The fate of St. Augustine in the world of political theology has been mixed. He is a thinker of great discursive power who favors powerful narration over deductive systematicity. What is "political" about his theology must, for the most part, be teased out. He never penned a specific treatise on the subject. Despite this, it is fair to say that more words have been spilled on figuring out what an Augus-tinian political theology is, or might be, than on the tomes of other, more explicit, political theologies. There are particular features to St. Augustine's work that make him a tough nut to crack. From the time of his conversion to Catholic Christianity in 386 to his death as Bishop of Hippo in 430, Augustine wrote some 117 books. He touches on all the central themes of Christian theology and Christian life: the nature of God and human persons, the problem of evil, free will and determinism, war and human aggression, the bases of social life and political order, church doctrine, Christian vocations: the list is nigh endless.
Although a number of his works follow an argumentative line in the manner most often favored by those who write political treatises, especially so given the distinctly juridical or legalistic cast of so much modern political theory and political theology, most often he paints bold strokes on a broad canvas. His enterprise is at once theological, philosophical, historical, cultural, and rhetorical. His works are characterized by an extraordinarily rich surface as well as vast depth, making it difficult to get a handle on if one's own purposes are not so ambitious. He traffics in what we generally call "universals," but he is also a nuanced "particular-ist" and historicist.
Given this towering enterprise it is, perhaps, unsurprising that attempts have been made to reduce Augustine to manageable size. To that end he has been tagged a political realist and canonized, if you will, as the theological grandfather of a school of thought called "Christian realism" but, as well, of a tradition that includes Machiavelli and Hobbes. For thinkers in the political realism camp, most of whom are not theological thinkers, Augustine, if he is read at all, is read primarily in and through excerpts from his great works that most favorably comport with this "political realism." To this end, his Confessions are ignored and book XIX
of his 1,091-page masterwork (in the Penguin Classics unabridged version), The City of God, is reproduced with certain bits highlighted. Perhaps also a chunk from book I, chapter l, on "the city of this world, a city which aims at dominion, which holds nations in enslavement, but is itself dominated by that very lust of domination" (Augustine 1972: 5). Book II, chapter 21, is helpful on Augustine's alternative to Cicero's judgment (according to Scipio) on the Roman commonwealth. Book XV, chapter l, traces lines of descent of the "two cities, speaking allegori-cally"; Book XIX, chapter 14, as already noted, is mined for a few precepts about the interests government should serve; chapter 15 makes an argument against slavery "by nature" and chapter 21, in which Scipio's definition of a commonwealth as advanced by Cicero makes a second appearance, also seems pertinent. Chapter 7 of Book XIX is culled as the "justification of war" argument. Perhaps
- just perhaps - excerpts are drawn from chapters 14, 15, and 16, in order to demonstrate Augustine's insistence that there is a connection between the peace and good of the household in relation to the city. Take all these snippets, plus his scathing comment that what pirates do with one boat, Romans do with a navy, but the one is called brigandage while the other is named Empire, and the student has her quick intake of what I have called "Augustine Lite" (1996). The upshot is a diminished Augustine, numbered among the pessimists and charged with being one of those who stress human cruelty and violence with a concomitant need for order, coercion, punishment, and occasional war as the upshot.
Recognizing the inadequacy of this "normalized" Augustine doesn't mean one has an easy task if one's purpose is to be fair to Augustine's complexity with the enterprise of political theology in mind, in part for the reasons noted above concerning Augustine's way of writing and arguing. But even more pertinent is a political theologian's sense of his or her task. If one construes that task, at least in part, as a way of putting together anthropological presuppositions (what those of us trained as political theorists called "theories of human nature," at least until one dominant contemporary school of thought decided there was no such thing), claims about the political and social order in light of those presuppositions, the role of political theology in relation to these interrelated tasks, and the perils and possibilities inherent in any political activity or order, then Augustine's expan-siveness is a welcome thing indeed. If one's aims are narrower or more modest, Augustine's expansiveness is a frustration. I begin from the point of view that his expansiveness is welcome. What follows is a way of highlighting key points of theoretical demarcation in Augustine's work that are rich with implications for political theology. I should make clear - as will be obvious to any reader of Augustine
- that I can only scratch the surface of things in a single essay.
Was this article helpful?