Reflections from the City of God: On the Role of Religion in Inculcating Civic Virtue

I’ve been delayed in writing about my next selection from the City of God–this view_of_rome_as_the_city_of_god_poster-r332f2a9125be4d48b9f3d29d2e055265_wve_8byvr_512one from early in Book II, a book devoted to exploring the extent to which the Roman gods did not protect Romans from sundry disasters. But the particular disasters Augustine has in mind are moral disasters–not disasters of the body but disasters of the soul–and he highlights the vice and civic decay not only enabled but positively stimulated by the Roman gods. Here is Book II, Chapter 6, in full:

This is the reason why those divinities [MOD: in the previous chapter Augustine discusses Cybele, the “Earth Mother,” in particular] quite neglected the lives and morals of the cities and nations who worshipped them, and threw no dreadful prohibition in their way to hinder them from becoming utterly corrupt, and to preserve them from those terrible and detestable evils which visit not harvests and vintages, not house and possessions, not the body which is subject to the soul, but the soul itself, the spirit that rules the whole man. If there was any such prohibition, let it be produced, let it be proved. They will tell us that purity and probity were inculcated upon those who were initiated in the mysteries of religion, and that secret incitements to virtue were whispered in the ear of the elite; but this is an idle boast. Let them show or name to us the places which were at any time consecrated to assemblages in which, instead of the obscene songs and licentious acting of players, instead of the celebration of those most filthy and shameless Fugalia [MOD: civil feasts] (well called Fugalia, since they banish modesty and right feeling) [MOD: I think that Augustine is relying here on the root, ‘fuga,’ meaning ‘flight’], the people were commanded in the name of the gods to restrain avarice, bridle impurity, and conquer ambition; where, in short, they might learn in that school which Persius vehemently lashes them to, when he says:

Be taught, ye abandoned creatures, and ascertain the causes of things; what we are, and for what end we are born; what is the law of our success in life; and by what art we may turn the goal without making shipwreck; what limit we should put to our wealth, what we may lawfully desire, and what uses filthy lucre serves; how much we should bestow upon our country and our family; learn, in short, what God meant you to be, and what place He has ordered you to fill.

Let them name to us the places where such instructions were wont to be communicated from the gods, and where the people who worshiped them were accustomed to resort to hear them, as we can point to our churches built for this purpose in every land where the Christian religion is received.

One of the interesting features of the this chapter and, indeed, the entire book is the extent to which Augustine believes it to be religion’s role to inculcate virtue–including civic virtue–in its adherents. The morality that Augustine is discussing is not a private or interior morality, at least not solely. In the previous chapter, he castigates the Romans for bestowing their finest citizens with the honor of a statue of “that demon Cybele.” Robert Dodaro writes: “[E]ven Rome’s best citizens are deceived by Cybele, the ‘Mother of the Gods.'” Dodaro, Christ and the Just Society in the Thought of Augustine 45. And here, Augustine specifically mentions the morality not of individuals, or even of families, but of “cities and nations.” The context in which he condemns Roman vice is not personal, but public–the feast of Fugalia, which so far as I can tell is a civic feast celebrating the expulsion of the Roman kings. And the fragment he quotes from the stoic Roman satirist Persius concerns both private and public virtue (“how much we should bestow upon our country and our family”).

Augustine clearly believes that it is an important function of religion to inculcate civic or public virtue and honor. Religion is not a privatized or purely personal phenomenon, and any religion worth its salt must do more than “whisper” “secret incitements to virtue” “to the elite” (notice that by highlighting the “elite,” Augustine is emphasizing the importance of religion’s influence on the powerful, including the politically powerful). It must inform their private and public lives. It must provide a public forum–a place of assembly–for the discussion of virtue to occur (not just a private “whispering”). And it must “vehemently lash” public men. Christianity, Augustine believes, performs these functions, while the Roman gods failed to do so.

A final aside: I was struck by the fragment of Persius, because it sounds so much like the words that Dante puts into the mouth of Ulysses in Canto XXVI of Inferno as he sails to the ends of the earth (118-20):

Considerate la vostra semenza:

Fatti non foste a viver come bruti,

Ma per seguir virtute e canoscenza.

“Consider your origins: You were not made to live like beasts, but to pursue virtue and knowledge.” Unfortunately for wandering Ulysses (at least in Dante’s telling), he was not in the end able to discover “by what art we may turn the goal without making shipwreck.”

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 Continue reading

Reflections from the City of God: On the Dilemmas of the Judge

This week’s selection from the City of God comes again from Book XIX, this City of Mentime from Chapter 6. The context is the broad theme elaborated in Chapter 4–that though the virtues of this life are “its best and most useful possessions,” they are in the end only constant reminders of the miseries of this life and cannot be the final good: “Salvation, such as it shall be in the world to come, shall itself be our final happiness.” The immediate chapters that follow Chapter 4 represent particular ruminations on and applications of the theme. Chapter 6 considers “the error of human judgments when the truth is hidden.”

