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.
I look forward to that story for another day.ReplyDelete
Anything I have written on the Middle Ages will cover it. See the Bibliography tab at the top of the page; start with the posts on Fritz Kern.Delete
I may not get back to Casey's book for a couple of weeks, so this will have to suffice for now!
I think that Frank Chodorov has a better take on the relationship between government and people than Augustine. There was a wonderful and short excerpt from his book "The Rise and Fall of Society" posted at Mises.org on 1 Aug that I recommend reading and which has a great bearing on our discussion of a libertarian culture:ReplyDelete
Frank Chodorov! One of Murray Rothbard's cherished mentors and the successor of Albert J. Nock. This guy deserves more attention! Here is an except from Murray's farewell to Frank after his passing in 1966.Delete
"In that crowd of time-servers, Frank Chodorov stood out like a blaze of radiant light. He stood out at that cocktail party, too, the only person alive and ablaze amidst the whole gaggle of one-dimensional and identical men around him. There he stood, his tie askew, his balding head disheveled, the ashes from his beloved pipe flying all around, his intelligent and merry eyes twinkling as he scored some outrageous, logical, and beautifully penetrating point to some clod who couldn't tell the difference between the host of cardboard "individualists" and this one genuine article."
"For Frank was sui generis, and the vast gulf in the quality of mind and the rigor of ideas between him and the other "rightist" intellectuals was, in a sense, embodied in that other gulf of spirit and outward form. Unflinching honesty, courage, love of the intellect and the products of the mind, these are some of the things that distinguished Frank Chodorov to the very core of his being and set him many light years above his confreres. While the others prattled on about liberty and individualism, Frank Chodorov really meant it; he was an individualist, and when he died in late December 1966 an entire era died with him."
Just FYI: "The Rise and Fall of Society" is a free download at Mises.org. They have it in PDF and EPub format. 200 pages - currently reading it.Delete
This is exactly where I read it. I read most of my books in pdf format. LolDelete
I have a voice reader app on my phone which will read a pdf to me while I drive to and from work everyday. Driving has become my most productive reading time!
"Such coercion is both necessary and inevitable, given man’s nature."ReplyDelete
It seems as though all potentially totalitarian ideologies fall into two camps: 1.) man is inherently bad, therefore a centralized coercive state is necessary to restrain the individual's bad tendencies (dictatorship), and 2.) man is inherently good, and therefore a centralized coercive state is necessary to express the will of the individual as represented by a majority vote (democracy).
Calvin falls into the former and Rousseau falls into the latter. Modern Western statism seems to be a mix of the ideas of these two men of Geneva.
I think the answer, for those of us who reject the necessity of totalitarianism or a centralized state, is to recognize that mankind is not inherently bad nor inherently good, but a mixture of both. As Solzhenitsyn said, "the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being."
Therefore we need to support a political order which recognizes and reconciles this truth of human nature, that each of us, even those in positions of authority, are prone to both good and evil. To me this yields not a mix of the centralizing extremes: democracy and dictatorship, but a political order which rejects monopoly and centralization outright, and embraces instead subsidiarity, self-determination, polycentrism, and decentralization in the provision of law and order.
Furthermore, this law needs to have roots deeper than the present majority will or arbitrary dictatorial decree if it hopes to avoid the totalitarian forms of order. It needs to have been either discovered through a disciplined investigation of the nature of human civilization, prescribed after hundreds of years of good tradition, or revealed through true religion (the one that gave birth to modern civilization and reason).
It's too bad that Augustine may have been the Christian progenitor of Calvinism. I was hoping he was more of a progenitor of the medievalist monarchism of the middle ages we've come to revere.
Did we have to wait until Pope Gregory VII in 1076 before we saw the emergence of the ecclesiastical right of resistance when he excommunicated the German emperor Henry IV?
Love your comment, so many good things in it, in a condensed format. Brevity is awesome, good job.Delete
Thanks Nick! =) I thought it was a bit long myself! LolDelete
"Concision in style, precision in thought, decision in life." - Victor Hugo
I can't say I always live up to this, if I ever do, but this is something I strive for.
