Augustine on Social Life

Human beings are, I noted above, social all the way down. Created in the image of God, we are defined by human relationality. The self is not and cannot be freestanding. Social life is full of ills and yet to be cherished. Thus, civic life, among those social forms, is not simply what sin has brought into the world but what emerges, in part, given our capacity for love and our use of reason, as well (alas) as a pervasive lust for domination attendant upon human affairs. "The philosophers hold the view that the life of the wise man should be social, and in this we support them heartily." Indeed, the city of God - Augustine's way of characterizing the pilgrim band of Christians during their earthly sojourn in and through a community of reconciliation and fellowship that presages the heavenly kingdom - could never have had "its first start... if the life of the saints were not social" (Augustine 1972: 860). All human beings, without exception, are citizens of the earthly kingdom - the city of Man - and even in this fallen condition there is a kind of "natural likeness" that forges bonds between us. These "bonds of peace" do not suffice to prevent wars, dissensions, cruelty, and misery of all kinds, but we are nonetheless called to membership based on a naturalistic sociality and basic morality available to all rational creatures. A kind of unity in plurality pushes toward harmony; but the sin of division - with its origins in pride and willfulness - drives us apart.

Yet it is love of friendship that lies at the root of what might be called Augustine's "practical philosophy": his history, ethics, social and political theology (Burt 1999). Pinioned between alienation and affection, human beings - those "cracked pots" - are caught in the tragedy of alienation but glued by love. Our sociality is given, so for Augustine the question is not "Should we be social?" or "Should we trust enough to love?" but rather "What shall I love and how shall I love it?" (Burt 1999: 5) His complex ethical theory follows; I can only touch on it here, but it must be noted that political life is one form that human social and ethical life assumes. We are always in society and we always seek the consolation of others. Society, for Augustine, is a species of friendship, and friendship is a moral union in and through which human beings strive for a shared good. All of Augustine's central categories, including war and peace, are in the form of a relation of one sort or another. And the more we are united at all levels in a bond of peace, the closer we come to achieving that good at which we aim and which God intends.

For Augustine, neighborliness and reciprocity emerge from ties that bind, beginning with familial bonds and extending from these particular relations outward: the filaments of affection must not stop at the portal to the domus. Augustine writes: "The aim was that one man should not combine many relationships in his one self, but that those connections should be separated and spread among individuals, and that in this way they should help to bind social life more effectively by involving in their plurality a plurality of persons" (1972: 623). The social tie is "not confined to a small group" but extends "more widely to a large number with the multiplying links of kinship" (p. 624). The importance of plurality, of the many emerging from a unique one - for God began with the singular - cannot be overestimated in Augustine's work. It is his way of putting into a single frame human uniqueness and individuality with sociality and plurality. Bonds of affection tied human beings from the start. Bonds of kinship and affection bound them further. These relationships got dispersed, finally encompassing the entire globe.

In light of the confusion and confounding of human languages, it is sometimes difficult to repair to this fundamental sociality; but we yearn for it and seek it in and through the social forms we create: thus civic order becomes a primary requisite for human existence. This civic order is a normative good although, pace Aristotle, civic order, or what we routinely call "the state," does not fulfill or complete our natures; rather, it expresses them and may do so in ways deadly or ways less cruel. Here it is important to note that, for Augustine, no human being has natural dominion over any other. There is no slavery by nature. We are by nature social, but that doesn't dictate any particular form of social order. Nor does Augustine analogize from the authority of fathers in households to political rule. Classical patriarchal theory holds that rule by fathers is at once natural and political; that a natural right translates into political authority and legitimation. But for Augustine, political authority is different from familial authority. To the extent that one is subject to a ruler, one is subject to him in status only and not by nature.