The problem for judges in the earthly city is that they are required to pass judgment but that they “cannot discern the consciences of those at their bar.” Their judgments are therefore “melancholy and lamentable.” All the more so because judges are driven to use coercive methods to compensate for their ignorance of the truth, which in turn drives the innocent to confess falsely, “[a]nd when he has been condemned and put to death the judge is still in ignorance whether he has put to death an innocent or a guilty person….[C]onsequently he has both tortured an innocent man to discover his innocence, and has put him to death without discovering it.” Augustine paints a dark picture of justice in the earthly city in this chapter.

The problem, moreover, is not one of the specific coercive methods used by the judicial systems in particular earthly cities (though several sources note Augustine’s opposition in several letters to torture and capital punishment). As Oliver O’Donovan puts it: “We shall miss the point of this if we confine ourselves to observations about the barbarous laws of evidence which obtained in the late empire….For [Augustine] it is a universal problem about judicial process everywhere. It is a guess as to which party is lying and which telling the truth, and any inquisitorial process adopted to reduce the element of hazard may backfire and defeat its own ends.” Oliver O’Donovan, “The Political Thought of City of God 19,” in Bonds of Imperfection: Christian Politics, Past and Present 70 (2003).  An interesting feature of Augustine’s discussion about torture in this context is that it emphasizes consequentialist considerations–the trouble with torture that Augustine targets here is that it does not assist, and in fact may be counterproductive, in ascertaining the truth. See Henry Chadwick, Augustine of Hippo: A Life 140 (2009). And yet, the problem of the elusiveness of truth is not resolved by a refusal to give judgment. Thus arises the dilemma: the necessity to give judgement in the earthly city together with the knowledge that ignorance of the truth will infect the judgment.

I was especially struck by Augustine’s focus in the very last part of this selection not on the substance of the judgment, or on the methods to be used in judging, but on the mood or cast of mind that the dilemmas of the judge ought to inspire in him (“wise” is not an honorific here). Augustine is interested in what the miseries of judgment do for the character of the judge–and what they ought to do–as he contemplates the fulfillment of his duties in the earthly city:

If such darkness shrouds social life, will a wise judge take his seat on the bench or no? Beyond question he will. For human society, which he thinks it a wickedness to abandon, constrains him and compels him to this duty. And he thinks it no wickedness that innocent witnesses are tortured regarding the crimes of which other men are accused; or that the accused are put to the torture, so that they are often overcome with anguish, and, though innocent, make false confessions regarding themselves, and are punished; or that, though they be not condemned to die, they often die during, or in consequence of, the torture; or that sometimes the accusers, who perhaps have been prompted by a desire to benefit society by bringing criminals to justice, are themselves condemned through the ignorance of the judge, because they are unable to prove the truth of their accusations though they are true, and because the witnesses lie, and the accused endures the torture without being moved to confession. These numerous and important evils he does not consider sins; for the wise judge does these things, not with any intention of doing harm, but because his ignorance compels him, and because human society claims him as a judge. But though we therefore acquit the judge of malice, we must nonetheless condemn human life as miserable. And if he is compelled to torture and punish the innocent because his office and his ignorance constrain him, is he a happy as well as a guiltless man? Surely it were proof of more profound considerateness and finer feeling were he to recognize the misery of these necessities, and shrink from his own implication in that misery; and had he any piety about him, he would cry to God: “From my necessities deliver Thou me.”

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.

Hoover & Johnston: Faith & Foreign Policy

Dr. Dennis  R. Hoover is executive director of the Center on Faith & International Affairs at the Institute for Global EngagementDr. Douglas M. Johnston is founder and president of the International Center for Religion & Diplomacy.  Together, Doctors Hoover and Johnston have edited a new collection, Religion and Foreign Affairs: Essential Readings (Baylor, 2012).  The articles and other shorter works in the volume reflect on the meeting of secularism, faith, religion, morality, and foreign policy.  The authors commence with foundational pieces:   New York Times Columnist David Brooks reflects on the nature of the secularist ethic  in foreign policy generally; Atlantic Correspondent Robert D. Kaplan explores secularism in antiquity; and Theologian Reinhold Niebuhr (1892–1971) discusses St. Augustine’s political realism with accompanying excerpts from Augustine’s City of God (ca. sixth century C.E.).  Other notable chapters discuss religious ethics and armed conflict, religious peacemaking, religion and international terrorism, and religion and globalization (the table of contents—which highlights the remaining topics—may be accessed here).

Please find the abstract from Baylor Press after the jump. Continue reading

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