“Compared to the other classical political philosophers, Augustine stands apart from not articulating a preferred political order or what the ideal order would be. And that is the point.”
The “original insight” of Saint Augustine was his recognition that humans are intense creatures of desire. Humans are, as Augustine said, restless hearts constantly on the move—searching for love, a home, and happiness in life. The cry of the human heart attracts moral compassion from others and the restless heart seeks fusion with something besides the self. Love, Augustine argued, transcends all boundaries and raises the soul to the new heights where it cannot be stripped away, and all earthly honor, glory, and manliness falls short of the immeasurable beauty and glory of God.
Augustine’s “Original Insight”
Augustine’s original insight of the centrality of desire to the human was scandalous in a world where desire was generally viewed as problematic (or has been corrupted into the cesspool of hedonistic nihilism). While the Neoplatonists were closest to emergent Christianity in seeing the erotic as something good and powerful, the Stoics, Aristotelians, and other virtue philosophers emphasized man’s rationality over desire. But in a powerful section in Confessions, when Augustine implores Alypius—his friend and embodiment of Hellenic virtue philosophy—not to attend a gladiator game, the limits of individual virtue preached by the Hellenic virtue philosophers is made manifest.
Alypius informs Augustine he will close his eyes when the moment of death is about to occur; he is confidence that his training in virtue and rational imposition over the passions will override the torrent of emotion within the coliseum. Alypius failed. He opens his eyes and is captured by the bloodlust and the uncontrollable screams of the masses around him. Augustine’s criticism of the limits of Hellenic philosophy continued in his critique of Porphyry in the City of God, arguing that Porphyry’s pride and self-confidence in himself—and only himself—led him astray and incapable of recognizing that which he sought: the true wisdom found in the incarnate god-man from Nazareth.
It is well-known that Augustine was influenced by Stoicism, Platonism, and even Epicureanism, but he was equally critical of these schools of thought; thus, it is somewhat a misnomer to believe that Augustine “baptized” Platonism and other schools of Greek philosophy as much as he appraised them, highlighting the good while revealing their limitations to the Christian revelatory reality. (Augustine held Plato in lower esteem than all the Hebrew Prophets.) Focusing his critique on stoicism, Augustine criticized the foolhardy mentality that virtue and success could be achieved alone. Augustine’s criticism of self-righteous stoicism, re-contextualized for the modern age, is a criticism of the “pull yourself up by the bootstraps” myth of American hyper-individualism, as well as prideful meritocratic delusion and the hubris of power celebrated by liberal internationalists and neoconservatives. Alypius’ failure is a reminder not to be too alone and too hubristic in one’s own accomplishments or abilities.
What is unique to the Augustinian original insight is his complex anthropology of love. The human person in Augustine’s outlook is always on the move. There is no stasis in Augustine’s thought. The person is always in a state of transformation. And since people are social animals, society is always in a state of transformation. Even Augustine’s reading of Genesis 1 at the end of Confessions establishes an anthropology of loving movement, of formation, not a fixed disposition but a movement toward beautification and divinization. The fallen human is imperfect but being made perfect by God’s redemptive hand in history.
Furthermore, the person in Augustine’s anthropology is distinctly unique and personal. Each person is an image of God, slavery was not natural because it marred this distinct image (and thus separated him from other notable philosophers who maintained the naturalness of slavery), and each person has particular desires conditioned to their soul. Augustine was one of the progenitors of pluralism; and it was Augustine’s defense of pluralism which led him to be harshly critical of the Roman Empire and its destruction of other peoples’ ways of life and culture.
Augustine’s Critique of the Roman Empire
The many paradoxes of Augustine can be seen in his criticism of the Roman Empire. From beginning to end, from the sack of Troy and flight of Aeneas to Italy, to Aeneas’ slaughter of Turnus, to the fratricidal recurrence of Cain and Abel in Romulus and Remus, up to Augustine’s own day with Rome’s sacking by the Visigoths, Rome’s rise and fall was tied to the lust for domination (libido dominandi). Yet it was equally important as citizens of this world (despite possible heavenly citizenship) to do one’s duty to the temporal city that they found home in; brotherly love (agape) demanded it.
