Augustine on War and Peace

A full treatment of this theme would require an assessment of Augustine's complex theodicy. That is beyond the scope of this essay. But a brief discussion is needed in order to grasp Augustine's theology of war and peace. Augustine acknowledges the seductive allure of evil. He famously tells the story of a youthful prank - stealing pears - that was done not from hunger but from pleasure in the deed itself and in the fellowship with others who took part in the deed. It took Augustine many years, including a sustained detour through Manicheanism, before he rejected decisively metaphysical dualism and repudiated any claim that evil is a self-sustaining, generative principle of opposition to good. The Manicheans had located evil in creation itself as the work of a demonic demiurge; thus the body was tainted by definition. But, for Augustine, creation is good. The body is good, not polluted. It is what we do with the body; what we do to creation, that either marks our bodies with the stain of sin, wickedness, and cruelty or does not, at any given point in time. Augustine's famous articulation of human free will enters at this juncture - a concept Hannah Arendt credits with being an original contribution by Augustine. We can choose to do wrong and we often do, for we are marked from the beginning with the trace of originary disobedience. The choice of evil is in and of itself "an impressive proof that the nature is good" (Augustine 1972: 448).

Evil is a falling away from the good, and we are the agents of this falling away - not because the body is corrupt, but because we can defile it. There is no such thing as evil "by nature." Evil is the turning of a limited creature from God to himself and, hence, to an absolutizing of his own flawed will. This turning may become habitual, a kind of second nature. In this way, Augustine gives evil its due without giving it the day. Evil is the name we give to a class of acts and putative motives. The fruits of this turning away include a hatred of finitude and a fateful thirst for what might be called a kind of anticreation: a lust to destroy. War is a species of that destruction; hence, war is always a tragedy even "when just." But if war is first and foremost an example of human sinfullness and a turning from the good, how can it possibly be justified under any circumstances?

It works like this. Augustine begins by deconstructing the Roman peace as a false claim to peace. Instead, Rome conquered and was herself conquered by her own lust to dominate over others. "Think of all the battles fought, all the blood that was poured out, so that almost all the nations of Italy, by whose help the Roman Empire wielded that overwhelming power, should be subjugated as if they were barbarous savages" (Augustine 1972: 127). Rome was driven by a lust for vengeance and cruelty and these impulses triumphed under the cherished name of peace. The Empire became a kingdom without justice, its rulers little more than a criminal gang on a grand scale. Here Augustine famously repeats the story of the rejoinder given by a captured pirate to Alexander the Great when Alexander queried him about his idea in infesting the sea. "And the pirate answered, with uninhibited insolence, 'The same as yours, in infesting the earth! But because I do it with a tiny craft, I'm called a pirate: because you have a mighty navy, you're called an emperor'" (Augustine 1972: 139). Augustine even suggests that the Romans should have erected a monument to the foreign "other" and called her "Aliena" because they made such good use of her by proclaiming that all their wars were defensive; it was, therefore, necessary to conjure up an implacable foreign foe in order to justify these ravages. For Rome, peace became just another name for dominium. If war's ravages are, in part, a punishment for sin, human beings sin, often savagely, in enacting that punishment. Primarily, however, Augustine emphasizes the freely chosen nature of war and assigns responsibility to those who engage in it.

If you reflect on the terrible slaughter of war carried out for wicked motives and to unworthy ends, you will determine to wage only limited, justifiable wars even as you lament the fact that they must sometimes be waged, given injustice: so Augustine argues. There are occasional real wars of defense. The wise ruler and polity takes up arms only with great reluctance and penitence. Given Augustine's account of limited justifiability for wars fought only for certain motives, he is frequently lodged as the grandfather of "just war" thinking. (Others, of course, rank him as a forebear of political realism. There is no reason he cannot be both, depending on what one understands by realism and just war respectively.) Augustine appreciates what modern international relations theorists call the "security dilemma." People never possess a kingdom so securely as not to fear subjugation by their enemies; in fact, such is the instability of human affairs that no people has ever been allowed such a degree of tranquillity as to remove all dread of hostile attacks on their life in this world. That place which is promised as a dwelling of such peace and security is eternal, and is reserved for eternal beings, in "the mother, the Jerusalem which is free." (Augustine 1972: 743-4)

One must simply live with this shadow, a penumbra of fear and worry, on this earth. But one must not give oneself over to it, not without overweening justification. When one capitulates to this fear, one gets horrible wars of destruction, including social and civic wars. And each war invites another, given the mimetic quality of instantiations of destruction. Each war breeds discontents and resentments that invite a tendency to even the score.

By contrast, the just ruler wages a justifiable war of necessity, whether against unwarranted aggression and attack or to rescue the innocent from certain destruction. The motivation must be neighbor love and a desire for a more authentic peace. This is a grudging endorsement of a lesser evil; war is never named as a normative good, only as a tragic necessity. It must be noted that rescuing the self alone is not a justification for violence: better to suffer wrong than to commit it. But our sociality imbeds certain requirements of neighbor love, most powerfully and poignantly so in the case of the ruler, who bears the responsibility for the well-being of a people. It is, then, through our intrinsic sociality, and under the requirement to do no harm and help whenever one can, that war is occasionally justifiable. Augustine's reasoning here falls within the domain of accounts of comparative justice, and his argument, which is not a fully fleshed out systematic theory of war so much as a theological account of war, involves the occasional violation of a fundamental principle - do not kill unjustly, or murder - in the name of an overriding good.

It is important to observe that a close reading of Augustine's account shows that one must lament even justifiable wars and reflect on them, not with vainglory, but with great sorrow. Not to look back with grief marks one as pitiable and contemptible. There are no victory parades in Augustine's world; for, however just the cause, war stirs up temptations to ravish and to devour, often in order to ensure peace. Just war, for Augustine, is a cautionary tale, not an incautious and reckless call to arms. For peace is a great good, so good that "no word ever falls more gratefully upon the ear, nothing is desired with greater longing, in fact, nothing better can be found." Peace is "delightful" and "dear to the heart of all mankind" (1972: 866).

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