This paper was originally presented at the 2012 Annual Meeting of the Ciceronian Society.
The history of scholarship on Augustine’s political theory is filled with a variety of interpretations and accusations. The passage that is most often cited as a summation of his innovation in political thought is from Book XIV of the City of God: “Two cities, then, have been created by two loves: that is, the earthly by love of self extending even to contempt of God, and the heavenly by love of God extending even to contempt of self.”1 This distinction, often construed as a positing of a heavenly city beyond the boundaries and conditions of mortal life, is seen by some as a psychologically radical flight from reality. Augustine has been labeled an escapist and a staunch pessimist in his stance toward the potential good of politics, and many view his eschatological deferment of true peace as a concession to the impossibility of developing any effective political “system” or model for communal living.
Recently, scholars such as Eric Gregory have attempted to transmute Augustine’s political thought into a democratic landscape by articulating a certain brand of “Augustinian civic liberalism” wherein love is taken to be the supreme civic virtue. Superseding the important but incomplete aim of justice in the political sphere, Gregory’s interpretation calls for an ethic of love as the proper mode of being, not just in our most personal relationships, but also in the wider civic realm. Gregory contends that “Augustine’s theology of love is explosively outward and communal.”2 He does well in navigating the tensions between Augustine’s tendency toward advocating a universal love and his gradual acceptance of the limits of realizing that type of love in mortal life. But ultimately, I think that Gregory’s emphasis on the hope for universal love beyond preferential relationships attenuates certain remarks that Augustine makes about the conditions of true friendship and the types of communities that are most conducive to that type of love in mortal life.
To be sure, Augustine believed that a person’s true end could only be reached eschatologically in the eternal peace of the City of God, which is non-temporal – in other words, beyond this world. As stated above, this is his great transfiguration of political theory. However, I would like to suggest that in regard to earthly politics, Augustine stands contiguously in the tradition of ancient political thought in two ways. The first is that true friendship is the basic aim and virtue of civic life, and the second is that small to moderately sized communities are more conducive to enabling friendships than large-scale nations or empires. Furthermore, I hope to redress the belief that Augustine’s distinction between the two cities implies a “flight from reality.” Styling one’s self as a member of the heavenly city does not require us to renounce our dispensations to human finitude, to subjugate our love for the people in our particular geographical and social contexts, or to relinquish our ties to places and earthly communities. Rather, common agreement about the good of the heavenly city and the order of love that sustains it allows pilgrims in the earthly city to tend toward actualizing that good in their earthly communities in and through the particular bonds of true friendship.
The Two Cities
Augustine defines a community not by their spatial ties, but by their inward unity. In the City of God, he calls a populus “an assembled multitude of rational creatures bound together by a common agreement as to the objects of their love.”3 This is because love is a proper function of rational creatures, of souls rather than mere bodies. Though non-rational things can be gathered together in some sort of spatial arrangement, like a pack of wolves or a building of bricks, this is not, properly speaking, a ‘community.’ A community is a group of souls united inwardly by common objects of love rather than externally by the geographic proximity of their bodies.4 This conception is at the heart of his distinction I cited above regarding the two cities, for it is one’s primary object of love that makes one a citizen of the earthly city or the heavenly city. Thus, it would seem at first glance that given Augustine’s conception of communities, the constituent members of those communities would be first and foremost loving souls, making the places and times in which those souls exist in the world mere happenstances that bear no real consequential weight in determining the objects of their love or the ways in which they come to realize them or partake in them. This model presupposes a soul/body dualism that resonates with a more Platonic account of the human person.
However, it is not the case that the two cities are so simply bifurcated into separate realms (one of a spiritual, ‘heavenly’ existence and one of a corporeal, ‘earthly’ existence) completely independent from one another. Augustine says that they “are in this present world mixed together and, in a certain sense, entangled with one another.”5 Regardless of one’s loves, members of the heavenly city and the earthly city still interact with one another in mortal life, as Augustine himself, though a Christian who held little love for the gods of the Roman civic religions of old, was still considered, in some way, a citizen of the Roman Empire. Since he acknowledges this entanglement, we can infer in another sense that communities, in the ways in which they are formed and subsist, are structured not only by the ontological unity brought about by souls loving the same things, but also by the places and times in which those acts of love occur.