In this way Augustine found refuge not in the politics of imperium but in the politics of love; the politics of building that emanated from engagement with one’s neighbors. But this also meant that Christians ought to participate in the civic life of the very empire that embodied bloodlust to the nth degree—not so much to sustain a corrupt and despondent system but to transform it and, indeed, redeem it. When the Christian Roman general Boniface wrote to Augustine asking him how to deal with the Vandals in a Christian manner, Augustine advised him to do his duty as a soldier and general entrusted both by Rome and by God to protect people from harm.
Rome’s so-called greatness was not, as the Roman apologists claimed, from their own virtue or the gifts bestowed onto them by the gods. In fact, Augustine bested his pagan critics by playing their own game. He drew from Roman history, from Roman authors, and from famous Romans to counter them and showed their emptiness.
Time and again, whether in Romulus’ murder of Remus because he could not share earthly glory (contradicting Roman claims of brotherly love); Rome’s sacking by the Gauls in 380 B.C. or by the mere fact that the Roman pantheon was the Trojan pantheon that failed to protect Troy or Rome’s destruction of Alba who worshipped the same gods (contradicting Roman claims that the gods protected them); to Scipio’s banishment to Cicero’s arrest and beheading (contradicting Roman claims to care about and reward virtue since the two most virtuous men in Roman history died ignoble deaths at the callous hands of their own countrymen); Rome’s greatness was not because of any filial piety, divine favor, or moral virtue but the very opposite of these things: The pure and unrestrained lust for earthly dominance and glory moved Roman “glory” onward. The Romans were so blood thirsty and lusted after domination that they would stop at nothing to achieve this earthly greatness by the sword of conquest and then claimed glory and peace to justify their bloodlust.
Additionally, Augustine’s criticism of the civil theologies and impersonal god of the Hellenic philosophers was done, from a perspective that we would broadly describe today, and recognize, as critical. The civil theology of Rome, the divinized and politicized pater familias of Livy and the Augustan writers, constrained the heart of the human person and its creativity. Rome’s civil theology boxed people into fixed destinies for the glory of the state. The civil theology of Rome turned people into cogs of the state. It denied the reality of humans pursuing their own ends. The civil theology of the Roman poets and philosophers could not account for the human heart and its desires. The civil theology of Rome took the fixed and immutable view of the world established by the gods and decreed fixed and immutable fates to humans—but as Augustine aptly noted, this civil theology was meant to give “divine” justification to brutal men instead.
Augustine’s criticism of the Rome he was a citizen of, and once a very prominent individual of as a Professor of Rhetoric in Rome, was not to just deconstruct and tear down. Augustine’s criticism was aimed at the higher calling of divinization. His critique was aimed at getting beyond the nostalgic myth of Roman exceptionalism—itself a delusional fantasy from Augustine’s point of view—that plagued the empire; Christian and pagan alike. Christian imperialists were wrong in seeing Rome as the instrument of God’s plan of salvation for the world. Pagans were wrong in fantasizing a Rome that never existed except in their own imagination. The Rome Augustine was hoping to see would be a Rome built on the ethic of “do no harm to anyone, and, secondly, to help everyone whenever possible” as he stated in the City of God.
Compared to the other classical political philosophers, Augustine stands apart from not articulating a preferred political order or what the ideal order would be. And that is the point. There is no perfect political form on earth; instead, Augustine calls for a politics of love with the basic rules of non-harm and helping others as the foundation for such a political community. Augustine knows that even these rules will not be followed, but these are the two foundational rules for polities to follow; what is constructed by the creative spirit and yearning of human hearts remains unknown to us, but we could be assured—with faith—that the creative spirit of the human endeavor would bring us closer to God’s vision.
Augustine is simultaneously detached from political forms but also attached to the possibility of movement to the heavenly Jerusalem. Where his Greek and Roman interlocutors had definitive conceptualizations of what the ideal political model was which often exhausted in the Greeks or Romans using force to implement their universal conception of the ideal polis over all people, Augustine never provides such a template other than to say it is best for power to be decentralized. He simply argues that political order should try to minimize harm, and that political institutions should help people to the best of their ability. All political orders, like Rome in his days, will dissipate and wither away in time. But this also leaves the opportunity for renewal and new construction—something better than in the past.
