it will be left with the same vacuum or rank hypocrisy. Attempts to legislate pseudo-secular morality such as these Roman pagans proposed will inevitably falter. Now a common objection that the libertarians in the audience would argue is that ultimately a person who chooses to be immoral will commit said immorality with or without a law. Augustine answers that objection promptly:
“But it will be replied “a man’s wickedness depends on his own free will” Who would deny this? Nevertheless, it was the responsibility of the gods, as counsellors, not to conceal the instructions for a good life from the people that worshipped them. They should have presented and proclaimed them plainly; they should have confronted and convicted sinners by their prophets, threatening punishments to evil doers and promise rewards to those of upright life. Yet the temples of these Gods never rang with any such clearly and emphatically uttered exhortations”
Therefore Augustine answers this libertarian argument particularly well. Even something such as the Non-aggression principle is a rule that needs to be taught. Without a rule, there is no law, and everyone to a certain extent needs to be shown that they have evil desires by such laws. As Romans 7:7 points out “Yet if it had not been for the law, I would not have known Sin. For I would not have known what it is to covet if the law had not said “You shall not covet”. It is worth noting at this point as mentioned before that Augustine runs with the assumption of depravity of human beings from original sin. In non theological terms- that we are all imperfect and therefore we all have evil desires within us that we will act upon if not restrained in some way.
When it comes to justice, Augustine applies this viewpoint in full force. Augustine also applies Romans 13 to this assumption, showing that a key way that God restrains immorality is through the laws of nations, both ungodly and godly. For Augustine, the Roman Pagans are not merely wrong because they are Pagan, but rather because they failed in their God-given duties to teach moral ethics and to carry out punishments for law-breakers. But some may say that a secular society can still be a moral one, and that Augustine was simply objecting to a different kind of morality. Augustine answers this objection by talking of the type of acts that were happening under Pagan rules:
“When I was a young man I used to go to sacrilegious shows and entertainments. I watched the antics of madmen, I listened to the singing boys; I thoroughly enjoyed the most degrading spectacles in honour of Gods and Goddesses…On the yearly festival of Berecynthia’s purification the lowest kind of actors sang, in front of her litter, songs unfit of the ears of even the mother of one of those mountebanks, to say nothing of the mother of any decent citizen, or of a senator while as for the Mother of Gods-! For there is something in the natural respect that we have for our parents that we cannot wholly destroy; and certainly those very mountebanks would be ashamed to give a rehearsal performance in their homes, before their mothers, of those disgusting verbal and acted obscenities. Yet they performed them in the presence of the Mother of Gods before an immense audience of spectators of both sexes. If those spectators were enticed by their curiosity to gather in perfusion, they ought to have at least dispersed in confusion at the insults to their modesty.”
Here the Mountebanks are shown to be doing unnatural things in dishonoring the supposed “Mother of Gods” by performing acts that would be a disgrace to a human family. Augustine appeals to the importance of family as an institution here as well, as the “natural respect for our parents” is something that is of common ground to humans, whether Pagan or not. However, Augustine shows that Pagan practice shows no respect to the family, and in fact undermines it via committing obscenities towards it. Simply put: the rule of “anything goes” is not a freedom, it simply something that shackles a group to do evil. The freedom to truly respect one’s parents, as Augustine will argue later, will only come from the Christian God. Moreover, naturally speaking we are made to worship and serve God, (see the commission God gives Adam in Genesis 1) so those pagans who worship a false God are seen also to go against their God given nature through dishonoring their parents. Augustine does not leave it there, as he further emphasises why the Romans couldn’t identify the evil in these rites:
“If these were sacred rites, what is meant by sacrilege? If this is purification, what is meant by pollution? And the name of the ceremony is the fercula (meaning dishes or litter) which might suggest the giving of a dinner party where the unclean demons could enjoy a feast to their liking. Who could fail to realise what kind of spirits they are which could enjoy such obscenities? Only a man who failed to recognise even the existence of any unclean spirits who deceive men under the title of gods, or one whose life was such that he hoped for the favour and feared the anger of such gods, rather than that of the true God.”
To Augustine, a secular society cannot even recognise evil for what it is, and thus will indulge in sinful and depraved acts. While modern people don’t have pagan temples where they sacrifice to statues, such things as the promotion of LGBT identitarianism in “Pride” marches, or rallies which celebrate the evils of abortion, are close equivalents. Both tend to be highly immodest to say the least, and are mostly celebrated because their participants are blind to the evils of sin (See Isiah 5:1 for what God states about them) Others may fear what happens if they are not seen to actively celebrate these things, rather than fearing God. We see this most notably in politics today with Tim Farron, who has frequently failed to stand for Christ in the public sphere. These would do well to remember what Jesus said “If anyone denies me before men, I will also deny before my Father who is in heaven” (Matthew 10:33). Thus, Christians must always stand for God, as Augustine did against powerful Roman opponents.
But some will say it is possible to have a law based on secular philosophy, and that Christianity is not necessary, much as Pagan Gods were not necessary for morality. Augustine has an answer for that:
“But perhaps they will quote the schools of philosophers and their discussions? In the first place, these activities belong to Greece, not to Rome; and even if they did belong to Rome -because Greece became a Roman province-they are not commandments of Gods, but findings of men who were gifted with the most accute intelligence, and who endevoured by use of reason, to discover the secrets of the physical universe, to find out what ends were to be persued and what avoided in the sphere of human behavior, and in the rules of reasoning, what valid inferences could be drawn…Some of them definitely had established important points , insofar as they had Divine assistance, while they went astray insofar as they were hindered by human weakness, especially when divine providence rightly opposed their presumption, in order to show, by contrast, the way of piety, which starts from humility and ends to the heights… However, if the philosophers had reached any conclusion which would be a sufficient guide to the good life and to the attainment of ultimate felicity, it would be such men who would more rightly be accorded divine honor”
In short, all knowledge of morals comes from God, and therefore through His grace, he granted the ability to see certain aspects of moral truth. However, because these men did not have the complete depiction of the moral truth through Christ, they were limited in their understanding. Thus, the philosophers are not able to sufficiently guide people’s morals consistently. This holds true for non-Christian philosophies today, which primarily function under the basis of following one’s own heart, which the Bible says is corrupt. (Matt 15:19) In short, Augustine rightly points out that these men fail to deliver on the promise of a sufficient guide to good life, otherwise they would be God themselves.
While by no means is this the whole of what City of God has to offer, but I hope that this gives a snap shot of Christians are to view the state and morality. In that libertarianism as an ideology fails because it relies upon the inherent goodness of man that simply does not exist. Further still, a society based upon secular (read: Atheistic/Naturalistic) is destined to either create false gods out of nature, and thereby not be truely atheistic anymore, as well as failing to live up to the Godly standard of morality. It should be noted here that Augustine (and most of the Church fathers) had no qualms with claiming that Christianity has the monopoly on following true morality that is only found in God. Christians today should follow that example as well as learning from it. Much like Augustine, we should recognise that any attempt from a state to establish a non-Christian “morality” in the state is destined to fail and fail badly. So, we must present God as the true morality, much like Augustine (and Basil before him) did, and call people and states to repent in the same way.
All citations of City of God are from the Penguin edition, translated by Henry Battenson, 2003.