The Ordo Amoris and Augustine’s Anthropology
A closer look at Augustine’s metaphysics confirms the importance of matter in his conceptions of personhood and the way in which persons exist in community. Throughout his writings, he has the tendency to define a thing based on where it falls in a three-tier system of ontological hierarchy, the highest being God, then souls, then bodies.6 This categorical conceptualization is a crucial element in his conversion story in the Confessions, and it guides his thinking about love. As there is a correlation between being and value, things with more ‘being’ should be sought more fervently as objects of love. This is an eternally objective scheme, and insomuch as a person directs their love according to this scheme (what he calls the ordo amoris, or the order of love), he is both virtuous and happy. Because loving is a basic structure of being human (that is, because human beings qua human beings cannot not love), the main project of right love for Augustine is always tied up with the question of right knowledge. As Oliver O’Donovan states in his study The Problem of Self-Love in St. Augustine, “A false conception of the universe leads to false love of God, self, and neighbor. A true knowledge of the universe brings with it love that is perfect in every respect.”7 And Augustine himself: “This is true of every created thing: though it is good, it can be loved well or ill; well when the proper order is observed, and ill when that order is disturbed.”8 So another oft-cited passage from Augustine’s corpus, “Love and do what you want,”9 is easily misconstrued in abstraction from the ordo amoris. Loving rightly consists in a proper knowledge of God and created things – including human persons and the way in which they, as human persons, are able to love.
As I stated before, one might presuppose that Augustine espouses a Platonic soul/body dualism. However, his thought regarding the constitution of persons shifts over the course of his writings.10 In an earlier work, On True Religion, wherein he is contemplating the command to love one’s neighbor as one’s self, he argues “no one surely is to himself father or son or relative or anything of this sort, but only a man. Therefore, he who loves someone as himself ought to love in him that which he is to himself. But bodies are not what we are. Hence, in a man we should not seek or desire the body.”11 Here, bodies are mere occasions or ‘houses’ of the soul on earth – they are not real constitutive parts of persons. Because I am not a father or son or relative to myself, I ought not love myself as any of those things. Hence, when I love another as myself, I ought to love their soul without regard to the way in which they temporally relate to me in the body. In this model, there are no relationships defined by either time, place, or particularity, because embodiment has been somehow disregarded in the attempt to love other persons as one would love one’s self.
However, in his later work On Christian Doctrine, when discussing the twofold commandment to love God and one’s neighbor as one’s self, his thinking is exactly the opposite: “If you understand by this your whole person – mind and body – and your whole neighbor – that is, his mind and body, for a person consists of mind and body – no class of things to be loved is missing from these two commandments.”12 This more Christian account of the human person affirms the unity of both soul and body. Therefore, when we focus on persons as objects of love, we must assess them in their unitive essences. Because love of persons is no longer relegated to some spiritual sphere, but is brought back down to earth by concerning itself with temporal matters (i.e., persons as things that exist in time and space), we must also take into account the limits in which we, as persons, are able to love other human beings. Questions of possibility and scale naturally arise.