From a certain point of view, Augustine’s critique of Rome is deeply relevant for us today. Augustine was the first Christian critic and deconstructionist. Many postmodernists, from Jacques Lacan to Jacques Derrida, also acknowledge a deep debt to the bishop of Hippo. Augustine is unique in the world of antiquity, and in political philosophy (or, if you prefer, political theology) insofar that he denies the state and the body politic as the highest good for humans to labor for (standing against Plato, Aristotle, and Cicero among the classical political philosophers). On the contrary, Augustine thinks the state often restrains the capacity and reality of human flourishing.
Deep in the psyche of Christianity is the image of the apocalypse. Jacques Lacan pointed out the intrinsic nature of Christian dialectical thought from St. Paul and St. John to St. Augustine and its influence on him and the psychoanalytic tradition. This apocalyptic imagination is itself the restless soul seeking transformation and movement toward divinization as it attempts to flee lust and control for love and recognition. The apocalypse signals the end of the old and the beginning of the new. This, according to Augustine, is what the human heart and all its creative energies are moving to. The shedding of the old and the journey to the new; even in the realm of the political.
Augustine knew humans were discontent. This was the reality of the Fall. The discontented heart would seek to compensate for this discontentment in ways both tragic and remarkable. Tragedy was exuded in Cain and Romulus. Emulation was seen in Abel, David, and Christ.
The crux of Augustine’s anthropology of love is the soul’s yearning to be liberated from its present condition. Though this is the condition of sin in theological language, in a secularized language the want to be liberated from present discontents and misery is a powerful one that has fueled reformist and revolutionary movements alike. In short, Augustine gave serious reflection to the politics of restlessness.
This apocalyptic inheritance has found its way into so-called “secular” ideologies: environmentalism, fascism, and all the “end of history philosophies” (whether in Marxist or liberal iterations). But the divide between those who see the apocalypse as something to be fought against and those who see the apocalypse as a moment of transformation leads to a stark division between pessimism and optimism. It is wrongly asserted that Augustine was a dour pessimist. On the contrary, he was an optimist. Despite the domination and bloodlust all around, the human heart was still on the move to that heavenly Jerusalem. The kingdoms of the world come and go but the heart continues its upward sojourn as it becomes more like Love.
Part of Augustine’s enduring contribution to the West, and larger world, was his understanding of moral agency. Augustine believed that moral transformation was the result of God’s providential and stewarding hand to bring persons closer together in a united family. Humans were, for Augustine, hearts to actualize God’s love in the world. Humans, as images of God, become images to conduct love in the world begotten from Love itself.
William E. Connolly notes that almost all Western politics is indebted to the “Augustinian imperative.” In a world of violence and the lust for domination, the light of subjects and faces needed to break through the muck and mud to transform the world and help procure justice and aid the movement to the heavenly Jerusalem. Augustine’s critique of the barbarism and brutality of Rome very much threated the imperial mythos of Romanitas. Yet he exhorted the spiritual side of Rome to overcome the lust for domination and “[l]ay hold now on the celestial country” which the Roman heart (as all hearts do) desired. Augustine’s critique was not mean-spirited but had the end of healing and contentment in mind; Augustine’s critique was meant to bring justice and healing to an unjust and broken world. (I have written on the centrality of justice to Augustine’s understanding of human nature here.)
Connolly writes that Augustine invoked a Hegelian conception of history before Hegel. What Connolly means is that Augustine’s vision of moral divinization was the lens to understand the Spirit’s restoring action in the world. Moral divinization makes humans beautiful and, in humanity’s beautification, the world is also made beautiful (as in accordance with St. Paul’s teaching to the Romans). However, Connolly’s observation of how this works in Augustine is the same as it is in Kant, Hegel, and other actors of Moral Being (perhaps the most notable contemporary of this school of “Augustinian” thought being the Canadian philosopher Charles Taylor).
The alternative view that humans are—themselves—the source of moral being to help create a better world and be a bulwark of justice against the lust for domination is, in Connolly’s estimation, equally part of the Augustinian legacy. It may be a deviation (perhaps even a “heresy”) to be sure, but nevertheless rooted in the seed of Augustine’s moral project. Thus, paradoxically, Connolly sees figures like Nietzsche, Beauvoir, Foucault, and himself, as deviant sons and daughters of Augustine’s imperative. But the danger of this outlook (proposed by Connolly and others) is that it lends one to condemn the failings of those who are not “moral” and subject them to the domineering whims of those who consider themselves the stewards of moral goodness and righteousness. The paradox is this outlook which strips God as the actor of moral regeneration leaves humans, and the world, prone to a new lust for domination in the name of love (which would be a corruption of love).