There are temporal goods that are worthy, peace first and foremost. So human civic life is not simply a remedy for sin - with order and coercion needed to constrain our wickedness - but an expression of our sociality; our desire for fellowship; our capacity for a diffuse caritas. It follows that Cicero's definition of a res publica, as refracted through the writings of Scipio, is wanting. For Cicero, civic order is an association based on common agreement concerning right and on shared interests. Insufficient, argues Augustine; rather, a people gathered together in a civic order is a gathering or multitude of rational beings united in fellowship by sharing a common love of the same things. Using this definition, we not only define what a society is, we can also assess what it is people hold dear - what sort of society is this? It is worth noting at this juncture that a debate in current Augustinian scholarship concerns precisely how one should rank the good of political society for Augustine. The traditional, and overly simple, claim that, for Augustine, civic order is simply a remedy for sin has been effectively challenged (Burt 1999). Now the question seems to be just how important to Augustine's thought overall is the good at which civic life tends, and how much this derives from and can be achieved through the exercise of human voluntary activity. The dangers inherent in earthly political life are manifest: the fruits of pride that seeks domination over others and glories only in the self or the "empire." The goods to be attained through civic life are sketchier, but begin with Augustine's basic rule of thumb for human earthly life: namely, that we should do no harm and help whenever we can (a requisite of neighbor love).

If language divides us, then, it can also draw us together insofar as we acknowledge a common humanity. Augustine's critique of the political life of the late Roman Empire was not so much an assault on the edifice of any ordering of corporate life, but based rather on the failure of that public life ever to attain a genuine res publica. This, at least, is an argument made by Rowan Williams. A commonwealth is an identifiable social unit. But beyond this obvious fact, how do we distinguish a polity in which the disorder of dominance by the libido dom-inandi pertains from one in which a well-ordered social life pertains - a world in which ordinary peace (tranquillitas ordinis) permits the moral formation of citizens in households and in commonwealths to go forward (Williams 1987: 55-72)? A true form of corporate life is "purposive," Williams argues, "existing so as to nurture a particular kind of human life: in both [family and polis], authority is determined in relation to a specific goal" (p. 64).

There are authentic political values, those of civic order, fairness, and the safeguarding of soulcraft: all under God's providence and dauntingly complex for Christians, that pilgrim people, who by definition cannot simply absorb and reflect the norms and understanding of what is worthy that pertain in the surroundings in which they find themselves outside of the body of Christ, the eccle-sia. Christians are not to hunker down in the church, but to approach the world with a loving worldliness, born out of a recognition of the world's many goodnesses and blessings, and the responsibility of human beings to honor and to sustain those goodnesses as best they can in and through those social institutions they create to sustain human life.

Pace many criticisms of Augustine that charge him with having replaced a public ethic with a "private" and apolitical ethic of caritas, Williams insists, correctly, that

Augustine's condemnation of "public" life in the classical world is, consistently, that it is not public enough, that it is incapable of grounding a stable sense of commonality because of its pervasive implicit elitism, its divisiveness, its lack of a common human project; and . . . that the member of the city of God is committed ex professo to exercising power when called upon to do so, and, in responding to such a call, does not move from a "church" to a "state" sphere of activity, but continues in the practice of nurturing souls already learned in more limited settings. (1987: 68)

It is the interplay of caritas and cupiditas that is critical, and whether one or the other prevails at a given point in time, either within the very being of a single person or within the life of a civic order. Augustine would tame the occasions for the reign of cupiditas and the activation of the libido dominandi, or lust to dominate, and maximize the space within which caritas operates. For a lust to dominate taints and perverts all human relations, from family to city. Similarly, a decent love, a concern for the well-being of all in the household or in the city, strengthens the delicate filaments of peace. The sin that mars the earthly city is the story of arbitrary power or the ever-present possibility of such. By contrast, the basis for a more just order is fueled by love. The theme of the two cities is the metaphor that enables Augustine to trace the choreography of human relations. Every human community is plagued by a "poverty stricken kind of power ... a kind of scramble ... for lost dominions and . . . honors," but there are simultaneously present the life-forgiving and gentler aspects of loving concern, mutuality, domestic and civic peace (Augustine 1972: 429). There are two fundamentally different attitudes evinced within human social life and enacted by human beings. One attitude is a powerful feeling of the fullness of life. A human being will not be denuded if he or she gives, or makes a gift of, the self to others. One's dependence on others is not a diminution but an enrichment of the self. The other attitude springs from cramped and cribbed selfishness, resentment, a penury of spirit. The way one reaches out or down to others from these different attitudes is strikingly distinct. From a spirit of resentment and contempt, one condescends toward the other; one is hostile to life itself. But from that fellow feeling in our hearts for the misery of others, we come to their help by coming together with them. Authentic compassion (the working-out of caritas) eradicates contempt and distance. But this working out can never achieve anything like perfection in the realm of earthly time and history (the saeculum).

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