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Saint Augustine's Political Philosophy

Updated on September 7, 2020
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Bill has advanced degrees in education and political science. He has been a political science teacher for over 26 years.

Introduction

In an earlier essay, I provided a summary of Augustine of Hippo's philosophy of history. In this essay I will provide a summary of his political philosophy. Three areas that will be covered will be the areas of human nature, the role of government, and the institutions of church and state.

"Saint Augustine in His Study" by Vittore Carpaccio (1502)
"Saint Augustine in His Study" by Vittore Carpaccio (1502) | Source

Human Nature and Government

Because man is fallen from his first estate by sinning against God in the Garden of Eden, government is needed to check the evil acts of the most wicked men. So, government is necessary because man is sinful. For Augustine, evil is not a mystery: it's what we should expect in a world of fallen men. Wicked acts are the default condition on this side of the Garden of Eden.

Augustine’s response was that men are sinners and need a coercive state to constrain them. Given that the state is necessary because of sinfulness, the state has two functions. First, government allows for a temporal good—Its purpose is to preserve a relative peace—for Augustine, peace is a truce between contending powers. Augustine does not believe that the state can create a lasting peace, but only a tenuous one. That peace will eventually break down and will have to be reestablished again. It's reasonable to conclude that Augustine would tell the participants of most peace demonstrations of our time something like "you're wasting your time. Your governments might be able to bring about a temporary peace, but don't be disappointed if it doesn't happen."

Second, the state exists to punish evildoers. “According to St. Augustine, the purpose of the State is the maintenance of a peace on earth that will permit men to live in harmony and attain their rightful goals. This purpose is realized through the use of force and the fear of punishment...only as wicked men fear punishment will peace and security be possible.”[1] Government is a necessary evil (or, at least it seems that Augustine implies this)—“If the State is necessary because of human evil, the State itself is a necessary evil since those who govern are sinful men.”[2].

Church and State

According to Augustine, man is a citizen of two cities: the city of God and the earthly city:

"Accordingly, two cities have been formed by two loves: the earthly by the love of self, even to the contempt of God; the heavenly by the love of God, even to the contempt of self. The former, in a word glories in itself, the latter in the Lord...And therefore the wise men of the one city, living according to man, have sought for profit to their own bodies or souls, or both...But in the other city there is no human wisdom, but only godliness..."

Other points that Augustine made were....

  • There is no truly good church and state
  • the state must necessarily be Christian
  • government can do what is morally right and wrong
  • Christians have duties to the state

Finally, Augustine teaches that politics is a limited enterprise. Because the state can only achieve a temporal good (as opposed to an everlasting one) and because it punishes wrongdoing (as opposed to compelling right doing)men have limited knowledge and their wills are corrupted. Therefore, Man's capacity for rational and just government is a naive notion. This is in contrast to both Plato and Aristotle that believed that man could achieve true wisdom and justice via human reason.

There are those that have felt that the power of the state can remake society anew and there are others who have said that the power of the state is very limited in what it can accomplish. Augustine would come from the latter school. Augustine believed that men were not naturally political (remember Aristotle: “Man is a political animal.”). Well, Augustine does not believe that man is a political animal. Men form political unions and goals because they share similar conditions and goals.


Notes

[1] Ronald Nash, Freedom, Justice, and the State (Landham, MD: University Press of America, 1980), 87.

[2] Ronald Nash, Freedom, Justice, and the State (Landham, MD: University Press of America, 1980), 88.


© 2018 William R Bowen Jr

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