Political Theory (Loosely Interpreted): August 2008 Archives

This is the sixth post from my Right Reason series on Augustine, faith, social philosophy, and political participation that I've been re-posting here due to the demise of Right Reason.

Having presented the Augustinian background to my approach to Christian political interaction, I want to move now to an application of Augustine's principles to contemporary American politics. I should say that I write as an evangelical, with particular views on what Christianity amounts to and what the church is. But these are views that I believe I share with Augustine, and thus those who are not evangelical may well agree with me on enough of them to arrive at similar conclusions.

I want to keep two kinds of questions separate. First, there are Christian motivations for certain views on how Christians should seek interact politically with the rest of society. Second, there are political reasons that might appeal to people who are not Christians regarding how much role religion should play in political decision-making. I want to focus on the first question in this post. For now I'm ignoring questions about what Christians (or members of any religious group) have a right to do politically, to what extent it is legitimate politically, morally, legally, constitutionally, etc. In other words, I'm leaving aside what sort of role religion should have in the public sphere as a general question that people of different faiths and people of no faith could all agree upon. I'm simply considering what a Christian should be motivated to think about these issues.

I am not ultimately going to ignore such questions, however. My next post will focus on exactly those questions. For now, I want to restrict myself to why I, as an evangelical Christian, should be motivated to play a role in the political process in a largely secularized society and what sort of role my Christian convictions should lead me to want to have. I'll begin with a very quick review of some of the general principles from Augustine that I agree with, which I've covered in more detail in previous posts in this series.

Augustine recognizes that Christians have two overriding principles that summarize all Christian teaching. One is love for God, and the other is love for neighbor. The New Testament clearly teaches that you cannot do the former without doing the latter. (It also teaches that you cannot truly do the latter without doing the former, although that isn't important for what I want to say now.) The highest calling of the Christian, indeed the Christian's most important moral obligation, is to love God, and that requires loving one's neighbor. In applying this point, Augustine insists that loving one's neighbor involves seeking what is good for those around us, including those who are not themselves Christians. To put it in terms of the Two Cities model, those who are citizens of the City of God have a moral responsibility to seek what is best for the earthly city.

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

In my last post in this series, I looked at Augustine's views on authority and his analogy between civil government and other levels of authority. That took me through City of God 19.16, and now I'm ready to move into section 19.17, which is where he focuses on the main question I wanted to move toward. I thought the issues I've been expositing so far are important to have some grasp of to see what motivates Augustine on these issues, but this is the real payoff. In 19.17, Augustine gives us his view of how members of the earthly city and members of the heavenly city interact in society, and that leads to his discussion of the principles I'm going to want to apply to Christians interacting with a society like what we have in the U.S. today.

So far we've seen the value Augustine places on order in society. It's relatively easy to see why order and authorities in society would be important within the system of the earthly city. It's a compromise between human wills much like the kind of social contract some of the ancient philosophers envisioned (most notably the Sophists and Epicureans). Augustine has no problem talking about that as an explanation of how it is that governments or slave relations might form, at least when they do so in as ideal a manner as is possible from the mindset of the earthly kingdom. People seek rulers for an ordered society and thus give up what they might otherwise be able to do in order to protect themselves from further harm and get what they can of peace in this life. People thus compromise and unite because it would be worse for them not to.

Slavery could also be explained this way in some cases, since in some cases it was something like the bankruptcy system of the ancient world. You would sell yourself into slavery to serve someone else for a certain period of time, and your benefactor would thus assume your debt and pay it off. You transfer a debt you can't pay for a debt you can pay, but it means giving up your economic independence for a time. Even slaves taken as a result of war are exchanging service for someone for the chance to continue living rather than to die as a result of being the spoils of war. So even forcible slavery can in many cases be seen as a kind of compromise between two wills.

But what about the heavenly city? How can its incompatible mindset cooperate with the earthly city's self-interest-based social contract? Doesn't it have higher aims? According to Augustine, the heavenly city in this life also has the limitations of this life and the surroundings of evil people, and thus there is a need to participate in such systems. The people of the heavenly city really belong elsewhere, but for now they're here and thus need to participate while awaiting the restoration of the ideal state when such things are no longer necessary. So the earthly city and the heavenly city are thus intertwined in a sense, both seeking the same goal of peace in what form it can be had here.

The earthly city seeks that as its only possible goal (given that others will prevent one's absolute self-interest), and the heavenly city seeks it as the best possible thing for now (but with the expectation of something greater to come). Members of the heavenly city should seek to obey laws, honor authority in the earthly city, and observe the kinds of earthly relationships that exist in this life that will not be necessary in the next, because that's important for loving our neighbor. Members of the early city will do the same out of self-interest. Thus for both the earthly city and the city of God, this seeking of order in society through authority and law is merely a means to an end, even if the ends differ for the two groups. The intermediate goal is common to both, and it thus makes sense for the two to agree to seek the intermediate goal to the extent that it fits within the ultimate goal of both cities.

What about cases when they can't agree on intermediate goals? If laws in the earthly city involve religion, and they conflict with the heavenly city's obligation to serve God first and foremost, then the heavenly city's laws take precedence. But this also means that the heavenly city couldn't have laws in common with the earthly city that involve religion, since the heavenly city's laws would not serve the interests the earthly city has carved out for itself. If it really knew what was best for it, it would serve God and not whatever other religion it may follow (if any), but everyone serves something, and the earthly city replaces the true God with other things, whether gods or other pursuits. In the early Christian period, this meant persecution of Christians for not following the religious laws of the earthly city.

