Augustine on Civil Government: Authority

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This is the fourth post from my Right Reason series on Augustine, faith, social philosophy, and political participation.

So far this series has been background for Augustine's views on civil authority and the relation between Christians and civil government. Before I get to the final payoff in terms of that issue, I want to present his views on various levels of authority in society from his concentrated treatment of that subject in City of God 19.14-16. It's the closest thing in that work to a political philosophy, even if it's really more of a social philosophy. I'll turn to City of God 19.17 and his views on the relation between the two cities in the next post, and then I'll look to the contemporary scene after that.

City of God 19.14 looks at the desires of the earthly kingdom. Augustine sees the earthly kingdom as naturally tending toward a self-interested ethic. In our natural state, apart from conversion to Christianity, we all want peace of body and soul, and that means not wanting distress or hardship. Animals demonstrate this by shunning death and seeking to satisfy their pleasures, but we have reason and can do it on a more rational level. He sees fallen humanity as imperfect and unable to do this perfectly without help from God. Thus the life of those in the earthly kingdom won't be the life that really is best in terms of self-interest. He thinks only the Christian life is the good life in that sense. But the aim is the best life in terms of self-interest.

While the members of earthly kingdom have self-interest as a root motivation, Augustine insists that the citizens of the city of God have a higher motivation. God commands us to love our neighbor as we love ourself. The highest thing to want for oneself is to love God fully, since God is the most perfect good and most worth loving. Therefore, it counts as an equally high goal to want others to love God, from family to complete strangers. This requires being at peace with everyone, which in turn requires (negatively) seeking to do no harm to others and (positively) seeking to do good to others whenever possible, particularly in spheres when one has authority over others.

An ideal leader has in mind the best interests of those being led. Someone good at this is seeking to love the other as self, which means doing what's best for that person. That means that giving orders from an authority position, when done in the ideal way, is just helping that person along. This would be true of a political leader, a leader in a family, and those who oversee the work of others (which would include the master-slave relationship).

He provides little evaluation of the social structures of his day. There's no comment on whether slavery is the best form of handling the problems that led to its institution in the ancient world. There's no comment on whether households should be structured as they were. As we'll see, he also offers no view on what sort of government is best. These aren't the questions he's interested in. Augustine is seeking not to restructure the societal relationships of his day but to reverse how authority figures should think about their role in their relationship, so that they see themselves as serving those they lead instead of the more natural view that people manage other people in order to get the others to do whatever they want them to do.

Augustine does offer a hint that he disapproves of certain relationships of authority, however. In 19.15 he says relationships of authority of this sort are necessary only because of the fall. He gives war as an analogy. War can be just, but a just war is just only because there is an enemy that ought to be resisted. Even with a just war, the enemy is doing something wrong. With a thoroughly unjust war, both sides might even be in the wrong. But war can't even make sense without some evil existing to begin with.

Slavery, similarly, occurs only because of sin. He thinks of everyone being in a sense enslaved to sin, which in his terms just means having your desires wrongly ordered. Wrongly-ordered desires will lead you to do what you wouldn't want to do if you had true freedom, which only comes from wanting what's really good (which he thinks comes only from a reordering of desires by a work of God). Because of evil, you have people who will secure others' obedience for less than good purposes, but you will also have those who will lead others for good purposes. Among the latter there will have to be human authorities to administer punishment to wrongdoers.

Being enslaved to a human being is better than being enslaved to a lust. A lust controls you in a way that's bad for you, i.e. bad for your soul. A person controls you in a way that may harm you, but it doesn't involve making you want bad things, which is much worse for Augustine than even doing bad things. The height of sin is pride, and the remedy for that is humility, which is another reason being a servant to others can serve toward good in one's own soul. So being enslaved may turn out to be good for someone ultimately speaking, even if it also involves harm.

But no one is naturally a slave or a master. He doesn't defend slavery as a practice, though he does say that Christians who are slaves ought to make it an arena of freedom by serving with faithfulness and affection, which he thinks will further the rulership of God by furthering the mindset and ways of the City of God over the earthly city.

19.16 continues the same theme, pointing out that in his view being a master is not a privilege but a difficult obligation, and those who see it as a privilege to be used are misusing their authority. Authority is for the sake of those it is authority over. Only in a restored state in the next life will there be no need for authority (I assume he means merely human authority here). Short of everyone acting a way that is really best for them, political leadership is needed to keep things orderly and in some semblance of peace, even if it's not ultimate peace. So while he agrees with the New Testament commands to slaves to obey their masters, the greater obligation is on the masters to seek to do what's in the best interests of the slaves.

One question you might ask is whether this is really anything like what we think of as slavery. It's certainly not like the typical American plantation slavery of the 19th century. Some of the homes that owned a few slaves may have treated them like this. But whatever kind of tolerance Augustine has for slavery, he would never condone most instances of how slaves were treated, and the same may well be true of slavery in his own time. We might even wonder if what he's calling slavery is even worthy of the name. Isn't it something more like a good leader in any context, including what we now call employers and bosses? I wonder if Augustine is just thinking of slavery as being subject to someone else's authority, in a much more general sense of the term. Perhaps he'd consider employers enough like slave owners of his day that it would change very little of what he's saying. Those of us who work for money are just slaves of a different sort, with some privileges slaves in the ancient world didn't have but still some kind of economic dependence on someone else in exchange for our service to them.

Further along in 19.16 he justifies punishment as being in the best interest of the person being punished, in language reminiscent of Plato's defense of the same thesis. Because we have an obligation not to harm others, we have an obligation to do what we can to make sure people who are in a bad state because of their wrongdoing will be deterred from doing it again. This is to prevent harm to others and to prevent them from being bad, for their own sake. It is also to deter others from doing the same thing, which can be grounded on preventing yet further harm to others and yet further badness on the part of those who might do it.

Then he finally brings this to something more directly political. A household is part of a city. If  employers, slave-owners, parents, etc. who are just will be using their authority for the good of those in their household, wouldn't the larger institution of a political government over households do the same thing amongst its people? Thus we have a justification for those in positions of authority over others in society in general, and we have a justification for punishment in society in general.

Peace within a household contributes to peace within a city and thus has a larger bearing on the whole, which makes it more important than if it were just peace within the household that mattered (though that is reason enough on its own). His main point is to use the arguments about justice in the city as an analogy for how an authority in a household should act, but if we're trying to derive his views on political matters we can go the other way. He thinks these things he's been saying apply equally to both levels of authority, so what he says about the one can likely be applied to the other pretty straightforwardly. Our order of derivation is just the reverse of his order of argument.

So far this is mostly social philosophy with some suggestions as to how it will impact politics. What Augustine moves to in 19.17 finally gets us to the subject I'm primarily interested in. How does all this come to bear on the interaction between the earthly city and the heavenly city? Can such opposed mindsets cooperate in the same society, or are they necessarily at odds with each other in every respect? (They are clearly at odds in some respects; that's not the issue.) I'll turn to those matters in the next post, which should be my final discussion of Augustine before moving to the contemporary setting.

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