Freedom's Progress?: A History of Political Thought, by Gerard Casey
“For Augustine,” writes Thomas Cahill, “is the first human being to say ‘I’ – and to mean what we mean today.”
So now we know that it was Augustine’s Confessions that Equality 7-2521 (aka “Prometheus”) was reading when he discovered the word “I.”
Augustine, born in North Africa in the middle of the fourth century, was – perhaps only after Paul – the most influential writer in Western Christian thought. Having travelled through Manichaeism and having become a Neo-Platonist, these influences did not leave him when he later became a Christian and was baptized.
Manichaeism taught an elaborate dualistic cosmology describing the struggle between a good, spiritual world of light, and an evil, material world of darkness. Through an ongoing process that takes place in history, light is gradually removed from the world of matter and returned to the world of light, whence it came. Its beliefs were based on local Mesopotamian religious movements and Gnosticism.
Even though Neoplatonism primarily circumscribes the thinkers who are now labeled Neoplatonists and not their ideas, there are some ideas that are common to Neoplatonic systems, for example, the monistic idea that all of reality can be derived from a single principle, "the One".
There are those who view the earliest period of the Middle Ages, due to Augustine’s influence, as the highpoint of the appearance of the individual. While Casey understands why such a claim can be made, he disagrees. Casey sees this idea as advancing over the next eight-hundred years.
While Augustine wrote some 117 books, there is no single book devoted to political philosophy or political thought. Instead, one gathers from several of his works Augustine’s views on such topics. To properly understand Augustine, it must be realized that his view of man and history is defined by two points – and through these two points: man’s original bliss in Eden, and man’s future bliss in heaven (or damnation in hell). As he has this “truth” in his grasp before he begins, it guides his views throughout his work.
In The City of God, Augustine depicts not two distinct cities, but two views of man – separated by the object of their love. The one loves God, the other himself; the one lives by the standards of the spirit, the other of the flesh; the one desires to serve, the other desires dominion. Ultimately the two point to two different visions of sovereignty.
Given that we live in this world – the one populated by many who wish dominion – for Augustine, government is not specifically a necessary evil, but necessary due to evil; government is required due to the concept of Original Sin. Citing Luskin, for Augustine, government…
…“was the consequence of sin and it arose from the lust for power and domination. But in so far as coercive authority restrained further abuse of free will, it was a necessary and legitimate remedy of sin.”
The state does not exist to make men virtuous; the state does not exist to provide universal law. The purpose of the state is to underpin order – while a thief-taker, it is a necessary thief-taker. Such coercion is both necessary and inevitable, given man’s nature.
As such, Augustine finds no issue even with slavery, beyond noting that slavery – like government – is nothing more than a natural outcome of man’s original sin: slavery is for the benefit of the enslaved, just as government is for the benefit of the governed.
His realpolitik may be ground in more than his pessimism of man’s nature or his call for passive obedience; given his view of history – marked by the two points of Eden and heaven (or hell) – nothing in between really matters. We may have Augustine to thank for the unfortunate interpretation of Romans 13; Augustine – 1200 years before – anticipates Hobbes: a strong power is necessary to restrain man.
Augustine describes the ideal ruler as one who is not inflated with pride; who puts his power at the service of God’s majesty; who fears, loves and worships God more than his earthly kingdom. But whether or not a ruler has such characteristics, he is to be obeyed: he puts forward a theory of passive obedience to the state – whatever he moral character of its leaders.
While he sees government as required, he is by no means blind to its evils – a gang of criminals on a large scale. His endorsement is nothing more than realpolitik: given man’s sinful nature, the state is necessary. Whether a good prince or a bad prince, a prince is necessary to maintain peace and justice. Good or bad, the prince is an instrument of Providence.
While Augustine – like Machiavelli – focused on the dark side of man’s nature as the reason for a strong state, unlike Machiavelli, Augustine never lost his moral bearing: unlike Machiavelli, Augustine didn’t lose site of the reality that state power was an evil. Understanding Augustine, one could describe him as the first Calvinist. Now there is something to consider.
Augustine’s life and death coincided with the fall of Rome. This was to usher in the birthing of a society through which libertarian law bloomed. But this is a story for another day.