"I was hoping he was more of a progenitor of the medievalist monarchism of the middle ages we've come to revere."Delete
Given the view that Augustine, only after Paul, might have been the most influential early Christian writer for the west, it really says something about how strong and valuable was the influence of the Germanic tradition in this marriage that resulted in this reasonably libertarian law.
I wouldn't get too down on Augustine, one of the greatest thinkers in history!Delete
Augustine definitely was part of the decentralized medieval order, notwithstanding that some of his thoughts influenced Calvinism. There are examples of subsidiarity in his writings. City of God, among other writings, includes a key nuance from Augustine that was core to the medieval order -- that the ruler, although he was to be generally obeyed -- must observe justice, and he had a moral and legal obligation to preserve peace and steward the peaceful order.
That is, rulers were stewards with obligations to preserve and protect what they rule; not tax it and tyrannize it into oblivion. Something like a night-watchman state, but with a rich cultural lens based on observing God's natural laws.
Augustine also has comments that rulers must be legitimate. He didn't expand much on this, but the natural entailment is that some rulers are illegitimate, and thus the question is begged, what to do about it. Aquinas develops these ideas further many hundreds of years later.
I would love to provide citations but it has been a while and his writings blend together for me...
Your comment ATL, is spot on however on what we should strive for, and I think this is why I gravitate to the medieval view of rulers as stewards with positive obligations to protect life and the peaceful order. It's a burden, not a right, to have any sort of dominion. Add in subsidiarity, and you have quite the ethic to guide a decentralized order.
Thanks for the comment Perry! I would certainly like to think Augustine contributed to the cause of liberty. What you've described about his convictions concerning authority is a lot like what you'll find in the Catechism on authority; I wouldn't be surprised if he was the author of much of that section.Delete
Do you know anything of the early Church Fathers? I've only done a cursory reading on them, but what I've come away with was that they were generally in favor of passive obedience or passive disobedience (resulting in martyrdom) to the Emperor. I'm wondering when and where the Church got the gumption to actively condemn and challenge Emperors, Kings, and Princes. It must have been the infusion of Barbarian (Germanic) custom. But perhaps Augustine provided some ammunition as well before this occurred.
You are probably right.
"According to a famous saying of the most famous authoress of the continent, Liberty is ancient; and it is Despotism that is new. It has been the pride of recent historians to vindicate the truth of that maxim. The heroic age of Greece confirms it, and it is still more conspicuously true of Teutonic Europe. Wherever we can trace the earlier life of the Aryan nations we discover germs which favouring circumstances and assiduous culture might have developed into free societies. They exhibit some sense of common interest in common concerns, little reverence for external authority, and an imperfect sense of the function and supremacy of the state." -Acton, THoFiA
Was it the Reformation that destroyed the liberty minded Germanic customs? Or was it wars prior to this? Was Bismarck the end of liberty in German custom?
“I wouldn't get too down on Augustine, one of the greatest thinkers in history!”Delete
Perry, I am not at all qualified to get too down or too up on Augustine. Primarily I am looking at him through the lens offered by Casey – and Casey is looking through a lens of the history of liberty. As Casey is clearly a well-read individual, I think his take on Augustine as being a somewhat mixed-bad on liberty-related issues carries weight. At the same time, Casey notes that out of the hundred and more books written by Augustine, none were dedicated to the topic of political philosophy.
So I hope what I have written regarding Augustine is understood within this context.
“Was it the Reformation that destroyed the liberty minded Germanic customs? Or was it wars prior to this? Was Bismarck the end of liberty in German custom?”Delete
When I think about the fall of Rome (of which I know only a little) and the decline in freedom in the US (of which I know more), it strikes me that no one event can stand alone, and that the transition runs its course over decades, in fact centuries.
