Per Caritatem

I have been reading Eric Gregory’s excellent book, Politics & the Order of Love: An Augustinian Ethic of Democratic Citizenship.  Although I do not have time to give a full review of the book, I want to summarize and highlight some of the themes that I have found intriguing and noteworthy. First, besides chapters devoted to Augustine and modern liberalism, Arendt’s Augustine, and Augustine’s relation to the Platonists and the Stoics, Gregory devotes an entire chapter to Augustine and feminist political theory (chapter 3). Augustine, of course, was not a feminist, and his views on women have been criticized on multiple occasions.  Nonetheless, Gregory shows how his variant of Augustinian liberalism and certain emphases in feminist theory are compatible and how bringing the two into conversation offers significant advances to current socio-political theory. In particular, Gregory believes that a feminist “ethic of care” provides needed correctives to deficiencies in liberal political theory, especially those social contract theories which tend reduce politics to mere (self-serving) interests.

Gregory engages several feminist theorists; however, I shall focus on his treatment of Joan C. Tronto. Rather than dismiss liberalism as yet another failed modern project, Tronto seeks to complete and correct its shortcomings. While Tronto advocates for care as a moral ideal for citizens, she does not argue for some naïve, overly sentimentalist notion of care blind to the evils and injustices of our concrete existence. As a feminist theorist, Tronto is acutely aware of the various asymmetrical power relations constituting the body politic and how dominant groups employ “race,” class, and “gender” for oppressive purposes. Her awareness of an ongoing interplay between, as Gregory would put it, love and sin is “relevant  for Augustinian civic liberals who draw upon Christian love and keep realist observations about power and sin in full view” (167). Unlike antiliberal critics, Tronto does not disparage rights-talk and the importance of political equality, nor does she promote a political theory that flattens all diversity and otherness. Rather, her ethic of care “emphasizes the values of attachment, community, and social responsibility,” while condemning the fictive main character of liberal theories, namely, man as autonomous, detached, and (purely) rational.  Like other feminists, Tronto criticizes

this fiction in terms of a hypermasculine understanding of autonomy linked to an abstract account of freedom as sheer power to initiate action. But, for Tronto, this fiction already is premised on a false choice between autonomy and dependence within the liberal imagination. The need for care does not fit into liberal models that see only autonomy or dependence. In reality, she claims “since people are sometimes autonomous, sometimes dependent, sometimes providing care for those who are dependent, humans are best described as interdependent” (Moral Boundaries, 162).[1]

In short, Tronto brings to the fore failures in the liberal imagination, yet her solution is not to give up on liberalism as a viable political theory or condemn it as somehow inherently flawed and destined to produce nihilism. Rather, she unmasks the false dichotomies and choices liberalism creates—either pure self-interest or social responsibility—and argues for a non-naïve political theory that values cooperation, solidarity, and interdependence. In other words, she argues for an ethic of care with the potential to transform liberal thought and praxis; a care that “can help change the way we see the political world” (171). Even so, like many Augustinians, Tronto recognizes that an ethic of care can be abused, misused, and employed for unjust purposes. This should come as no surprise to Augustinian liberals, who, following the lead of the North African saint, hold no utopian views regarding political regimes, democratic or otherwise. That a rhetoric of care can be used for exploitative purposes “should not mean that liberal democracies can proceed as if care is not necessary for a political practice responsive to injustice, persons in need, and the social conditions that frustrate human flourishing” (171).

Tronto’s focus on care and creating new values for democratic citizens is consonant with Gregory’s larger project of promoting “an Augustinian ethic of citizenship for the morally ambivalent conditions of liberal democracy”(13)—an ethic which takes seriously the need to cultivate virtuous citizens whose various loves respect the dignity and difference of others.

I hope to blog more on Gregory’s insightful book in the months to come, as it has given me much food for thought.


[1] Politics and the Order of Love, 167.