To love God is to love other peoples as God intended—in a community united on worship of God and service to others. This is what Augustine struggled to understand in his classic memoir and quasi-spiritual autobiography, Confessions. This reality is captured in his visionary ascents as he struggles to ascend to God.
In Carthage, living a life solely for himself, his attempts to ascend to God fail and fail miserably. Augustine doesn’t even reflect on the attempts to soar to the celestial realm of the white rose but comments on his utter failures. In Milan, during his famous Neoplatonic ascent, his intellectual force of will peters out and he descends back to earth alone and reflects on how far he was from Love. In Ostia, with his mother, who has been ever present but away from Augustine throughout Confessions, embrace each other in love as they ascend and touch the Being of Love before being gently laid back down in each other’s arms side by side like humans are meant to live—in loving embrace of each other and journeying together rather than isolated and alone with the will of force moving them.
Augustine’s visionary ascents move, over the course of Confessions, from a “region of desolation” (in Carthage) to a “region of inexhaustible abundance” (in Ostia). Most importantly, in that region of desolation Augustine was alone while in the region of inexhaustible abundance he was with his mother. And that is the enlarged imagery Augustine portrays in the City of God as we move from the city beset by the lust to dominate to the city radiating with beauty and love.
The city of man moves on its own, isolated, and by itself. It is characterized by the lust to dominate and the will to power. The city of God moves with others, in a chorus of love and praise, beautifying and offering healing and reconciliation where it goes. That city is characterized by a growing in love which curbs the lust to dominate and heals wounded souls in the process. This is the mission of the Church, in Augustine’s mind, first and foremost: to bring healing in a fractured and conflictual world.
Why Augustine Still Matters
Augustine’s political outlook, and his criticism, is more relevant today than 1600 years ago. Augustine’s realism is a realism that checks hubris. It calls us to reflection and companionship, to recognize wrongs and work toward healing. Augustine’s optimism also reminds us of the necessity of relationships, healing, and the politics of common love, which are the truest bulwarks against the lust to dominate or be dominated. Without a common love, without an Author of Morality, without a common anthropology, there can be no common good.
America has two hearts just as Rome did. It isn’t surprising that Roma is also the corrupt opposite of Amor. To lose the spiritual soul of the nation is to be given over the hubristic lust to dominate—often in the name of love and liberation which is a pale and shallow corruption of true amor. Augustine’s enduring critique of Rome was that it lusted for domination; the lust for domination was Rome’s besetting sin that caused her to destroy many cities and people in its ascent to power including sister cities like Alba which Rome destroyed despite being settled by the same people and worshipping the same gods. As he laments in the City of God, “This vice of restless ambition was the sole motive to that social and parricidal war…This libido dominandi disturbs and consumes the human race with frightful ills. By this lust Rome was overcome when she triumphed over Alba, and praising her own crime, called it glory.”
Augustine’s recognition of the lust to dominate and how it veils itself in concepts like “glory,” “honor,” and “nobility” are as relevant today as in his own time. Augustine’s deconstruction of Romanitas was done to offer all the people of Rome a greater project in its place. How often do we hear, like the Roman propagandists Augustine critiqued, that the benevolent empire advances liberty and prosperity? Augustine would take a step back and unmask American Exceptionalism and liberal exceptionalism to ascertain whether it really lives up to its promises. In fact, one could go as far as to say that Augustine was the first systematic deconstructionist in his penetration into the heart of Rome, its ideological mythology, and its self-understanding—revealing the lust to dominate, rather than love, as being at its core.
Paul Krause is a graduate student in philosophy writing a thesis on the political aesthetics of Edmund Burke and holds an M.A. in theology from Yale and a B.A. in economics, history, and philosophy from Baldwin Wallace University. He is an Associate Editor at VoegelinView and contributed to the book The College Lecture Today: An Interdisciplinary Defense for the Contemporary University (Lexington Books, 2019).