Love in Community
There is often a contrast noted in Augustine’s thinking about the command to universally love one’s neighbors and the seemingly natural bonds that arise out of preferential love for one’s friends. Gregory has said, “No doubt, Augustine found it difficult to reconcile his affirmation of special relations on the basis of his commitment to universal neighbor-love and his conviction that partiality was something to be overcome eschatologically.”13 O’Donovan has echoed this sentiment, saying “it is plain that if Augustine errs, he errs toward inappropriate universality rather than to inappropriate particularity.”14 I quote at length here two passages that nicely juxtapose his thinking about universal and preferential love. The first is written in On Christian Doctrine:
All should be loved equally. But you cannot do good to all people equally, so you should take particular thought for those who, as if by lot, happen to be particularly close to you in terms of place, time, or any other circumstances…Since you cannot take thought for all men, you must settle in favour of the one who happens to be more closely associated with you in temporal matters.15
The second is written in his Homilies on the First Epistle of John:
Why is it, then, that the apostle John, with a view to a certain perfection, commends brotherly love to us as something great, whereas the Lord says that it isn’t enough for us to love our brothers but that we must extend that love as far as our enemies? He who goes as far as his enemies doesn’t pass over his brothers. Like fire, it first seizes upon the things that are nearby and in that way stretches out to what is more distant. Your brother is closer to you than anyone else that I can think of. On the other hand, he whom you didn’t know, yet who isn’t your adversary, is nearer to you than the enemy who is also your adversary. Extend your love to those who are closest, but you shouldn’t call that an extension. For you who love those who are near to you love yourself closely. Extend your love to those who are unknown to you, who haven’t done anything bad to you. Go even beyond them; go as far as loving your enemies. This is certainly what the Lord commands.16
Each passage contains a caveat. In the first, which occurs shortly after his newly stated position on persons as being constituted by both soul and body, Augustine exhorts that universal love of persons is desirable, but concedes that this is an impossibility in mortal life. In the second, he regards loving those closest to us as normative and necessary, but advocates that Christian charity be practiced by seeking out one’s enemies. This concern over the tension between limiting and extending our love raises questions about the nature of human care and Augustine’s belief that functioning communities need to be based in friendship. As any reader of the Confessions can attest, Augustine spent much time cultivating friendships, which he thought to be, following Cicero, “agreement on things human and divine combined with goodwill and love.”17 Communities founded in true friendship take the police work out of political coercion and forceful rule because people who share the same ethical landscape, communal goals, and affection for one another tend not to wage war in order to secure goods at their friend’s expense.
The distinction made by Aristotle between goodwill and friendship can help to illuminate Augustine’s desire for universal love and his concession that we naturally and rightly, in some sense, limit our love to preferential relationships. He says in the Nicomachean Ethics that “Goodwill would seem to be a feature of friendship, but still it is not friendship. For it arises even toward people we do not know, and without their noticing it, whereas friendship does not…Nor is it loving, since it lacks intensity and desire, which are implied by loving.”18 Thus, in order for a relationship to be properly called a friendship, there needs to exist between two people certain elements of intensity, desire, and preference for the good of that particular other over and above the wish for mere goodwill amongst all people in general. For if one spends too much time spreading their “goodwill” over a large number of people, they are, in a sense, unable to invest their love in any more substantial or significant manner (their love can seem, as Bilbo Baggins might say, “Sort of stretched…like butter scraped over too much bread”).
Fortunately, it is precisely those characteristics of our embodiment or limitedness that are conducive to allowing us to have friends. People have to, in Aristotle’s words, “grow accustomed to each other”19 in order to become friends, and this occurs through living together, not merely in “sharing the same pasture, as in the case of grazing animals,” but in being able to engage in the “sharing of conversation and thought.”20 Friendship requires time spent talking about and working at one’s loves with other persons who share those loves. Of course, Aristotle had not anticipated the technological means of communication that allow people of our age to “share in conversation and thought” while being thousands of miles apart. Though keeping in contact with distant friends is obviously possible in our contemporary context, the conditions of the most sustainable type of friendship, although not reducible to merely “sharing the same pasture,” must practically be lived out in a common place, because living together in community entails so much more than just “sharing in conversation and thought.” Being placed, or being embodied beings, involves an entirely other dimension of relationship, an economy of sorts wherein people work, live, and love with and for one another in the particular arena that their places afford them (and here I have in mind the general oeuvre of Wendell Berry, particularly his essay “People, Land, and Community,” although Augustine has little to say about agrarianism).
