Augustine and the Modern World


Written by Maureen McKew

Villanova Magazine

Summer 1999


As a war-torn world lurches to the 21st century, a sympathetic witness from the 4th century offers advice and comfort.

This past February, during a six-day meeting that The New York Times called “a summit on the universe,” the world's leading cosmologists were told that their scenario of cosmic history Looked a great deal like one offered by another observer nearly 1,600 years earlier. Dr. Allan R. Sandage of the Carnegie Observatories, a protégé of Edwin Hubble, told a dinner audience, which included Stephen Hawking, that St. Augustine (who was born in the middle of the 4th century) had anticipated their theory of an expanding universe. "The universe was brought into being in a less than fully formed state," Augustine wrote, "but was gifted with the capacity to transform itself into a truly marvelous array of structures and life forms." The Times went on to note that the cosmologists laughed but were not appreciably humbled.

Scholars of Augustine would not have been surprised to discover that the Bishop of Hippo had trumped a group of 20th-century cosmologists in their own field. The truth is that Augustine, through his writings, is able to weigh in on a number of issues that seem germane to the modern age, not his. For that reason, it is easy for scholars and non-scholastic admirers of Augustine to refer to him in the present tense-as if he has just stepped out of the room for a moment rather than as a man who lived in the 4th century.

Professor Sandage was not the first to notice the relevance of Augustine to the debate on the origins of the universe. Augustinian scholars have been examining this for generations. Recently, the Rev. Donald X. Burt, O.S.A., professor of philosophy at Villanova, wrote of Augustine's view on the origins of the universe and its inhabitants in his book Augustine's World: An Introduction to his Speculative Philosophy (University Press of America, 1996). Augustine believed that all creation came into existence from nothing by a single act of divine will with the potentiality to mutate or change. Specifically, in his theory of "seminal reasons," he maintained that everything that would develop in later times existed in "seed form" (in potentiality) from the very beginning. Expansion certainly must be included in that potentiality. For modern subscribers to the so­called Big Bang theory of the origins of the universe, Augustine's theories ring familiar notes.

However, as Father Burt demonstrates in his latest volume Friendship and Society: An Introduction to Augustine's Practical Philosophy (to be published in the spring of 2000 by Eerdmans), Augustine's relevance also is clear in matters closer to home and the current political and social climate.


The Imperfect State

 Augustine wrote about two kinds of states: the ideal state and the imperfect one. In the ideal state, all relationships are based on friendship. The leaders and their subjects are dedicated to the common good of society; all are motivated by love, not by self-interest. Augustine calls this ideal state Jerusalem.

However, the state in which human beings actually live is imperfect, and Augustine calls this Babylon. He notes that its leaders' motives will be less than altruistic. Some will be trying to assure their places in history rather than promoting the common good. They might also have a tendency to dominate too much.

Augustine also observes that the subjects of Babylon are no more likely than the leaders to be interested in the common good. Their priorities are food, shelter, and comfort.

How can a decent human being cope with life in an imperfect state? Augustine would counsel the use of the law, not revolution, to affect change. Having lived through several uprisings himself, he was no fan of revolution. He also knew and frequently reminded his followers that nothing in this existence, not even a corrupt state, lasts forever.


Personal Immorality: Just Cause for Overthrowing a Leader?

Not only in the United States, but all over the world, election campaigns have grown increasingly slimy, fueled in part by the communications explosion and partly by the politicians' inability or refusal to recognize that they live public lives, open to review on every level.

Politicians today are probably no better or worse morally than they ever were. What have changed are the ground rules on reporting rumors and information about the private lives of public personalities.

The recent impeachment crisis is an example of the fact that no detail of a leader's life, private or public, is safe from the airwaves, the World Wide Web or tabloid journalists.

Where then does one draw a line between private and public behavior? Or is there a distinction? At one point should an elected leader's private consensual actions-however reprehensible they are-force that leader from office? Augustine, according to Father Burt, is quite clear in his response.

“First of all,” Father Burt says, “Augustine would not have seen a distinction between public and private morality.” Augustine also believed that both leaders and subjects are under moral law, or what he called the eternal law.

Within that framework are the civil laws of the society. As along as these laws do not contradict moral law, they should be followed.

As for a so called immoral leader, Augustine says that as long as this leader and the laws of the land are not forcing an individual to act against the moral law, the leader should not be overthrown.

Augustine knew whereof he spoke. He lived through no fewer than three revolutions. By the end of his life, the barbarians were at the gates of the city of Hippo. From personal experience, he knew that civil disruption was the most dangerous threat to society.

When and how it is just to wage war Augustine's views on a so called just war are compelling for many reasons, not the least of which was that he had personal experience of war. He passionately believed that war should be avoided whenever possible and that each war must be individually justified to be morally acceptable. In The City of God (18.2, 5.22), he lamented the fact that every individual is driven to pursue private goals and that no one person or community is ever satisfied. As a result, he said, the human community always is in a state of civil war, "where those who fail are oppressed by those who succeed."

