Hoping for a better politics in the City of Man

Hoping for a better politics in the City of Man Antonio Rodríguez’s Saint Augustine, at work on the City of God
A Commonwealth of Hope: Augustine’s political thought
by Michael Lamb (Princeton University Press, £35.00 / US$29.99)
Frank Litton

We are told that the world is divided into those who see the glass half-full and those who report it half-empty. This seems to be the case with politics. For many, perhaps the majority, all goes well. The journey may be bumpy, but with their eyes firmly fixed on the horrors of the past, they ignore the distempers of the present believing that things can only get better.

For others, including grumpy old men but surely not confined to them, present grim realities make some features of the past look positively good. They mourn their absence as they watch things get worse.

What we are dealing with here, are examples of presumption and despair – an unwarranted assumption that things can only get better versus the belief that we are ‘going to hell in handcart’ and there is nothing we can do about it. The virtue, hope, avoids either extreme as it motivates us to see beyond obstacles to the better world that faith promises.

In this excellent book, Michael Lamb, focuses on St Augustine’s discussions on the virtue of hope to deliver an account of St Augustine’s political philosophy that corrects the common assumption that it paints a pessimistic, despairing view of politics.

Some thinkers, quite properly, work diligently in their study. Their volumes present a coherent analysis. Augustine was not such a thinker. The kind of analysis that elucidates Aquinas, does not work with Augustine.

He was Bishop active in the world, deploying his vast intellect and great rhetorical skills to solve problems in theory and practice he encountered in his work, all the time intent on moving his audiences to walk in the light of the Gospel. His work is a mosaic. Lamb following the thread of hope as it is discussed in sermons, letters, and of course the City Of God, reveals a complex account of politics that is a wonderful resource.

Political masterpiece

The 14 years during which Augustine composed his political masterpiece, the City of God, saw the unshakeable given that was the Roman Empire under threat as the peoples on its periphery that it once successfully managed broke loose and moved towards Rome intent on a takeover. The City of God was in part a defence of Christianity against the charge that it had greatly weakened the Empire. In general it was an account of what politics was, and could be, in a fallen world mired in sin.

We find in it’s pages a dark view of politics. Indeed Augustine writes, “that was an apt reply and true which was given to Alexander the Great by a pirate who had been seized. For when the King had asked what he had meant by keeping hostile possession of the sea, he answered with bold pride: ‘What do you mean by seizing the whole earth; because I do it with a petty ship I am called a pirate, while you who does with a great fleet, are styled an Emperor’.” Justice having been taken away, Augustine observes, what are Kingdoms but great robberies ?

Augustine famously distinguishes between an Earthly City and a Heavenly City [City of Men and City of God]. Some hold with obvious good reason that we have banished the Heavenly City and along with it the understanding of right and wrong, rooted in the classics and articulated by Aquinas in the perspective of the Gospel. Justice has been taken away displaced by nihilism. The lust for domination whose outcomes Augustine described, is unconstrained as the elite servants of a globalising capitalism compete for power after power.

The sharp distinction Augustine draws between the two cities serves to warn Christians against too close an accommodation with the Earthly City. We cannot but inhabit this city. It is where we are our living, rear our children. How can we avoid pursuing its rewards and avoiding its punishments? The esteem of our neighbours is important and we win it by obeying social norms. Yet, we are called to be ‘counter-cultural’ and bring the mores of our time before the judgment of the Gospels.

Two temptations

The distinction warns us against two temptations. The first is to suppose that the powers of the Earthly City can be captured and put into the service of the Heavenly City. We find, however, that the reverse invariably happens, the Earthly City harnesses the authority of the Heavenly City to its own purposes, as it goes about sustaining structures of inequality and oppression.

The second temptation is to suppose that the Earthly City is a lost cause . It is ‘Babylon’ and we are its prisoners. The first temptation is to presumption, the second to despair.

Hope resists both temptations. It teaches us to recognise that while the kingdom has not come, God’s will is not ‘obeyed on earth as it is in heaven,’ it is present as a promise prefigured in the Eucharist. Hope moves us to answer the call to work for its coming instructed by faith and guided by love.

We are political animals; the rewards of our coming together are clear: enhanced security and all the benefits, economic and social, that follow from the division of labour. Without politics the space for human flourishing would be slight indeed.

The problem is that the pursuit of these rewards is derailed by the urge to dominate. While Augustine details this, unmasking the face of power, exposing its bogus justifications, he recognises that it is a problem whose solution we should seek. The goods of human association are not a lost cause and Christians should work, in hope, to secure them. And, of course, they do, promoting policies and seeking laws that prevent great harms.

Another kind of contribution is required in these turbulent times when economic forces would reduce us to isolated atoms, the playthings of the market, and the once unshakeable given of liberal democracy is challenged. A new vision of community is required. Surely Christian thinkers have a contribution to make. A close reading of this fine book will help them elaborate it.