Much of this argument rests on the condition that a group of people “speaks the same language,” and not just a spoken language, but a lived language in which persons comport themselves in a common way based on a particular history, order, and tradition that is dually inherited and agreed upon. In On Christian Doctrine, Augustine elaborates a theory of signs that takes into account this phenomenon. He acknowledges the importance of inhabiting these aspects of culture and convention, saying, “This whole area of human institutions which contribute to the necessities of life should in no way be avoided by the Christian; indeed, within reason, they should be studied and committed to memory.”21 If one attempts to abstract one’s self from the ethos of a community, he is susceptible to making “rash imputations of wickedness”22 by judging them from without. Thus, only by inhabiting those characteristics which make us people that can be particular to one another – that is, the places in which we live, the times in which we live in them, and various other nuances and social norms arising from a local culture that shape the personalities of its people and their way of life – will we be able to fully participate in those relationships which are properly called friendships.
Human Scale and the Ordering of Communities
No doubt, although Augustine rightly notes that ultimately a community’s common objects of love and the virtue of its people will lead them to flourish or perish, there does seem to be a direct correlation between the health and scale of cities. He says, “The world, like a gathering of waters, is all the more full of perils by reason of its greater size,”23 and “the larger the city, the more is its forum filled with civil law-suits and criminal trials.”24 This is due to the breakdown of communication and the undoing of the unitive power of friendship to bind its citizens through the work of a local culture. Augustine says, “For when men cannot communicate their thoughts to each other, they are completely unable to associate with one another despite the similarity of their natures.”25 Citizens who do not inhabit a common realm of understanding with regard to the way in which the good of the city is to be actualized will inevitably make judgments based in error. Augustine makes a seemingly obvious statement in regard to judges of law, but it can be said of every citizen and moral agent: “On the one hand, ignorance is unavoidable, and, on the other, judgment is also unavoidable because human society compels it.”26 Although right knowledge must be sought in tandem with right love as far as possible, we cannot master the dance of communal living by merely studying it in abstraction. Thus, as a general rule, the way forward is always the way of ignorance, (or to further paraphrase T.S. Eliot or St. John of the Cross, “In order to arrive at what we are not/We must go through the way in which we are not”) by proceeding in humility, reverence, and even wonder for the people and places which have been afforded us.
To say it again, this must start on a small scale, and it must start in friendship. It is through those particular bonds of friendship, what Gilbert Meilaender refers to as “schools of virtue,” that we are able to dialectically “work out” and realize the goods of civic life. Again, friendship for Augustine is “agreement on things human and divine combined with goodwill and love,” and this agreement is reached “in the exchange of mind with mind, which marks the brightly lit pathway of friendship.”27 Because we never encounter mere “minds,” but human persons in particular places with all the trappings of human customs, conventions, and cultures, we go about forming friendships, and thus communities, with those who “as if by lot” happen to be closest to us in temporal matters.
Thus, one must start from home. Augustine says, “Friendship therefore begins with one’s spouse and children, and [then] goes on to include strangers.”28 In fact, he gives the imperative that persons remain pious to the members of their homesteads by caring for them before extending their friendship. He says, “In the first place, therefore, he must care for his own household; for the order of nature and of human society itself gives him readier access to them, and greater opportunity of caring for them. Hence, the apostle says, ‘But if any provide not for his own, and specially for those of his own house, he hath denied the faith and is worse than an infidel.’”29 This is because the household, as a “sphere of social relations that is of sufficiently manageable proportions that it can teach its members the practice of charity,”30 is the foundation of human society. It is where persons can first learn to pursue the order of love and thus be inculcated as members of a sort of well-ordered mini-community. When members of these mini-communities can rejoice “in the most sweet peace with kindred, neighbours and friends,”31 then something like a small semblance of the heavenly city is made manifest on earth.
