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Whose Augustine? Which Augustinianism?

In the comments to a recent post about arguments from silence, some important issues were raised, and I’d like to deal with some of them because they deserve consideration.

“Augustinianism” and the City of God

The first has to do with the legacy of “Augustinianism” in relation to disestablishmentarianism and the like.

There is a voluminous literature on Augustine and political theology, which I am going to ignore in this post to focus on one small case-study.

A large part of the purpose of the first several books of Augustine’s City of God is to show the deleterious effects of Roman religion on Roman morals and Roman statecraft. Because of this Roman debacle, one might wonder whether Augustine concluded that religion and politics should have nothing to do with each other.

The short answer is “no.”

As it happens, the long answer is also “no.”

The Long Answer

In City of God 5.21, Augustine makes it clear that all kingdoms are given by God, and that they are given to the pious and impious alike; and thus God gave a kingdom to both Constantine and Julian:

These things being so, we do not attribute the power of giving kingdoms and empires to any save to the true God, who gives happinessin the kingdom of heaven to the pious alone, but gives kingly power on earth both to the pious and the impious, as it may please Him, whose good pleasure is always just.

But this does not lead Augustine to the belief that there is no such thing as a “Christian emperor,” or that such a thing is an unmitigated evil. Rather, the important distinction for him is to remember that there is a difference between earthly, temporal felicity and heavenly, eternal felicity (and thus Augustine can maintain the idea of Christians as a pilgrim people simultaneously with a vision of order informed by Christianity). He goes so far as to claim in the following passage that the Christian emperor should use his power “for the greatest possible extension of [God’s] worship.”1

For neither do we say that certain Christian emperors were therefore happy because they ruled a long time, or, dying a peaceful death, left their sons to succeed them in the empire, or subdued the enemies of the republic, or were able both to guard against and to suppress the attempt of hostile citizens rising against them. These and other gifts or comforts of this sorrowful life even certain worshippers of demons have merited to receive, who do not belong to the kingdom of God to which these belong; and this is to be traced to the mercy of God, who would not have those who believe in Him desire such things as the highest good. But we say that they are happy if they rule justly; if they are not lifted up amid the praises of those who pay them sublime honors, and the obsequiousness of those who salute them with an excessive humility, but remember that they are men; if they make their power the handmaid of His majesty by using it for the greatest possible extension of His worship; if they fearlove, worship God; if more than their own they love that kingdom in which they are not afraid to have partners; if they are slow to punish, ready to pardon; if they apply that punishment as necessary to government and defence of the republic, and not in order to gratify their own enmity; if they grant pardon, not that iniquity may go unpunished, but with the hope that the transgressor may amend his ways; if they compensate with the lenity of mercy and the liberality of benevolence for whatever severity they may be compelled to decree; if their luxury is as much restrained as it might have been unrestrained; if they prefer to govern depraved desires rather than any nation whatever; and if they do all these things, not through ardent desire of empty glory, but through love of eternal felicity, not neglecting to offer to the true God, who is their God, for their sins, the sacrifices of humility, contrition, and prayer. Such Christian emperors, we say, are happy in the present time by hope, and are destined to be so in the enjoyment of the reality itself, when that which we wait for shall have arrived. (5.24)

In Praise of Constantine and Theodosius

Because Augustine grants the existence of “Christian emperors,” he goes on to praise the two most famous instances, Constantine and Theodosius, while eschewing the worldly idea that an emperor should become a Christian for the sake of earthly rather than eternal happiness.

For the good God, lest men, who believe that He is to be worshipped with a view to eternal life, should think that no one could attain to all this high estate, and to this terrestrial dominion, unless he should be a worshipper of the demons—supposing that these spirits have great power with respect to such things—for this reason He gave to the Emperor Constantine, who was not a worshipper of demons, but of the true God Himself, such fullness of earthly gifts as no one would even dare wish for. To him also He granted the honor of founding a city, a companion to the Roman empire, the daughter, as it were, of Rome itself, but without any temple or image of the demons. He reigned for a long period as sole emperor, and unaided held and defended the whole Roman world. In conducting and carrying on wars he was most victorious; in overthrowing tyrants he was most successful. He died at a great age, of sickness and old age, and left his sons to succeed him in the empire. But again, lest any emperor should become a Christian in order to merit the happiness of Constantine, when every one should be a Christian for the sake of eternal life, God took away Jovian far sooner than Julian, and permitted thatGratian should be slain by the sword of a tyrant. But in his case there was far more mitigation of the calamity than in the case of the great Pompey, for he could not be avenged by Cato, whom he had left, as it were, heir to the civil war. But Gratian, though pious mindsrequire not such consolations, was avenged by Theodosius, whom he had associated with himself in the empire, though he had a little brother of his own, being more desirous of a faithful alliance than of extensive power.

