Augustine on the secular

Some contemporary advocates of a very modern form of two kingdoms political theology have on occasion cited Augustine as a precedent for a kind of political theology that supports religiously neutral secular state. One Augustine scholar who has supported this view is RA Markus, arguing that Augustine teaches there is a common realm between the City of God (the church) and the City of Man (the world) which both share.

In the section cited below, Oliver O’Donovan refutes this view of Augustine, explaining that for Augustine there is no such thing as a religiously neutral state; there are only particular states, all of which either love God or love the self. It should not be surprising given Augustine’s practice, but O’Donovan’s work here demonstrates the obvious: Augustine supported the idea of Christendom, and in fact was one of its chief architects.

(However, it should be noted that there were shifts in how Christendom was conceived over the centuries after Augustine, and I will follow up with some further comments from O’Donovan’s works which clarify how this is so.)

But Augustine, in keeping with his universal practice, will speak of utilitas only where the supreme good is in view as an end. He would have liked to impose the same restriction on the term usus, more than once observing that there is no “use” of things to wrong ends, but only “abuse,” and preferring to describe the wicked as “wanting to make use” of goods wrongly, rather than as actually using them wrongly. But he recognizes that common patterns of speech were against him, so that the earthly city is, after all, said to “use” earthly goods. With utilitas, however, he holds the line. “Common use” does not imply “common utility.” To derive “utility” from the use of any means, one must use it rightly.

This affects the important question of how the City of God relates to the earthly city in its handling of material goods. In chapter 17 Augustine tells us that the two communities of mankind have a communis usus of the necessaries of this mortal life, but that each has its own end in using them. He then goes on: “So it is that the earthly city, too, which does not live by faith, aims at an earthly peace, and so fixes the terms of cooperation of its citizens in giving and accepting commands as to ensure some consensus of human wills in respect of the resources for this mortal life.” It is the easiest mistake in the world for the casual reader to take the words rendered “so it is that” (ita etiam) to refer to what has gone immediately before: the City of God and the earthly city get on together by having a common use and differing ends; similarly, the earthly city comprises in itself a multitude of citizens with common use and different ends. But when the passage is read in its entirety, it is obvious that the connective phrase links this sentence not to the sentence about common use and different ends, but to the first sentence of chapter 17: “A household of those who do not live by faith pursues an earthly peace based on resources and benefits of this temporal life. . . . So it is that the earthly city, too, which does not live by faith, aims at an earthly peace. . . .” The comparison is not between the earthly city and the ensemble of the two cities, but between the earthly city and the earthly household. Augustine does not think that the earthly city is constituted within itself in the same way as the relation between the earthly and heavenly cities is constituted. He does not say that there is common use but different ends among the members of the earthly city. On the contrary, there is a common end, eternal death, and no “use” at all in the ideal sense of the word, because there is no utility, no final good which gives real value to the pursuit of intermediate goods. The earthly city is not a neutral meeting space, a “naked public square.”

Here the difference between Augustine and modern secularism emerges at its sharpest, and it is the single weakness of Markus’s fine book [Saeculum] to have obscured this difference. “Society,” he writes, “becomes intrinsically ‘secular’ in the sense that it is not as such committed to any particular ultimate loyalty. It is the sphere in which different individuals with different beliefs and loyalties pursue their common objectives insofar as they coincide. His ‘secularisation’ of the realm of politics implies a pluralistic, religious neutral civil community.” [Saeculum, p. 173] But for Augustine, the earthly city, with its earthly peace, did have an ultimate commitment in which all its members shared, the “love of self to the exclusion of the love of God” (14.28). Whatever the difficulties that surround the idea of a finis malorum in Augustine, we misunderstand him if we fail to see that he assigns it a seriously ontological status. “Love of self” is no mere circumlocution for diversity of ends. It is the name for a terrible moral unity; and its final state, an eternal cohesion of eternal dissolution, is war, “an opposition of will and passion in which hostilities cannot be terminated by the victory of either” (chap. 28).

Two things follow from this. First, the members of the heavenly city are not members of the earthly city, too, however much they may support and encourage the “consensus of human wills in respect of resources for man’s mortal existence” (chap. 17). This “consensus of human wills” (compisitio voluntatum) is not, as may first appear, a consensus between themselves and the earthly city. . . . The heavenly city’s relation to the compositio voluntatum is simply an aspect of its “use” of the earthly peace in general. The wills in question are those of the members of the earthly city among themselves, and the heavenly city supports their consensus in the way that Augustine has just explained, by not trying to change their various laws and customs.

In the second place it follows that there is no true tertium quid between the two cities, no neutral space on which they meet as equal partners. Markus writes that “membership of either is compatible with belonging to the Roman, or some other state, and with belonging to the church,” but this goes beyond Augustine, for whom, it would seem, true Christians were never true Romans (in the sense of being part of the Roman imperial project) nor false Christians true members of the church (in the sense of being part of a pilgrim society). We observe how Markus reaches in this context for the word ‘state’. The difference could be summed up by saying that Augustine had no conception of a ‘state’. Rome is not the name of a ‘state’, but of a civitas or ‘city’, which is a concrete and morally determined body of citizens. Only the “earthly peace,” “that temporal peace of the meantime which is shared by good and wicked alike” (chap. 26), is common to both communities, not an institution but simply a condition of order. Each community makes, as it were, its own peace out of it. What Augustine likes to say is that the City of God “makes use of” the peace of Babylon, and then, quoting Jeremiah, “In her peace is your peace.” [“The Political Thought of City of God 19”, in The Bonds of Imperfection, 57-59]