It should be noted that even though Augustine seems to start on local grounds by warning against certain vices that tend to emerge from imperialist politics (such as those embodied by the Roman Empire of his time), he was still deeply concerned for the good of persons beyond what any earthly city (such as Hippo) had to offer them. A purported love for the world at large can blind one to the immediate needs within one’s own community – the sometimes mundane, interminable duties of neighbors and citizens. But in the same respect, seeking the good of one’s own community may require us to look elsewhere to interpret the possibilities of what that good may look like – perhaps even to the heavens. I’ll close by quoting a final passage of Augustine, a letter to his old friend Nectarius:
I am not surprised that your heart still glows with such warm love for your home-town, even though your limbs are now starting to be chilled by old age, and I praise you for this. Furthermore, I am not reluctant, but rather delighted, to see you not only recalling accurately, but also showing by your life and your behavior, that ‘a good man’s service of his home-town has no limit or terminus.’ That is why we should love to count you too as a citizen of a certain country beyond; it is because we love that country with a holy love – as far as we can – that we accept hard work and danger among the people we hope to benefit by helping them reach it.32
1. Augustine, The City of God against the Pagans, ed. and trans. R.W. Dyson, (New York: Cambridge, 1998), XIV.28.
2. Eric Gregory, Politics and the Order of Love: An Augustinian Ethic of Democratic Citizenship, (Chicago: University of Chicago, 2008), 330.
3. DCD, XIX.24.
4. See Phillip Cary, “United Inwardly by Love: Augustine’s Social Ontology” in Augustine and Politics, ed. John Doody, Kevin L. Hughes, and Kim Paffenroth, (United States: Lexington, 2005), 3-33.
5. Ibid, XI.1.
6. Augustine, Confessions, II.v.10.
7. Oliver O’Donovan, The Problem of Self-Love in St. Augustine, (Eugene: Wipf & Stock, 1980), 60.
8. DCD, XV.22
9. Augustine, Homilies on the First Epistle of John, trans. Boniface Ramsey, (Hyde Park: New City Press, 2008), VII.8.
10. This point is well explicated by Roland J. Teske, S.J. in his essay “Love of Neighbor in Augustine” in To Know God and the Soul: Essays on the Thought of St. Augustine, ed. Roland J. Teske, S.J., (Washington, DC: Catholic University of America Press, 2008), 70-90.
11. Augustine, On True Religion, 46.89, quoted in Teske, 79-80.
12. Augustine, On Christian Teaching, trans. R.P.H. Green, (New York: Oxford, 2008), I.58.
13. Gregory, 295.
14. O’Donovan, 123.
15. DDC, I.61-62.
16. Augustine, Homilies on the First Epistle of John, trans. Boniface Ramsey, (Hyde Park: New City Press, 2008), VIII.4.
17. See, for instance, Augustine, Ancient Christian Writiers, vol. 12, Against the Academics, trans. John O’Meara (New York: Newman Press, 1951), III.xi.13; also John von Heyking, “The Luminous Path of Friendship: Augustine’s Account of Friendship and Political Order” in Friendship & Politics: Essays in Political Thought, ed. John von Heyking and Richard Avramenko, (Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame, 2008), 115-138.
18. Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics, trans. Terence Irwin (Indianapolis: Hackett, 1999), IX.v.1.
19. Ibid., IX.v.3.
20. Ibid., IX.ix.10.
21. DDC, II.101.
22. Ibid, III.45.
23. DCD, XIX.7.
24. Ibid., XIX.5
25. Ibid., XIX.7. I concede that Augustine is really talking about the “diversity of tongues,” but I think that a broader conception of “language” or “speaking,” including the ways in which humans physically comport themselves, can help to illuminate the breakdown of human communication that Augustine witnesses. See, for instance, Denys Turner, “How to Do Things with Words: Poetry as Sacrament in Dante’s Commedia in Dante’s Commedia: Theology as Poetry, ed. Vittorio Montemaggi and Matthew Treherne, (Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame, 2010), 286-305.
26. Ibid., XIX.6
27. Conf., II.ii.2.
28. Augustine, Sermo Denis, XVI.1 (cited in Gregory, 356).
29. DCD, XIX.15 (The verse is 1 Timothy 5:8).
30. Kevin L. Hughes, “Local Politics: The Political Place of the Household in Augustine’s City of God” in Augustine and Politics, ed. John Doody, Kevin Hughes, and Kim Paffenroth, (United States: Lexington, 2005), 154.
31. DCD, IV.4.
32. Augustine, “Letter 91” in Political Writings, ed. and trans. E.M. Atkins and R.J. Dodaro (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2001), 2.