Augustine on Civil Government: Two Further Preliminaries

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This is the third post from the Right Reason series I did last year.

In my last post, I presented some background views of Augustine that will inform his views on the relationship between Christians and civil government. Before I move on to his specific treatment of that issue from City of God chapter 19, I want to look at two other related background issues in this post.

First, it's always worth remembering that for Augustine the ultimate governor of all things is God. In City of God 4.33, he dwells on the significance this has. If God is the governor over all creation, and God is omnipotent and has exhaustive foreknowledge (as Augustine thought), then nothing happens without at least God's permission. There's an ordering of events. This strong view of God's sovereignty required him to come up with something to say about the problem of evil, which he does spend a great deal of time on in other sections of City of God, but even without that additional work it's clear that Augustine doesn't think God sees everything that happens as morally good. It's just that it all somehow fits into a larger plan that God is in control of.

What political relevance does this have, then? God distributes worldly power irrespective of whether people are good or bad. We could tell that by just observing the world. Why would this be? One reason is that if only good people got it, then people would begin to expect such gifts from God, and that involves seeing worldly power as important. Augustine says it's not of any real importance, so it wouldn't do for God to promote it as if it is. So it gets distributed among people of various sorts to diminish the likelihood of people drawing that kind of conclusion.

Augustine thinks the Old Testament promises of land and other physical things to Israel have a hidden meaning of a spiritual reality, i.e. to be in the spiritual land is to be in God's kingdom as a citizen of a higher reality, etc. Those in the City of God, i.e. Christians, are not citizens of the earthly kingdom and do not primarily identify with it in terms of its mindset or desires (as I discussed in the last post).

After Augustine discusses the material I'm going to turn to in the next post, he looks at one issue that I wanted to have in front of us at the outset. In City of God 19.24, he looks at the expression "a people" (or at least the Latin expression translated as "a people"). He defines 'a people' as a group united by common goals, purposes, and loves. In part, he's responding to Cicero's definition that a society is a group united for the sake of serving justice. Augustine doesn't want to define it that way, because you can evaluate a people based on what its goals, purposes, and loves are. If it loves good things, it makes it a good people. If it loves bad things, it is a bad people. So you can't define a society as a group with good goals, as if other groups aren't societies. Any group with shared interests is a society. It's just that some societies are united by justice, while others are not.

Rome in its most corrupt state was still a people. True justice isn't present unless reason triumphs over what's not excellent. Ultimately for the best sort of justice, a people must love God, but it might make sense to speak of lesser forms of justice that involve something more virtuous than another people, even if neither truly loves God. So his distinction between (a) true peace that only the City of God looks forward to and (b) a semblance of peace in the earthly city corresponds to a distinction between (c) true justice that can occur only when fully and completely motivated by love for God (and won't appear fully even in the still-sinning members of the City of God here and now) and (d) a semblance of justice in the earthly city.

In City of God 4.4, Augustine defended the claim that unjust regimes are no more than criminal gangs on a large scale, and this account of what it is to be a people helps shed some light on that earlier passage. As Augustine sees it, an unjust government is nothing more than a bunch of criminals. The fact that they have much power and get to be called an empire makes no difference. The thing they have in common is that they are both groups organized around a common purpose, and in these two cases it's a bad purpose. His emphasis here is that empires can be no better than gangs. But the assumption behind this also means that gangs are like small scale societies, because they have the kind of common association that a society has. Just because the organizing principle doesn't line up with what's right doesn't mean that it's not a society. It's just a bad society.

So enough of the preliminaries. In the next post, I'll move to his main discussion of this issue in City of God 19.14-17.

Posted by Jeremy Pierce on July 16, 2007 6:41 PM

[This post had no comments at the original Right Reason posting, so there are none to reproduce here.]

1 Comments

I am sorry that this doesn't really have to do with the post. I just noticed you were reading terry pratchett. Just starting reading his stuff. Amazing. I love everything I have read by him. And the funny thing is he is the most christian fiction writer I have read except C.S. Lewis, and yet he is an atheist. Very funny stuff, and very very deep.

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