Augustine’s Politics in Recent Scholarship

Some have asked about my reading of Augustine’s political thought in recent scholarship.  Below are two foundational interpretations that have guided much recent investigations. This is from the beginning of the 6th chapter of my dissertation.  

Reading City of God through book 19

            As with central ideas of Augustine, and Hegel before that, we must clear the ground a bit concerning dominant interpretations.  To this end we will fill out the above sketch with reference to R. A. Markus’s understanding of saeculum and Oliver O’Donovan emphasis on love as the linchpin of Augustine’s political thought.

Markus sees Augustine’s mature political thought as striking a balance between a Eusebian celebration of Rome and a Hippolytan judgment of Rome.  For Eusebius, a Christian Emperor sitting in Rome represents the unification of what was held apart during the life of Christ and the rule of Augustus.  With Constantine comes a “single harmonious order, one Empire devoted to the worship of the one true God.”[1]  But to this messianic rendering of Constantine is an alternative judgment and condemnation, fueled by past persecutions.  Hippolytus poured out apocalyptic pronouncements against Rome in the tradition of the writers of Daniel and Revelation, denouncing it as a “satanic imitation of the kingdom of Christ.”[2]  Augustine was wary of either total acceptance or total rejection.  For Augustine, according to Markus, “the Empire is not to be seen in terms either of the messianic image of the Eusebian tradition or of the apocalyptic image of the Antichrist of the Hippolytan tradition…[Rome] is theologically neutral.”[3]  Markus sees Augustine suspending Rome between the earthly and heavenly cities, radically indeterminate in this present age.[4]

This is, of course, not to collapse the distinction between the earthly and heavenly cities.  They are radially dichotomous in terms of justice and love.  But the polarity of “formal” definition is always mixed within the empirical situation of temporal existence.  As Augustine says, “In this world (saeculo)s , the two cities are indeed entangled and mingled with one another; and they will remain so until the last judgment shall separate them” (ciu. 1.35).[5] This temporal mixture ultimately renders invisible both the earthly and heavenly cities until the final judgment separates them, rending indeterminate any identification of either the earthly city with Rome and the heavenly city with the church.[6]

This invisibility allows for an overlapping use of temporal goods even if each ultimately orders them differently (i.e. only the heavenly city properly orders the love of temporal things toward the eternal).[7]  For Augustine, the earthly city has wrongfully restricted its concern only to “temporal peace,” the sphere of material needs and their satisfaction through orderly social interactions.  Because the heavenly city properly uses temporal good as ordered toward the eternal, “The earthly peace is of common concern to all, whether citizens of the heavenly or the earthly cities; it is valued and ‘loved’ by both.”  Indeed, for Markus,

Augustine’s ‘positivistic’ definition of the res publica appears to have been very carefully devised to make room for this overlap.  The people constituting a res publica are agreed in valuing certain things; they need not be agreed in valuing them on identical scales of value, still less to they need to be agreed on the objects upon which they set supreme value.[8]

Markus argues that this redefinition of res public according to love allows for different ultimate allegiances to engage each other within this restricted sphere of temporal goods and its earthly peace, allowing for the autonomy of an inherently pluralistic state where coincident decisions can spring from different motivating structures.[9]  This all flows from Augustine’s “understanding of the saeculum, not as a no-man’s land between the two cities, but as their temporal life in their interwoven, perplexed, and only eschatologically separable realities.”[10]  While encompassing many other layers and various historical issue, this in nuce is Markus’ reading of Augustine.

The bulk of Markus’ argument centers on book 19 of City of God and its replacement of justice by love as the definition of a commonwealth, an argument introduced but not extensively pursued in book 2.  Oliver O’Donovan criticizes Markus for his agnosticism concerning historical identification of the either the earthly city (with Babylon and Rome) and heavenly city (Israel and the church), the supposed neutrality of historical communities, and the over-hasty assimilation of Augustine to modern liberalism.[11]  Nonetheless, even O’Donovan sees book 19 as the center of Augustine’s political theology, with 19.24 constituting a critical turning point in Augustine’s thought.[12]  Augustine’s redefinition around love allows for the possibility of understanding such an earthly peace without Augustine compromising his principle that a commonwealth is only just when God is given his due through right worship.[13]  In these ways, while offering a corrective to Markus, O’Donovan perpetuates the centering of discussion of Augustine’s political thought on book 19 and its concerns with temporal peace and love.  Both continue the modern interpretation of Augustine that emphasizes eschatological ends over natural order, a natural order that the medieval interpretation used to establish Augustine as a natural law theorist.[14]

In a certain sense it is right to prioritize love concerning Augustine’s political thought.  Certainly Augustine uses love as an essential definition of the two cities: “Two cities, then, have been created by two loves: that is, the earthly by love of self extending even to contempt of God, and the heavenly city by love of God extending to contempt of self” (ciu. 14.28).  And earlier, “In the one city, love of God has been given pride of place, and, in the other, love of self” (ciu. 14.13).  Echoing his claim from Confessions (citation), this is the case because as “the body is carried by its weight” so “the soul is carried by its love” (ciu. 11.28), directing the will appropriately or perversely.  This emphasis on love allows Augustine to place evil within the will rather than the objects perversely used by the will such that, for example, avarice is the effect of a disordered will rather than being caused by golden object itself, which remains good (ciu. 12.8).  It is for this reason that love must be properly ordered (ciu. 15.22) according to the order of being found in all created things.  With these distinctions in mind Augustine can claim that the earthly city loves lower things (the self and the goods secured by an earthly peace) while the heavenly city loves the higher goods (God and eternal security) (ciu. 15.4).  Augustine seemingly grafts the absolute dichotomy of loves between the two cities onto a common order of being and its hierarchy of goods such that the heavenly city can make common use of earthly and temporal things as pilgrims even though the earthly city uses them as residents (ciu. 19.17).[15]

