Reflections from the City of God: On Admonishing the Wicked, Just Punishment, and Fear of Loss

My selection this week from The City of God comes from Book I, Chapter 9, just afterHeavenly City Augustine has been discussing the objection from his pagan adversaries that it does not seem right that Christian divine compassion is extended both to the wicked and the good; likewise, why should the wicked and the good suffer the same evils in the earthly city? What kind of God would inflict the same hurts on the good and the wicked alike?

Augustine first says that what matters is not the event of suffering itself, but the person undergoing the suffering: “though good and bad men suffer alike, we must not suppose that there is no difference between the men themselves, because there is no difference in what they both suffer. For even in the likeness of the sufferings, there remains an unlikeness in the sufferers.” I.8.

Fair enough, one might respond, but if the sufferers are not alike, why should they undergo similar pain? This seems unjust. Augustine argues that it is right that God’s “corrections” be administered in the earthly city to good and bad men alike because these corrections are reminders to good men that “although they be far from the excesses of wicked, immoral, and ungodly men, yet they do not judge themselves so clean removed from all faults as to be too good to suffer in these temporal ills.” I.9.

What are the particular failings of good people that Augustine emphasizes in this chapter–those sins that warrant their suffering in this world, indeed, that warrant their suffering similar pain to the wicked? Here is Augustine’s answer:

For often we wickedly blind ourselves to the occasions of teaching and admonishing them [the wicked], sometimes even of reprimanding and chiding them, either because we shrink from the labor or are afraid to offend them, or because we fear to lose good friendships, lest this should stand in the way of our advancement, or injure us in some worldly matter, which either our covetous disposition desires to obtain, or our weakness shrinks from losing. So that although the conduct of wicked men is distasteful to the good, and therefore they do not fall with them into that damnation which in the next life awaits such persons, yet, because they spare their damnable sins through fear, therefore, even though their own sins be slight and venial, they are justly scourged with the wicked in this world, though in eternity they quite escape punishment. Justly, when God afflicts them in common with the wicked, do they find this life bitter, through love of whose sweetness they declined to be bitter to these sinners.

If anyone forbears to reprove and find fault with those who are doing wrong, because he seeks a more seasonable opportunity, or because he fears they may be made worse by his rebuke, or that other weak persons may be disheartened from endeavoring to lead a good and pious life, and may be driven from the faith–this man’s omission seems to be occasioned not by covetousness, but by a charitable consideration. But what is blameworthy is, that they who themselves revolt from the conduct of the wicked, and live in quite another fashion, yet spare those faults in other men which they ought to reprehend and wean them from; and spare them because they fear to give offense, lest they should injure their interests in those things which good men may innocently and legitimately use….They abstain from interference, because they fear that, if it fail of good effect, their own safety or reputation may be damaged or destroyed; not because they see that their preservation and good name are needful, that they may be able to influence those who need their instruction, but rather because they weakly relish the flattery and respect of men, and fear the judgments of the people, and the pain or death of the body; that is to say, their nonintervention is the result of selfishness, not love.

Accordingly, this seems to me to be one principal reason why the good are chastised along with the wicked, when God is pleased to visit with temporal punishments the profligate manners of a community. They are punished together, not because they have spent an equally corrupt life, but because the good as well as the wicked, though not equally with them, love this present life; while they ought to hold it cheap, that the wicked, being admonished and reformed by their example, might lay hold of life eternal. And if they will not be the companions of the good in seeking life everlasting, they should be loved as enemies, and dealt with patiently. For so long as they live, it remains uncertain whether they may not come to a better mind.

There are many interesting and difficult observations in this passage. First, the obligation of the good to admonish the wicked is laid out plainly. ‘Follow your own star and the world will be a better place’ is not the political or ethical message here. Indeed, the failure to meet this obligation is one of the “principal” reasons that both good and wicked are afflicted with suffering in the earthly city.

Second, note the psychology of admonition and failure to admonish that Augustine proposes. One’s motivations for failing to take a stand in opposition to wrongful conduct make a difference. The failure to rebuke is culpable when the motivation for that failure is self-interested. But failure to rebuke is not culpable if it is motivated by love of the object of the admonition. So that the failure to take a stand in response to wrongful conduct would not be culpable if it were motivated by non-egoistic prudential considerations–the efficaciousness of the rebuke, for example, or its tendency to dissuade others from leading a good life.

Third, one of these prudential considerations might be the preservation of one’s own good name or reputation, provided that the motivation for such a preservation were to keep in play the possibility of altering wrongful conduct in the future. Such a preservation would not be included as a prudential consideration if the motivation for it were the weak desire for the “respect of men, and fear [of] the judgments of the people.” Even the fear of “pain or death of the body” would not be an adequate reason to refrain from rebuke. This is demanding indeed. Professor Robert Dodaro, in his excellent volume, Christ and the Just Society in the Thought of Augustine, has this to say about the last point: “Because [Augustine] believes that happiness is predicated upon the knowledge and love of God as the supreme good, he concludes that fear of death epitomizes the fundamental threat to the formation of a just society. Justice is not found wherever fear of death impedes action aimed at the attainment of lasting happiness. Virtue is therefore necessary to overcome fear of death, all the more so because it leads human beings to choose permanent over temporal goods.” Id. at 35-36.

Fourth, and finally, admonition–even when it is necessary–is always to be “gentle and patient.” Presumably this is not only for reasons of prudence or efficacy, but also because one can never know–that is, “it remains uncertain” to the rebuker–what people’s fate will be and what end they will come to. As R.A. Markus puts it: “[T]he Augustinian vision springs from a sense of conflicting purposes, of uncertainties of direction and of tensions unresolvable in society. In place of the Aristotelian confidence in the established order, the Augustinian tradition is inspired rather by a sense of its precariousness, and by an awareness of the perpetual proximity of disintegration.” Saeculum: History and Society in the Theology of St. Augustine 177.

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