And on this account, Theodosius not only preserved during the lifetime of Gratian that fidelity which was due to him, but also, after his death, he, like a true Christian, took his little brother Valentinian under his protection, as joint emperor, after he had been expelled byMaximus, the murderer of his father. He guarded him with paternal affection, though he might without any difficulty have got rid of him, being entirely destitute of all resources, had he been animated with the desire of extensive empire, and not with the ambition of being a benefactor….Amid all these events, from the very commencement of his reign, he did not cease to help the troubled church against the impious by most just and merciful laws, which the heretical Valens, favoring the Arians, had vehemently afflicted. Indeed, he rejoiced more to be a member of this church than he did to be a king upon the earth.  (5.25-6)

Conclusion: Temporality, Secularity, and Cura Religionis

Augustine thus sees government as part of the order of nature, along with other things that are common to human life, in contrast to the eternal life that God gives only to the “sincerely pious.” He believes, then, both that civil government is a natural institution2 and that Christian emperors can be a good.

But all other blessings and privileges of this life, as the world itself, light, air, earth, water, fruits, and the soul of man himself, his body, senses, mind, life, He lavishes on good and bad alike. And among theseblessings is also to be reckoned the possession of an empire, whose extent He regulates according to the requirements of His providential government at various times. (5.26)

What is perhaps most fascinating about these passages in the City of God is that they were written after Alaric’s sack of Rome in 410. There were many senses in which that event put a damper on a Eusebian political theology of triumph (so widespread in the fourth century), not least for Augustine himself. Indeed, one of the burdens of the City of God is to show that God is still good and sovereignly in control of all of history in spite of temporal disasters that befall Christians as well as non-Christians.

Furthermore, Augustine is not exactly optimistic about realizing perfect justice in the earthly political order. And he certainly sees earthly polities as “secular” in the sense that they are temporary and belong to this passing age.

And nevertheless he does not draw from these observations the principle that government should be secularized, as his comments quoted above make clear. He evidently sees “secularity” as compatible with the idea of a Christian emperor, and does not see the motif of pilgrimage or exile as ipso facto ruling out cura religionis. Insofar as this relates to the purpose of the previous post, this is one part of the Augustinian heritage that must be reckoned with.


  1. Please note that everything in this post is descriptive rather than prescriptive.
  2. Even if, for Augustine, only “natural” after the Fall; but that is a topic for another time.

By E.J. Hutchinson

E.J. Hutchinson is Assistant Professor of Classics at Hillsdale College.

3 replies on “Whose Augustine? Which Augustinianism?”

Eric, those of us 2kers who claim to be Augustinian are not innocent of these points, but R. A. Marcus does point out those parts of Augustine that might help a Christian find a place in post 1789 political orders.

But out of curiosity, what do you think (pure speculation) Augustine might say about a secular political order? Do you think he would encourage Christians to replace it with a Christian or religious polity?

Not trying to wind you up. Just curious.

Dear Darryl,

Thanks for your comment. What Markus are you referring to? *Saeculum*? *Christianity and the Secular*? I’m not denying that there are aspects of Augustine’s political thought that can be appropriated fruitfully in a variety of contexts. My purpose was simply to give one small example where he makes his own view pretty clear, and thus to give an indication of what Augustinian “exile” or “pilgrimage” does (and does not) entail.

On a “secular political order”: I think we actually can say with some certainty what A. would say, because A. in fact says quite a lot himself about secular (=temporal and temporary) order, as I tried to indicate above.

What he would say about a secular*ized* order is much more difficult to determine, especially given that he saw such close connections between religion, morality/virtue/justice, and statecraft; and I’m not sure an areligious society was something within his horizon of possibility. He certainly had no problem “replacing” pagan political order with one in harmony with what he thought Christian virtue to be. So, to really try to answer that question, we’d have to discuss the source(s) of virtue and justice in Augustine, as that will have serious implications as to what he would consider the range of political possibilities to be, even as far as promoting proximate justice is concerned.

Here’s one attempt to explain what A. was up to vis-a-vis Christianity in the political realm (I’m not putting it forward as my own position, just one example of reflection on this topic):

“Turning once again to the form of pagan cult which Nectarius defends at Calama, the reasoning behind Augustine’s objections to the proposal to accord pagan repentance the same recognition that he willingly offers to Christians extends deeply into the way he conceives *caritas patriae*. True love for one’s city requires a shared understanding of the nature of reconciliation among individuals who accept that the spiritual arts of penitence–self-examination, confession, prayer for pardon and forgiveness of others, especially of enemies–constitute the essence of civic virtue, of *pietas*, and, thus, the heart of patriotism. Such penitence will only be efficacious for the just rule of the city when it draws its subjects away from concern with the fantasy of moral and spiritual autonomy and perfection, and towards the freedom to live interiorly as citizens in God’s *civitas*. In this pilgrim city, the only human achievement worthy of praise is the prayerful search for, and acceptance of, pardon as a divine gift, and the only noble political action lies in the reciprocal exchange of that gift with one’s neighbours. It is in his way that eschatology and history are joined in Augustine’s political thought. Finally, pardon will be effective only when it involves an identification with the other as sinner, a bonding arrived at through the realisation of an interior self which earnestly seeks out the history of its own ongoing collusion with injustice.” (Robert Dodaro, “Augustine’s Secular City,” pp. 250-1 in *Augustine and His Critics*)

I also consider myself a 2Ker, and I also consider myself to have a real interest in the “Augustinian” heritage on this question; and in the above I’m primarily interested in how Augustine himself saw the relations between religion and politics and in what way(s) the idea of a “Christian prince” is compatible with his own political theology and his distinctions between time and eternity, earth and heaven, etc.

Thanks again for commenting.


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