These texts can be gathered and directed in such a way as to explain Augustine’s replacement of love for justice in his definition of a commonwealth, with the added result of justifying an overlapping area of concern in created being (temporal goods) amid wildly divergent loves (love of self and love of God).  These emphases soften the dichotomy between the two loves by finding a realm of overlapping interests within an earthly peace.  Marcus and O’Donovan play up the trajectory of such a reading, and as we have seen, Eric Gregory follows by emphasizing how properly ordered love of God and neighbor can become a political virtue.

But these types of readings have begun to be contested as self-serving and selective. If offering a redefinition of a commonwealth were the center of Augustine’s political thought, why introduce the concept in book 2 (the definition of a res publica) only to wait until book 19 to resolve it?  And if there is a good reason for the delay, what is missed in jumping from book 2 to 19 with hardly a comment on what lay between (besides mentioning the texts rehearsed above)?  And why, when Augustine is so persistent in his critique of the earthly city, is one of the only concessions made between the earthly and heavenly city (a shared earthly peace) developed into the center of Augustine’s political thought?[16]  These questions raise the possibility that something is amiss in such approaches.  In order to correct these partial readings of City of God it is necessary not only to search Augustine’s texts for themes and topics interesting to modern political theorist, but rather follow the threads of Augustine’s own argument.


[1] R. A. Markus, Saeculum: History and Society in the Theology of St. Augustine (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1970), 50.

[2] R. A. Markus, Saeculum: History and Society in the Theology of St. Augustine (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1970), 49.

[3] R. A. Markus, Saeculum: History and Society in the Theology of St. Augustine (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1970), 55.

[4] R. A. Markus, Saeculum: History and Society in the Theology of St. Augustine (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1970), 58.

[5] See also ciu. 11.1

[6] R. A. Markus, Saeculum: History and Society in the Theology of St. Augustine (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1970), 60-62.

[7] See ciu. 15.4, 19.17, 19.26.

[8] R. A. Markus, Saeculum: History and Society in the Theology of St. Augustine (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1970), 69.

[9] R. A. Markus, Saeculum: History and Society in the Theology of St. Augustine (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1970), 69-70.

[10] R. A. Markus, Saeculum: History and Society in the Theology of St. Augustine (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1970), 71.

[11] See Oliver O’Donovan, “The Political Thought of City of God 19,” in Oliver O’Donovan and Joan Lockwood O’Donovan (eds), Bonds of Imperfection: Christian Politics, Past and Present (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2004), 48-72, substantially revised from  “Augustine’s City of God XIX and Western Political Thought,” Dionysius, 11 (1987): 98-110 (reprinted in Dorothy F. Donnelly, The City of God: A Collection of Critical Essays [New York, NY: Peter Lang, 1995], 135-150).

[12] Gregory W. Lee draws attention to this overlapping emphasis between Markus and O’Donovan in his “Republics and Their Loves: Rereading City of God 19,” Modern Theology 27:4 (2011), 553-558.

[13] Oliver O’Donovan, “The Political Thought of City of God 19,” 55.

[14] Concerning these modern and traditional schools of Augustinian interpretation, see Miikka Ruokanen, Theology of Social Life in Augustine’s City of God (Göttingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht,  1993), 9-18.

[15] It is for this reason that Augustine’s uti/frui distinction becomes so important.  See Oliver O’Donovan, “Usus and Fruitio in Augustine, De Doctrina Christiana I.” Journal of Theological Studies 33/2 (1982): 361-97; Willian Riordan O’Connor, “The Uti/Frui Distinction in Augustine’s Ehtics.” Augustinian Studies  14 (1983): 45-62; Raymond Canning, The Unity of Love for God and Neighbour in St. Augustine (Leuven: Augustinian Historical Institute, 1993), 79-115; Eric Gregory, Politics and the Order of Love: An Augustinian Ethics of Democratic Citizenship (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2008), 335-343.

[16] Representative of these criticisms are Gregory W. Lee, “Republics and Their Loves: Rereading City of God 19,” Modern Theology 27:4 (2011); Robert Dodaro, Christ and the Just Society in the Thought of Augustine (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004), “Eloquent Lies, Just Wars and the Politics of Persuasion: Reading Augustine’s City of God in a ‘Postmodern’ World”. Augustinian Studies  25 (1994): 77-138; Johannes van Oort, Jerusalem and Babylon: A Study into Augustine’s City of God and the Sources of His Doctrine of the Two Cities (Leiden: Brill, 1991); Rowan Williams, “Politics and the Soul: A Reading of the City of God,” Milltown Studies 19/20 (1987): 55-72.