Augustine

As Augustine (Jenson 1999: 76-85) read the scriptures, it seemed right to adopt a term of Greek and Roman political discourse for what God eternally intends for his creatures. God's eternal intent is that there shall be a perfect created civitas, a perfect polity.2 That is, continuing in the language of Roman theory, God intends a respublica, a "public thing," with sovereignty and citizenship and mutual duties, that is perfect in that it fully achieves - or rather is given - the blessing which a polity is supposed to bring its citizens, the tranquilitas ordinis. This polity must coexist with creation, since God's will is always done, but it is eschatological in that protologically its only members are angels, and in that so soon as it has human members it appears as a pilgrim community struggling through this age, implicated with this age's evils, and animated by longing for its own final fulfillment.

Augustine does not so much borrow from Roman political theory as subvert it, to make a weapon against any ultimate claims by a polity of this age. He cites Cicero citing Scipio: a res publica in the proper sense is a community united by agreed law, and there can be agreed law only where there is prior community in virtue, that is, prior mutual devotion to a common good. This is exactly right, says Augustine; but no polity of the fallen world can meet this standard, since the only good we could have fully in common is the one God, and the fallen world is constituted precisely by refusal to turn to him. Therefore political arrangements in this age can be called res publicae only by generous analogy. They are at best approximations of true polity, united by love of diachronically and syn-chronically partial goods, and are ordained by God to preserve his fallen creatures from the total destruction that would follow a mere war of all against all.

An inner contradiction thus destabilizes every polity of this age. The one triune God can only be "enjoyed" and so is immune to exploitation by our love of self; there is nothing we can "use" this God for. But partial goods can indeed be used for our antecedent purposes, in fact they invite such use, and so they can be manipulated by self-love. Therefore the very same partial goods that draw a polity of this age together simultaneously tempt each of its members to aggrandize him- or herself at the others' expense. The self-destructive inner dynamic of every polity of this age is self-love in its political form, the passion to dominate: libido dominandi, as Augustine calls it.

In the midst of the polities of this age stands God's polity, in its form for this age. The church is a struggling, tempted, and ambiguous presence of God's polity - we do not even know who finally belongs to it. But it is nothing less than that. Its unity is constituted in worship of the one God, that is, in jointly enacted desire for the one possible common good. Therefore so long as the church does not utterly cease to be church by ceasing to worship the true God, its gravest defections and strifes cannot undo its tranquilitas, for God is indeed but one for all - lest this be thought romantic, we should remember that Augustine was a bishop during one of the most strife-filled periods of church history. What must always be in our vision when thinking of Augustine's City of God is the Eucharist, a public space where the one God gives himself to his community, and where in consequence all sorts and conditions of humanity drink from one cup and eat of one loaf, and whose parliament of common and mutual prayer is a perfect participatory democracy.

The loves which unite this world's polities are mere negatives of the love of God which unites the church. If we will not worship the one God, we must worship something that is not one, the polytheistic pantheon of usual religion; thus another name for what holds a polity of this age together is idolatry. Yet even so, such loves formally imitate the love of God, and even the imitation can sustain a little shared law for a little while. Indeed, the libido dominandi itself can and does harbor real if fragile virtues; in Augustine's eyes, Roman love of glory was itself once glorious. Perhaps, recalling Augustine's neo-Platonism, we can interpret him to say that earthly polities are brought into being and endure for a time by memory of what real polity would be.

So the famous maxim: "Two loves make the two polities, love of self (in its political form, the libido dominandi) the earthly polity . . . , love of God the heavenly" (Augustine 1972: xiv. 28). The distinction is eschatological. Every created self will pass away; indeed, love of self is the very principle of historical decay: "He that seeks his life will lose it." Love of God will not pass away, for he is what all things pass on to. Thus the gates of hell will sooner or later prevail against every polity of this age. They will not prevail against the church, which will be fulfilled precisely by the judgment that burns away its accommodations to this age.

0 0

Post a comment