It seems to me that the Reformation was the singular event, the event that gives a face to a transition. It may be the single event easiest to identify. Certainly, the change from Christendom to Christianity was meaningful when it came to competing authorities, etc.
Belloc offers his take:
Several events occurred, each contributing in some manner, to the significant changes in Germanic Europe.
Thank you BM for the response. I was probably too animated in my comment as there was nothing in your original post that I would see as incorrect. I definitely understand your lens about interpreting some of his views as they pertain to political philosophy.Delete
Rather, as you note, Augustine is a mixed bag in terms of conclusions for the role of government, but he created the foundation for so much in theology and Western thought, that I just wanted to be on record that his influence left a real imprint on the medieval (and later) orders.
And responding to ATL on the Church fathers, I am fairly well acquainted (though no expert). Simplifying greatly, political thinking, if any, echoed some of Christ's words in the gospel. That is, God didn't come to simply replace the existing worldly orders with a 'heaven on Earth.'
For both practical reasons, and reasons likely arising from a sense of the imminence of the Second Coming, most of the thinkers stuck to theology and personal interrelations.
The underrated aspect of early Church father thinking regarding passivity in the face of Roman tyranny was (1) it is good to suffer like Christ, as it glorifies God and proves his ultimate dominion (because nothing can defeat you, not even death or torture) (see the first St. Ignatius on this point, writing probably late first century), and (2) as much as the Romans/pagans tyrannize, it was the Christian life to love their enemies, and attempt to convert as many of them as possible. Martyrdom played a role in this, essentially involving a sacrifice of life to prove Christ to the unbelievers. As some early writers attested, it worked.
Augustine and PelagiusReplyDelete
by R. C. Sproul
"It is Augustine who gave us the Reformation." So wrote B. B. Warfield in his assessment of the influence of Augustine on church history. It is not only that Luther was an Augustinian monk, or that Calvin quoted Augustine more than any other theologian that provoked Warfield's remark. Rather, it was that the Reformation witnessed the ultimate triumph of Augustine's doctrine of grace over the legacy of the Pelagian view of man.
Humanism, in all its subtle forms, recapitulates the unvarnished Pelagianism against which Augustine struggled.
Augustine is a mixed bag on just about every subject. You can also find the beginning of just about every type of theological thought in him. Reformers and Catholics alike could I am sure.ReplyDelete
He was right about human nature at least Biblically. His comments on government came out of that. My reading of his comments is that it is made up of corrupted men and can be useful to restrain other corrupted men from acting out of their corrupted wills. I never read any statements requiring obedience to tyrannical government and he described the sacking of Rome in positive terms early in the City Of God, at least in how it affected the Roman government. I don't see much difference between outside and inside factions fighting tyranny.
To apply a little of my own logic. If it is God's good providence for Goths to sack Rome for its opulence and sin while motivated by the desire for wealth, which is more or less Augustine's opinion. Why would it have been disobedient to God for Christians to form their own army, declare their independence from Rome, and sack Rome in order to win their freedom? I don't see anywhere that Augustine could be against that.
I think the issue is that he didn't fully develop his philosophy of government, like many Christians. He made some surface comments and did not explore all the implications of his comments. If he had, he may have well been a proto-Libertarian. However, his main concern was understanding the Bible and following Jesus as best as he could in his personal life.
"I think the issue is that he didn't fully develop his philosophy of government..."Delete
See my reply to Perry Mason, above. For convenience, I also copy it here:
"I am not at all qualified to get too down or too up on Augustine. Primarily I am looking at him through the lens offered by Casey – and Casey is looking through a lens of the history of liberty. As Casey is clearly a well-read individual, I think his take on Augustine as being a somewhat mixed-bag on liberty-related issues carries weight. At the same time, Casey notes that out of the hundred and more books written by Augustine, none were dedicated to the topic of political philosophy.
"So I hope what I have written regarding Augustine is understood within this context."
I also add: in hindsight, I probably could have emphasized this point in the original post. I think I just didn't really think through it enough: government and political philosophy was just not his focus, so perhaps this explains much.