The heavenly city thus follows whatever laws do seek some sort of earthly peace, provided that they don't conflict with the obligation to follow God above all. Those in the heavenly city should follow whatever different methods of seeking peace their particular earthly government follows, which will differ in different governmental systems.

In my next post, I'll look toward how Augustine might apply this in our contemporary setting.

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.

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.]

This is the second post in my Right Reason guest series from last year at the now-defunct Right Reason blog.

I want to begin this series looking at Augustine's views on the topic I'll be discussing, but before I get into his views on the direct issue I'd like to present a few of his background views that will be relevant to the more direct discussion of religious motivations in public life and civil government.

Augustine doesn't ever (to my knowledge) discuss the best form of government. He's not really interested in political questions for their own sake. He is interested in God's role in history, in individuals and among nations and rulers, including both good and bad rulers. He does think there are ethical questions about how to govern, and he's interested in how Christians as part of a political entity should live and participate, but his ultimate concern is the relation between what he calls the City of God and what he calls the early city. This does include those in government, and thus he does have some things to say that affect political matters.

The City of God is an important enough concept that he named what's considered by many to be his most important work after it. The City of God is not actually a city or political entity but rather a spiritual reality, manifested by people who follow Jesus Christ. Christians compose the City of God, and their primary identity is in that relationship, not in any political, cultural, social, ethnic, or whatever other identity-forming relations they may have. The stark contrast between the City of God and the earthly city is crucial for understanding Augustine's views on Christians and civil government.

Each group has its own mindset and what we would now call its own value system or worldview. Augustine sees the City of God as valuing what God would value (or at least valuing to move toward valuing those things more). The earthly city, on the other hand, is largely self-interested. It's not that all ethical theories developed by those in the earthly city are hedonistic. Augustine is well aware that that's not the case. He discusses Plato and the Stoics at great length in City of God, and he acknowledges the difference between their views and those of the Epicureans, who were genuinely hedonistic in their explicit normative theory.

But even the views of Plato and the Stoics are self-interested, even if they aren't selfish. All the ancient philosophers were concerned with the good life, i.e. a life of flourishing, a life of well-being. But this mindset takes the good life to be merely what's a good life for me to have. For Plato and the Stoics, the good life is an internal matter. It's what sort of inner state is good for me to have. For Epicurus, it's also internal to me. It's about avoiding pain. The ancient skeptics sought to avoid having beliefs. Even Aristotle, who recognized external goods, was primarily concerned with how such goods help the individual to flourish, to lead a fulfilling life.

In contrast, Christianity places primary value outside oneself, in God, and in the concerns of a God who is directed by the concerns of his creation. He does say that such a life is the most fulfilling, the life with the most value for me. But what gives it that value is not merely that it's the best life for me to have. This is why he thinks those outside the City of God are in a sense merely self-directed. Without a divine purpose, he sees nothing but what kind of life you want for yourself, even if the life you want for yourself involves doing altruistic deeds.

It's also worth being aware of Augustine's views on human motivation. He sees all human beings since the fall as having disordered desires. We don't want what's best, at least not in a way that reflects how good different things are. We want things that are less good more than we want things that are more good. He sees virtue or excellence as having rightly-ordered desires, having your desires organized in a way that your highest priorities are the things most worth desiring, with other things occupying a lower priority level. Disordered desire is a consequence of the fall, and only those whose priorities are reordered by God in conversion to following Christ can begin the process of moving in a direction of excellence. This is ultimately his explanation of why the earthly city doesn't have the most important good (i.e. God) as its highest-motivating factor, and the City of God does (at least when its members are not sinning). That allows him to form such a stark contrast between these two mindsets. There's a metaphysical difference between the two groups.

Posted by Jeremy Pierce on July 14, 2007 8:48 AM

I just discovered that the Right Reason blog is no longer online at all. It was a politically conservative philosophers' blog hosted at the same server that hosts this blog, and I knew that it had stopped producing new posts, but I didn't expect all the archives to disappear. I managed to recover all the content from the guest-posting I did toward the end of that blog last year, including the whole comment thread on each post. I didn't know about archive.org, but it apparently saves the content of any web page at various intervals so you can go back and check what was once there. So I'm going to be posting that series here on days when I have less time to blog new stuff. Here's the introductory post. I'll put the comments below the fold since this initial post led to quite a lengthy discussion despite its brevity.

Introduction: Christianity and Politics (Guest Posting)

I'm very happy to have been asked to contribute some guest posts to Right Reason for the next week or two. Max asked me to take on the theme Christianity and Politics, and I'd like to use this opportunity to explore Augustine's views on how Christians should relate politically to a religiously pluralist society. I think he has a lot to offer to those current debates, and his views line up nicely with my own in several ways. I don't expect just to present Augustine's views, however. I expect this to be as much about how I see myself as an evangelical and how I relate to the pluralist society we live in, including how religious views can affect both political discourse and ground my support for particular policies.

I imagine some readers of this blog know who I am, since my blog Parableman is listed in Right Reason's blogroll, but I'll say a little about myself for those who don't know me. I'm a Ph.D. student at Syracuse University, working on a dissertation with Linda Alcoff on the metaphysics of race (and races). My primary philosophical background is in analytic metaphysics and philosophy of religion. In addition to my personal blog, which includes discussions of philosophy, politics, theology, and Christian apologetics, I contribute to the philosophy of religion blog Prosblogion, and I was part of the OrangePhilosophy blog when that was active.

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