Aimé Césaire (1913–2008), engaging in deconstruction before deconstruction began, calls Western Enlightenment to account for its uncivilized practices and its inability to deal with the concrete, existentio-political concerns of people “on the ground.” That is, European “Western civilization” for all its claims to Enlightenment and progress has proved “incapable of solving the two major problems to which its existence has given rise: the problem of the proletariat and the colonial problem.”[1] Unlike the white Marxists, including Sartre, Césaire and other black Négritude writers could not separate the class problem from the race problem, nor did they overlook the connection between capitalism and colonialism. As Rabaka observes, “Césaire understands European civilization to rest on the colonization of non-Europeans, their lives, labor and lands. His Negritude, like Du Bois’s and James’s discourse, was a revolutionary humanist enterprise,”[2] attuned to the sufferings of all those exploited by the machinery of colonialism and slavery. Although appreciative of Marx, the Négritude movement (and Fanon as well) sought to expand and revise Marxist teachings not only to include but also to give top priority to “race”-based economic exploitation.[3] As Césaire puts it, the Communists “acted like abstract Communists” in their failure to address the “Negro problem.”[4] In contrast, the colonized and enslaved, given their concrete experience of racialized existence past and present, do not have the option to overlook the race question; thus, concludes Césaire, Négritude has a crucial role to play in the ongoing reformation of Marxism. “Marx is all right, but we need to complete Marx.”[5]

Césairean Négritude is thus concerned not only for the “political emancipation” of oppressed blacks but also, as we have seen, one of its chief goals is the creation of a positive black social identity. However, in the context of colonialism, with their past already written and their present constantly under construction, the opportunities afforded the colonized to shape and develop their own identity are severely restricted and practically non-existent. Because the colonial system is built on the exploitation of blacks and non-European others, the oppressed are increasingly viewed as things or as non-human animals. This reduction of humans to the subhuman realm harms both the colonized and the colonizer, and thus, leads to the degradation of society at large. Césaire refers to this phenomenon as the “boomerang effect of colonization.”[6] As he explains,

colonization […] dehumanizes even the most civilized man; that colonial activity, colonial enterprise, colonial conquest, which is based on contempt for the native and [is] justified by that contempt, inevitably tends to change him who undertakes it; that the colonizer, who in order to ease his conscience gets into the habit of seeing the other man as an animal accustoms himself to treating him like an animal, and tends objectively to transform himself into an animal. It is this result, this boomerang effect of colonization that I wanted to point out.[7]

In his writings, Fanon also highlighted the damage inflicted upon humankind as the result of colonizing practices. Like Césaire, Fanon was convinced that when humans, through repeated acts of self-deception, eventually habituate themselves to treat other humans as animals and objects, they perform a violence on themselves that has a tendency to produce ripple effects throughout the entire social body, including the “white” part of the body politic.[8]


[1] Césaire, Discourse on Colonialism, 31.

[2] Rabaka, Africana Critical Theory, 122.

[3] Commenting on the capitalism of his day, Césaire writes, “capitalist society, at its present stage, is incapable of establishing a concept of the rights of all men, just as it has proved incapable of establishing a system of individual ethics” (Discourse on Colonialism, 37).

[4] Ibid., 85.

[5] Ibid., 86.

[6] Ibid., 41.

[7] Ibid. Frederick Douglass makes similar comments about the social degradation that takes place in a slave society.  For example, Douglass describes how Mrs. Auld, his master’s wife, who at first treated Douglass humanely and with compassion, eventually becomes socially habituated to see him as a slave, that is, as nothing more than property to be used to further the goals of white society. (See, for example, Douglass, Narrative of the Life, 40).

[8] Césaire, in fact, claims that Nazism came about as a result of the “boomerang effect.” Employing his linguistic whip, Césaire unleashes a series of verbal strikes calculated to leave their marks on Europe’s back and perhaps reawaken its anesthetized conscience. “First we must study how colonization works to decivilize the colonizer, to brutalize him in the true sense of the word, […] a gangrene sets in, a center of infection begins to spread; and that at the end of all these treaties that have been violated, all these lies that have been propagated, all these punitive expeditions that have been tolerated, all these prisoners who have been tied up and ‘interrogated,’ all these patriots that have been tortured, at the end of all the racial pride that has been encouraged, all the boastfulness that has been displayed, a poison has been distilled into the veins of Europe and, slowly but surely, the continent proceeds toward savagery. And then one fine day the bourgeoisie is awakened by a terrific boomerang effect: the gestapos are busy, the prisons fill up, the torturers standing around the racks invent, refine, discuss. People are surprised, […] they wait, and they hope; and they hide the truth from themselves, that it is barbarism, […] the crowning barbarism that sums up all the daily barbarisms; that it is Nazism, yes, but that before they were its victims, they were its accomplices; that they tolerated that Nazism before it was inflicted on them, that they absolved it, shut their eyes to it, legitimated it, because until then, it had been applied only to non-European peoples; […] they have cultivated Nazism, […] they are responsible for it” (Discourse on Colonialism, 35–6).