Archive Authors Civic Polity E.J. Hutchinson Early Church Fathers Nota Bene The Two Kingdoms

Getting the Grammar Right

Quick! Review Conditional Forms!


The difference between indicative and counterfactual conditionals, in a context of past time reference, is one of emphasis, and can be illustrated with a pair of examples in which the if clause is in the past indicative in the first example but in the pluperfect subjunctive in the second:

  • If Oswald did not shoot Kennedy, then someone else did.
  • If Oswald had not shot Kennedy, then someone else would have.

The protasis (the if clause) of the first sentence may or may not be true according to the speaker, so the apodosis (the then clause) also may or may not be true; the apodosis is asserted by the speaker to be true if the protasis is true. In this sentence the if clause and the then clause are both in the past tense of the indicative mood. In the second sentence, the speaker is speaking with a certainty that Oswald did shoot Kennedy (according to the speaker, the protasis is false), and therefore the main clause deals with the counterfactual result — what would have happened. In this sentence the if clause is in the pluperfect subjunctive form of the subjunctive mood, and thethen clause is in the conditional perfect form of the conditional mood.

A corresponding pair of examples with present time reference uses the present indicative in the if clause of the first sentence but the past subjunctive in the second sentence’s if clause:

  • If it is raining, then he is inside.
  • If it were raining, then he would be inside.

Here again, in the first sentence the if clause may or may not be true; the then clause may or may not be true but certainly (according to the speaker) is true conditional on the if clause being true. Here both the if clause and thethen clause are in the present indicative. In the second sentence, the if clause is not true, while the then clause may or may not be true but certainly would be true in the counterfactual circumstance of the if clause being true. In this sentence the if clause is in the past subjunctive form of the subjunctive mood, and the then clause is in the conditional mood.

Ok, Now on to Substance

In The Political and Social Ideas of St. Augustine, Herbert Deane writes: “When [Augustine] speaks of the possibility that all or most of the members of a state–rulers and subjects–might actually behave like Christians, he always uses the form of a condition contrary to fact” (124). A good example (and the one Deane uses) is found in 2.19:

If the kings of the earth and all their subjects, if all princes and judges of the earth, if young men and maidens, old and young, every age, and both sexes; if they whom the Baptist addressed, the publicans and the soldiers, were all together to hearken to and observe the precepts of the Christian religion regarding a just and virtuous life, then should the republic adorn the whole earth with its own felicity, and attain in life everlasting to the pinnacle of kingly glory. But because this man listens and that man scoffs, and most are enamored of the blandishments of vice rather than the wholesome severity of virtue, the people of Christ, whatever be their condition— whether they be kings, princes, judges, soldiers, or provincials, rich or poor, bond or free, male or female— are enjoined to endure this earthly republic, wicked and dissolute as it is, that so they may by this endurance win for themselves an eminent place in that most holy and august assembly of angels and republic of heaven, in which the will of God is the law.

I have not done a systematic survey to ensure that Deane’s generalization is correct, but I suspect that it is at least mostly so. This will not come as a surprise to anyone who has dipped his toe into the City of God that Augustine was modest–and often pessimistic–about what one might call “Christianization,” both because of experience and because of his eschatological view of the Two Cities: inextricably mixed together, with various ups and downs but with neither achieving uncontested supremacy during the saeculum,1 the period between the First and Second Comings of Christ. The two will only be finally separated at the Last Day, when the earthly city ceases to be a city at all. Moreover, while the earthly city cannot be identified with the state nor the heavenly city with the institutional or visible church (for the reasons just outlined), it is nevertheless true for Augustine that frequently earthly states tack closer to the demonic (cf. 5.25), while the church bears a closer, though not unambiguous, relation to the city of God.

However, if we are going to note grammar (and we should), we ought also to be consistent; and an investigation reveals that the foregoing does not mean that Augustine saw the Christian faith as having no beneficial effect on temporal political society, as though it made no difference whatsoever to him if a man in thrall either to demons or to the risen Christ sat at the helm. (I’ve discussed this previously here.)

Thus, in 5.19, Augustine makes the controversial claim that no true virtue (justice, courage, and all the rest of it) can exist without true piety (his reasoning for which conclusion I may return to at another time):

…illud constet inter omnes veraciter pios, neminem sine vera pietate, id est veri Dei vero cultu, veram posse habere virtutem, nec eam veram esse, quando gloriae servit humanae….

…and let it be agreed among all the truly pious that no one is able to have true virtue without true piety–that is, without the true worship of the true God, nor can it [i.e., virtue] be true when it serves human glory….

He then goes on to say that nothing could be happier for mankind than that those who have “true piety” exercise rule:

Illi autem, qui vera pietate praediti bene vivunt, si habent scientiam regendi populos, nihil est felicius rebus humanis, quam si Deo miserante habeant potestatem….

Nothing, however, is happier for human affairs than if, with God showing mercy, they should have power who, endowed with true piety, live well–if they have knowledge of ruling peoples.

I’ve discussed this passage before; here I’d like to focus briefly on the grammar. quam si introduces a clause of comparison with the present subjunctive; thus in form it is a future condition (future less vivid, to be precise). This obviously does not imply the strongest possible likelihood of the condition being met, though it is not contrafactual (though the present and perfect subjunctive are normal in such clauses in Latin, the imperfect or pluperfect subjunctive can be used when one wishes to emphasize a contrafactual idea).2. But note the mood of the verb in the main clause: “nothing is [indicative] happier,” obscured in the translation of Michael Tkacz and Douglas Kries (“nothing could be more felicitous”), as well as in the old translation of Marcus Dods, still my favorite (“nothing could be more fortunate”).

Augustine could easily have used, say, a potential subjunctive if he had wanted to distance himself from any idea of concreteness in the main clause, but he does not. This perhaps goes some way toward explaining his completely unironic praise of both Constantine and Theodosius at the end of Book 5. He believed that they represented real, though always limited, goods for the Roman Empire.

Verbal mood is, I think, significant here for understanding an important piece of the Augustinian political puzzle. Is a pious prince unlikely? Perhaps so. Is a pious prince an impossibility? Certainly not. They are placed in power, Augustine believes, from time to time. When they are, it is as a result of God’s mercy, and he should be thanked for it.3 When they are not, and one has instead very bad rulers indeed, one must make the best of the situation, using all temporal circumstances as means to the end of the heavenly city.


  1. Saeculum, it should be noted, means only “the age” between Advent and Parousia, and carries no connotation of atheistic secularism.
  2. In English, by contrast, we tend to use contrafactuals in clauses of comparison as the norm.
  3. With the caveat, of course, that piety is not enough: actual, practical skill in governing is requisite as well, Augustine believes, as the passage shows.

By E.J. Hutchinson

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