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The Pious Prince in Augustinian Perspective

Herewith another passage from City of God Book 5 that is relevant to a post from a couple of weeks ago,  and that probably, therefore, should have been included in that post–so take this as a supplement to that.

In this passage, we get a nice summary of his views on virtue, religion, time, and eternity from the relatively late Augustine: what we might call a kind of Augustinian realism that recognizes distinctions between the “already” and the “not yet” and tempers expectations accordingly, while also recognizing that all temporal matters are not an undifferentiated mass allowing of no “better” and “worse.”

Augustine has just finished suggesting that perhaps bad rule is a part of God’s secret providence, “when He judges that the state of human affairs is worthy of such lords” (a theme that will be echoed centuries later in Book 4 of John Calvin’s Institutes of the Christian Religion). Though tyrants such as Nero may therefore rule in the human world as part of God’s providential ordering, Augustine does not believe that this is a good in and of itself, or that it should be what human polities strive for; it is better for rulers to have at least the shadows of virtue (or a kind of lesser, civic virtue), as the Romans sometimes did, than their opposites.

This virtue, which is related to earthly and temporary rewards, Augustine contrasts with “true virtue,” which is related to heavenly and eternal rewards. The former is concerned with the earthly city; the latter with the heavenly city.

Human affairs can get by with the former, but for Augustine that does not mean that the latter are not preferable: they are, just as true virtue is preferable to the off-brand version he finds in Roman history. A Christian’s “feeble beginnings,” relying wholly on God’s grace and mercy, are superior to the greatest examples in the annals of ancient Rome.

Augustine is therefore favorable to the idea of a prince “endowed with true piety of life” as beneficial to temporal, human affairs, but with a significant proviso: “if they have the skill for ruling people.” Christian virtue is not enough for him, for it must be complemented by the natural gift of competence to wield power. The mere fact that someone is a Christian, that is, does not automatically give him special insight into the political order, and certainly does not necessarily fit him to hold the reins of government.

Even in the prefereable case, though–the case of the pious prince–certain things must be kept in mind: such a person would never attribute his virtue to himself, but “solely to the grace of God,” extending all the way to his “willing, believing, [and] seeking.” He could not be prideful for that reason, and for another: he would recognize how far short of the perfection of true virtue he falls in this life, however long it should go on.

Wherefore, though I have, according to my ability, shown for what reason God, who alone is true and just, helped forward the Romans, who were good according to a certain standard of an earthly state, to the acquirement of the glory of so great an empire, there may be, nevertheless, a more hidden causeknown better to God than to us, depending on the diversity of the merits of the human race. Among all who are truly pious, it is at all events agreed that no one without true piety—that is, true worship of the true God— can have true virtue; and that it is not true virtue which is the slave of human praise. Though, nevertheless, they who are not citizens of the eternal city, which is called the city of God in the sacred Scriptures, are more useful to the earthly city when they possess even that virtue than if they had not even that. But there could be nothing more fortunate for human affairs than that, by the mercy of God, they who are endowed with true piety of life, if they have the skill for ruling people, should also have the power. But such men, however great virtues they may possess in this life, attribute it solely to the grace of God that He has bestowed it on them— willing, believing, seeking. And, at the same time, they understand how far they are short of that perfection of righteousness which exists in the society of those holy angels for which they are striving to fit themselves. But however much that virtue may be praised and cried up, which without true piety is the slave of human glory, it is not at all to be compared even to the feeble beginnings of the virtue of the saints, whose hope is placed in the grace and mercy of the true God. (City of God 5.19)

By E.J. Hutchinson

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