Some thoughts on Book 19 of Augustine’s City of God, mostly taken from an article by Oliver O’Donovan (the revised version of the essay published in O’Donovan and O’Donovan, Bonds of Imperfection).
O’Donovan points out that the the issues in this book are broadly moral rather than specifically political. It introduces the final section where Augustine discusses the “ends” of two cities. In the last few books, Augustine literally discusses eschatology, but he begins with “ends” in a moral sense, and investigates the aims and goals of the good life and of the rightly ordered city.
The book begins with with a discussion of Varro, who tried to reduce the philosophical questions to 6, which can be answered in various combinations, yielding 288 possible philosophers. Augustine reduces further, and comes up with only three basic positions: virtue is valued for the goods that it brings, natural goods; goods are valued for the sake of virtue; and virtue is valued for its own sake (which is Varro’s own view). Augustine says that none of these matches the Christian view, which makes eternal life the highest good. Virtue cannot be valued for its own sake, nor for natural goods, since neither virtue nor natural goods can overcome the miseries of life. The only true end of action is eternal life, which is the only possible happiness
19.20 sums up the Christian position on this, which Augustine expresses by saying that the supreme good is perfect peace, the peace of final bliss and immortality. The Latin reads:
Quamobrem summum bonum civitatis Dei cum sit pax aeterna atque perfecta, non per quam mortales transeant nascendo atque moriendo, sed in qua immortales maneant nihil adversi omnino patiendo; quis est qui illam vitam vel beatissimam neget vel in eius comparatione istam, quae hic agitur, quantislibet animi et corporis externarumque rerum bonis plena sit, non miserrimam iudicet? Quam tamen quicumque sic habet, ut eius usum referat ad illius finem, quam diligit ardentissime ac fidelissime sperat, non absurde dici etiam nunc beatus potest, spe illa potius quam re ista. Res ista vero sine spe illa beatitudo falsa et magna miseria est; non enim veris animi bonis utitur, quoniam non est vera sapientia, quae intentionem suam in his quae prudenter discernit, gerit fortiter, cohibet temperanter iusteque distribuit, non ad illum dirigit finem, ubi erit Deus omnia in omnibus, aeternitate certa et pace perfecta.
As O’Donovan points out, this passage makes three claims: an eschatological claim about the supreme good being perfect and eternal peace; a negative conclusion that the life we have here, because it is beset by various threats and miseries, is unhappy; and the qualification that this life can achieve a kind of happiness so long as it is oriented to the right end, so long as the things of this life are used in view of an eternal happiness in the future, and not clung to for their own sake.
Only after this more general moral discussion does Augustine turn to the “political” part of this book, which forms a kind of “appendix” to the treatment of moral life and its ends. A central point is that Augustine stresses the necessity of social life to philosophy. Varro says that the moral life might include sharing the good life with others, but this is not of primary importance to the good life. Augustine disagrees. Social dimension is of the essence of the good life. This arises from his insistence that peace is the supreme good. If peace is the supreme good, then society is also a supreme good. According to O’Donovan, Book 19 “is, at the very least, an essay to demonstrate that moral philosophy must be social philosophy.”
Yet, Augustine is deeply aware of the evils of social life, the dangers and threats that plague it., In the kind of excruciating detail of which only Augustine is capable, he examines how social life is vitiated by falsehood, treachery. Even the simple diversity of languages that make it difficult for people to understand one another. Friendship is troubled by the possibility of death, if not fear of betrayal. This means that peace cannot be finally the peace of this life, which is only a conditional and partial peace. Instead, the social good that is peace is only achieved when we are beyond all danger and adversity.
O’Donovan makes the point, against Markus, that Augustine does not speak of private ends and a public utility. Augustine is not an advocate of a secular political neutrality that allows individuals and sub-groups to pursue their own ends. It is not a matter of common use of goods but diverse ends and goals in that use. This is what Markus sees in Augustine, and it’s the basis for saying that Augustine forms the secular state. O’Donovan says Augustine really does the opposite: There is a common end for all men in the earthly city, and no proper utilitas at all, since utilitas has to do with referring the use of goods of this world to the supreme good of eternal life.
The consensus that Augustine speaks of is not a consensus of members of the earthly and heavenly city. The citizens of the heavenly city aren’t members of the earthly city, since the cities are defined by ends, morally, not politically, racially, or socially. Instead, the consensus he talks about has to do with the use that the citizens of the heavenly city make of earthly peace. For Augustine, Christians have never been part of the Roman project, and are not true Romans, just as those who are not real Christians are not true members of the city of God either. The earthly peace is common, but this is one of the things “used” by the saints.
At this point he returns to the question of the res publica, held in abeyance since Book 2. According to Cicero’s definition, consensus about the ius is essential to a res publica. Augustine takes this as implying that there must be a consensus about justice, drawing on the linguistic connection of ius and iustitia. This is the foundation of peace, since there is no order, no proper disposition of equal and unequal (which is essential to peace), when there is no justice, and no consensus about justice.
O’Donovan points out that in Latin ius often means simply “legal system,” but Augustine refuses to limit the discussion of the commonwealth to the simple fact of there being a legal system. He raises the question of the justice of the legal system, a point even Roman theorists recognize this when the recognize iustitia as the foundation of ius.
Augustine’s main question is whether the Roman state meets the definition of a res publica. He could have answered by distinguish relative and absolute justice. He does this with peace: there is the relative peace of the earthly city, which is a good, but not a final good, but a relative good to be used for the sake of the final good. Many have read Augustine as if he does distinguish absolute and relative justice, but O’Donovan says that this distinction never comes up. The reason, O’Donovan says, is because Augustine finds theological weight in iustitia, from the doctrine of justification and the Pauline theology of righteousness. For Augustine, iustitia is the justice of God making man just, and so iustitia cannot not include the forgiveness of sins. This is why Augustine turns from talking political to talking about the Pelagian controversy all over again.
This is not to say that Augustine doesn’t recognize a political dimension to iustitia. He does in various places in City of God (4.4; 5.24). But the word “justice” is always haunted by its biblical meaning, and this is one of the reason why he cannot affirm that any pagan state is just. Justice requires that each be given his due, and this includes God, and it is not just to take what is God’s and give it to demons. But he also denies that a just pagan society can exist because justice only exists where God’s justice is at work to make just.
posted by Peter J. Leithart on Saturday, March 1, 2008 at 9:17 am
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