When is war just? Augustine drew a clear distinction between an individual’s right to kill another individual, even in self-defense (he didn't believe in this), and the right of individuals to use force to stop aggression against others. This somewhat odd position rested on his belief that when we kill others to defend ourselves, we tend to enjoy it too much, whereas when we come to the defense of others, there is a chance that our motives will be more altruistic. He believed the latter to be right and necessary. In addition, he held it to be the duty of a legitimate leader to save the state from unjust attack. Father Burt cites this passage from a letter of Augustine:

“The natural order of the universe which seeks peace among humans must allow the king the power to enter into a war if he thinks it is necessary. That same natural order commands that the soldiers should then perform their duty, protecting the peace and safety of the political community. When war is undertaken in accord with the will of God (the God who wishes to rebuke, humble and crush malicious human beings), it must be just to wage it.” Augustine therefore considered a war against possible or actual injury to be just.

He also believed that a just war could be either defensive or offensive. He defined a defensive war as one waged to protect the authority of the state. Of offensive wars, he defined two types: one seeking reparation for damage done or goods stolen, and one commanded by God to punish a criminal state. In practice, Augustine was of the opinion that none of the wars he knew about were ever waged justly, though in theory the reason for going to war may have been just.

However, a just war requires more than just cause. It must be fought justly. Augustine believed that the injustice in the conduct of war came not from the killing but from the attitudes of those doing the killing.

As he observed: “The real evils in war are the love of violence, the cruel passion for revenge, blind hatred of the enemy, the sometimes insane uncontrolled resistance to attack, the lust for power and the like.” He also entreated all leaders to wage war with tears in their eyes.

A third and very important issue of a just war appears rather pragmatic but is much deeper than that. Augustine believed a leader should not wage war unless there is a reasonable expectation of victory. The idea of wasting human lives and then declaring a so called “moral victory” was repugnant to him.

The Vietnam War might have caused anguish to Augustine. The initial cause to prevent communist totalitarianism from spreading through Asia might have been just but the conduct of the war by its leaders was not. The Color of Truth: McGeorge Bundy and William Bundy: Brothers in Arms by Kai Bird (Simon & Schuster), a new biography of the prime architects of that war, is the latest in a growing list of books on how the Vietnam War was bungled politically, militarily and morally.

World War II was perhaps closer to being a just war than any other in the last 1,000 years. Among its causes were unbridled nationalism on the part of Germany and Japan, seizure of property and the extermination of human beings. However, the conduct of that war raises interesting questions. Was the Luftwaffe blitz on the civilian population of Britain just cause for the bombing of the militarily unimportant city of Dresden? (Even in the 5th century Augustine insisted that the rights of non-combatants must be preserved.) What about the decision to drop atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki? It is likely that political philosophers and ethicists will be arguing these questions in the year 2999. One can speculate, though, that Augustine would have approved of the treatment of the defeated Axis powers by the notorious Allies. As he wrote to Marcellinus, the delegate of the Roman Emperor Honorious, in The City of God: “...if the peace that follows is based on piety and justice, it will be much easier to take into account the needs of the conquered.”

The Allies did not extract crippling reparations from Germany and Japan. Instead, they helped those nations rebuild and become democracies.


Capital Punishment

For many years, the Roman Catholic Church supported the use of the death penalty. However, this clearly is no longer the case. In his 1995 encyclical, Evangelium Vitae: The Gospel of Life, and again during his 1999 visit to St. Louis, Pope John Paul II called for the abolishment of capital punishment.

This past Good Friday, the Catholic bishops of the United States issued their own statement. They wrote in part: “As we approach the next millennium, we are challenged by the evolution in Catholic teaching on this subject and encouraged by new and growing efforts to stop executions around the world. Through his powerful encyclical, Evangelium Vitae: The Gospel of Life, Pope John Paul II has asked that governments stop using death as the ultimate penalty. The Holy Father points out that instances where its application is necessary to protect society have become ‘very rare, if not practically nonexistent.’”

To protect society: This instance happens to be one of only two reasons that Augustine, way back at the turn of the 5th century, offered for possible justification of capital punishment. The other was a direct command from God, as in 1 Kings, 18-40, when Elias, acting on a divine order, killed the priests of Baal.

Augustine's opposition to execution was based on his belief that the purpose of punishment must be rehabilitation, not vengeance or simply removal of an irritant from society. How can one rehabilitate a criminal once he or she is dead?

This is not to say that Augustine did not believe in punishment. However, he called for some degree of moderation in order to give the criminal a chance to redeem himself and not become further hardened against society. In a plea to Marcellinus to show mercy concerning the punishment of radical Donatists who had murdered a Catholic priest; Augustine cautioned: "We do not object to wicked men being deprived of their freedom to do wrong, but we wish it to go just that far so that, without losing their lives or being maimed in any part of their body, they may be restrained by the law from their mad frenzy, guided into the way of peace and sanity and assigned to some useful work to replace their criminal activities:"

This statement is as applicable today as it was in Augustine's time. It easily could find its place in letter asking a governor to commute a prisoner's death sentence to life without parole.

Questions remain about the individual and the state, moral and immoral leaders, war and peace, taking a life for a life. In the 1,569 years that have passed since Augustine closed his eyes, the human community has not made much progress with these dilemmas. Perhaps we will have to wait until our time in the earthly city of Babylon is done and we can proceed to the perfect Jerusalem. The reason for this is that as long as time exists, we are all somewhat cracked, as Augustine put it, plagued by a darkness of mind and temptations to make bad choices.

In the meantime, Augustine has left us some comfort: as empires rise and fall, wars begin and end, and people strive to live in peace with one another, there is one constant—one virtue that can make Babylon bearable and will make Jerusalem sublime: love. For Augustine, love really does conquer all.