Per Caritatem

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.


To all in the D/FW area interested in the topic, I would like to extend an invitation to participate in my dissertation lecture. My dissertation is entitled, “Constructed Subjectivities and a ‘Thick’ Account of Agency: A Foucauldian Dialogue with Douglass, Fanon, and the Augustinian-Franciscan Tradition.” The lecture shall begin at 6:30pm at the University of Dallas, Gorman Faculty Lounge (#6 on the campus map) on Monday, August 29th. A brief question and answer period and a reception shall follow the lecture. If you are interested, promise that you won’t throw tomatoes or any other objects, and can make it, I would love to see you there! You may read the dissertation abstract here.



Anyone who has studied with care Augustine’s masterpiece, City of God, particularly the first five books as well as book nineteen, would, I believe, see a very socially engaged, politically astute theologian qua social critic. As I have noted in previous posts bringing Augustine and Foucault into dialogue with one another, both thinkers share a number of structural overlaps and common concerns—concerns for the poor and marginalized and suspicions about hegemonic discourses and narratives.  This is not, of course, to claim that Augustine was without his faults or that he was unaffected by his own cultural context—like all finite, historical human beings, he was socially conditioned and held certain beliefs about, for example, women that moderns and postmoderns would find problematic (at least I do). Nonetheless, the North African saint (faults notwithstanding) has much to say to us today.

For example, Augustine’s socio-political—and, of course, theological—critique of Roman glory narratives, in particular, the ways in which these narratives function as veils to mask what in any other context would be considered unjust, criminal activity are highly instructive.[1] As R.A. Markus explains, Augustine understood the term “institutions” broadly. Institutions, for example, consisted of “various customs, rites, arrangements, arts and disciplines in use among men.”[2] These institutions, of course, may be used for good or evil purposes.  Although critical of discourses and practices which inculcate desires and beliefs antithetical to key aspects of Christian faith and praxis—humility, truth-speaking, relational dependence, an acknowledgement of our finitude, and so forth—Augustine understood the need to develop institutions beneficial to society as a whole and which would promote as much harmony as possible among its various members.[3] Concomitant with this constructive social project, Augustine also engaged in a deconstructive project. That is, he was acutely aware of the need to critically examine the accepted political and religious narratives of the day, narratives whose incandescent surfaces dazzled, concealing the often violent, greedy, self-serving agenda of the political elites. Like Foucault, Augustine employs his own variant of reverse discourse and counter-hegemonic narratives in order both to unmask the ideologies at play in Roman political discourse and to put forth alternative ways of being in the world with others.

The first five books of the City of God, as Robert Dodaro observes, “constitute the core of Augustine’s critique of Roman imperium”;[4] in these opening books, Augustine analyzes “the ideology of Roman literary and ceremonial forms,” whose theoretical foundations “were found primarily in Sallust, Cicero, and Varro.”[5] In light of his own training as a rhetor and his service at the imperial court in Milan prior to his baptism and later ordination to the priesthood and bishopric, Augustine was thoroughly versed in the art of persuasion and the various ways it was used to further political objectives.  As Dodaro explains, Augustine understood that “Roman society was founded upon an extreme patriotism, a love for the patria above all else, which was promoted by means of Roman education, folklore, literature, civil religion, and theatre.”[6]

Like Augustine, Foucault also manifests concern for the marginalized of society, devoting himself to the study of prisons and mental institutions and to the ways in which these structures and their associated discourses, disciplines, and practices produce new, characteristically modern subjectivities. As Schuld explains, rather than uncovering how “rhetoric of imperial glory” masks the reality of violence and self-interest, Foucault analyzes how modern institutions and practices “garner and preserve power most effectively by relying upon a scientific sounding rhetoric of progress.”[7] With the transition from a sovereign-based political model wherein power is centralized and associated with the person of the king to a modern context wherein power is dispersed and diffused in a netlike fashion, a more “neutral,” “objective” discourse comes into play.  That is, in contrast with, for example, Roman glory narratives and their overt conspicuous appeals to the political realm, modern scientific narratives present themselves as apolitical and unbiased.[8] By “posing as a coldly antiseptic science,” modern narratives of progress hide their normative and moral judgments;[9] the more successfully the new rhetoric hides its “political leverage,” the more politically efficacious its possibilities and widespread its socially produced realities.[10]


[1] This post is indebted Robert Dodaro and Joyce Schuld’s work.  See, for example, Dodaro, “Eloquent Lies, Just Wars and the Politics of Persuasion,” and Schuld, “Augustine, Foucault, and the Politics of Imperfection.”

[2] Markus, Saeculum, ix.

[3] Ibid., ix.

[4] Dodaro, “Eloquent Lies,” 80.

[5] Ibid. On Augustine’s classical influences, see Cameron, “Cicero and St. Augustine”; Courcelle, Les Confessions de Saint Augustin dans la tradition littéraire; Bennett, “The Conversion of Vergil”; Markus, Saeculum; Bonner, “Vera Lux Illa Est Quae Illuminat: The Christian Humanism of Augustine,” in Renaissance and Renewal in Church History; Hadot, Philosophy as a Way of Life; MacCormack, “Sin, Citizenship, and the Salvation of Souls.”

[6] Dodaro, “Pirates or Superpowers,” 14.

[7] Schuld, “Augustine, Foucault, and the Politics of Imperfection,” 17.

[8] This is not to deny the reality of modern glory narratives such as theUnited States’ inflated talk of spreading democracy worldwide. Foucault would, presumably, recognize modern glory narratives as one of many discursive tactics employed to further the rhetoric of progress.

[9] Ibid.

[10] Ibid.