Reflections from the City of God: On the Miseries of Just War

I am blessed to be on sabbatical this semester. In addition to beginning several City of Mennew writing projects, I thought it might be good to take on some meaty reading projects. One of these projects will be to read through St. Augustine’s City of God and to become familiar with some of the secondary literature related specifically to his political thought (the project is not purely a private one–future students in my spring Professional Responsibility course, take note!). In connection with that project, I hope to post a weekly reflection from the City of God that is relevant to some law and religion issue of current moment.

I’m confident that I will say nothing original about Augustine’s political thought. Indeed, I am sure that many readers of this blog will know much more about Augustine than I will learn in these few months and well beyond that. But because I have been enjoying greatly what I have read so far, and because what I have read relates in various ways to many of the questions we consider at the Center for Law and Religion, and because it may be a pleasure for readers to see some of Augustine’s words again before their eyes (and a pleasure for me to re-write them), and simply for the joy that comes in replowing well-tilled fields, I thought to give it a try. Those of our readers who are Augustine scholars or otherwise knowledgeable: please let me know in the comments what secondary literature I ought to be reading. I am reading the Marcus Dods translation (would that I could read it in Latin, but as Dods–writing in 1871–said, “[T]here are not a great many men nowadays  who will read a work in Latin of twenty-two books”).

Here is a passage from of the famous Book XIX on the miseries of war, including of just war:

But the imperial city has endeavored to impose on subject nations not only her yoke, but her language, as a bond of peace, so that interpreters, far from being scarce, are numberless. This is true; but how many great wars, how much slaughter and bloodshed, have provided this unity! And though these are past, the end of these miseries has not yet come. For though there have never been wanting, nor are yet wanting, hostile nations beyond the empire, against whom wars have been and are waged, yet, supposing there were no such nations, the very extent of the empire itself has produced wars of a more obnoxious description–social and civil wars–and with these the whole race has been agitated, either by the actual conflict or the fear of a renewed outbreak. If I attempted to give an adequate description of these manifold disasters, these stern and lasting necessities, though I am quite unequal to the task, what limit could I set? But, say they, the wise man will wage just wars. As if he would not rather lament the necessity of just wars, if he remembers that he is a man; for if they were not just he would not wage them, and would therefore be delivered from all wars. For it is the wrongdoing of the opposing party which compels the wise man to wage just wars; and this wrongdoing, even though it gave rise to no war, would still be matter of grief to man because it is man’s wrongdoing. Let everyone, then, who thinks with pain on all these great evils, so horrible, so ruthless, acknowledge that this is misery. And if anyone either endures or thinks of them without mental pain, this is a more miserable plight still, for he thinks himself happy because he has lost human feeling.

One striking feature of this paragraph is the ubiquity of misery in all matters related to war. The misery not only of the initial wrongdoing that leads to war, and not only of war itself, but also of the waging of just war in response to (in fact, ‘compelled’ by) the existence of miserably wrongful conduct.

One response

  1. Marc, the O’Donovan and O’Donovan source book has a very good introduction to this and other works by Augustine.

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