St Augustine was born in the late Roman Empire after its conversion to Christianity. To say he is controversial to our modern minds is an understatement, but he launched many of the debates that would dominate Christian politics. What is the point of earthly politics if salvation comes in Heaven? Is it the duty of the state to protect the Church and repress heresy? Do Christians have a duty to obey non-Christian rulers?
His work is famously bleak. He claimed his childhood was so miserable he would rather die than live it again. One of the problems of Christianity is if God is loving and omnipotent, why do innocent people suffer? Augustine explained it with the belief in original sin. We all are born having inherited Adam’s sin, and so deserve our suffering. Augustine considers why Adam and people after him sinned, despite knowing it is wrong. Firstly, we desire to break rules in order to exercise our free will. Secondly, we desire the praise of others, even if that means committing a sin. We are all sinners, if sometimes without knowing it. Even babies commit the sin of pride when they cry and scream for attention.
Augustine is influenced by earlier thinkers. He turns Cicero’s view that justice is found in natural law and available to anyone with reason. Augustine believes that reason merely assists us in deciding what we want to do; one more or less sinful course or another. In addition societies are incapable of knowing whether they are acting justly, because only God understands justice. Plato distinguished between the world as it seemed, and the world as it really was, found through philosophical understanding. Augustine distinguishes between the world of suffering and evil (the ‘earthly city’), and the heavenly world (the ‘city of God’) that could be accessed through being a good Christian. Humans cannot know which they are destined for, including members of the Church.
Augustine believed Christians should obey the state and their ruler, unless directed to deny Christ. He was influenced by St Paul who declared that the powers that be are ordained by God. This contrasts with Cicero’s frequent praise for tyrannicide, but Cicero’s republic is a thing of glory. For Augustine earthly glory is mere vanity, although the world is still God’s creation so to despise it is blasphemy. The purpose of earthly states is to ensure peace and minimise sin. Laws governing property are desirable to achieve stability, but have unattractive side effects such as promoting greed. Augustine criticises the Roman state for its lust for power. Better to have a multitude of tiny, harmless polities which strive for peace. Punishment should be to reform the offender, like a father chastising his son. Torture was appalling because an innocent man might be forced to sin by perjuring himself, and the judge sin by killing an innocent man. The impact of the sin on our souls is more important than any earthly suffering.
According to Augustine, punishment is needed due to our nature as sinners. Our natural inclinations to act wrongly cause us to fear that others will do us wrong, and to want to make pre-emptive strikes. This cycle is only broken by a mutual fear of the law. For Augustine a classical discussion of the perfect state is hopeless. The state exists only to limit the excesses of our sinful nature, and protect the limited goods of this earthly life.
If you are interested in finding out more about this topic, I strongly recommend getting a copy of Alan Ryan’s ‘On Politics’, which this blog is predominantly based on. Here are a few links you can use to find it: