Augustine and Co-laboring With Like-minded Others for the Common Good

Hands-Together-by-June-Pauline-ZentOliver O’Donovan lays out an extremely helpful overview of the structure of City of God 19, which includes an explanation of why Augustinemust wait until book 19 to return to themes discussed in book 2.[1] As he observes, Augustine used the “space” to develop and to make clear his distinction between true, perfect peace attainable only in eschatological fulfillment and earthly, imperfect peace attainable in part in the present age.[2] More specifically, O’Donovan contends that from the start, it was Augustine’s intention “to develop his discussion of the social coherence of the two cities around their respective ideas of peace into thoughts on the status of the earthly commonwealth.”[3] Regarding the imperfect earthly peace, Augustine instructs the “pilgrims” of the “Heavenly City” living in this world not to destroy the particular “customs, laws, and institutions by which earthly peace is achieved or maintained,” but to uphold these so long as they do not hinder the Christian’s ability to worship God.[4] In fact, Augustine acknowledges, and by implication affirms, the Heavenly City’s employment of “earthly peace” and the co-laboring with likeminded others “in the attaining of those things which belong to the mortal nature of man.”[5] Once again, the only caveat given is that these joint efforts and common pursuits do not harm the pilgrim’s pursuit of “true godliness and religion.”[6] Whether we have in view Augustine’s political setting or our own, this striving toward “earthly peace” involves working together with like-minded others (both inside and outside the Christian tradition) to promote human flourishing. In a contemporary setting, such shared activity might include deliberating about current and future legislation on important issues such as healthcare, education, racial profiling, affirmative action, child welfare, incarceration, social assistance programs for the poor, underprivileged, and undereducated, and so forth. Augustine’s own affirmation of the value of those “customs, laws, and institutions by which earthly peace is achieved or maintained” suggests that he also recognizes that non-Christian others possess intellectual and moral virtues and have something worthwhile to contribute to the public good.

O’Donovan continues his analysis and cautions against overemphasizing idealist and realist interpretations of Augustine. The former tend to place too much stress on the Augustinian impulse regarding the impossibility of a perfectly just society in this world. The latter tend to accent the Augustinian impulse regarding the possibility of cooperation between the two cities constituted by different and competing ultimate loves.[7] When either position is pushed to its extreme, O’Donovan argues, Augustine is misrepresented. My own impulse desires a third way, comprised of elements of both views and which upholds, as Eric Gregory puts it, “the dialectical relation between love and sin.”[8] That is, even if Augustine does not advocate for a purely “neutral” public square, I see no reason why a contemporary Augustinian could not appeal to areas of ethical and socio-political overlap between those whose hold different and even conflicting comprehensive views of the world and humanity. For example, both the secular humanist and the Christian may share common views about a civic right to marry, universal human rights, and the need to protect exploited and marginalized groups. Even if their ultimate, rock-bottom reasons for their views are motivated differently, nonetheless, they can and do work together in common pursuits advancing human flourishing and freedom.[9]


[1] See, Oliver O’Donovan, “The Political Thought of City of God,” in Bonds of Imperfection: Christian Politics Past and Present, (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2004): pp. 48–72, esp. pp. 52-9.

[2] Ibid., p. 54.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Augustine, City of God, pp. 946–47 [De civ. Dei,19.17].

[5] Ibid., p. 947 [De civ. Dei,19.17].

[6] Ibid.

[7] Oliver O’Donovan, “The Political Thought of City of God,” 55–6.

[8] Gregory, Politics and the Order of Love, p. 21. See also, James Wetzel, “Splendid Vices and Secular Virtues: Variations on Milbank’s Augustine,” Journal of Religious Ethics 32 (2004): pp. 271–300. I resonate with Wetzel’s aim, “to transform a dramatic choice—pagan or Christian—into a common hope for better wisdom” (ibid., p. 283).

[9] John Duns Scotus, an heir of the Augustinian tradition, continues and develops this Augustinian motif. That is, Scotus articulates a robust, multidimensional view of freedom, which not only promotes human flourishing but also condemns oppressive practices that hinder one’s ability to develop one’s moral and intellectual capacities. In particular, in Ordinatio IV.36.1 Scotus argues that slavery as described by Aristotle in book I of the Politics is incompatible with natural law (see Wolter, Will and Morality, 325; Scotus, Ord. IV, d. 36, q. 1. [Wolter’s translation is based on his transcription of the authoritative Codex A; the critical edition for this text is not yet available]. Scotus’s position is not without its problems—particularly his statements toward the end of the article in which he affirms the status quo based his interpretation of certain biblical texts—nonetheless, it is a Christian position within the Augustinian line voicing clear moral and intellectual dissatisfaction with its own tradition’s, as well as previously held (Aristotle et al.) dominant discourses on slavery.

Introducing Dr. Kristina Zolatova: Hollow Soundings

I am excited to announce the first of many guest posts by Dr. Kristina Zolatova. Zolatova describes herself as an “impure” boundary-transgressing philosopher, who takes no offence whatsoever at being called a poet. In fact, she welcomes the denomination, receiving it as a high compliment. Although a philosopher by training, Zolatova’s work is interdisciplinary and does not fit into ready-made, stifling categories, which, of course, puts her at odds with most academic institutions in the U.S. these days. Given my own love of transgressive-boundary, interdisciplinary work, I am happy to have Kristina join me. So here’s to a creative outlet for a fellow feminist, Catholic, critical-race, Augustine-loving, “impure” philosopher.

When I asked Zolatova about the poem below, she said that she wrote it during a time when she felt “out of sync” with nearly every institutional and communal setting in which she found herself.

Hollow Soundings

A strange place with strange customs.

 Ornate head coverings, odd masks masking a subject.

Is there a “second” subject?

Holy silence.

 Holy silence.

 Holy silence.

 Does it signify?

Tрудно сказать.

Content (pale) men clap their hands, embracing the silence and silencing the embrace.

Let the nightingale sing.

At least, at least let her scream.

This strangeness, however, exceeds the holy places.

The towers, ivory and otherwise, are filled with dogmatists, alchemists, and many other ists.

Left, right,

 Left, right,

 Left, right, left.

 Silencers all of them.

 Community (dialogue),

 dialogue (community),

 community (dialogue),

 dialogue (community).

Hollow soundings, shady submissions.


(Oна не здесь).

K. Zolatova

N.b. The word “subject” in line 2 and in the second to the last line should have a double strike-through; unfortunately, I have not figured out how to create this effect. Hacker advice is most welcome.)

Black Face, White Gaze: Encoding Bodies and De-humanizing the Face

Like a voice crying out in the wilderness, Frederick Douglass speaks both eloquently and powerfully to the brutality and injustice of chattel slavery. For example, in his 1852 oration, “The Internal Slave Trade,” Douglass offers his own analysis and stringent condemnation of America’s participation in the trafficking of human beings for economic gain. He begins by drawing our attention to “the practical operation” of America’s slave industry, an industry “sustained by American politics and American religion! Here you will see men and women reared like swine for the market.”[1] Driven around the country like mere animals, these men, women, and children are beaten, prod, and whipped, as they process in dirge-like fashion toward the New Orleans slave market. Douglass then zeros in on a few of these infelicitous, iron-clad souls—an elderly, gray headed man, a young mother with sun-scorched back and teary eyes carrying her infant child, a teen-aged girl mourning the violent separation from her mother. Tired and exhausted from hours of exposure to the blistering sun, the young mother begins to lag behind. Then you hear it—“a quick snap, like the discharge of a rifle; the fetters clank, and the chain rattles simultaneously; your ears are saluted with a scream that seems to have torn its way to the center of your soul.”[2] What was this awful sound, followed by a high-pitched, piercing scream? The sound was a whip striking the young mother’s bare shoulder; the scream needs no explanation. As the slave traders drive this human herd to the auction block, where the males will be “examined like horses” and the women ”exposed to the shocking gaze of American slave-buyers,” Douglass implores us not to forget “the deep, sad sobs that arose from that scattered multitude.”[3]

This is simply one among many scenes depicting the hardships African American slaves endured on a daily basis as a result of the institution of chattel slavery. Enslaved by the love of money, the master’s vision becomes distorted. Not only does he see human beings as things, but the sounds of suffering fail to reach his muted ears. Deafened to the wailing of mothers torn from their children and children torn from their mothers, he transposes the dissonance of clanking chains into golden keys, which like the dual cut of a double-edged sword open the door to his future and secure the bonds of his brother.

To add to their humiliation and degraded status as mere property of the white man, slaves were subjected to public auctions where they were ordered to stand, often naked or nearly so, allowing the potential buyers to examine their bodies to ensure their suitability for long-term servitude. If a slave’s body showed signs of illness, disease, or possible weaknesses, they were passed over as bad investments, unprofitable for the master’s business. Scar tissue on a slave’s back—the number of scars, whether a scar was old or relatively fresh—became the subject of a mythology employed to determine a slave’s character. Too many scars indicated a rebellious spirit, whereas having few scars meant the slave possessed a docile, obedient spirit. “As they worked their way from inflicted scars to essential character, buyers fixed slaves in a typology of character according to the frequency, intensity, and chronology of the whipping apparent on their backs.”[4] While the slaves stood humiliated, exposed and wondering what kind of master might purchase them on that particular day, the slave buyers paraded themselves before the crowds as augurs who “could read slaves’ backs as encodings of their histories.”[5] The slave’s face, however, with its expressive capacities spanning the spectrum of human emotions—from compassion to agony, ecstasy to alarm—the face as the display case crafted to exhibit the eyes is of no interest to the slave buyers. Provided that it is free of work-hindering defects, the slave’s face is utterly insignificant to the purchase. “It was the instrumental value of these bodies that mattered to the buyer, their size and shape, the color and the ages, the comparability of parts and durability of attributes—not the faces.”[6]

[1] Douglass, “The Internal Slave Trade,” 436.

[2] Ibid., 437.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Johnson, Soul by Soul, 145.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Ibid., 142–3.